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• Tuesday, June 09th, 2009

Cristina Garcia was born in Havana, Cuba in 1958. After Fidel Castro came to power in the early sixties, she moved with her parents to New York and following an early Catholic education, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1979 at Barnard College, at Columbia University. She later entered the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and in 1981 obtained a master’s degree in International Relations.

In the early eighties, Garcia worked for several publications: the Boston Globe for a short time, then United Press International, The Knoxville Journal in Tennessee and The New York Times. She was a correspondent at Time magazine in New York city in 1983 and also worked in San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles.

In 1990 Cristina Garcia decided to devote her time to writing fiction in order to highlight the life of Cuban immigrants in the United States. In 1984 she travelled to Cuba to meet her relatives for the first time and five years later her trip provided her with the incentive to start writing her first book, Dreaming in Cuban, published in 1992, followed by The Agüero Sisters published in 1997 and Monkey Hunting in 2003.

Cristina Garcia has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and the recipient of a Whiting writer’s award. In 1990 Garcia married Scott Brown, with whom she had a daughter, Pilar born in 1992. Garcia now lives with her daughter in Santa Monica.

The novel of The Agüero Sisters is made up of several family stories (with multiple narrators) interlaced with each other in the past and the present. It’s the rich complex story of Constancia and Reina Agüero, the two very different sisters, who were separated for thirty years.

Reina is forty eight years old, tall, dark and beautiful, liberated and a skilled master electrician,who supported the revolution and therefore remained in Havana. While her sister is the fifty one year-old Constancia, the pale, petite and conservative wife and business woman who immigrated with her husband to the United States after the Cuban revolution and adopted her new country’s culture.

What they both have in common is the intriguing, haunting and mysterious death of their mother and father, who both died many years ago, but whose memory still lives vividly with them after leaving them to inherit half truths, secrets and lies.

The author describes the Cuban landscape in detail, but not much detail is provided about Cuba before and after Fidel Castro took power. The novel mainly relates the lives of Cuban-Americans and the mysteries and myths that they carry with them and the beautiful American dream. There is also the uneasy relationship between children and parents and the hard-to-resolve question of identity.

Cristina Garcia is interested in emotional inheritance “and how those get played out subjectively in different times and places.” She said the beauty of being a novelist is that you can explore your obsessions at length.

Despite the jumps back and forth in time, the prologue gives us the main theme of the novel.

Although Garcia has an elegant style of writing and a fine description of characters, her plot is incomplete. She never reveals why Ignacio kills Blanca and two years later commits suicide. Nor has the author explained the reasons for Blanca’s disappearance and returning to her husband and child, heavily pregnant by another man, who remains anonymous throughout the book. The characters of Constancia and Reina’s daughters are neither fully developed nor do they contribute much to the story.

Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable, colourful book to read.

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Author:
• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of the Belgian writer and former ambassador to Japan, Patrick Nothomb. She was born in Kobe in 1967. By the time she was five years old, she was perfectly bilingual.

After leaving Japan, Amélie spends her childhood in China, Burma and New York. Living as an expatriate combined with the feeling of loneliness, made her withdraw into her own shell. Especially after returning to Belgium at the age of seventeen and having the shock of finding herself a foreigner amongst her own people. The shock was brutal and this triggered in her the need to write as an escapade.

“Hygiéne de l’assassin”, her first book was published in 1992 and was an immediate success, with a French literary prize. In 1993 she published “Le sabotage amoureux”, then in 1994 “Les combustibles”, in 1995 “Les catilinaires”, in 1996 “Péplum”, in 1997 “Attentat”, in 1998 “Mercure”, in 2000 “Métaphysique des tubes”, in 2001 “Cosmétique de l’ennemi” etc…

Amélie Nothomb writes about three books per year, but decides each time to publish only one per year and every time it’s a commercial success.

Her eighth book “Fear and Trembling” was published in 1999 and was a winner of the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française and Prix Internet du livre. The book was translated into 14 languages and sold half a million copies. A big success. Two of her books have been made into films: “Hygiéne de l’assassin” and “Fear and Trembling”.

The main theme of “Fear and Trembling” is the clash of cultures between East and West. It was told in the ancient Japanese tradition that if anyone wanted to address the Japanese emperor, it had to be with “Fear and Trembling”, the emperor being the highest figure of authority. This belief is followed on all levels in Japan, as the author reveals the very rigid hierarchy in the typical headquarters of a Japanese international conglomerate in Tokyo called Yumimoto.

Amélie-San is reprimanded for not taking the right steps by going through the correct channels, despite the fact that her deed was very useful to the company.

What the author wants the westerner to understand, is that in the oriental mentality, it’s not the successful results that count, since achieving them the ‘untraditional’ way can cause more harm than good.

Consequently one has to follow the system blindly and not be an ‘individualist’, which is the worst betrayal to the traditional system: “Mister Tenshi didn’t want to sabotage the company. I begged him to let me work on the report. I alone am responsible.”… “Mister Omochi stood open-mouthed for a moment before coming up to me and bellowing right into my face.” Do you dare defend yourself?” “No, I’m blaming myself. I’m claiming all the wrong for myself. I alone should be punished.” “You dare to defend this snake!”

Then follows the arguments with Miss Mori Fubuki: “I’m twenty-nine years old. You are twenty-two. I’ve been in this position since last year. I fought for it for years. Did you think that you were going to get a comparable job within a matter of weeks?”

Due to not following the ‘correct’ system, Amélie-san has to endure the most degrading retrogression. Starting as an interpreter and ending in the humiliating job of a toilet attendant.

Like most of Amélie Nothomb’s books, “Fear and Trembling” includes some personal, real life experiences. A kind of an autobiography. The style of her writing is indicative of her own character; subtle, humouristic and extravagant. I recall her telling Bernard Pivot in the French TV programme “Apostrophe”, that she takes delight in eating rotten fruit.

Amélie Nothomb’s style is uncomplicated which makes the book easy to read despite the issue involved, being the relationships and methods of Japanese white-collars, and their entrapment in their uncompromising system.

Amélie Nothomb shows us very clearly her compassion for those people, but at the same time expresses her frustration at being unable to change anything, or even to reason with them:
“Le plus insupportable, c’était de voir mon bienfaiteur humilié par ma faute. Monsieur Tenshi était un homme intelligent et cosciencieux: il avait pris un gros risque pour moi, en pleine connaissance de cause. Aucun intérêt personnel n’avait guidé sa démarche: il avait agi par simple altruisme. En récompense de sa bonté, on le traînait dans la boue.”
She makes us aware of her concern with human relationships throughout her book.

Amélie Nothomb’s humouristic tone can be hilarious at times or even like a caricature, but nevertheless carries behind it more than what it suggests.

Unlike other books we read, in “Fear and Trembling”, the author doesn’t take us anywhere in Tokyo, apart from the restricted view from her office window. The year Amélie spends at the Yumimoto company is all devoted to a description of the Japanese headquarters, the people working for it, their devotion to their work and the hierarchical system. Not forgetting to describe at length, the uncompromising Japanese mentality.

At the end of her one year contract with Yumimoto, Amélie-San returns to Europe. And like a phoenix, after all the humiliation endured, emerges from the ashes, glorious and successful with her prize winning book “Hygiéne de l’assassin”.

She then receives a congratulatory letter from her former superior, Mori Fubuki acknowledging her success. The letter was written in Japanese as a sign of friendship which seems to have been accepted at last.

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