Top critical review
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on 7 April 2012
"Fear and trembling" describe the behaviour expected of the Japanese on entering the presence of their Emperor, when he was still regarded as a living god. These extreme emotions were still found to apply when Amélie Nothomb took up a year's contract in 1990 as a translator in the authoritarian, anti-individualistic, inward-looking Japanese corporation of "Yumimoto". The shattering of her illusions was all the more painful since this young Belgian had lived happily in Japan as a child.
In the semi-autobiographical book based heavily on her experiences, Amelie describes her humiliating descent through a series of tasks, ending up spending months as the lavatory attendant on the forty-fourth floor. The decision to endure this fate rather than resign is her only form of retaliation, since her ludicrous demotion reflects badly on her boss. The only way the other staff can show sympathy, if not solidarity, is by boycotting the loos in her charge.
I was torn between frustration through not knowing how much of this parody is true or just very exaggerated and unsubtle,irritation over Amélie who is clearly a pain in the neck at times and brings troubles upon herself, and a sense of unease over the very negative one-sided portrayal of the Japanese. Amélie chooses not to mention her life outside work at all, which gave the story a very narrow, claustrophobic quality, which in artistic terms could be thought quite effective.
Nothomb, who is on her own admission quite eccentric and clearly enjoys attention, has become something of a cult novelist with some, but is considered by others to be overrated. I tend to agree with the latter view. The novel could have produced a much more nuanced, informative, thought-provoking analysis of cultural differences. However, this slim novella with big print is a quick read, and will develop your French skills (useful idioms and colloquialisms) if read in the original.