Tuesday, April 5, 2011

111. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

Genre: Autobiography
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Faber and Faber 2001

Amelie, a well intentioned and eager young westerner, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfilment of a dream, but her working life quickly becomes a comic nightmare of terror and self-abasement. Disturbing, hilarious and totally convincing, Fear and Trembling displays an elegant and shrewd insight into the differences between the "East" and the West.

First chapter:
The novel doesn't really have chapters, and I think the first two sentences (or paragraphs) neatly offers an insight into Amelie Nothomb as part of a huge machine, and a very small and powerless part of that machine: "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." (p1).

I was going to treat Fear and Trembling as a light read; the kind you can while away a train journey with your hand over your mouth to muffle your laughter. And it’s so very funny at times; after a month of not being able to do a simple arithmetic task Nothomb's supervisor asked her: "Are there many ... people like you in your country? I was the first Belgian she had met. I felt a rush of national pride. (p52)

But any ideas about treating Fear and Trembling as nothing more than a humorous read about ‘them’ and ‘us’ (and this makes me think immediately of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold a few weeks ago) flew out the window after a chat with a colleague about the book’s insights into women. Sure I could have walked away full of superficial thoughts about the rigidity of the Japanese, conservatism, the hierarchical nature of their society and the sublimation of self to society’s expectations but that’s far less interesting than exploring the “we” of women the world over.

I'll admit up front that I didn’t see the “we” until it was pointed out to me. I work in the public service, (a huge sheltered workshop really), where inappropriate behaviour is ‘policyed’ out of existence: sexual harassment might occur (sexual harassment policy), people should be promoted on merit (promotion on merit policy). So the behaviour exhibited by Fubuki Mori against Nothomb isn’t high on my radar. But my colleague arrived recently from the “dog eat dog” world of a law firm and she saw parallels between the female lawyers she left behind and Mori:
• the need to work harder than a man to achieve promotion,
• the knowledge they were never respected quite as much as a man,
• jealously guarding any promotion or advantage accrued by them, and
• ruthlessly ensuring other women didn’t achieve more.

That’s not to say that Japanese women don’t have it harder than Western women, which I think they do. Nothomb exposes the expectations placed on Japanese women to work hard and be beautiful but also to be married and sublimate themselves to husband and family. Western women experience these expectations in a far subtler way than Japanese women, and at least we have an out; we can choose to say ‘up yours’ and define our ‘success’ on our own terms.

However, Nothomb presents a world in which there is only one form of ‘success’ for Mori, but which is also a contradiction: Mori must work hard competing against men to achieve professional success but she must also be beautiful, submissive and compliant towards men, and marry by the age of 25: “There was something contradictory in the rules laid down for women.” (p74) And how difficult it was to achieve these conflicting aims is shown in Mori’s dedication (at age 29) to finding a husband: when she met any unmarried man, including a Westerner “She would suddenly become so studiously sweet that it almost veered toward aggression.” “Something nearly comic about watching her sucumb to these antics, which I felt demeaned both her beauty and her position.” (p75) My personal reaction to this behaviour was more humiliation than embarrassment. I thought it was awful that an otherwise intelligent person should be reduced to such absurd behaviour because her ultimate success in life was reduced to whether she could secure a husband.

Mori felt this humiliation, and it was interesting that her world provided her with the power to take that humiliation out on others. In this case, the increasingly severe and outrageous persecution of another woman and Mori’s subordinate, Nothomb, which culminated in Northomb reduced to cleaning the men’s and women’s toilets.

To my eyes Mori’s behaviour was out of line, and in my sheltered workshop steps would have been taken to stop things before they arrived at the point they did (or at least I hope that’s the case). But the society and culture we’re dealing with is different. Not being an individualist and supporting the hierarchy, coupled together with not actively addressing issues creates the circumstances where people have a level of personal power unseen by me. This in turns leads to the increasingly severe methods used by Mori to punish Nothomb, and ensures no-one will call Mori on her behaviour.

And this power certainly isn’t limited to Mori and her subordinates, but arises more than once with Mr Omichi and any subordinate close enough to scream at. subjecting Mori to the most extraordinary public humiliation: “You could not imagine a more humiliating fate for any human being—than this public pillorying. The monster wanted her to lose face; that was clear.” (p83) And Mori wasn’t the only person subject to a verbal dressing down: “The delivery explained much about Japanese history. I would have been capable of anything to stop the hideous screaming—invade Manchuria, persecute millions of Chinese, commit suicide for the Emperor, hurl my airplane into an American battleship, perhaps even work for two Yumimoto Corporations.” (p29) I got exactly how bad it was; and the question of whether this overt pressure goes any way to explaining generally how pressured the Japanese feel to conform?

The book was an interesting insight into a world I know nothing about, and one that leaves me interested in reading more of Nothomb’s work.

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