The Dangers of Expat Writing: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

While many expatriates have been great writers, in my experience, expatriates sometimes don’t do such a great job writing about the expatriate experience — with Graham Greene being a notable exception. They inevitably tend towards the same kind of thing that one sees in the expatriate blogosphere — the clever theorizing, the ranting, the mockery and the essentializing. Indeed, I have not read a single (published) book of fiction or autobiography by an expat, describing his or her life here in Korea, that didn’t have these kinds of problems… the urge seems to irresistible for most.

(Of course, I haven’t read everything out there. But the books I have read have constantly had these problems.)

The cover of Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb bills the book as a #1 International Bestseller, but I have to wonder how or why this happened. I don’t fault her writing skills — while I’m reading a translation, it’s easy to see she knows how to structure a story and to give a character a voice — but I think an important part of what didn’t work for me in this book was its pervasive ennui. This is something I’ve found with other writers, particularly French-language writers I’ve read recently, and it never seems quite to work with me. Michel Houellebecq’s Platform (which I discussed here), which I read last year, was drowning in a kind of dully misanthropic ennui, and it reminded me of a certain kind of poseur one meets in Creative Writing programs, who are all about mocking and putting down everything, but who never finally seem to stand for anything themselves. Not that all fiction needs to be moralistic or didactic, but I kind of feel that an author who doesn’t stand for something, ends up with work that stands up for nothing at all.

Nothomb’s little novel isn’t as bleak as that, and it has moments that are beautiful, or which shine and shimmer. There are also, I have to say, moments that strike me as quite real — not earnest, but believable and perhaps only mildly exaggerated — especially in her exchanges with Miss Mori Fubuki. I swear, I have had such exhanges myself during my time in Korea, encounters where what seems like self-evident logic to me, confronts what seems like perversely-inverted logic on the part of occasional Korean interlocutors.

Occasional being the operative word, though. Nothomb apparently has published another book about this period of her life, in which she was entangled in a tentative romance with a Japanese man, titled Tokyo Fiancé. When I saw this, I thought to myself that this was precisely what Nothomb’s novella Fear and Trembling was missing… something to balance, to intertwine with the bizarre relationships and ridiculousness of her working life at the Yumimoto Corporation. In a surreal novel, things kind of stop being so absolutely surreal unless you jump back and forth between the surrealism and something less, well, bizarre. But Nothomb’s novella does very little to hint at her life outside of the company, at relationships with Japanese that are more rewarding or fulfilling — or, in fact, more sane.

There is a point, about halfway through the book, where she launches into what could be called the Standard Expat Social Problems Rant. The particular rant Nothomb unleashes concerns the misery that, according to her, Japanese women must endure. People who have  lived abroad will find this quite familiar, having heard such rants in expat bars, read them online, and indeed having in all likelihood unleashed at least a few such rants themselves. (Goodness knows I have.)

The problem with the Standard Expat Social Problems Rant is not that it’s necessarily wrong. Outsiders often see social problems in a society in ways that locals don’t — and that goes for non-Westerners visiting Western countries, too, not just TEFL teachers holed up in Asia. Nomthomb’s rant sounds depressingly familiar to me because it rather parallels some of the miseries Korean women I’ve known have complained about, or, more sadly, have failed to see as symptomatic of bigger social problems. (A case of talking about bad apples, and refusing to see more pervasive underlying causes for the fact there are so many bad apples, or, for example, oppressive mother-in-laws.)

No, the problem with the Standard Expat Social Problems Rant is that it’s dull, especially for someone who’s heard them before. Doubtless, for those who are living isolated from expatriates, it is interesting: a glimpse of another culture, a slice of life from the other side of the Earth. So maybe I’m just not in Nothomb’s target audience.

But I don’t think that’s the only problem I had with it. It’s not just that I’m an expat. See, the problem with the Standard Expat Social Problems Rant is that it usually happens in an echo-chamber — the expat bar, the expat blogosphere, the small social circle of foreign professors at a particular university, or whatever. There may be some diversity, but more often than not, a group of outsiders from a relatively homogenous background (even one as broad as, say, Anglophones) will tend to trip on the same problems, be mortified by the same attitudes, and be frustrated by the same sorts of experience. They tend to echo one anothers’ experiences, and a consensus develops, one that — more often than not — grows without the input of any local people, except perhaps those dissenting wives, girlfriends, husbands, drinking buddies, or rare locals who’ve grown up abroad and “get” what the expats are on about.

