Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
Ladivine”:http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/234541/ladivine-by-marie-ndiaye/ by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 85%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 17%
NDiaye’s books are illuminating while retaining so much mystery, or, rather, they are illuminating because they retain so much mystery. For example, the lines between characters often feel blurry to the point I sometimes don’t quite know who’s on the page anymore, and yet this confusion is the very moment I see light. NDiaye plays with this mixture of illumination and mystery particularly well in the seemingly straight-forward Ladivine, a worthy inclusion to this years Best Translated Book Award longlist, and, for my money, a worthy winner.
As the book begins, we meet a woman named Clarisse Rivière, but from the first sentence her identity is in flux:
She was Malinka again the moment she got on the train, and she found it neither a pleasure nor a burden, having long since stopped noticing.
When I first read this, I smiled and settled back in my chair, excited to again be in such capable hands. The next paragraph keeps the mystery alive, as we learn this is a woman who has somehow split her identity:
But it happened, she could tell, for no more could she answer without a second thought to “Clarisse” when, rarely, someone she knew took that same train and called to or greeted her as “Clarisse,” only to see her stare back in puzzled surprise, a hesitant smile on her lips, creating a mutual discomfort that the slightly flustered Clarisse never thought to dispel by simply echoing that “Hello,” that “How are you,” as offhandedly as she could.
Clarisse is on the train to Bordeaux, to visit her mother, as she does once every month, and we soon find out that her mother knows her as Malinka. Naturally; it was her mother who named her Malinka, and her mother has no idea of any other name. Clarisse has, but for these monthly ventures to a forsaken existence, completely repudiated her past and, with it, her mother. When she leaves Bordeaux, she sheds the skin of Malinka and finds no difficulty answering to Clarisse.
The book continues for some time to tell us about Clarisse by telling us about the people in her life: her mother, a black seamstress with no money, whom Clarisse refers to (and, thus, keeps distant) as “the servant”; her husband, who eventually leaves her, in part because Clarisse “couldn’t hold back the numbness gradually overtaking her household, the cold torpor exuded in spite of her by her artificial, oblique self”; and her daughter, whom she has named Ladivine, Ladivine being the name of her repudiated mother in Bordeaux and therefore a conscious tie to that past. Clarisse’s mother Ladivine knows nothing about her granddaughter Ladivine, though she suspects. After all, because visits from her daughter are so scarce she has watched her daughter with that much more attention. And she can fill in the blanks: those months when Malinka did not visit were because she was pregnant. Her mother loves her enough, perhaps even sympathizes with her motives to shun her, that she doesn’t rock the boat by asking questions. Which is not to suggest that NDiaye wants us to feel any of the same sympathy.
Throughout this section—it’s just the first—NDiaye manages a beautiful ambivalence, just as Clarisse manages her tragic ambivalence. Clarisse repudiates her past but she visits her mother every month, thereby retaining this past. We come to understand that she loves her mother; she’s just ashamed of “the servant.” Clarisse’s hope to become the person she envisions in her mind is felt on each page, though we also feel the melancholy of a half soul. Such nuance imbues the books with its mysterious power, though the story, as it explores the gulfs between people, gulfs they create while apparently seeking something, is fascinating as well.
This first section comes to a conclusion with surprising violence, and NDiaye destabilizes the entire narrative as our attention is directed primarily at Clarisse’s daughter Ladivine who begins to sense, without fully understanding, her mother’s hidden half. With Ladivine, we descend into a horrific labyrinth.
Making the labyrinth a psychological nightmare are all of the doubling and transformations throughout: obviously we have the two women named Ladivine, their disconnection/connection, and what all of that says about Clarisse, but we also have Clarisse’s husband Richard who, after he has abandoned her, marries another woman named Clarisse. The novel’s strangest bits suggest a transformation in to a protective dog. The transgression of these boundaries, though, are based in psychological realism, leading to the novel’s fascinating conclusion.
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