If you have ever had an uneasy dream in which every word and gesture shimmers with meaning just beyond your grasp, the kind of dream in which the most familiar interactions become strangely entangled in a web of guilt and shame, then you have some sense of what it feels like to read Marie NDiaye. Her novels are as gripping as they are unsettling, offering up tales of family dysfunction, estrangement, and cruelty, all housed within narratives constructed with a watchmaker’s precision.
NDiaye appeared on the French literary scene in 1985, when at the age of 17 she published her first novel, Quant au riche avenir (As For the Rich Future). Since then she has established herself as one of the most important writers working in French today, publishing across multiple genres to ever-greater critical acclaim—notably, in the form of the Prix Femina for Rosie Carpe (2001; Rosie Carpe, 2004), and the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, for Trois femmes puissantes.
Trois femmes puissantes is composed of three loosely connected parts. The first takes place in Dakar, identifiable through references to specific neighborhoods as well as to such grim landmarks as Reubeuss prison. It focuses on the difficult relationship between an unnamed Senegalese man and Norah, the half-French daughter he abandoned years before. The second shifts the action to provincial France and follows the paranoid interior ravings of Rudy Descas, a French man whose marriage to a Senegalese woman is falling apart. The final part relates the story of Khady Demba, another Senegalese woman who, destitute after the death of her husband, tries to cross from Africa into Europe. The novel’s three parts intersect only glancingly in terms of plot, but each poses—in more or less direct, more or less oblique ways—troubling questions about the ongoing postcolonial relationship between France and Senegal, and, by extension, between Europe and Africa.
The novel itself is not spare or minimalist in the fashion of some contemporary fiction. Here as elsewhere in her work, NDiaye recounts twisted family histories, variously violent betrayals, and tabloid-worthy scenes of crime and punishment—though criminals are not always punished, and the punished are not always criminals. The text brims with harrowing details, and has its moments of dark humor as well. Above all, events and actions are so thoroughly anchored in complex emotional, familial, and economic contexts that we can comprehend, if not empathize with, even the novel’s most reprehensible characters. I have limited myself to the barest of summaries, because NDiaye’s power as a writer is such that to disclose much more would be to rob the reader of the singular experience of being caught up in the rhythm of her narrative, in the dense network of memories, revelations, denials, recriminations, and reversals out of which her stories emerge.
NDiaye has the uncanny ability to keep her reader slightly off-balance, moving between certainty and doubt. Her characters are prone to odd and possibly willful lapses of memory, as when Norah is unable to recognize what is apparently her own image in a photograph, or when Rudy can’t quite remember if he actually uttered the insulting sentence echoing in his guilty conscience. Rather than clarifying such ambiguous memories or perceptions, NDiaye extends them by collapsing the distance between the characters and her third-person narrator. Consider the novel’s first sentence:
Et celui qui l’accueillit ou qui parut comme fortuitement sur le seuil de sa grande maison de béton, dans une intensité de lumière soudain si forte que son corps vêtu de clair paraissait la produire et la répandre lui-même, cet homme qui se tenait là, petit, alourdi, diffusant un éclat blanc comme une ampoule au néon, cet homme surgi au seuil de sa maison démesurée n’avait plus rien, se dit aussitôt Norah, de sa superbe, de sa stature, de sa jeunesse auparavant si mystérieusement constante qu’elle semblait impérissable.
(And the man waiting for her at the entrance to the big concrete house—or who happened to be standing in the doorway—was bathed in a light so suddenly intense that it seemed to radiate from his whole body and his pale clothing; yet this short, thickset man before her, who’d just emerged from his enormous house and was glowing bright as a neon tube, no longer possessed, Norah straightaway realized, the stature, arrogance, and youthfulness once so mysteriously his own as to seem everlasting.)
The novel opens with a floating conjunction, followed by two opposing possibilities: Norah’s father is either welcoming her into his house, or randomly appearing in the doorway as she approaches. By presenting both of these possibilities and refusing to privilege either one, the narrator immediately draws us into the strangeness of Norah’s relationship with her father. The language of the sentence further underscores her uncertainty over his true motivations in summoning her to Senegal: the father appears only through estranging demonstratives (“celui,” “cet homme”), and the sentence as a whole is marked by verbs of seeming (“paraissait,” “semblait”). And yet, even as the narrator moves toward a more explicit reporting of Norah’s thoughts (“se dit aussitôt Norah”), a striking tension is maintained between the character’s anxious condition and the fluid elegance of the narrative voice.
Her extended sentences are dynamic, even musical; she introduces themes, then leaves them vibrating in suspension as she defers their resolution through a stream of subordinate clauses and repeated phrases.
Indeed, in addition to her skills as a storyteller, NDiaye is perhaps best known for the distinctive style of her prose. She writes in what has been described as “quasi-classical” French, making frequent use of the language’s most elevated and literary forms; she is not one to shy away from the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif. As noted above, the grammatical mastery she demonstrates at the level of the sentence often stands in tension with the doubts, hesitations, and anxieties that plague her characters. Early in her career, she pushed this mastery to virtuosic extremes, most famously in Comédie classique (1987), a novel whose single sentence runs to more than one hundred pages. While NDiaye has distanced herself from this youthful experimentation, she remains interested in the capacity of the sentence, in its very structure, to produce a kind of formal meaning that works with and against the narrative content conveyed.