In Fear and Trembling, every Japanese person seems to be a sort of clown: Mori Fubuki is a gorgeous tyrant who is sadly not even bright enough to grasp when she is being mocked to her face. (While I’ve known Koreans who were unable to grasp sarcasm, they have tended to figure out someone was messing with them.) Mister Saito ends up being a saintly inmate in a hellish asylum. Mister Omochi… well, she calls him “The Obese One” and he is as cardboard as they come, alternately shouting at people and stuffing his face. Only “God,” the president of the company, seems at all human, but he is distant and barely appears in the tale.

There are moments where Nothomb breaks through this wall, and presents characters — especially Miss Mori Fubuki — as human. At one point, when the woman is humiliated in front of her coworkers, Nothomb’s narrator puts aside her resentment and annoyance and sympathizes with Mori… which, of course, turns into yet another apparent lesson in how Japanese people are totally alien and you’d be an idiot to try to relate to them as you would other human beings, or something close enough to leave me uncomfortable with the outcome.

As I’ve said, the expats I’ve known in Korea have uniformly hated certain aspects of Korean society; but they tend to balance their lives so that they can also see the non-insane, non-ridiculous parts of Korean society and culture. Many long-term expats here partner with or marry Koreans; many have hobbies that help them bridge the culture gap, or form friendships with specific Koreans that help them to stop holding Korea at arm’s length constantly. That’s not to say they don’t struggle; many still end up bitter and many still decide to leave… and I recall one conversation I had with several men who’d been here for more than a decade wherein pretty much everyone talked about Korea as a place they truly wanted to leave, if only they could. But for all the crap they are confronted with, they also seem to find things that balance it out.

This is what is absent from Nothomb’s book, and while you could argue that she didn’t want to talk about, I think the absence of her life outside of work — her justification of it, within the text, nonwithstanding — dooms the text to dealing only shallowly with that which is professes to describe.

I’m not saying I wish she’d found a way to talk about the positives; I just wish the book had painted a picture where Japanese people were capable of being something other than clownish, predictably baffling victim-fools. I guess I wish there had been even just one truly sympathetic character in the novel, for whom the sympathy didn’t eventually pay off as a setup for a final state of incomprehensibility.

Well, maybe I just didn’t get it. Nothomb is one of Belgium’s most popular writers worldwide. Perhaps the fault lies with me, I say, snickering to myself that now I am playing Nothomb’s game of fake submission to authority.

Nah, I do get it. It’s just not my bag.

7 thoughts on “The Dangers of Expat Writing: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

  1. Have you ever read Mark Salzman’s long-ago Iron and Silk? I found it an absorbing story, and not your typical bitter-expat screed. The book was made into a modest little movie in 1990.

  2. Ah, yeah, actually, when I first came to Korea and was short of stuff to read, some of my friends down in Texas threw some books they liked into a box and posted them to me. One of them was Salzman’s Iron and Silk, which I think Marvin (who was/is into martial arts) put in the box. (The same Marvin who just commented on the Klein book review I posted the other day!)

    Anyway, yeah, that was a great read and as far as I remember had none of those problems. It was interesting, sympathetic, honest, but rant-free, in general. It was a good book!

    Funny, I just saw this book on the shelf in a used bookstore in Seoul, and wondered whether it was my copy — at some point it got loaned to someone or other and never got back to me, and I suspect it may well have been.

    I didn’t know it’d gotten made into a movie. Wonder how hard it’d be to track down a copy…

  3. Iron and Silk! Yeah, that was me. I love that book. Thinking of the bureaucratic challenges of Korea, the first thing that leaps to mind is the scene where Teacher Mark attempts to report a rat…

    I think I have the movie on VHS in a box in the shed. (No rats in the movie, though.) You might be able to get a used DVD somewhere.

  4. It’s a great book, thanks! :)

    Funnily enough, if I reported a rat, they’d be all over that. They spray monthly to prevent pests roaches, even. But they didn’t bother to seal the doors or windows properly so the place is full of mosquitos all summer, and when I reported that my tap water seemed to be infested with something creating a fungal/vegetal stink, they shrugged and told me to move to the new apartments — something I’m not willing to do for a whole host of reasons — and then didn’t bother to fix it.

    I’ll keep an eye out for the Iron and Silk film, though I doubt I’ll see anything like that over here. I bet there’s a VHS tape floating around somewhere, though… the stuff released here on VHS would blow your mind. A friend of mine once rented this documentary from the local video shop; the Korean friend he watched it with said the subtitles were, well, “weird.” We took that to mean they were an accurate translation of the conversations in the film… so I imagine Iron and Silk was probably released here.

    (Finding it would be another matter altogether.)

  5. Having read a fair few expat stories of people in every continent, I can’t think of any which rant or complain incessantly.

