Monthly Archives: February 2021

Editorial and extract: SELF-PORTRAIT IN GREEN by Marie NDiaye


I’m very excited to bring you a piece by Sanya Semakula, Assistant Editor at Influx Press, about bringing Marie NDiaye’s work to the UK with the publication of Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), released TODAY by Influx Press. Sanya writes passionately and insightfully about her discovery of NDiaye and the importance of this publication, and her piece is followed by an exclusive extract from Self-Portrait in Green.

Sanya Semakula is Assistant Editor at Influx Press. She is a short story writer and editor based in East London, her work can be found online at LossLit or in print anthology Flamingo Land and Other Stories.

My first introduction to Marie NDiaye was All My friends (translated by Jordan Stump). Surprised I’d never read Marie, I read up about her (she published her first novel at 17, is a winner of the Prix Goncourt, was longlisted for the Booker prize and her play Papa Doit Manger is the sole play by a living female writer to be part of the repertoire of the Comédie française).

At the time, we were publishing Percival Everett’s I am not Sidney Poitier as a way of introducing him to a UK audience and I felt Marie was similar in that she had an impressive oeuvre but was relatively lesser known in the UK. I then came to Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), read it in one sitting and was sold.

In this subversion of the memoir, Marie plays with notions of identity, memory, and paranoia. Set in La Roele, Paris, Marseille, and Ouagadougou, the narrator obsesses over the Garonne and the mysterious women in green she encounters who occupy the binaries between seductive/repulsive  real/imagined, dead/alive. Lynchian in its odd, atmospheric, fragmented imagery and scenes, the novella is told through short dairy entries. There isn’t a traditional story arch, as it moves back and forth through genres.

Self-Portrait in Green sits between The Malady of Death (Marguerite Duras), Julia and the Bazooka (Anna Kavan) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neele Hurston) in its lyrical prose, symbolical use of the river and evocation of place and fragmented structure but it is also interlaced with entries which could read as traditional memoir. The Garonne acts as a bridge between the different scenes and snippets of the women, and the novella’s ambiguities (of plot and genre) make it all the more an exciting read and is why I thought it would make a great addition to the Influx Press list.

The narrative voice is underlined with humour which compliments the tonal shifts as the novella moves from the macabre, through absurd horror, to eerie spectres, to family dramas in provincial France and Burkina Faso and always at the centre of the narrative is the fear of flooding and the appearance and reappearance of the mysterious women in green who can be read to mean a number of things.

The novella provokes more questions than it answers, encouraging the reader to focus on something else in re-reading and its fragmentation works as a strength as you never stay long enough with the women to get to the root of their appearance.

***

Extract from Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green, translated from French by Jordan Stump (Influx Press, 2021)

All the young women were in shorts, that dazzling morning. Leaving the town hall, I walked with long strides in my army-style khaki shorts, perfectly pleased to be who was in that place – the main street of a humdrum little town – and at that time, and this contentment was crowned by a vague surprise at the very existence of such a plenitude, the conceivability of such a pleasure. That’s when I run into Cristina, but as soon as I see her I’m not sure it’s her rather than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison. Not that her name escapes me: it’s just that, among those three women, I no longer know which this one is. Deep in my pocket, my fingers squeeze and shred the little lilac leaves. This person who might be Cristina is a young woman, so she’s wearing shorts, elastic and clinging, with a print of green flowers against a green background. My elation dwindles a little. It occurs to me that wariness might be called for. And yet I like the idea that soon I’ll be driving once more past the house of the woman in green, and she’ll be standing there, knowing I’m going to stop. But Cristina’s shorts are something else altogether, because I hadn’t expected them, and because green isn’t the usual colour for women’s shorts, in the first days of spring, is it? Cristina keeps her hands behind her, pressed flat against her powerful hindquarters to display her shorts’ exuberant colour as flagrantly as she can. She stands with her legs commandingly spread, blocking the entire width of the pavement. As luck would have it, she keeps her sunglasses on, and I’ve forgotten what her eyes look like, or Marie-Gabrielle’s, or Alison’s. Her blond hair is pulled into a ponytail so severe that the skin on her temples seems stretched to the splitting point. If this woman really is Cristina, I remember that she’s my friend. Cristina has a stronger claim to that title than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison, who are, as best I can recall, nothing more than cheerful companions, in whom one would never think of confiding, because any admission of weakness, of any tiny private anxiety, would be met with frosty disapproval and nothing more. Have I ever revealed anything at all to Cristina? Certainly not, it’s not in my nature. But her entire person is awash with sympathy, with understanding just waiting to be called on. I then thought, in a surge of abandon, that the woman in green beside her banana tree might have been waiting for just that: for me to unburden my heart to her.

