NOT TO BE MISSED
"Trois femmes puissantes", a novel by Marie NDIAYE
Paris: Gallimard, 2009. (318p.).
Translated into English by John Fletcher. English title: "Three Strong Women" .
Ce compte rendu en français
The stories proposed in this award-winning novel by Marie NDiaye follow the intractable destinies of characters keen to remain true to themselves in spite of harrowing challenges. These tales explore the remote corners of the human psyche and allow readers to penetrate some of its mystery. The awe-inspiring style of the author invites mental wandering and upon turning the last page of this volume, readers will ponder the meaning of life, the weight of personal experience, the power of the mind and the universality of the human condition.
Three narratives unfold in different locations, but they are all interconnected in terms of geography: allusions to 'Le soleil', Reubeuss prison, Grand-Yoff, the Plateau, and the Lycée Mermoz unmistakably set part of the action in Dakar. Yet, before all else, it is the theme and content of the novel that give it its over-arching structure: demonic forces have the main characters in their clutches and although these evil spirits take a different form in every story, they all express similar fears associated with bad memories and traumatic childhood recollections induced by family breakdown, the loss of a dear one, bullying, parental rejection, or the impossible reconciliation of an idealised father with his crimes.
The overall ambiance is rather bleak but the main thrust of the whole novel is not, each story attesting people's capacity to drive away their own demons and to regain confidence in self and others. Characters are different in terms of social status and income, yet class counts little in the face of the traumatic events that spoiled their childhood. There are things money cannot buy, and peace of mind is one of them when dark memories, relegated to some remote corner of their unconscious, come back to haunt them. Norah's inhibitions, in the opening story, are a case in point.
A self-made woman and a successful lawyer, she could have been outgoing and full of confidence. But she is not, as some unacknowledged sorrows are buried deep inside her. In spite of her achievements, professional and otherwise, she never managed to come to terms with her father deserting his family when she was little. Her separation from her brother, her father's rejection on the grounds she was unattractive, and her desperate yet unsuccessful attempt to win his love have been traumatic. Thus her unwitting withdrawal into a domestic universe governed by order, discipline and a somewhat austere morality: that is, everything her father despised. In shifting the blame from an unworthy father to fictitious shortcomings of her own making, she could absolve the former and take charge of remedial actions. It is only when she eventually reconciles herself with the idea that it was not her fault that her father left home and did not love her, that she can move on and rid herself of unwarranted guilt. It is only then that, breaking the curse put upon her, she lifts the weight of her compulsive need to be in charge and begins sharing in the spontaneous, calm and ready banter (p.54) of her own children playing with her partner.
The second story also stems from unconscionable parental failings. For a very long time, Rudi, a precocious little boy who had become an esteemed Professor of Literature, managed to fend off nasty memories of his father and to turn a blind eye to the racist streak of his bigoted mother. But some unexpected encounter brings back unsavoury truths he can no longer ignore. Losing ground, he slowly sinks into a universe of anger, self-loathing, bitterness and confusion, taking his wife Fanta with him to the depths of despair. But as was the case in Norah's story, relief comes when he stops feeling party to his parents' nastiness and crimes. This personal journey to hell and back destroys him socially and academicaly, but mentally, he becomes reconciled with himself, and a new life opens before him, with Fanta and his son Djibril.
Khady, the main character of the third story which is arguably the more poignant also addresses the plight of children belittled, unloved and abandoned by their family. Khady is in her twenties, a childless widow scorned by her in-laws with whom she has taken refuge after the death of her husband. The abuse and abandonment she has suffered in her childhood have shaped her relationship with others and, like Norah who attempts to stay in control by ordering the world around her and Rudi whose sub-conscious represses thoughts that are too ghastly to contemplate, Khady has taken charge of herself by way of retreating to an inner-sphere inaccessible to others. There, she knew "that she, Khady Demba was, strictly speaking, irreplaceable, [...] even though no being on earth needed her, or wanted her around" (p.223). This capacity to withdraw into a world of her own that kept her alive in her youth, continues to do so throughout her harrowing flight towards nowhere across the Sahara. Like umpteen similar stories, hers ends tragically. Yet, like Norah and Rudi, Khady eventually gets free from the dark imprints of a destructive Other, although in the most heart-rending fashion.
