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R&R 073 | Fear and Trembling

Amélie Nothomb
Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblement)
First published in: 1999 (in French)
This edition: Faber and Faber ltd., 2004
ISBN: 0-571-22048-7
Cover: photo by Getty Images, design by Two Associates


Having grown up in Japan until the age of 5*, returning to her former home country brings a certain amount of expectations with it for Amélie Nothomb. Her childhood in Japan was one of happiness; she hopes to rekindle with her home away from home, remembering and honoring her childhood years. In this critical autobiographic novella, Belgian author Amélie Nothomb shares her experiences interning at a large Japanese company for the duration of a year… and the disappointment of seeing what used to be her Japan in quite a different light, for her stay in Japan now is completely unlike her stay in Japan when she was a child, growing up there. The author's relationship with the country is severely tested in this little novel.

With zest and a healthy dose of sarcasm, Nothomb describes the difficulties of being a Westerner in the East – an astonishing contrast, when allowed to exist.

Amélie is viewed as less of a person than her Japanese colleagues, which shocks her… because she feels in her heart part of the Japanese people and culture. This is already hard for her to take, but there's one additional blow to take: being a woman. Amélie's direct superior is a Japanese woman who has to fight for herself and her job in the company… she does not allow for competition from any other woman, especially not when it said competition is another woman from the West.

Amélie doesn't really stand a chance. To illustrate:
Q: What is the task given to Amélie by her female superior throughout most of her internship?
A: Cleaning toilets.

To not be accepted (or respected as a colleague for that matter) is an immense disappointment Рbut Am̩lie bears it well. Her attitude is to be commended, because she endures it all. Every single obstacle thrown suddenly in her way, she endures. Am̩lie proves time and time again that she is the better person.

I'm going to say it: Amélie Nothomb is awesome.

I referred to this book as a 'novella' in my first paragraph; the book is very thin. The font is a bit larger than average, and the lines are ridiculously far apart. Tricks like these to make a really thin book appear to have more pages irritate me, and it did so here as well. Don't MAKE me get a Kindle. I love the touch of a real book in my hands, the motion involved with turning a new page and discovering the rest of the story bit by bit. Love that. But I tend to have less love and respect for thin books when they're ridiculously elongated, whether this is accomplished via layout techniques and font size (as is the case here) or via useless padding by means of repetitive text or useless dialogue (as is the case in many fatter books).

When I buy a book, I buy it for the words and their total meaning. Not for the pages and their total number. I wish publishers would get that through their thick heads. Stop trying to make an extra buck by wasting paper. Keep it real and realize that a lot of books have enough quality to be able to do without tricks & padding designed to make them appear to have more quantity (and thus more "quality").

Such as Fear and Trembling. This thin book is in my honest opinion actually equally good in content as many quality fatter books. Fear and Trembling is very memorable Рanother thing that makes me admire Am̩lie Nothomb. She has strength of character, she's a hard worker and she's a damn good writer. She's produced a disarming little book with a big message: hold your head up high, don't let anyone get you down. What doesn't kill you makes you (a lot) stronger.

Whenever an obstacle comes my way, I do tend to think of Amélie, cleaning toilet after toilet, enduring it all. Overcoming and rising above it. To me, she's an example.

I got my money's worth.

*) Amélie Nothomb's The Character of Rain (Métaphysique des Tubes) is a novella about her childhood in Japan.

R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond