Archive for the ‘Marie NDiaye’ Category

Ladivine

April 7, 2016

ladivine

Ladivine by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan stump) is another major novel by a woman writer on the Man Booker International Prize long list. It begins with Clarisse Riviere on her monthly visit to her mother – not as Clarisse, but as Malinka. Clarisse is a name and identity she has taken for herself which she keeps separate from her mother, as she does her husband, Richard, and her daughter, Ladivine. This decision seems based on a deep-rooted feeling rather than any reason: since childhood she has felt that “being that woman’s daughter filled her with a horrible shame and fear.” So reluctant is she to acknowledge the relationship that when asked by another pupil at school who the woman who has come to collect her is, she replies, “My servant.”

“All trace of repulsion vanished from the girl’s face, and she let out a satisfied and admiring little ‘Oh!’
And Malinka realised that disgust would have spread to this girl’s very body, she would have trembled and recoiled in a sort of horror, if Malinka had answered, ‘My mother.’”

Her mother’s identity is now also changed, and she is frequently referred to in the narrative as “the servant.”

“Nothing said she had to go on being the servant’s daughter forever, she told herself.”

Are we to assume her decision to disown her mother is partly racial? The name Malinka betrays her African origin, but Clarisse is described as “pale, smooth-skinned.” Does this explain her boss’s comment when her mother turns up at the restaurant where she waitresses after leaving school: “I hope she’s not going to make a habit of coming here. That wouldn’t be good for business.”

Clarisse, as we know from the opening pages, meets and marries Richard Riviere and they have a daughter, Ladivine – named after Clarisse’s mother, a woman she will never allow her daughter to meet, suggesting she cannot escape her past entirely. Clarisse’s two separate lives, however, makes it difficult for her to commit entirely to either, as if her two identities cancel each other out, and she finds herself becoming distanced from her new family:

“Even before silence invaded their house, a polite, cosy, placid silence, she had already closed her ears to the things Richard Riviere and Ladivine said, though she pretended to listen…”

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Only one third of the way through do we reach Ladivine’s story, on holiday with her husband, Marko, and two young children, Daniel and Annika, in a country which remains unnamed but which we might assume is the home of the original Ladivine. Once again, NDiaye moves from the present into the past in order to explain Ladivine’s journey to this point. Marko is German and Ladivine now lives in Germany as if to emphasise each generation adopting their own identity, their own language. This vacation represents a break from Marko’s parents where they normally holiday, again raising the idea of generational discord.

The holiday takes place in an uneasy, uncomfortable atmosphere, from Ladivine being mistaken more than once for a guest at a wedding, to a museum full of atrocities:

“…huge canvases very realistically depicted various massacres – here a squadron of soldiers armed with bayonets skewering wild-eyed rioters, here three men slicing intently into the belly of a living woman pathetically endeavouring with blood-soaked hands to protect the foetus contained in that belly…”

This culminates in an act of violence by Marko (a scene which literally caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up) which causes them to leave their hotel and stay with friends of Ladivine’s father, Richard. Throughout this we see Ladivine drifting from her family just as her mother and grandmother did before her.

What begins as an examination of family relationships, particularly between mothers and daughters, becomes something much more unsettling as Ladivine’s interpretation of events becomes increasingly dreamlike (or nightmarish). This begins with the idea that a dog she spots every time she leaves the hotel is waiting for her:

“Still, she was by no means sure the dog meant her well, she never approached it, never waved at it, never even met its gaze.”

Dogs are a recurrent motif in the novel, first seen when Richard’s parents bring a dog with them on a visit, and it is found lying next to Ladivine in her cot:

“Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger to the child.”

Richard disagrees and we see the first fracture ion their relationship. The dog motif is important enough to provide the novel with its conclusion, and demonstrates NDiaye’s intention to write something which reaches beyond psychological study. Clarisse’s treatment of her mother, and Ladivine’s actions on holiday are portrayed as unavoidable, just like Richard’s father’s purchase of the dog:

“It’s an order come to life… I had no choice.”

Perhaps the animal spirit of the dog is a sign to both Clarisse and Ladivine that the past cannot be disowned.

