In Marie NDiaye’s novels, people often change from one thing into another. It’s sort of her thing: in the novel for which she won the Prix Goncourt in 2009, for example, Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women), a series of women turn into birds, in an elaborate (and compelling) metaphor for migration and immigration; a witch turns a man into a snail in her early novel, La Sorcière, and the title of La Femme changée en bûche literally translates as The Lady Changes into a Log (which is also what happens).
There are many such examples; a woman briefly changes into a skeleton, or a man’s brother’s seems to change race, or any of a multitude of smaller, more banal—and therefore, all the more unsettling—transformations. One kind of person becomes another kind of person; one thing becomes another thing. Or so it seems.
This sort of thing happens in enough of her work, in fact, that it loses its shock value, starts to seem routine. Kafka wrote one famous story about a man who wakes up from a night of uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a cockroach; ever since, the word “Kafkaesque” inevitably settles on any writer whose work contains an impossible, unexplained transformation, especially if presented with deadpan absurdity. But there is a clear before and an after to that story: The Metamorphosis was about what it would be like to suddenly find yourself in a surreal, impossible, waking nightmare; in the magical realism of the story, Gregor Samsa turns into an insect, but he wasn’t one before. He was a person; now he is a thing.
In NDiaye’s work, something different is happening, something shockingly un-shocking, but all the more unsettling for it. What if you were already a thing? What if you always have been?
In her newest, just-translated novel, for example—Ladivine—a woman returns from her death as a dog; when her daughter, in turn, returns as a dog, the implication is that she, too, has died. But the point is not what has actually happened; this alien form of un-death might be nothing more than a new form of the alienated lives they were already living.
If one way to describe Ladivine would be that women transform into dogs, another would how violence against women reverberates across generations: the father that a daughter never knew, the husband who abandons her, the daughter that abandons her, and, finally, the lover who hacks her to pieces in her apartment. Over four generations of mothers and daughters, estrangement and alienation is passed down like an inheritable medical condition.
“I have great difficulty with abstraction,” NDiaye once told an interviewer. “My only way to see the abstract things is to embody them.” But when the interviewer observed that, “Your world is filled with ghosts, witches, genies,” she mildly demurred, clarifying, “My subjects are not major issues, but ordinary stories, banal.”
Her metamorphoses are not shocking transformations, and not magical realism; they are the sort of thing that happens, when daily life makes you into a thing.
If critics are tempted to use a phrase like “magical realism” to describe NDiaye’s dreamlike literary world, one reason is that she often writes about Africa, the Caribbean, and a mythologized sense of the tropical South; another reason is that NDiaye is black, and her preoccupation with the violence of transformation reflects a life of being made to feel alien in her native France, an education in what it feels like to be made into an object, an alien, and a thing.
And yet, NDiaye has always been clear that her connections to her Senegalese father—and to the African continent itself—are tenuous and elusive; “The only thing that changes when you have an African origin is that you are black, it’s visible:”
But that’s all. I was raised by my mother alone, with my brother, in France. Not by my father, who I never lived with, and I did not go to see Africa until the age of 22. I was raised in a 100% French universe. In my life, the African origin does not really make sense—if we know, it’s because of my name and the color of my skin.
From Alex Haley’s Roots to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, a great many “back to Africa” novels hinge on a moment of recognition, the instant when diasporic disconnect falls away and the traumas of dislocation are—however briefly or imperfectly—transcended. When Haley found the name of his ancestor in the mouth of a griot in Gambia, and the story of how he was enslaved—or when the bulimic Sadie finds peace with her body, dancing, on a beach in Ghana—the aesthetic payoff is this moment of cathartic connection. If one can never totally transcend the violence of the past and the traumas of history, one can sometimes feel what it might be like if one could, if it were otherwise.
In the preface to her 1991 novel, En famille, NDiaye asked, “From what country am I? Aren’t all countries for me a foreign country?” If this is NDiaye’s “back to Africa” novel, then she finds Africa, too, to be unknown. Certainly Ladivine allows for no catharsis: when Ladivine goes with her family to an unnamed country in Africa, she is recognized—over and over again, she is mistaken for someone else, someone who attended a wedding and wore her clothes and did a variety of things of which she has no memory—but she has no memory of any of it, herself. She can only pretend that she does, playing along with the script that is written for her. But her “return” to Africa is never a moment of self-discovery, only a new kind of estrangement, even transformation. And what she becomes, ultimately, is not something she recognizes, much less understands. She merely experiences.
The same is true for the reader, for whom moments of clarity are few and far between. There is a plot, and on finishing the novel, the reader can connect at least some of the dots, if only by the narrative logic of repetition.
