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Book 13

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
  5. Carter, Angela — Heroes and Villains (152 pages)
  6. Burroughs, Edgar Rice — A Princess of Mars (209 pages)
  7. Hill, Susan — The Woman in Black (152 pages)
  8. Fowler, Karen Joy — Sarah Canary (293 pages)
  9. Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Prize Winning Novels (174 pages)
  10. Beresford, David — Ten Men Dead (426 pages)
  11. Freedland, Jonathan — Bring Home the Revolution: The Case for a British Republic (245 pages)
  12. Kierkegaard, Søren — Fear and Trembling (150 pages)
  13. Nothomb, Amélie — Fear and Trembling (132 pages)
Page count
2806

Since I owned both titles in my library, I thought it would be cute to read two Fear and Tremblings back to back — not that I expected them to have anything in common. Even the titles are different when translated literally: the Danish "Frygt og Bæven," quoting Scripture, is "Fear and Trepidation," and the French "Stupeur et tremblements," referring to ancient Japanese protocol for addressing the emperor, is "Stupefaction and tremblings."

Nothomb's Fear and Trembling is described everywhere as a novel, but it's a novel in the same sense as Charles Bukowski's Post Office, only self-referentially less so. Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan, the daughter of a Belgian diplomat, and Fear and Trembling is based on her experiences returning to Japan as an adult and facing its corporate culture. It's impossible to tell where fact ends and fiction begins, as Nothomb is hired by a large conglomerate as a translator and soon finds herself working in the accounting department. She begins at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy and, faced with several cultural obstacles (amongst them institutionalised racism and sexism) finds herself sinking even lower.

Fear and Trembling is a satire. The characters are caricatures of various Japanese stereotypes, and some of the examples are so extreme as to stretch credibility (which, I suppose, is an essential component of satire). For example, one of Nothomb's most excruciating torments is such a simple task that it is hard to believe any non-imbecile would struggle with it. I don't wish to imply that Nothomb is an imbecile, for the quality of her writing puts a lie to that, but rather that she is not above poking fun at herself as well.

I do detect some similarities with Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, though I imagine they were not consciously drawn. Nothomb's perseverence through her year-long ordeal and determination not to resign in light of an untenable work situation smacks of a movement towards the absurd as described by Kierkegaard (though perhaps not of the same character), and her assertion of individuality in opposition to the cultural ethos of conformance has a hint of existentialism to it. But I am reaching!

There is a movie based on the book which was extremely faithful in the particulars of the novel but not particularly effective in the extremes. It's not a bad movie, but it felt toned down when compared to the book.

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