Japanese books have a wonderful tool for painting character, and the book Stupeurs et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling) carries on the spirit of this, gazing into the soul of a duo of a Belgian woman working in Japan and her Japanese boss, their relationship, the perfect, exquisite woman who rules over her, and the brutal struggles of an outsider in a closed world. Stupeurs et Tremblements isn’t quite, but also is, a Japanese book, written by Amélie Nothomb a Belgian Francophone writer who lived in her youth in Japan, and who wrote the partially autobiographical, partially fictional account of corporate life in Japan.
Mr. Haneda was the superior of Mr. Omochi, who was the superior of Mr. Saito, who was the superior of Ms. Mori, who was my superior. And myself, I wasn't the superior of anyone.
You could say things another way. I was under the command of Ms. Mori, who was under the command of Mr. Saito, and so on and so forth, with the exactitude that orders can give as you go up the ranks, climbing up the ladder of hiearchy.
So, in the company Yumimato, I was at the bottom of them all.
It’s a deeply human drama, of the isolation, reject, and steady descent towards greater humiliation and abasement of Amélie. The feeling of alienation as she is neglected and scorned, driven into an enclaved quarter of the company and forbidden from doing any serious work, is replaced by mounting rage as petty squabbles drives her further and further down, as people delight in her errors, and grow apocalyptic with rage at the slightest error. The story takes place on the same story of the corporate building where she works, but it feels as if it is constantly plunging downwards, plumbing the depths of the absurdity and the awful ways in which the Japanese culture of face and treatment of foreign conspire to reduce a well meaning, nice, good hearted woman to misery. And all of it is wrapped up in her relation to Ms. Mori, whose poetic name means snowbank, her supervisor, with the relationship with this perfect and flawless example of Japanese feminity, with a woman whose very flawlessness by Japanese standards makes her flawed, in an analysis of the Japanese soul and spirit which is incisive and oft depressing.
But can you say that it is a Japanese book at all? When you read of the trials and tribulations of Amélie in Japan, at first you think of what a ridiculous and cruel culture, one that penalizes initiative, that beats down other people merely because you had to go through hell so other people have to as well, which delights in petty cruelty and abasement. And yet so much of this is the same that is found in corporate culture across the world, with its petty hatred and feuds. In this sense, while it provides a look at a peculiarly Japanese aspect of corporate society, it also is a universal tale of the human soul, refracted through a Japanese lens.
Nothomb also has a very pleasant writing style, comprehensible, nice to read, but elegant: some of the scenes are strikingly memorable, like her bout of madness when she suffers from sleep deprivation after multiple days without any rest while she tried to finish her accounting work, the impossible task of Sisyphus that she can never complete. The madness of gripping the computer in a totemistic dance, covering herself with refuse for shreds of warmth in the chill night of the office, the delusions and hallucinations which run in front of her mind: it’s a striking and powerful scene. Others run throughout the book, the chastisement of Mori Fubuki, the visceral rage heaped upon her as she slumps deeper and deeper in her seat, her only refuge her composure in front of the world, that no one would see her tears, or the primal fury and avalanche as once again the vice president seizes Amélie and drags her like a toy to a default, the desolation of staring out over the city from the bathroom window, constantly repeating again and again the dream of simply throwing oneself out so that it would all end : the book channels powerful emotions and brutal clarity.
It is a short book, and a very raw and powerful one. I have a feeling that it is the type of book which can easily divide: either it is a prejudiced rant against the Japanese, a flat tirade which takes a single incident in a single Japanese firm to write a magnus opus about the bankruptcy of Japanese culture and the ruthless oppressive constraint it visits on its people, or an insightful and elegant look on the life of a foreigner in Japan whose position between Japanese and French culture helps to give her an ability to work in both worlds, a unique mediator who can see both. I think it is much more the latter, a short but powerful, often humorous and even more often saddening, perspective on modern Japanese corporate culture and a piece of the human comedy, a cutting look at people and their souls.