Ladivine is not an easy novel – its prose style can be stand-offish, its characters act without clear motivation, and it is no respecter of genre, playing tag with realism like a wayward child. Its very awkwardness, however, is a reflection of NDiaye’s unforgiving intensity. Women writers may be in a minority on the Man Booker International Prize long list, but it would not surprise me if that were to be reversed by the short list.

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Three Strong Women

August 7, 2015

three strong women

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye is a novel of (unsurprisingly, perhaps) three parts; less expected is the fact that the central character is a woman in only two of them. All three tell of characters suspended between France and Senegal: NDiaye herself has a French mother and a Senegalese father – a father who returned to the continent when she was only one year old, perhaps explain why her own characters’ lives seem determined by their journeys between these two places. As each section in some way explores the relationship between Europe and Africa, so too does it examine the relationship between a man and a woman, relationships where communication is often fractured and failing.

In the first section Norah, a lawyer, leaves the life she has created for herself in France – her recently moved in lover remains behind to look after her daughter along with his own – to visit her father at his request. Once a powerful man who bullied those around him, he is reduced to a feeble glutton who takes every opportunity to fill his face with food. Norah is most worried about her brother – while she and her sister were brought up by her mother in France after her parents relationship broke down, he was taken by her father to be raised in Senegal. She soon discovers that her brother is, in fact, the reason for her father’s call – he is in prison, awaiting trial after confessing to the murder of her father’s lover.

In the second section the viewpoint moves to that of kitchen salesman Rudy. He met his wife, Fanta, while teaching in Senegal but, after an incident which brought his classroom career to an end, selfishly convinced her to come to France, though he knew she would be unable to work as a teacher there. He hates his present job and is aware that his marriage is in danger of falling apart – so much so that he plans to collect his son and take him to his mother’s for the night so his wife cannot leave him – but he feels powerless in the face of his problems, reacting only with an uncontrollable rage which exacerbates every situation.

In the final section we return to Senegal and follow the journey of Khady, a young woman attempting to reach Europe after her deceased husband’s family tell her she must go. Abandoning the idea of crossing by sea as too dangerous, she is befriended by a young man, Lamine, who has decided to undertake the journey by land.

The three sections have the slightest of connections: Norah’s father has made his wealth through a holiday village in Dara Salam, a business Rudy father was also involved in; Khady is first seen as a servant at Norah’s father’s house, and is told to contact Fanta should she make it to France. These connections, however, are not important to our understating of the stories, which could easily be read as three novellas. Placing the three parts within a novel seems intended to encourage the reader to develop their own connections.

In all three relationships have broken down. Norah resents her father; her father avoids communication (two girl she claims are his daughters stay with him, but he does not speak to them). Every time Rudy attempts to communicate with Fanta they argue:

“…she had inflicted upon herself the absurd obligation of spending the rest of her days in a house she disliked, beside a man she shunned and who from the outset had deceived her as to what he really was…”

Khady has no relationships left – her husband is dead and his family do not want her. The relationship which seems the most loving is that she develops with Lamine as he demonstrates his selflessness again and again – however, this is the relationship where the greatest betrayal takes place.

Despite this it can be argue that all three stories end with sense of peace. NDiaye uses bird imagery to achieve this in each one. Norah’s father is associated with “the lush, wilting vegetation of the flame tree” – “whatever flame tree, exhausted by flowering, he had flown down from.” The end finds him in its branches:

“…his daughter Norah was there, close by, perched among the branches that were now bereft of flowers… Why would she come and alight on the flame tree if not to make peace, once and for all?”

Rudy, as his world falls apart around him, finds himself stalked by a buzzard:

“With its wings spread out along the windscreen, its head turned to one side, it glared at him with its horridly severe yellow eye.”

Towards the story’s end he experiences an epiphany regarding his mother; shortly after his son tells him, “We’ve run a bird over.” The final section also uses a bird in order to create a sense of peace at the story’s conclusion:

“With staring eyes she saw a bird with long grey wings hovering above the fence. ‘It’s me, Khady Demba,’ she thought, dazed by the revelation, knowing that she was the bird and that the bird knew it too.”

The three sections may not cohere or even resonate particularly powerfully, but the writing in each of them is superb. The central section, in particular, where NDiaye conveys Rudy’s frustrations with great skill and sympathy, is utterly absorbing. She is clearly a writer who can inhabit different characters, different worlds, with ease.