In Trois femmes puissantes, almost every paragraph is composed of a single sentence, though some contain within them other sentences or fragments that appear as reported thoughts or speech. While some sentence-paragraphs are made up of just a few words—such as the terse “Ses mains tremblaient” (“Her hands trembled”)—most are considerably longer, and a handful are spun out for a page or more. There will no doubt be readers who are put off by what might appear to be a pretentious stylistic conceit, but those who are willing to make the effort to follow NDiaye’s prose will be richly rewarded. Her extended sentences are dynamic, even musical; she introduces themes, then leaves them vibrating in suspension as she defers their resolution through a stream of subordinate clauses and repeated phrases, taking the reader to the edge of incomprehension but never beyond:
Une jeune femme qui aurait pu être elle, Khady, dans sa vie d’autrefois, sortait sur le trottoir et retirait le panneau de bois qui fermait l’unique fenêtre de sa buvette, et en voyant ce corps long et fin, aussi étroit aux hanches qu’aux épaules et la taille à peine marquée mais aussi dense et vigoureux dans sa minceur que le corps d’un serpent, elle reconnut une silhouette du même genre que la sienne et elle prit conscience du travail de ses muscles qui la faisaient aller d’un si bon pas, de leur vigueur, de leur indéfectible présence qu’elle avait oubliée, de tout son jeune corps solide auquel elle ne prêtait plus la moindre attention et dont elle se ressouvenait, qu’elle retrouvait dans l’allure de cette inconnue qui, maintenant, alignait sur le comptoir extérieur de la buvette les bouteilles de soda qu’elle proposait à la vente et qui, avec son air concentré, paisible, réservé, aurait pu être elle, Khady, dans sa vie d’autrefois.
(A young woman who could have been her, Khady, in her previous life came out onto the pavement and removed the wooden panel that covered the only window of her drinks stall, and on seeing that long, slender body, narrow at the hips and shoulders, with barely a perceptible waist, but as compact and vigorous in its slimness as the body of a snake, Khady recognized a shape very much like her own, and she reawakened to the action of her own muscles in enabling her to move so quickly, of their forgotten vigor and unfailing presence, of the whole of her young body, which she no longer paid the slightest attention to but which she now remembered and rediscovered in the bearing of this unknown young woman, who was arranging on the counter the fizzy-drink bottles she was about to sell and who, with her calm, focused reserve, could have been Khady, in an earlier life.)
Khady Demba, walking away from her husband’s family and toward a terrifyingly unknown future, sees a woman who reminds her of herself. NDiaye takes this seemingly inconsequential event and builds around it an extended sentence that resonates with meaning, reflecting the complex situation of a character who is struggling to maintain a sense of herself, her history, and her position in the world.
NDiaye moves the reader through extreme variations in the lengths of her sentences, changing the pace of the narrative to reflect interior states or external events. The frequent repetitions that mark her prose, far from being gratuitous, underscore the essential tensions and conflicts at play in her stories. In the novel’s final part, for example, the narrator’s frequent insistence upon Khady Demba’s practice of naming herself, of remembering her own individual humanity in the face of the increasingly abject conditions of her existence, functions simultaneously as a sign of her inner strength and as a scathing denunciation of European hypocrisy surrounding the “human rights” of African subjects.
Given how few of NDiaye’s works are accessible to English-language readers, it is cause for celebration that a major American publisher has released John Fletcher’s translation of Trois femmes puissantes. That said, I am puzzled by a number of choices made on the part of the translator (or perhaps the publisher). These range from the truly bizarre omission of the novel’s penultimate paragraph to the understandable if somewhat disheartening carving up of many long paragraphs into multiple shorter sentences. But even beyond the basic decision to alter the structure of NDiaye’s prose, the translation tends to sand down the text’s stranger edges. To offer just one example: in the first part of the novel, the French-born Norah finds herself in her father’s home in Senegal. At a particularly tense moment, her cell phone rings:
Tout le monde sursauta, même Norah qui avait pourtant reconnu la sonnerie de son portable et plongeait la main dans la poche de sa robe, prête à couper l’appareil puis, s’apercevant que l’appel venait de chez elle, le portant à son oreille avec gêne dans le silence de la chambre qui semblait avoir changé de nature et, de calme, lourd, léthargique, était devenu attentif, vaguement inamical.
Comme dans l’attente de paroles définitives et claires qui leur feraient choisir de me tenir à l’écart ou de m’accepter parmi eux.
(Everyone jumped—even Norah, though it was the ringtone of her cell phone. She reached for the phone in the pocket of her dress. She was about to turn it off when she noticed that the call was coming from her own home. Awkwardly, she put the phone to her ear. The silence of the room seemed to have changed. Calm, ponderous, and lethargic just a moment ago, it had suddenly become alert and vaguely hostile, as if the chance of overhearing something clear and definitive might help them to decide between keeping her at a distance and welcoming her into their midst.)
The ringing cell phone cuts into the scene, bringing into threatening proximity Paris and Dakar, Norah’s past and present, her family in France and her family in Senegal. The intensity of Norah’s anxiety and discomfort at this moment is underscored by a momentary and peculiar narrative shift from the third person to the first person: “As if waiting for definitive and clear words that would make them choose to keep me at a distance or to welcome me among them” (my translation, emphasis added). The jarring effects of this shift, which blurs the line between narrator and character just as the differences that structure Norah’s sense of self are thrown into confusion, are completely lost in the translation, which not only breaks up and rearranges NDiaye’s sentences, but also “corrects” her narrative so as to maintain a third-person voice throughout. Similar shifts into the first person are normalized in the translation through the addition of phrases like “Norah thought” and “she resolved.”
To be fair, given the complexity of NDiaye’s writing, her translator faces a difficult if not impossible task. While Tamsin Black’s translation of Rosie Carpe does a better job overall of preserving the style of the original, Fletcher’s Three Strong Women captures a good part of the novel’s power, and is particularly effective at maintaining the haunting quality of its visual imagery. If you don’t read French, by all means do seek it out. If you have ever thought about learning French, though, I can’t think of a better reason to do so than to be able to read Marie NDiaye in the original.