Monday, April 17, 2006

Fear and Trembling - Amelie Nothomb

Title: Fear And Trembling
Author: Amelie Nothomb
Publisher: Faber and Faber

The film Fear And Trembling showed in one of the annual French Film Festivals that play around the UK a few years ago. It was based on the book by Belgian writer Amelie Nothomb. Born in Japan to Belgian parents, she lived there until she was five. Having left the country, she recalled her time there fondly, and dreamed of going back to work. As a 22-year-old in 1990 she started a year’s contract with a major Import-Export company. She was delighted.

However, things did not go as she expected. Initially she was unsure of her role. So decided to make herself busy, making everyone coffee, changing the office calendars and the like. A senior member of another department gives her her first opportunity, to write a report on a Belgian company they are planning to work with. This quickly turns into the first step of her downward spiral, when she is found out and given a row. She is convinced that she has been reported by her own department head, but the other department head assures her this is not the case. Rather, she has been reported by her direct boss, one of the few women in the company to have risen to such a level. Despite the fact that Amelie adores the stunningly beautiful Fubuki, Fubuki is unwilling to see Amelie given an opportunity so easily when she has had to fight for her position every step of the way.

From this point on Fear And Trembling is a farce of cultures clashing. Despite being fluent in Japanese, and at points because she is, Amelie can do no right, continuously committing faux pas. To a degree its her own fault – she reveals a strange inability to deal with numbers at all, she is easily distracted. But she is also determined, if there is one thing she does know, its that to quit would mean that she loses face. So it becomes a battle of wills, what humiliating task can Fubuki come up for Amelie next?

All the way through Fear And Trembling has a lightness. Nothomb finding a certain Zen humour in every situation. One that gets her through while infuriating her superior. This is a fraction of what makes this a surreal novella, the fact that the entire novel takes place on the forty-fourth floor of this building and that Amelie almost takes a Pychonian journey round that feeling off.

Having seen the film first, and a few years ago now, it feels like the film was quite true to the book. Much of the reading bringing back memories of the imagery I recall viewing. Perhaps if I re-watched the film now, I would be aware of abundant discrepancies, but at this point it strikes me that the Fear And Trembling film is something of a rarity, one that is in keeping with the source material.

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