‘Oh, this has never happened to me before,’ says Cristina in her hoarse, muffled voice. ‘There are two things, and they’re both different from each other… The first… you already know… I, you know, I left the kids… for two days, I think… two or three days… with my parents, yes, for a holiday… just a little holiday…at grandma and grandpa’s… and… you know my kids, you know them… are they… how can I put this… are they intolerable… coarse… completely disobedient?’

‘Not at all,’ I say, taken aback.

As I remember, my friend Cristina has no children. In which case, who is this woman?

‘No one could say that… call my kids that,’ she goes on. ‘Oh, they like to run around… they… they’re full of energy… like all children… children today… vigorous, healthy… . Anyway, they’re out at grandma and grandpa’s… at my parents, I mean, and yesterday, Sunday, I go… you understand… I go… get them… pick them up, and I drive up to the house… grandma and grandpa’s house… my parents’ house… and it was… oh, absolutely silent… just… just the insects cheeping… maybe… absolutely silent… and I tell myself… they’re… they’re all taking a nap… I don’t want to bother them… so… I don’t jiggle the bell… the big metal bell on the gate… so I… I climb over the hedge… a hole… a sort of hole, a low spot… in the hedge… and I climb over it, without making a sound… and I come to… the terrace… and there… I hear… my God, I hear… someone crying… a man crying and I… I look… I look through the glass door and I see… I see my father, grandpa… papa, quietly crying… in front of grandma, my mother… she’s standing there, helpless… her arms hanging limp… head down… pitiful, miserable… oh, that’s the first time… my father crying… first time I’ve seen him… anyway… and he’s talking… no, he’s almost shouting… and my God, he says… he says… and he’s talking about my kids, I can tell… his grandchildren… who really aren’t all that… right?… About my kids on holiday with them… he says… to my mother… “I can’t take them anymore, I can’t take them anymore”… and he also… also says… “I’m leaving, I can’t stay here, I can’t stay in this house with them here”… and he’s talking, you understand, about my… about my kids… and I… I left… discreetly… I climbed over the hedge the other way and then… I… I came back… later… and everything was… everything seemed… normal… just two kids on holiday at grandma and grandpa’s… and I knew.. I knew… that wasn’t how it was… wasn’t how it really was at all!’

Two tears rolled out from under Cristina’s (?) tinted lenses. I wasn’t sure what to say. What bond was there between us? And was she not guilty of having such children? Who was she? I really couldn’t think what to say. I was looking down at Cristina’s thick brown sandals. I took the little bits of lilac leaves from my pocket and carefully crumbled them over her feet.

‘The other thing,’ says Cristina, ‘maybe you’ve already heard…’

No, I answer playfully, I never hear anything. And since, for anyone who knows me, that’s an obvious, barefaced lie, I tell myself that if this woman really is my friend Cristina she’ll protest, give me a little swat on the shoulder – but no, she goes on, grim-faced, standing perfectly still.

‘A bunch of us saw it, in our yards, on the riverbank, in… Apparently there were even people who saw it in the schoolyard. The mayor… the mayor knows all about it. He saw it too. Something black, and quick. Oh, there were plenty of people who saw it.’

Cristina’s words are coming faster now. Her voice is sharper than usual. With a little hop she pulls her legs together and keeps them that way, squeezed tight. I ask:

‘What is it? What did it turn out to be?’

‘You haven’t seen anything?’ Cristina asks.

‘But what is it?’

‘You haven’t seen anything?’

All at once she pulls off her sunglasses. And then it’s clear, I don’t know that face. On the opposite pavement a young woman waves in my direction. It’s Cristina, wearing little pink shorts.

