Friday, September 5, 2008

Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling: A Novel
Amelie Nothomb
St. Martin's Griffin (2002), Paperback, 144 pages

In this book based on her own life, Amelie returns to her birthplace Japan on a year-long contract as an interpreter for Yumimoto Corporation. The corporation is a place of rigid hierarchy - "Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one" begins the author.

Amelie was born in a small Japanese village and spent her formative years there. For her, this job is a dream come true, a return to her childhood. Little does she know of the trials awaiting her. Early on, she incurs the wrath of Mister Omochi when she converses in fluent Japanese with a visiting Japanese delegation to Yumimoto. Her crime - discomfiting the delegation by not knowing her place as a Westerner within the Japanese corporate culture. She is immediately ordered to un-understand Japanese!

Amelie is taken under the wing of a well meaning Mister Tenshi who assigns her the task of writing a report on fat free butter being developed in Belgium. Her success with this report is immediately perceived by her ethereal superior Miss Mori as an attempt to rise too much too soon within Yumimoto without paying her dues.

Little transgressions like these get blown out of proportion and with each such misstep, Amelie is reassigned more belittling tasks. The final blow comes when Miss Mori banishes her to the toilets to clean them, both the men's and women's. Amelie enters a Zen like state by doing this task with all the dignity she can muster. She can quit over this, but doing so would be to lose face before all of Yumimoto.

All of Amelie's tribulations are detailed with a sparkling dry wit and even when you're laughing at Amelie's predicament, you're feeling terribly sorry for her. The most interesting part of the book was for me reconciling the character Amelie's life with that of the author. Amelie Nothomb's life details correspond roughly with much of the character's but you can't help but wonder if there isn't an element of exaggeration in this tale. In India, I've witnessed the fervor with which companies train their teams on Japanese cultural norms. But still, if this is the way most Japanese companies run, how are they the leaders in so many fields today?

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