Marie NDiaye's style is dense and the slow progression of the narration invites readers to pause and reflect; to read between the lines and to let one's mind wander. For example, upon discovering that Khady is the unlikely cousin of Fanta, who is herself the wife of Rudi, who worked next to a vineyard bought by an Australian friend, it takes only a few seconds for the antipodean reader to get the feeling that, yes, Khady is in fact much closer than one thought she was; that the compelling concept of the six degrees of separation in a social network devised by Frigyes Karinthy almost a century ago, is still of indubitable actuality . The flux of characters moving back and forth between France and Senegal, although by very different means and for different reasons, further increases the feeling that we live indeed in an increasingly smaller world where the tyranny of distance has been replaced by the dread of proximity, a new and all-consuming phobia for many.
Knowing that Marie NDiaye always ties loose-ends in her narratives, many other details are teasing readers' imagination. Why, for example, did the author decide to include two different characters who bought a tourist resort located in the very same small town of Dara Salam, in two of her stories? Does this remodelling of the same character tell us that both stories explore the same issues from a different perspective? Or, as both men lose it all in the end, is it a way to stress that, not only it is morally wrong to put oneself ahead of others, but also counter-productive to favour money ahead of compassion, children's obedience ahead of their happiness, the welfare of boys ahead of that of girls? Perhaps. The merit of fiction is to allow readers to fill-in the narrative indetermination without knowing for sure what the author had in mind, and to impart the wisdom of their idiosyncratic views of the world to her text with little risk of being contradicted.
In the same vein, Rudi's wife Fanta who plays a pivotal role in the second story is also briefly mentioned in the third, in passing. In the context of the narration, her presence is far from essential, except that it allows the author to de-mystify the widespread misinformation about life in France that is fed to unsuspecting Senegalese: after reading Fanta's ordeal in thrall to her belligerent husband, in part two, the stereotyped and misguided perception of her life in Europe held by her distant family in Senegal, in part three, is all the more striking. Brief as it is, Fanta's mention in the third story also powerfully emphasises the villainy of Khady's in-laws who provide her with a one-way ticket to hell the matriarch telling her that she should not come back while claiming they are offering her a golden opportunity to make good in France, like a cousin.
In the age of SMS's conciseness, some may balk at this dense and multi-layered narratives. As one readers puts it: "As a result ... the inner monologue of the main character stumbles along in single steps, as if each moment, each sentence, has to contain an insight, catharsis, or expressive image that needs to be savoured, like an epigram, before the reader continues" . But it is exactly what aficionados of French literature at its best will love: the long sentences, the rich vocabulary, the matter-of-course use of the subjunctive and the slow pace of the narration that allows readers to pause and reflect. The author's social concerns and her meditation on the world are enlightening, if only because, in the face of the worst possible crimes, she is less interested in the malefactors' condemnation than the victims' empowerment: thus a resolutely positive streak of personal victories over the demoniac forces that destroy human souls and spirit.
As the narration unfolds, readers mingle with a wide array of characters, young and old, black and white, men and women; and while some of the main characters we meet are indeed strong women, the novel transcends the personalities of its characters to explore the meaning of life, human frailty and resilience, the power of the mind over matter, and the universality of human experience that transcends gender, race, time and geography. As Sébastien Lévrier wrote in a review of the novel published a few years ago, "Three strong women not only leads us to Franco-African relations, but also much further afield, into the realm of family disruption, inter-personal relationships and humanity that is always in thrall to the most atrocious ordeals. Three powerful women is the accomplishment of an illustrious career, of which the Prix Goncourt acknowledges the quality. A novel dense and strong that makes an impression". This captures well both Marie NDiaye's take on the world and her sophisticated writing style that contributes significantly to the reading pleasure of this inspirational novel. Recommended reading.
1. Frigyes Karinthy. "Chain-Links" (1929). Translated from Hungarian by Adam Makkai [https://djjr-courses.wdfiles.com/local--files/soc180:karinthy-chain-links/Karinthy-Chain-Links_1929.pdf]. Sighted 25 January 2014.
2. Jim Elkin's review "Goodreads". 10 November 2012. [https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13155297-three-strong-women]. Sighted 16 May 2014.
3. Sébastien Lévrier. "Le Globe lecteur". 24 janvier 2010. [https://www.leglobelecteur.fr/index.php?post/2010/01/24/Marie-Ndiaye-Trois-femmes-puissantes]. Sighted 25 January 2014.
See also: "Rencontre avec Marie Ndiaye qui a eu lieu à la librairie Dialogues, à Brest, le 15 octobre 2009 à l'occasion de la parution de son roman Trois femmes puissantes (Gallimard), Prix Goncourt 2009". [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8h68gcF_aXk]. Sighted 25 January 2014.
This review is based on the French original of the novel, but quotes and page numbers are from the English translation by John Fletcher (London: Maclehose Press, 2013).
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities