The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump

Read on its own, outside the context of a body of work that includes 13 novels, 4 plays, 3 children’s books, 1 screenplay and assorted essays, The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye is a deceptively straight-forward tale about the life of a gifted French female chef told by her lovelorn protégé. For readers familiar, passionate even, about NDiaye, it seems an outlier. Traditional in subject and conventional in approach, it lacks the unsettling paranoia, the grappling with race and trauma, and the stylistic audacity of her earlier work. We assume the male narrator is unreliable because it is the sort of twist we expect from a NDiaye novel. And in this way, she subverts our expectations from the very first page.

“Oh yes, of course, she got that question often. Endlessly, I’d even say…” So begins our chatty, unnamed narrator, relishing the spotlight, puffed with pride, reveling in his former intimacy with and access to genius. He is the keeper of the flame – but there is also something tawdry about him. A little too sly. Definitely smug. The prose is less dense, less feminine, than past novels. Jordan Stump’s translation adapts to this weak, masculine voice, giving us yet another wonderful and nuanced translation of NDiaye’s work. I felt relatively secure in my dislike of this character, confident my judgement would be validated by the time I reached the end. But until then I was happy to lose myself in the rags to riches story of the Cheffe. Her humble beginnings, her work as the cook to a wealthy, gluttonous family, her apprenticeship and the opening of her own restaurant. My favorite bits were the detailed, mouth watering descriptions of her culinary artistry. The Cheffe had a knack for visualizing the dish, then creating it.

And so, having called up in her mind a simple, idealized image of a peach tart, its amber color underscored by something she thought might be verbena, with the faintest gilding, subdued and matte, or caramelized sugar… she was pleased, when the tart came out of the oven, to see no disparity between the thing and her premonition of it, and so she forgot the idea and conferred on the real tart the status of a model for all her deserts to come.

Central to the story are the Cheffe’s relationships. With her daughter, her customers, her food, and to this man who is narrating her story as if he is the sole proprietor of her memory. He – we never learn his name – obviously admired the Cheffe. More than that, he loved her. I kept expecting his devotion to her to turn ugly, to become dark and creepy, but it never did. Yes, he was obsessed. But any harm he did was to himself alone. Because of their age gap (he was decades younger, roughly the age of her daughter) and her devotion to food, she treated him more like a stepson (not quite a son, but someone for whom you feel a certain emotional attachment) than a romantic possibility… welcoming him into her kitchen but always, physically and emotionally, keeping an arm’s length between them. And yet, their lives remain entwined. Mostly thanks to his efforts to keep them so.

In the process of telling us about his mentor’s life and journey, our narrator drops little bits of information about his own circumstances and history. He lives in a Catalonian retirement community now, which seems rather posh. There are endless cocktail parties with neighbors whom he mingles with but who know very little about his past. He no longer cooks. He drinks too much and is expecting a visit from his daughter… the former seems to be inextricably linked to the latter. He does not tell us outright, but we suspect he is nervous about seeing her. That their relationship is strained. When she finally arrives in the final chapters we realize she has been there all the time.

I read The Cheffe months ago.  At first I disliked and distrusted the first person narrator – even pitying the translator for having to spend so much time in the man’s head. But, surprisingly quickly, I came to appreciate the emotional journey of the story, which moves towards a final moment of warmth and joy.  There’s hope and redemption to be found here. The Cheffe is, in my opinion, the least self-conscious of all NDiaye’s novels. It is also the one that was written most recently and the book most overtly about writing. Like her Cheffe does with food, NDiaye is stripping away the tricks and contrivances of style. Of which, when you think about it, the most celebrated and overused is the unreliable narrator.  As readers, we’ve been conditioned to expect and enjoy being lied to.  Such a clever trick! NDiaye allows us our cynicism and suspicions, only to finally reveal that everything we’ve been told is true. And show her readers that the emotional honesty and vulnerability of this narrator is just as wonderful – maybe even better – than gimmicks.

Of course, I may be completely wrong and guilty of once again projecting my expectations onto NDiaye. We’ll just have to wait for the next book* to find out.

Title:  The Cheffe: A Cook's Novel
Author: Marie NDiaye
Translator: Jordan Stump
Publisher: Alfred K. Knopf (New York, 2019) 
ISBN: 978 0 525 52047 4

*The next book of NDiaye’s to be released in English, by the publisher Two Lines Press, is That Time of Year. It was originally published in France in 1997. From what I understand, Two Lines Press has the rights to most of her back catalog, but English translations of all new material belongs to Penguin Random House. So, as far as I am aware, the title and plot of the book she is currently writing is unknown.


Currently Reading: City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell for #WITMonth.

3 Novellas for Summer

Loud footsteps in a vast and otherwise silent corridor; the cloying perfume of lilacs; an ice-cold drink at the end of a hot, dry day.  In Winter we bundle-up, huddle inside and create a barrier between ourselves and the elements. Summer, though, is a different story. We open ourselves up to the full sensuality of the natural world – we wear less clothing, bask in the sun & surf, spend as much time out-of-doors as the weather allows.  Antonia Skármeta, Marie NDiaye and Haruki Murakami are writers who know the power of evoking the senses. Below are three novellas.  Small enough to read at the beach, while camping in the woods, or on a shady park bench.  And still broad enough in scope to provide a brief (and welcome) escape from the everyday.

ADistantFatherTitle:  A Distant Father
Author:  Antonio Skármeta
Translator:  John Cullen
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051625 6

I’m the village schoolmaster. I live near the mill. Sometimes the wind covers my face with flour.

