Japan beckons, alluring and elusive; foreigners pay court, but their attentions often remain unrequited. The relationship between Japan and the foreign suitor — a dance of seduction, misunderstanding and rejection — has inspired its own literary subgenre.
In Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling), the protagonist is excluded because she are foreign and typecast because she is a woman. The novel offers a grim, sometimes mordantly funny, vision of a Japan that seems determined to keep outsiders outside — where they belong.
When well-meaning but all too often obtuse Westerners bump up against Japanese standards, the comedy in this novel — and its underlying sadness — emerges. Stupeur et Tremblements takes place at the headquarters of a Japanese corporation in Tokyo.
Elegantly written (as translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) and now — elegantly filmed — it is a chronicle of the startlingly rapid fall of a young Belgian who tries to find a place in a Japanese company. Amélie, the heroine, is a child of foreign diplomats who spent her early years in Japan and so is fluent in Japanese. But it is soon clear that she is hapless when it comes to translating what isn’t said.
She fails her first test: understanding a lesson in humility that her boss tries to teach her by repeatedly tearing up an assignment without telling her what she’s done wrong. Amélie stumbles again when she takes the initiative by performing a task that hasn’t been assigned to her. Yet her fatal error is more deeply personal: failing to understand the psychology of the beautiful, brilliant and underappreciated Fubuki Mori, the woman who is her immediate superior. Amélie senses Fubuki’s desperate wish to be married — achieving a status that would free her from the tyranny of the company but confine her in a different sphere.
Amélie doesn’t see that her own success may be a threat to a woman who has labored for years to attain what little status she has in a country where women are often denied opportunities for promotion. And then she makes the classic Western mistake of attempting to talk over a problem with Fubuki rather than finding unspoken ways to make amends. Matters become even more complicated after she clumsily tries to offer sympathy when Fubuki is rebuked by her own boss. By witnessing Fubuki’s humiliation, Amélie has shamed her, and Fubuki proceeds to exact her revenge.
Nothomb (herself the daughter of Belgian diplomats who served in Japan) demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled. And she has the classic Japanese corporation dead to rights, sketching out the often mindless and capricious hierarchy, the dangers of spontaneity and the condescending superiority with which many Japanese regard Westerners. While at times the level of cruelty in her novel approaches caricature, Nothomb also has compassion for those Japanese who are imprisoned in this system.
At times, Stupeur et Tremblements may seem unduly bleak, and they offer only glimpses of the kindness and decency of those Japanese who do open their hearts to foreigners. Yet each book captures a truth that the foreign suitor might use to find some degree of peace: loving without blinders means accepting the inevitability of distance.
Excerpted from: Susan Chira, Lost in Translation, New York Times, March 25, 2001.