At the heart of the novel, for example, is a crime too horrible to even be criminal, the daughter who denies her mother: The mother is black—presumably an African immigrant, though this is never quite spelled out—but the daughter, it seems, is not. And so, Malinka rejects her heritage other as soon as she is old enough to do so: calling her “the servant,” she abandons her immigrant, house-cleaning mother, re-naming herself “Clarisse,” and losing herself in white French society, only to be seen or known as “Malinka” when she returns to her mother, once a month, with money. She marries, has a child, and she struggles to become something different than her mother, to be anything but a servant.
Part of Malinka’s shame is her mother’s race, of course, but it runs deeper than mere skin color; rather, skin color becomes the canvas onto which violent subjugation is projected: Malinka fears that she, too, might be found to be a servant.
As Clarisse, then, her mother’s servility is not just about race or occupation; in part, her mother is “the servant” because she waits for the return of Malinka’s father, patiently living in the delusion that he will come back and give her a family to take care of, and a house to clean. She is the servant because she gives of herself so totally, so pathetically, so abjectly, and because her generosity is also, always, about her own need to be accepted and wanted. Her servitude is the totality of her disconnection from family, from community, from friends: because she has only her daughter—and because her daughter has only her—Malinka comes to hate and despise her mother, the servant, and abandons her.
This is the primal break that tears her family together: though Clarisse reluctantly (and secretly) visits her mother, once a month, she keeps her own life hidden from both sides. Her mother must never know her husband, her child, or even her home; they, in turn, can never know, must never know, that her mother is a servant.
Until Clarisse is murdered, they never do. Until Clarisse is abandoned in turn by her husband and daughter—who regard her, with contempt, as a sad, servile presence in their own more interesting lives—no one suspects the double existence which has left her in the worst of both worlds, a daughter to a mother she has rejected and a mother to a daughter who rejects her, in turn.
The bitterly ironic tragedy of Malinka/Clarisse is that she becomes everything she thought she ran from, precisely by running from it: in her need to please her new family, her own abject servility makes her repulsive to them, in turn; in her flight from her mother’s blackness, she becomes an impossible mother to her own dark-skinned daughter. She becomes the servant, and her daughter flees her, in turn.
When moments of recognition come, they are fleeting, impossible to pin down, easy to doubt. A daughter might feel her dead mother in the “austere, steady tenderness” with which a strange dog on the street stares, seeming to wait and watch for her. But the reader might decide that these are simply the forms that grief takes in a disordered mind.
The ghost of a dead parent might appear in the most unlikely and banal places—a face on the street, or a stray noise in a busy room—and the dog itself might just be a dog. It may not even be the same dog; maybe a series of dogs seems like the same dog precisely because they’re all completely unremarkable, otherwise normal. If the only strange thing about a dog that seems to stare back at you, for no reason, perhaps the ghostly presence of a dead mother and daughter inside its skin, watching and watching over you, is all in your mind.
This is also the point. In a previous novella, Self-Portrait in Green, NDiaye brings together a series of brief encounters with what the narrator calls “women in green.” Each green woman reflects some aspect of her life, her pain, or her closed-off desires; as the river of her life has surpassed its banks in some unexplained way, this surplus is projected onto otherwise unremarkable women, marked only by their association with that color.
But it’s only in the aggregate that they even become recognizable as such; put differently, it’s only in recognizing them as “green women” that they become a shared identity. Only in the plural does something as unremarkable as a woman wearing green—or having green eyes, or simply being named a “green woman”—seem like a reflection of the protagonist’s dreams and discontents. Indeed, in one case, it is only when she gives another woman a green scarf that this woman is transformed into one of the uncanny doppelgängers that haunt her otherwise banal existence.
If Gregor Samsa really did turn into an insect, perhaps what’s most discomfiting about NDiaye’s transformations is their basic and essential elusiveness, by the fact that they can be so easily denied, repressed, or attributed to hysteria.
You are crazy, one could say; it’s just a dog, just a woman with green eyes. You are imagining things.
And it reveals something gendered in magical realism’s blasé attitude towards the marvelous, as when a character wakes up to find himself a cockroach and treats it like the most normal and unsurprising thing in the world. To be transformed into a thing is simply a reality; we must simply accept the transformation as if nothing impossible has happened. What would be the point of denying reality? It is what it is: Gregor Samsa is now a cockroach, and so he sets out to deal with it.
For NDiaye, there is no reality, and maybe there never was, a far more destabilizing prospect. If we think about NDiaye’s work by reference to Kafka, or use terms like “magical realism”—with the associated pantheon of (mostly) male writers that are implied—we run the risk of domesticating what is most strange and wild in her writing, integrating the surreal into the real as if it always belonged there.
But maybe it doesn’t.
And what really happens in a Marie NDiaye novel is impossible ever to say, which is exactly the point: a black woman’s reality—or the reality of anyone who is rendered alien by the everyday world—is easily denied and impossible to prove, precisely because it will never quite fit the objective narrative of majority society. There is nothing real about a woman’s uncanny—green women, after all, don’t really exist—and the truth of diaspora is that history never goes away.