Adonis Diaries

Stupor and quavering (book review)

Posted on: October 30, 2008

 

Stupeur et tremblements by Amelie Nothomb (Book review, October 30, 2008)

 

Amelia Nothomb in her captivating, touching and very funny book of 189 pages “Stupeur et tremblements” describes her experiences for a whole year at the Japanese Import/Export large company of Yumimoto in 1990.  The title was extracted from the behavior and acting of any Japanese in the presence of the Emperor. As a mater of fact, the whole story is mostly a long series of stupor and quavering by the Japanese employees dealing with the culture of a western girl. As we recall, Amelie was born in Japan when her dad was the Belgian Consul and loved her first 5 years there and felt that Japan was her homeland after so many transfers to other countries. Amelie returned to Japan with fresh recollections of her sweet and unforgettable years there as a child.  Amelie will discover at her expense that she was not to prove in business meetings with other friendly Japanese companies that she understands the Japanese language!

Amelie had a life after her 10-hour work day but she decided to focus her autobiography of that year on the enterprise. Nothomb described in details the strict hierchical structure of the company, its unwritten rules, the behavior of the employees, and the status of women in society. With or without a contract an employee at that period was not expected to be fired. The initiative for leaving a company was left to the employee who would have to meet personally with each boss in the higher levels in the hierarchy and present his resignation.  A sample of the verbal resignation should be stated is what Amilie memorized “We are at the end of term of my contract and I would like to announce to you my regret for not being able to renew it.  The company of Yumimoto offered me multiple occasions to prove my potentials.  I will be eternally grateful. Unfortunately, I could not satisfy the expectation of the honor accorded to me.” 

It is unheard of that an employee could take the initiative without the permission of his immediate boss or even complains to a higher level.  In general, the higher levels would refrain from undercutting the responsibilities of the immediate boss, although they could and had the total right to curse, lambaste and humiliate any lower level employee in front of all the employees for no specific reasons; the cadre was not permitted to defend himself or speak; all that he should be doing is to lower his head and show respect until the verbal storm is over.  For example, Mori Fubuki, a most beautiful and classy lady of 29 boss of Amelie, was subject of such a scene.  Mori hurried to the toilet to cry her eyes out and Amelie followed her to express her compassion as western custom is preponderant; Mori was greatly furious that Amelie dared to see her crying and she vowed to humiliate her at the extreme.  Fubuli thus decided to relegate Amelie to cleaning the toilets for seven months at 44th floor of the building or the accounting department.

Fubuki selected the boring task of classifying receipts by company names and ordering them by date of receipt to punish Amelie.  Amelie ordered the names of the German companies called GMBH in one file on account that any additional prefix can only mean to be an affiliate to GMBH; it turned out that GMBH stands for Ltd in German.  The accounting cadre laughed very hard and every employee shared in the merriment.  Fubuki was humiliated because Amelie was her responsibility. 

Fubuki then endeavored to find a task for Amelie that does not require “intelligence”.  Amelie was assigned to verify the accounting of business charge trips.  The genius of Amelie was that for a whole month not a single number matched!  Calculating and accounting was the worst job that could be asked of her.  Fubuli knew that Amelie will never finish the job but she waited patiently for Amelie to concede defeat.

The way I see it, the President of the company (not necessarily the owner) should be considered as God; as such he should be handsome, tall, soft spoken, and no one except the Vice-President is permitted to visit him or a cadre he summons to see.  The job of the Vice-President is play Bad Cop; as such he should look ugly, an ogre, and should be trained to curse and his powerful voice should transmit far away; basically, the Vice-President is to keep all cadres to their proper place in the hierarchy and remind them that no one is above the unwritten rules.

Once, Amelie took the initiative of aiding a cadre from another section without asking permission of Fubuki.  Fubuki wrote a complaint to Omochi and the cadre and Amelie had a thorough wash down.  Fubuki would not allow a new comer to be promoted quickly when she had to suffer for ten years to get her present promotion.

Nothomb explains why the Japanese society comprehends and admit crazy people in their company: this authoritarian society with strictly controlled morals at work and in families has a high rate of males cracking down and losing it.  The women are more controlled than men in society but they manage not to reach the act of committing suicide, an act viewed within society as the ultimate in honor for a woman; may be the only honorable decision that a woman can make beside marrying before the age of 25. Working and breeding are the only tasks of a woman; she should not expect much in promotion or eccentricity or compliments. Children are treated as God till the age of three; from 3 to 18 they are sent to schools with “military” discipline; from 18 to 25 offspring have the only break in their lives to be free in university settings; then they are back to concentration camps in their enterprises and strict duties and responsibilities to their institutions.

The Japanese fathers have an inkling of giving infinitive verbs for names to their boys such as “Work”; whereas females receive poetic names such as “Snow”, Rain”, or “Flower”.

Here is a list of prescriptions that women have to follow to the letters:

  1. 1. If you are not married by the age of 25 then you have good reasons to be ashamed.
  2. 2. If you laugh then you will not be distinguished.
  3. 3. If your face shows feelings then you are vulgar.
  4. 4. If you mention that you have a single hair on your body then you are vile.
  5. 5. If a boy kisses you in public on the cheek then you are a whore.
  6. 6. If you eat with pleasure then you are a sow.
  7. 7. If you experience pleasure sleeping then you are a cow.
  8. 8. If you go to the toilet for body releases then make sure nobody hear anything.
  9. 9. You should never sweat  Thus avoid voluptuous love making.
  10. 10. You should not marry for love.
  11. 11. If you fall in love then you were not educated well.
  12. 12. Stay thin because males do not appreciate round shapes in the body

All the sufferings in sticking to these precepts have the sole objective of preserving your honor and nothing else.

In 1993, Amelie had published two books and Fubuki sent her a brief letter in Japanese saying simply “Congratulation”.

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