‘You haven’t seen anything?’ the first woman says again, and her tone is at once urgent, suspicious, and frightened.

I resolve not to keep this conversation up one moment longer. She vigorously wriggles her right foot, without looking at it or lowering her eyes, to shake off the shredded lilac leaves. Then she shoots me a glance full of unspoken anguish, whirls around, and hurries off, raising little clouds of dust under her sandals.

I’m so rattled I hardly notice Cristina crossing the street in her tiny pink shorts, with her graceful, jaunty gait. She kissed me twice on each cheek and I inhaled her flowery scent. Cristina smelled like a spring flower, a simple white flower. What she then said I‘m not sure I can believe myself. Still, I know I didn’t imagine it. She really did say it, however unlikely it seems. In a whisper, she said to me:

‘A bunch of us saw it, in our yards, on the riverbank, in… Apparently there were even people who saw it in the schoolyard. The mayor… the mayor knows all about it. He saw it too. Something black, and quick. Oh, there were plenty of people who saw it. What could I have answered, if not:

‘But what is it?’

Cristina shrugs, vaguely spreading her arms. Her chin tenses, quivers. Cristina is usually such an impetuous woman that at first I don’t grasp the depth of her distress.

‘No one knows,’ she murmurs.

Cristina is very pretty. Little girls turn and stare when she walks by. I’m proud to have such a charming, vivacious woman as my friend, a woman who can wear a pair of tiny pink shorts with credibility and good humor. I’m grateful to her, because now I recognise her so perfectly. I put one arm around her shoulder to reassure her, I’m not sure about what. Her shoulders sag. She’s completely disarmed. Seeing that, I don’t press her to tell me anything more.

‘The town’s sent some workers to go search the school grounds,’ Cristina continues. I’m on my way there myself. I’m worried.’

Why so worried, I ask myself, since she doesn’t have any children? And consequently, I ask myself: did I recognise her as perfectly as I thought?

Once the schoolyard and the little adjoining woods have been fruitlessly searched, I get back in my car and head for our house, a few kilometres from town. It’s already near noon. Three hours have gone by since I set off for the school, and I never noticed. Could it be that the woman in green shorts, that stranger I took for Cristina, who must herself have confused me with someone she knew, could that woman really have kept me there talking for two full hours? It doesn’t seem likely. Also, I think about that scene she described for me, the weeping father revealing his hatred for his grandchildren, and it seems naggingly close to something I’ve heard or read before. Either someone once told me about it or it comes from a novel that woman and I both happen to have read. And then she acted it out, while I listened – and I wonder: was I acting too? And did she realise I wasn’t? But was she acting herself? There, then, are all the things I don’t know. Now I’m in a hurry to get home so I can look through my books and find the one where she might have found that story. For that matter, I could well be mistaken, and that scene is reminding me of another, almost identical, and in that case fictional, while the first is simply drawn from the false Cristina’s existence. I know I can’t go straight home, and that makes me a little impatient, or maybe apprehensive. It’s noon, and the sun is beating down starkly on the water-willow fields. This hot day has left us all a little downhearted, I think, anticipating the summer that’s still to come, exhausted in advance.

I park in front of the house with the banana tree. The woman in green is gone now. A shiver of relief, almost triumph, quickly mutes my surprise and disappointment. I tell myself: my children had it exactly right, there never was a…

I get out of the car all the same. I push open the gate and start down the walk. I look up towards the second-floor balcony. The sunlight is dazzling. I shade my eyes with one hand, and that’s when I see her, up on the balcony. Then she straddles the railing and throws herself off. I’m very aware of my little smile. Because I’m saying to myself: is all this really real?

A little later I’m sitting in the kitchen of that house I so often passed by, never dreaming I might one day go inside.

 

 

 

 

Review: HAVANA YEAR ZERO by Karla Suárez

Translated from Spanish (Cuba) by Christina MacSweeney (Charco Press, 2021)

I’m always excited to receive a new book from Charco Press, and they kick off 2021 with a Cuban detective story brimming with lost fame, plot twists, basic mathematics and romantic entanglements.

