The title for this post reflects my tentative summation of the short memoir: Fear and Trembling: a Novel, written in 1999 by Amelie Northomb, a Belgian woman who was born and lived in Japan until she was 5. The book has been awarded in France and translated into many languages. There is no doubt it is a memoir masquerading as a novel, but the problem is, how much is true and how much is fiction?
It was recommended to me by a member of my Book Group, so I got it out of the library today, and read it in a couple of hours, during which I felt shocked, incredulous, uncomfortable, disturbed, and only briefly, at the end, amused. I have a daughter who lived in Japan for several years, and is married to a Japanese man, and I have had many conversations with them both, but have never been given such a black picture of contemporary Japan. I have read a wonderful book by Dorinne Kondo, Crafting Selves:power, gender, and discourses of identity in a Japanese workplace, an auto/ethnography of the experiences of an American-Japanese woman living and working in Japan; I have read and studied The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, written by a Japanese noblewoman of the Heian Japanese court in the late 10th early 11th century; and none of these narratives or conversations have given such a bleak, black and white, stereotyped picture of the Japanese character and culture as this book does. I had several Japanese students living in my house when I was a Homestay parent to foreign students, and found them naive, funny, respectful and affectionate; one in particular was so happy in our household that he stayed on for a year. I am leaving aside the whole discourse of the Japanese Imperial army and the prelude to and course of World War II, for that is a deep and complex subject, fraught with many painful and disturbing events, not least the American response to the imperialist Japanese push into the Pacific, and subsequent occupation of Japan.
I am open to getting to know and understand Japanese people and culture as best I can, from a distance. I hope one day to visit there.
So, to say the least, I was disappointed when I read Northumb’s satire/novel/memoir. It is the story of her year in a Japanese company, and of the increasing humiliations she is subjected to, firstly, because she dares to excel, in this hierarchical system, in a project assigned to her by one of her superiors, and secondly, because she challenges her immediate superior, a woman, the impossibly beautiful, unmarried Fubuki Mori. Her ambivalent relationship with this woman, whom she worships for her beauty, but who resents and is threatened by her, is fraught with many confrontations and humiliations (not entirely one-sided), which end in her being assigned to clean and restock the women’s and men’s washrooms. This she does, incredibly, for the next 6 months of her year’s contract with the company, and (if we can believe her) treats it as a zen meditation, of sorts, her main relief and solace being to lean her head against the plate glass window to the outside world, and dream of falling.
Northumb is a prolific, popular awarded novelist. This does not make her a reliable witness. Despite the witty ending, I felt that this book is her revenge, on a company who did not recognise her abilities, and above all, on her immediate superior. I cannot put aside feeling that she was in love with this woman, in a masicho-sadistic way, and that this book is her revenge.
Have you read it? What do you think?