Cover image for Fear and trembling
Fear and trembling
Nothomb, Amélie.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Stupeur et tremblements. English
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
132 pages ; 20 cm
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According to ancient Japanese protocol, foreigners deigning to approach the emperor did so only with fear and trembling. Terror and self-abasement conveyed respect. Amélie, our well-intentioned and eager young Western heroine, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfillment of a dream for Amélie; working there turns into comic nightmare.Alternately disturbing and hilarious, unbelievable and shatteringly convincing, Fear and Trembling will keep readers clutching tight to the pages of this taut little novel, caught up in the throes of fear, trembling, and, ultimately, delight.

Author Notes

Belgian by nationality, Amelie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, and currently lives in Paris. She is the author of eight novels, translated into fourteen languages. Fear and Trembling won the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise and the Prix Internet du Livre.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

As if we needed more proof that our globe is shrinking, here is a novel set in Japan, translated from French, written by a Belgian who was born in Kobe and now lives in Paris. Our heroine, Amelie, gets a job in the import-export division of the huge Yumimoto Corporation, the only Westerner in sea of Japanese company men. There are also a very few women, the most prominent among them being the stunning and awe-inspiring Miss Mori, Amelie's immediate superior. Through no fault of her own, but only because no one who is not Japanese can possibly navigate through all the complex rituals and protocols that lie at the heart of Japanese corporate culture, Amelie-san finds herself falling down a rabbit hole of increasingly meaningless tasks--delivering the mail, photocopying an executive's golf club bylaws, finally cleaning the bathrooms. It is Fubuki Mori who presides over this spiral, bent on humiliation even as Amelie begins to understand and even sympathize with her plight as an unmarried Japanese woman trying to hold her own. Mary Ellen Quinn