Havana, 1993: Cuba’s Year Zero. It is “the year of interminable power cuts, when bicycles filled the streets and the shops were empty”, and our narrator (who gives herself the pseudonym Julia) describes her life and the narrative intrigue as follows: “I was thirty and had thousands of problems. That’s why I got involved, although in the beginning I didn’t even suspect that for the others things had started much earlier, in April 1989, when the newspaper Granma published an article about an Italian man called Antonio Meucci under the headline ‘The Telephone Was Invented in Cuba’.” Julia is enlisted by her former professor (and former lover) Euclid to help track down an original document that will prove Meucci, and not Alexander Graham Bell, to have been the inventor of the telephone. The catch: everyone who knows about the document has a vested interest in concealing its whereabouts, and each person suspects another of foul play. Thus begins a science- and rum-fuelled bounty hunt, in which friends will turn out to be foes and rivals might just be allies. Julia’s allegiance shifts variously between Euclid, her lover Ángel (whose true connection to Euclid will be revealed later in the narrative), and a garage-dwelling author named Leonardo – but each of these decidedly unreliable men also has a weakness for both Barbara, the overly friendly Italian researcher and Margarita, the spectre who haunts Julia’s happiness “like a hand moving things around beneath the Ouija board”.

Confused? Don’t be. Suárez will guide you through this labyrinth with mathematical precision and a whole lot of heart. The novel is instructive and meticulously researched, yet the sections in which we learn about Meucci’s life, his ambitions and his ignominy, never feel shoe-horned in; rather, his story is woven into Julia’s, as she gets closer to the man each time the elusive document is pulled from her reach. There is also a lot to learn here about Cuba’s “special period” and the daily deprivations that became commonplace, as well as the black hole of global aid (“the friends from overseas, the Soviet Union and almost the whole socialist bloc, had disappeared off the map, leaving us practically alone, floating in mid-ocean, and with the United States just ninety miles away”). But most of all this is the story of a woman fighting to survive, and of the people who elevate and devastate her along the way.

The style is interesting and engaging: Julia combines her scientific obsession with her social observation (“There’s a mathematical rule: your students’ stupidity is directly proportional to your mood; the worse you feel, the denser they become”; “like fractals, we reproduce the worst of ourselves and aren’t even aware of it”) and frequently uses second-person address, including regular direct questions that create intimacy (“without warning, everything had changed. Absolutely everything. Get it?”; “We were living in chaos. Right?”). There were a couple of details that interrupted the narrative flow a little, whether a syntactical slip (“Why was I at there?”) or a section of switching between formal and informal second-person address that I found confusing on first read, but overall MacSweeney’s translation is a patient and humorous rendering of Suárez’s precise yet emotional style. Character descriptions are amusingly succinct (“Leonardo was one of those people who need no encouragement to talk; in fact his words seemed to be permanently stationed just outside the door, waiting for a moment of carelessness to barge in”), and Julia’s comments on her own lifestyle are as wry as her observations of Cuba, men, her students, and human nature more generally (“I make it a rule never to go to bed with two men on the same day. Unless it’s at the same time, but that’s another matter. The thing is that I hadn’t planned for the night to end that way. It’s infuriating.”)

As usual I’ll avoid spoilers, but I must just say this: the ending of Havana Year Zero is GENIUS. It makes the frustration of all the twists and turns entirely worthwhile, and gave me a feeling of immense satisfaction as I turned the final page. This is an interesting and innovative debut novel, combining scientific research and detective fiction with a generous dose of humour and warmth.

Review copy of Havana Year Zero provided by Charco Press

REVIEW: Cécile Coulon, A Beast in Paradise

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions, 2021)

A Beast in Paradise is the English-language debut of Cécile Coulon, and deals with the tragedy and determination of a farming family in rural France. The opening is a scene of bucolic tranquillity: “On either side of the narrow road snaking through rich green field, the green of storms and of gras, flowers – enormous, pale-hued, fragile-stemmed flowers – bloom all year round. They run alongside this ribbon of asphalt until it joins up with a path marked by a wooden stake, capped by a sign reading:

YOU HAVE REACHED PARADISE”

We are invited into Paradise, a sprawling farm whose topography is mapped out for us in the first two pages, until we encounter an elderly lady with a long memory standing in the empty pigpen. The idyll is broken in the final line of this first chapter, in a style that will come to be recognisable as one of the contrasts that characterise Coulon’s storytelling: “one beast comes here each morning, to mourn.
Blanche.”

