“She had known from the start, before she could even speak or understand, that Malinka and her mother meant nothing to anyone, that this was how it was and there were no grounds for complaint, that they were lowly flowers, their existence unjustified, lowly flowers.”
Whatever reality is, it isn’t what it seems. Ndiaye goes through the looking-glass into a world of barren parent-child relationships, rootless limboland, and racial being and nothingness in this bewitching and unsettling novel. The eerily poetic prose is limpid yet has a blurred effect like reading with the wrong pair of glasses. Translator Jordan Stump has done a great job.
Three women − mother, daughter and granddaughter − form a cursed constellation; a yawning void between them. The banality of everyday life, and a desire for normality, are underpinned by a surreal, destabilising atmosphere.
Ladivine Sylla, “la servante” or “la négresse”, ekes out a drab existence in a suburb of Bordeaux. The immense love she feels for her daughter, Malinka, known as Clarisse − whom she calls “ma princesse” − is her one source of joy, giving purpose to her life. Yet she is visited just once a month by this adored, pale-skinned, lithe, only child of hers, who always brings with her an envelope of cash for groceries. “Your father’s got to be somewhere. We’ll run into him someday,” says Ladivine. But they never do.
Clarisse is living a lie. Beneath a polished bourgeois mask, and a seemingly idyllic marriage to Richard Rivière, lies a deep well of loneliness. She is snared in the coils of shame and a sense of unworthiness for the way she has whitewashed her mother and any residual blackness out of her life. The affable Rivière is blithely unaware of his wife’s mixed racial heritage. “My parents are dead,” she once said, and that was that.
“She wanted only to be an irrefutable Clarisse, with her straightened hair, her pale eyes, her breathy voice rising at the end of each sentence.” A relentlessly good and generous woman, her self-effacement creates an invisible wall of ice around her so that her husband and daughter “could not reach the heart of her emotions.” She is a cipher.
The daughter, Ladivine, is named after her invisible, denied grandmother. While her mother goes to work as a waitress in a pizzeria overseeing a staff of four, and her father builds up a successful car dealership, she goes to school. Then, as she blossoms into an attractive young woman, she prostitutes herself to local men.
When Clarisse is abandoned by her husband, it is her turn to endure solitude, a fog inside her, “a lonely queen in her oversized house.” That is, until she meets Freddy Moliger, who has a “mottled, pockmarked face, his coarse yellow hair like a patch of grass burned by pesticide”. His weakness is attractive to her, and opens her up to her authentic self. A vulnerable, bitter, lost man, he is an alcoholic who had been brutalised as a child. He turns out to be a murderer − a monster.
Ladivine, her husband, Marko, and their two children, live in Berlin. They change their routine of spending the family summer holiday with the in-laws, opting instead for a “tour of the magical Maghreb – bargain casbahs, Berber feasts, colourful folklore.” Everything goes wrong. The children squirm and whine about swimming in the hotel pool which is surrounded by a flabby, ageing clientele. An encounter with a ragamuffin who picks them up at a museum turns dark. Ladivine is comforted by a brown dog shadowing her – a genuine bond forms between them. Her distant father had never met his son-in-law or grandchildren, yet sends the family to visit nouveaux riches car dealer friends of his. Ladivine finds their gaudy heartlessness repugnant, and flees into the forest . . .
Where is home? Identity and a sense of belonging generally go together, through family ties or profound emotional connections. But none of these women are really at home anywhere. They are outsiders, regardless of how things might appear. Work could create bonds and a sense of belonging, but it is in fact an illusion; a form of avoidance. The women are isolated each in their own way, and unable to ask for, or find, what really matters. They have no voice.
There is a rich tradition of Francophone African writing dating back to the Négritude poets Senghor, Birago Diop, Alioune Diop, Aime Césaire . . . anticolonial writers Mongo Beti and Boubacar Boris Diop . . . West Indian intellectuals Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphael Confiant and Edouard Glissant . . . and more recently, the likes of Maryse Condé, Calixthe Beyala . . . but too few are known, or published in the UK. Alain Mabanckou, published by Serpent’s Tail, has found success with English readers; as has Djibouti-born magical Abdourahman Waberi who now lives and teaches in the US.
NDiaye’s Senegalese father left France when she was a small child. She and her elder brother, the sociologist Pap NDiaye, were brought up by their teacher-mother in the Parisian banlieue. Her first novel was released when she was 17 by avant-garde publishing house, Les Éditions de Minuit. She won the Prix Fémina for Rosie Carpe in 2001, and the Prix Goncourt for Three Strong Women (Trois femmes puissantes) in 2009. In 2003, her play Papa doit manger entered the repertory of the Comédie-Française. Yet only one novel has been published in the UK until now (Angela Royal Publishing brought out Among Family, En famille, translated by Heather Doyal, in 1997). The picture is rosier in the US where NDiaye’s prizewinning novels have been picked up. Heinemann’s African Writers Series has yet to be replaced since its closure in 2000.
UK publishing houses are often reticent about publishing Francophone African writers in translation, possibly because how to market them is not immediately clear. Once upon a time, I talked up NDiaye’s La Sorcière to a couple of publishers, along with Les Trafiqueurs and Paradis B. (also chez Gallimard) by the deliciously delirious Lucio Mad who packs a punch, but to no avail. Thank goodness for Maclehose Press! Their publication of Ladivine is a welcome move. There is hope on the horizon . . .
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Ladivine by Marie NDiaye translated from the French by Jordan Stump | Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus | March 2016 £14.99 336pp PB | ISBN: 978-0857053350 | e-book ASIN: B015CWAEHY | Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016