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Amélie Nothomb: Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling)

Nothomb’s book about her year in a Japanese company cannot have done much for Belgian-Japanese relations but it is a very funny and enjoyable book. Amélie-San, as she is called by the Japanese, goes to work for the Japanese corporation, Yumimoto. What her functions are is not clear to the reader or to Amélie-San. She was hired because she could speak Japanese as well as English and French. Her first task is to write a letter in English inviting an American to golf. Her efforts are systematically rejected, though she is not told why. Things go downhill from there. The opening sentence explains how things work – Mr. Haneda was the superior of Mr. Omochi, who was the superior of Mr. Saito, who was the superior of Miss Mori, who was my superior. Miss Mori has made her way up to management – a difficult task for a woman in Japan – and is going to hold on to her position. She is tall, elegant and, seemingly nice, unless she feels threatened, which she does when Amélie-San arrives. Mr. Saito is bureaucratic – when Amélie-San has no work he makes her photocopy his golf club constitution and objects every time that it is not properly aligned and makes her redo it. Mr. Omochi is fat and obnoxious and bullies his subordinates, particularly the two women (Amélie-San thinks that that is how he gets his sexual kicks). Mr. Haneda is sympathetic but remote.

After her problem with the golf, Amélie-San tries hard to find something to do, as she is given no work. She tries moving those little red things down on calendars but that causes problems. She delivers the mail but the mail lady is naturally perturbed that she will lose her job. There is Mr. Saito’s golf club photocopying. Finally, someone from another department – Mr. Tenshi – needs her help on a low calorie butter project, involving a Belgian product. She does a great job in twenty-four hours but, of course, causes all sorts of problems. Miss Mori feels threatened, Mr. Omochi thinks that it was someone else’s job and, of course, she did not go through the proper channels. Things get steadily worse. She is given the task of checking employees’ expenses but cannot cope and makes a terrible mess. Finally, she is consigned to cleaning the toilets – men’s and women’s – a job which is humiliating but, in order not to lose face for quitting before her contract is up, she has to stick to, which she does to the end. The whole story is told with considerable wit and charm and illustrates not just the cultural divide but also the oppressed role of women in Japan.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Albin Michel
First English translation by St Martin’s Press 2001
Translated by Adriana Hunte