Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb


Amélie Nothomb has written several short autobiographical novels; this one won the Grand Prix de la Académie Française. She was born in Japan as her father was a Belgian diplomat. After attending the University of Brussels, she became a translator for a large firm in Japan.

Fear and Trembling is about a translator named Amélie with a year-long contract with a large company in Japan where she encounters ogres and makes “mistakes” that result in her demotion to bathroom attendant. The story of her time there reveals the underlying aspects of Japanese culture that create the monsters. To some extent her mistakes are the result of being a Westerner in Eastern culture, but the corporate culture makes it impossible for her to succeed.

You know that all will not go well when on her first day of work Mr. Saito rejects each of her efforts to write a letter in English responding to an invitation to play golf.

    The exercise seemed simple enough. I sat down and wrote a cordial letter, something along the lines of “Mister Saito would be delighted to play golf next Sunday with Mister Johnson and sends him his best regards, etc, etc.” I took it to Mr. Saito.

He read my work, gave a scornful little cry and tore it up.

“Start over.”

I thought I had perhaps been too friendly or familiar with Adam Johnson, and composed a cold, formal reply. “Mister Saito acknowledges Mister Johnson’s request and wishes to inform him of his willingness to conform with his desires by engaging in a game of golf with him, etc, etc.”

He read my work, gave a scornful little cry, and tore it up.

“Start over.”

This continued for some hours with Amélie eventually becoming playful in her attempts and Mr. Saito tearing up her efforts without reading them. It finally ended with the arrival Amélie’s superior Miss Mori. Sometimes the counter-productive actions of individuals can be related to the culture or their own interests, but sometimes the causes are impenetrable.

At the end of her time there when she gives her resignation speech to Mr. Saito, he apologizes for her experiences.

    Poor Mister Saito. I was the one comforting him. Despite his status and position, he was both a slave to and an inept torturer in a sytem that he almost certainly didn’t like but which–out of weakness and lack of imagination–he would never question.

Tony (Tony’s Book World) has been an Amélie Nothomb enthusiast for some time. Her books are available from Amazon and the UVa library. The public library has two of her works.

Amélie Nothomb, Fear and Trembling, trans. Adriana Hunter, St. Martin’s Press, 2001, 132 pages.

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