Then a flashback begins, first to a key episode in Blanche’s adolescence and then to her childhood. Presiding over Paradise is Blanche’s grandmother Émilienne, whose dedication to the farm and its occupants – both human and animal – holds the family together and gives them a purpose: in Paradise, “everything began and ended with her.” When her daughter and son-in-law are killed in a car accident on the perilous hairpin bend leading to the farm, Émilienne is left to raise their infant children Blanche and Gabriel. Her own devastation is rarely mentioned: Émilienne is a woman who raises herself up and marches on.

In addition to her grandchildren, Émilienne takes in a young man named Louis who starts to work on the farm after the death of Blanche’s parents. Louis is systematically beaten by his father and one evening flees to Paradise in search of a refuge that he assumed would be only temporary, but which Émilienne calmly makes permanent. Louis becomes her trusted farmhand, as devoted to Paradise as Émilienne is. Paradise is a haven, but also a succubus, a place that lives inside its inhabitants as much as they dwell within it: Émilienne is part of the herd; Louis’ greatest connection to Blanche is their shared attachment to Paradise, “consuming, voracious, untameable”; even Gabriel, the only one who eventually summons up the strength to leave, is cursed with a black tree that had “taken root inside him in early childhood, a tree watered with fury by his parents’ deaths.”

Headstrong Blanche and sickly Gabriel are marked out as different because of their family tragedy, and have few friends at school. Though Gabriel has an interesting story arc in his own right, the focus is on Blanche: this is a girl who circumstances have “turned into a warrior at five years old.” As the children stumble into adolescence, Blanche’s proximity awakens feelings in Louis that she recognises but can never reciprocate – she only has eyes for Alexandre, the golden boy of the class. This is the love story that will raise Blanche up and then knock her down, and which forms the majority of the novel’s intrigue. Alexandre is wholly undeserving of Blanche, an unremarkable man with “big ideas, big dreams and little words” who has erected around himself a hubris of brilliance that fools everyone but Louis. Yet Louis, whose feelings for Blanche are widely known, is assumed to be simply jealous of Alexandre, and all his warnings go unheeded.

The great strength of the narrative is the way in which it builds up the tension towards the dénouement: in reality, years pass with very little happening, yet there is something compulsive about the awareness that something dramatic is looming. The balance between bucolic idyll and emotional and physical ferocity is also a key feature, and one that is particularly well rendered in Kover’s translation. Deep emotions burst out of careful restraint, and in these moments the expression is exquisite (“Her body remained upright through pure reflex, but inside, her whole soul, the soul made up of all the ages she had been, all the experiences she had had, caved in”). Indeed, the entire novel is sensitively translated, particularly the shifts in tone but also the smaller details of vocabulary: the path to Paradise is “pocked with brown puddles”, tiny insects go “skittering” up Blanche’s arms, one character “soils another with shame.”

The feature I most enjoyed about A Beast in Paradise, however, was the question over who the beast is – and what we understand by “beast”. The word appears in various contexts, and the perspectives on monstrosity are extremely clever: I got entirely the wrong idea about who was going to do what to whom, and so as the events developed I found myself spellbound by a story I hadn’t anticipated at all. Most of all, each time I put this book down I really looked forward to getting back to it. A Beast in Paradise is one of those books that reminds you that you don’t have to “relate” to characters – they can be completely different from you, and still draw you in. In particular, the build-up to the final revelation is outstanding, and after I’d finished reading I was left thinking about it for days. This is a story of ordinary lives and extraordinary pain, and a superb English-language debut.

Review: THE ART OF LOSING, Alice Zeniter

Translated from French by Frank Wynne (Picador Books, 2021)

Alice Zeniter’s multi-generational narrative The Art of Losing deals with the troubled legacy of the Algerian War of Independence, focusing on one family’s difficulties in coming to terms with the unnamed experience and unresolved traumas that are handed down through generations. Multiple historians have noted that this is an impossible-to-summarise period, and so there is a certain amount of necessary generalisation in the interests of maintaining momentum in plot and narration; this is, however, deftly executed, such as in this section from the opening pages: “The plural history of Algeria does not have the heft of the Official History, the one that unites. And so, French writers pen books that absorb Algeria and its histories, transforming them into a few brief pages in their histories … a history in which progress is made flesh, takes shape and shines forth.”

