I was just complaining the other day about undeserved praises and prizes. And now, I have to bow and recognize how much this book deserved, in my opinion, the Prix Goncourt it got in 2009, possibly the most prestigious French literary prize.
I had never before tried anything by Marie N’Diaye, because her name is so often cited in literary reviews (also linked to a scandalous accusation that another French female writer, Marie Darrieussecq, had plagiarized her) that I feared it was too much hyped up.
But now that I listen to audiobooks during my commute, I noticed that most of them are books with some previous publishing success, so that I find myself now more and more often in territories that I previously shunned (which is exactly the point of this year’s reading, right?).
For once, the reader’s voice counted quite a lot in my choice: this audiobook was read by Dominique Blanc, a theater (and movie) actor that I love and respect. And after 5 minutes into the text, I understood how right this choice of reader was: Marie N’Diaye’s writing is quite special, and it absolutely requires someone trained in classical dramas to make every word sound right and not get the listener all muddled and lost.
N’Diaye’s writing is hypnotic and yet precise. Long sentences with repetitions, interwoven with sub-clauses, all strongly built on an exquisite but not easy use of French syntax. I bet it’s a nightmare for foreigners, but as a French reader I can’t help but think of Proust. Challenging it is, not only in style but also in subject.
While it seems appropriate that a writer like Proust would weave a nostalgic tale out of these long sentences, it’s all the more surprising that N’Diaye manages to use this very special style to tell contemporary stories, that contain elements of psychology and tragedy often running from one generation to the next (in the stream of consciousness mode, jumping from present to past with ease), but also very prosaic and realistic stuff like a lousy kitchen salesman, a bout of hemorrhoids or the squalidness of a prostitution den in the desert.
Trois femmes puissantes is a suit of 3 novellas, with some loosely interconnected characters. While I immediately warmed to the story of Norah, a grownup daughter who returns to Africa to find his selfish and abusive father a pathetic old slob, and to the story of Khadi Demba, the cast out widow who tries to make it to Europe, the middle story was more difficult to tackle. Rudy Descas is both a loser and an occasionally violent paranoiac. I had to listen to the whole story once again (all 5-6 hours of it!), to come to terms to his particular tragedy and redemption.
Trois femmes puissantes, translated as Three Strong Women, is an intriguing title, because these three women don’t especially seem powerful at first glance. They were or are tricked, abused, abandoned by their father, spouse or relatives. It would be easy to see them as victims and to pity them. But N’Diaye precisely demands us to see beyond the cliché and to find their humanity and dignity. They suffer and still stand. Despite their hardships they remain pure in spirit.
This book is a bewitching tour de force, and it is a matter of course that it got the Goncourt prize.