I’ve got long legs, and nights of insomnia have stamped dark rings under my eyes.

My life is made up of rustic elements, rural things:  the dying wail of the local train, winter apples, the moisture on lemons touched by early  morning frost, the patient spider in a shadowy corner of my room, the breeze that moves my curtains.

During the day, my mother washes enormous sheets, and in the evening we drink lemon balm tea and listen to radio plays until the signal gets lost among the dozens of Argentine stations that crowd the dial at night.

A Distant Father by Antonio Skármeta is straightforward storytelling written in beautiful prose. Imagine a handmade diorama of a Chilean country village, populated by picaresque characters, that depicts a young man’s coming of age and you’ll have some idea of the rudimentary plot (and feel) of this charming 92 page novella. Our narrator, the young man, describes his father’s departure on the same train from which he disembarked on the day he returned home after completing his studies.  This estrangement, between his father and his family (the narrator and his mother) forms the central mystery meant to drive the plot.  But the characters are what truly move this story forward.  Skármeta has a talent for developing fully realized individuals on the page – allowing them their quirks and eccentricities while avoiding grotesque caricatures of life.  The result is delightful: moments of tenderness balanced by comedic episodes (usually revolving around the narrator’s attempts at getting laid).


SelfPortraitInGreenTitle:  Self-Portrait in Green
Author:  Marie NDiaye
Translator:  Jordan Stump
Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 39 9

I have a love-hate relationship to Marie NDiaye’s books. The savagery of NDiaye’s writing repels even as it entices me to keep reading… a bit like a venomous snake. The kind that mesmerizes its prey as it rears back to strike.  She is a challenging writer, but her readers and fans find her worth the effort her books demand.  Marie NDiaye stands easily among the most exciting and experimental writers being translated into English today.

… The schoolyard is empty, the sweet lilac has numbed me. I must have been one of those children the woman in green carted off down an endless hallway, but fear and the inescapability of the torments to come kept me from crying out. Was I ever seen again? It’s true that green can’t possibly be the sole color of cruelty, just as green is by no means inevitably the color of cruelty, but who can deny that cruelty is particularly given to draping itself in all sorts of greens? Before going on my way, I pull three leaves off the lilac and slip them into the pocket of my shorts. That might come in handy, I tell myself, though for the moment I have no idea what’s awaiting me.

Self-Portrait in Green is  a disturbing little book, filled with portraits of women connected to a narrator who we are led to assume is NDiaye herself.  I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as a collection of linked short stories. Though the format feels more connected forming a unified, continuous narrative than you’d expect in a book of stories. And there is the fact that the paperback is exactly 7-inches tall, 4-1/2 inches wide and 103 pages long – “petite” is an adjective that springs to mind.

These women in green who appear in story after story are subversively feminist (as were their predecessors in All My Friends). The intensity with which they interact with the world and the reader is terrifying. They present as strangers, friends, mothers, lovers, daughters and wives.  They are strong, mysterious, neurotic, paranoid, nurturing, dominant, submissive, beautiful and grotesque.  They contradict each other and at times cancel each other out, yet the copy on the back cover tells us that “(t)hey are all aspects of the internationally celebrated writer Marie Ndiaye.”


TheStrangeLibraryTitle:  The Strange Library
Author:  Haruki Murakami
Translator:  Ted Goossen
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 385 35430 1

Haruki Murakami is a bona-fide international literary celebrity with a huge following. When that happens publishers are wont to rush to print anything – even random scribbles discovered on the back of a napkin. An argument could be made that The Strange Library is such a case.  It’s a remarkably slight book, dependent on the illustration/graphic design talents of Chip Kidd* to transform it into something more substantial.  Happily the collaboration is entirely successful.   Bright, beautiful, with a definite Zakka (a style of Japanese handicraft) influence – the book itself is an object to desire.  The story, narrated by a boy who discovers and is imprisoned within the labyrinthine basement of the strange library, is weird enough to meet the expectations of Murakami fans across the globe.  Of course, you’ll be finished with the entire book in 20 minutes – the slow, careful reader might stretch it out to a half hour – but sometimes good things really do come in small packages.

The library was even more hushed than usual.

My new leather shoes clacked against the gray linoleum. Their hard, dry sound was unlike my normal footsteps. Every time I get new shoes,it takes me a while to get used to their noise.

A woman was sitting at the circulation desk, reading a thick book. It was extraordinarily wide. She looked as if she were reading the right-hand page with her right eye, and the left-hand page with her left.

Murakami novels are often an assemblage of odd & uncomfortable, deceptively mundane, details – as demonstrated in the passage above. The narrator constantly remarks on the strangeness of the world he has stumbled into: the librarian’s strange eyes which read two pages at once, the awkward way in which the other characters speak, the size of the basement versus the footprint of the building & his ability to understand books despite their being written in Turkish (a language he does not speak). This mood/atmosphere of unease is established through direct explication. What information we are not told is simply not there – leaving an informational vacuum that is too substantial not to have been intentional. Perhaps this is because The Strange Library was targeted at children (albeit, in the way Grimm’s original Fairy Tales might have been targeted at children) and the legion of hardcore  fans. The Sheep Man, a character from Murakami’s earliest published writings makes an appearance. But, this “insider baseball” doesn’t detract from the book’s charm and shouldn’t deter the casual reader.  The Strange Library is a wonderful diversion into fantasy regardless of how you approach it – as a Murakami aficionado or amateur.

 

*The British version of the book is illustrated/designed by Suzanne Dean, the art director at Harvill Secker