The Art of Losing sweeps through colonised rural Algeria, French immigrant camps, and contemporary Paris, its protagonists dislocated from every “home” they try to inhabit. The narrative opens in the present day: Naïma works in a Parisian art gallery, and carries an unspoken family legacy that gnaws away at her, and which she longs to understand. To do this, she has to go back to her origins, and this is where the flashback that makes up most of the novel begins. Naïma’s grandfather, Ali, owns an olive grove in Algeria. He fought for France in the Second World War, frequents a veteran’s club, and has a successful life until the arrival of FLN (National Liberation Front) in the village turns their lives upside down. Uncertain about the promises of the FLN, Ali prefers to observe from the sidelines, but his inaction rapidly marks him out as an enemy, until he is left with no choice but to protect himself by becoming one.

Under threat in Algeria for real or perceived collaborations with the colonisers, Ali must escape with his family on a boat to France, where he is promised he will be looked after. Once there, “France” amounts to a resettlement camp, cold and inhuman, offering no possibility of integration into the country that is supposed to be their home, because “for these people to forget an entire country, they would have had to be offered a new one. But the doors of France were not thrown open to them, only the gates of a camp.” Declared an enemy of the homeland they will never see again, Ali and his family are emotionally anchored to Algeria and administratively adrift in France: even when they leave the resettlement camp and have a home of their own, their world is restricted to the apartment, the factory where Ali works, and the supermarket. France is for them a France of the periphery, a France of utility, a “trap in which he [Ali] has lost himself”.

In the next generation, the focus is on Ali’s son Hamid, forced to grow up too soon, and to help his parents navigate life in France. Language creates a gulf between the generations, Hamid rejecting his native Arabic as he associates it with the family’s inability to integrate. As Hamid grows further away from his parents, so the gulf between his past and present increases, until his memories become “twisted shards … refashioned by years of silence.” Aware that neither the Algeria of his childhood nor the France of settlement camps and “relocations” represent any kind of promised land, Hamid carves out his own path and rejects his heritage, not passing on his language to his children. This leaves his daughter Naïma unable to communicate with her grandmother; reluctantly, she decides to rebuild the stories of her family’s past, fearing that the absence might turn out to be more comfortable than what she might uncover. Naïma embarks on a return to her origins that she hopes will reassemble the shards of memory and legacy passed down to her, and fill the silences that she has inherited: “between these slivers – like caulk, like plaster oozing between the cracks … there is Naïma’s research, begun sixty years after they have left Algeria.”

As you can probably tell from the extracts I’ve included here, Frank Wynne’s translation is excellent: there is a lot of drama in this novel, and it could easily have turned to melodrama with overly literal translation. Wynne’s attention to understatement is admirable (“Ali dreams of all the things his son might be. Suddenly, a white-hot blast filled with shards of glass sends him sprawling”); the dialogues flow smoothly and believably, and the descriptions are lavish but never over-the-top. There are comic backhanders (“This union brings him two daughters – a terrible disappointment, the family mutters by the bedside of the mother, who promptly dies of shame”) and many examples of impeccable lexical choices (“It is like the shriek of nails on a blackboard”, “They use words that wound and seethe”, “war cleaves [the family] like a ploughshare splitting a mound of earth, scattering it in little divots of farewell”).

There’s only one thing I didn’t much like in The Art of Losing: the title. It comes, of course, from the poem by Elizabeth Bishop; it certainly is appropriate to the subject matter, but the moment when the poem itself makes its appearance felt a little contrived. Overall, though, The Art of Losing represents an important contribution to the legacy of the Algerian war, a meditation on a cultural divide that persists today, and an embodiment of the claim within its own pages that fiction and research are equally necessary to shed light on this, because “they are all that remains to fill the silences handed on with the vignettes from one generation to the next.”

Review copy of The Art of Losing provided by Picador Books