Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb

Published (in French): 1999

Published (in English): 2002

Finally got around to it: May 2011

It is your duty to be beautiful, though your beauty will afford you no joy. The only compliments you receive will be from Westerners, and we know how short they are on good taste. If you admire yourself in the mirror, let it be in fear and not delight, because the only thing that beauty will bring you is terror of losing it. If you are pretty, you won’t amount to much; if you are not, you will amount to nothing.


Based on her time working for a powerful international company in Tokyo, Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling is a study of willpower and the perseverance self-respect provides even under the direst of circumstances. What begins as a rather tumultuous employee-supervisor relationship quickly turns into a duel between two strong personalities, with any semblance of respect travelling in only one direction.

After making the rather grave mistake of accepting a potentially career-advancing opportunity, Amélie, the main character, finds herself the victim of her supervisor Fubuki Mori’s mistrust. Miss Mori, a woman who has spent several years rising to a modest rank within the Yumimoto Corporation, sees another woman—an unintelligent Westerner, no doubt—with confidence and the desire to advance in her career and, through either fear for her own authority or a desire to put her underling in her place, seeks out every possible opportunity to insult Amélie’s intelligence. Gradually, Amélie is demoted to jobs requiring almost no skill or intellect. The more perseverance she exhibits, the more Miss Mori seeks to strike her down. But Amélie has signed a one-year contract, a commitment she will not be bullied into breaking.

As a writer, Nothomb excels at duelling personalities. In Hygiene and the Assassin, it was a battle of wits as the journalist and the dying writer sliced one another with increasingly personal jabs, both bloody messes by the end. In Fear and Trembling, however, there is less back and forth discovery, with layers of history and psychological barriers being torn down. The battle fought between Amélie and Miss Mori is one of strength, first and foremost, as Amélie sets her sights on the end of her one-year contract as the bright light at the end of her journey. It’s all that matters. She knows her own intellect, and takes satisfaction when others in the company wage silent protests to support the valiant effort she puts forth. Whatever punishments are inflicted upon her, Amélie remains steadfast, determined to complete her contract.

Fear and Trembling is an interesting examination of the east-meets-west cultural divide, painted through the lens of the Japanese corporate culture. The abject racism on display is filtered the invisible corporate ladder, as a means of depicting the divide between the more western mentality of advancement through ambition, and the slow, painful climb from the bottom to the top—regardless of ability or worth—that is evident in the Japanese corporate culture that Amélie struggles to adopt.

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