Publisher's Weekly Review

Following on the heels of her American debut (Loving Sabotage), Belgian novelist Nothomb's sharp, satiric new novelÄwinner of France's Grand Prix de l'Academie Fran‡aise and the Prix Internet du LivreÄrevolves around a young Western woman's humiliations at a Tokyo firm. At age 22, Am‚lie has just landed a bottom-rung job in the import-export division of the powerful Yumimoto Corporation. As a European woman raised partly in Japan, she is at once insider and outsider: she is accused of creating an "appalling tension" by speaking perfect Japanese while serving coffee at a meeting ("How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understands their language?"), and is ordered to speak only English henceforth. She is awed by her immediate superior, the beautiful and unusually tall Fubuki Mori (whose name means "snowstorm" in Japanese). Fubuki, 29 and still unmarried, has earned her position in the face of debilitating sexism and brutal treatment at the hands of her superiors, especially the ranting, obese Mr. Omochi. Kindly Mr. Tenshi gives Am‚lie a rare opportunity to prove herself by allowing her to work on an important report; enraged, Fubuki betrays them both, sealing the young girl's fate. Despite her intelligence, Am‚lie is unable to complete the Sisyphean tasks doled out by her superiors, and Fubuki eventually relegates her to cleaning the rest rooms. Nothomb maintains a humorous and effective detachment throughoutÄAm‚lie, for instance, finds comfort in a recurring fantasy of falling through one of the company's 44th-floor windows. Readers are sure to be won over by her spare, self-deprecating and wise tale, which contains many smarting truths about sexism and racism in Japanese society, and even more about the rituals of corporate culture. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Winner of many literary prizes in France, Nothomb (Loving Sabotage, Stranger Next Door) presents an utterly charming, humorous tale of East meets West in her newest novel about a young Belgian woman who works for a year in Japan, a country that she has revered and admired since childhood. At the Yumimoto Corporation, a huge export/import business, the chain of command is made very clear to her on a daily basis, and all initiative is snuffed out. After several crucial errors, our heroine's career ends up in the toilet, literally. Nothomb is a terrific writer whose writing style is simple, honest, and elegant. Very highly recommended for all libraries.DLisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Salto, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one. You could put this another way. I took orders from Miss Mori, who took orders from Mister Salto, and so on up the ladder; of course, orders that came down could jump a level or two. And so it was that, within the import-export division of the Yumimoto Corporation, I took orders from everyone. On the 8th of January in 1990 an elevator spat me out on the top floor of a towering Tokyo office building. An enormous bay window at the far end of the landing sucked me over with the irresistible force of a shattered porthole on an airplane. Far, very far, below, I could see the city; it seemed so distant and unreal from that height that suddenly I wasn't sure I had ever even set foot there. It didn't occur to me that I ought to introduce myself at the reception desk. Actually, at that moment, I didn't have a single thought in my head, nothing aside from fascination with the endless space outside the great bay window. Eventually a hoarse voice from behind pronounced my name. I turned around. A small, thin, ugly man in his fifties was looking at me irritably. "Why didn't you let the receptionist know that you'd arrived?" he asked. I couldn't think of anything to say. I bowed my head and shoulders, realizing that in just ten minutes, and without having spoken a single word, I had made a bad impression on my first day at Yumimoto. The man told me he was Mister Saito. He led me through huge, endless, open-plan offices, introducing me to hordes of people whose names I forgot as soon as he had pronounced them. He showed me the office that was the domain of his superior, Mister Omochi, who was enormously fat and terrifying, proving that he was the vice-president of the division. Then he indicated a door and announced solemnly that behind it was Mister Haneda, the president. It went without saying that I shouldn't even dream of meeting him. Finally he led me to a gigantic office in which at least forty people were working. He indicated a desk, which sat directly opposite from another desk, belonging, he informed me, to my immediate superior, Miss Mori. She was in a meeting and would join me in the early afternoon. Mister Salto introduced me briefly to the assembly, after which he asked me whether I enjoyed a challenge. It was clear saying no would not be an option. "Yes," I said. It was the first word I had spoken. Until then, I had made do with tilting my head. The "challenge" that Mister Saito was proposing consisted of accepting an invitation on his behalf from someone named Adam Johnson, to play golf the following Sunday. I was to write a letter of acceptance to this gentleman in English. "Who is Adam Johnson?" I was stupid enough to ask. My superior sighed exasperatedly and didn't answer. I wondered whether it was absurd not to know who Mister Johnson was. Was my question indiscreet? I never found out, nor ever learned who Adam Johnson was. The exercise seemed simple enough. I sat down and wrote a cordial letter, something along the lines of "Mister Salto would be delighted to play golf next Sunday with Mister Johnson, and sends him his best regards, etc, etc." I took it to Mister Saito. He read my work, gave a scornful little cry, and tore it up. "Start over." I thought I had perhaps been too friendly or familiar with Adam Johnson, and composed a cold, formal reply. "Mister Salto acknowledges Mister Johnson's request and wishes to inform him of his willingness to conform with his desires by engaging in a game of golf with him, etc, etc." He read my work, gave a scornful little cry, and tore it up. "Start over." I wanted to ask what I had done wrong, but it was clear Mister Salto did not tolerate questions, as had been proved by his reaction to my brief inquiry into the identity of the letter's recipient. I would, therefore, have to find for myself the correct phraseology with which to address this mysterious golfer, Adam Johnson. I spent the next few hours composing missives. Mister Salto punctuated my output by tearing it up, with no other commentary than that same little cry; it became a sort of refrain. Each time I had to come up with a new formula. There was something "Fair duchess, I am dying of love for you" about this whole exercise that demanded a certain amount of creative wit. I explored permutations of grammatical categories. What if "Adam Johnson" were the verb, "next Sunday" the subject, "playing golf" the object, and "Mister Salto" the adverb? "Next Sunday accepts with pleasure the invitation to go Adamjohnsoning a playing golf MisterSaitoingly." Take that, Aristotle! I was just beginning to enjoy myself when Mister Salto interrupted me. He tore up the umpteenth letter without even reading it and told me that Miss Mori had arrived. "You will work with her this afternoon. In the meantime, go and get me a cup of coffee." It was already two o'clock in the afternoon. My epistolary exercises had so absorbed me that I had forgotten about taking a break. I put the cup down on Mister Salto's desk and turned around. A young woman as tall and slender as an archer's bow was walking toward me. Whenever I think of Fubuki Mori, I see the Japanese longbow, taller than a man. That's why I have decided to call the company "Yumimoto," which means "pertaining to the bow." And whenever I see a bow, I think of Fubuki. ..Miss MORN-. "Please, call me Fubuki." Miss Mori was at least five feet ten, a height few Japanese men achieved. She was ravishingly svelte and graceful despite the stiffness to which she, like all Japanese women, had to sacrifice herself. But what transfixed me was the splendor of her face. She was talking to me. The sound of her soft voice brimmed with intelligence. She was showing me some files, explaining what they contained, and smiling. I was dimly aware that I wasn't listening to what she was saying. Then she invited me to read the documents she had placed on my desk, which, as I've said, was opposite hers. She sat down and started to work. I leafed meekly through the paperwork. It dealt with rulings and listings. The spectacle of her face, a mere eight feet away, was captivating. Her eyelids were lowered over some pages with numbers, so she couldn't see that I was studying her closely. She had the most beautiful nose in the world, a Japanese nose, an inimitable nose, whose delicate nostrils would be recognized among a thousand others. Not all Japanese have this nose, but anyone who has can only be of Japanese descent. Had Cleopatra had this nose, the history and geography of the world would have undergone a major shift.