    I have zero idea about Korea. I simply haven’t lived there and would be loathe to generalize my experience of Japan onto another country because of its Asian quality. However, life as a foreign person in Tokyo can be extremely stressful due to the cruelty resulting from workplace hierarchy. My only flaw with Fear and Trembling is that the author laughs it off. In reality we stop sleeping with distress and need the doctor’s help. There’s no time for a social life or dragging others down for support. Japanese people aren’t friendly and this is a false false positivistic culture all round.

    1. I’m guessing English isn’t your first language, Tokyo Ghoul (“false false positivistic” makes me wonder), so I’m being careful in my response here. Also, please note that I wrote the original post you’ve commented on in 2012.

      I’ve definitely seen expats ranting in book form, though I will admit it’s been to a lesser degree than among the bloggers when the Korean blogosphere was at its height. If you read any of the popular Korea-books by expats, you’ll see a welter of complaints, and this is true going back into the 19th century. Korea’s kind of a grating place to live, even if you are Korean, but infinitely more so if you aren’t.

      I think Nothomb did rant—about the absurd nonsensicality of Japanese thinking, about the brutality of the sexism, the pain that so many seemed to have to endure before her eyes—and in her position I would probably criticize the exact same things. Hell, over the years I have criticized similar things in South Korean society. (This blog is, in fact, a testament to that.) But I think the book isn’t that balanced… at least, I hope that the other book she wrote about this period in her life wasn’t as absurd and ridiculous and humiliatingly pointless as her working life was.

      Laughing it off, I think, is something that comes with the luxury of knowing one can walk away… I see it in a fair number of expats in Korea, too, who, instead of caring about this society’s problems, make light of them and mock Koreans in the most insulting terms. It has always been an off-putting habit, but I see it more and more the longer I stay… I think because those who do feel inclined to care about the people around them are also the least likely to be comfortable with the grating lack of anything like reciprocity from most of the people around them, and the eventual realization that they’re not doing themselves any favors investing emotional and mental energy—and years of their lives—into this place and its people.

      I don’t know that insomnia strikes people here any more than it would back home, but I do think the unhappiness of Koreans is infectious, and that most of the non-Koreans who come here with a finer sensibility for their fellow human beings tend either to leave quickly or, if they end up having some compelling reason to stay, nonetheless continue to plan (or want) to leave. (And, in the meantime, to develop coping mechanisms—healthy and unhealthy—for dealing with the stresses of living here. A friend and I not long ago talked about stress-eating as a common example of this, but blog-ranting is, or at least was, another.)

      Meanwhile, most of the expats I know who claim to be comfortable and happy here… well, honestly they often seem to me either to be from much worse places, or to live in a bubble where they’re either unaware, or able to tune out, most of what’s going on around them—both in terms of their immediate surroundings, and in terms of the society in general. Which, hey, not to insult them: I imagine my life might be easier if I was better at tuning out things, but I’m not… and I feel like I’d be a worse person if I was, overall. I find I have little in common with them. That, or they lived charmed lives and just have been lucky. That isn’t universally true, but it’s pretty close.

      (Which isn’t to say they don’t end up staying: sometimes back home is even less tenable, or presents even bigger problems. I understand any American who’s leery about repatriating to Trump’s America, for example.)

      I don’t think it’s simply a case of who has thicker or thinner skin, in any case. That’s bandied about by the people who don’t seem to find these issues grating, but it lacks all but the most rudimentary nuance, and that lack in itself is kind of indicative of the difference in perspective I’m talking about. Mileage may vary, of course. But that’s my sense of things.

      Is it possible for you to seek out help in Tokyo? There are counseling services for foreigners in Seoul, I would assume Tokyo has at least a few as well. I wish you luck in finding your way to better circumstances.

    2. Also, I think these portions of your comment:

      … life as a foreign person in Tokyo can be extremely stressful due to the cruelty resulting from workplace hierarchy. My only flaw with Fear and Trembling is that the author laughs it off. In reality we stop sleeping with distress and need the doctor’s help. There’s no time for a social life or dragging others down for support. Japanese people aren’t friendly and this is a false false positivistic culture all round.

      … kind of fit into the category of “foreigners ranting about life abroad,” to my eye. It’s certainly complaining, isn’t it?

      One thing I can say is that people who start in Korea and move to Japan rarely complain about this stuff, in my experience; however rough social experience is for a foreigner in Japan, I’m pretty sure it’s more abrasive and in-your-face for the average foreigner in Korea. (And so standoffishness in Japan gets experienced with relief, instead of with resentment like yours.)

      That’s not a universal experience, of course: I’ve known people who went to Japan and were relieved to be back in Korea later on. But they tended to be people who lived to drink and party, and to exult in the “wild life” of their 20s. Mileage varies, but that’s the pattern I’ve seen.

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