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.

Women In Translation Month 2020

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2020! This annual event, started by the inimitable Meytal Radzinski, is celebrating its sixth year. Huzzah! To learn more about #WITMonth — past, present, and future — you can visit Meytal’s blog Biblibio: A Life In Letters, or follow the hashtag on Twitter or Instagram.

This year I’m going to try to review writers who I feel haven’t received their due, alongside some old favorites. I’ll also be featuring a few backlisted titles I maybe haven’t shown enough love to in the past? Like Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar and Thus Were Their Faces, the NYRB Classics short story collection by Silvina Ocampo. I’m fascinated by the Ocampo sisters, so if anyone can recommend a good biography in English, please do.

For years I’ve been a subscriber to The New York Review of Books — and now seems like the perfect time to openly engage with some of the criticism & reviews I’ve read on its pages. It’s a topic I’m obsessed with in general. Over the last few years, like a lot of the bookish media, they seem to be increasing their reviews on works in translation. I don’t always agree with their reviewer’s opinions — which was the case with the review of Maria NDiaye’s last book, The Cheffe.

Lastly, I rediscovered drafts of some old reviews which ran at the now, sadly, defunct Quarterly Conversation, which I’m going to be revising as needed and posting here for anyone who might have missed them the first time around. One review is of Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches, along with a Q&A I did with the translator, Jordan Stump (who, coincidentally, is also NDiaye’s translator). I’m currently reading two books by Mukasonga: The Barefoot Woman and Igifu.

I’m very behind on my reading. 2020 is not a good year (an understatement, I know) and my focus is not what it should be. Embarrassing as it is to admit, during times of high stress I tend to binge on trashy romance novels and the occasional mystery. I’m not really sure why… the ones I enjoy are, as a rule, incredibly silly and sometimes not very well written. The plot is always formulaic. Maybe that’s it. They are predictable in all the ways the world currently is not. I mention this because I’m hoping August will be the turning point, putting me back on track. Please wish me luck!

Women In Translation Up To No Good

So here we are again. Another August and my Twitter and Instagram feeds are filling up with photos, lists and reviews of books by women in translation. Five years in and #WITMonth is bigger than ever. All thanks to Meytal, who founded and continues to grow what has become an international event. (If you want to learn more about Meytal, click the link to see last year’s thank you post or visit her blog to get the latest news, updates, and links to WITMonth content).

This month, like everyone else in the translation community, I’ll be posting reviews — new and old — of books by women in translation. One thing I’ve noticed, possibly because so few books in translation are published in general and even fewer of those are by women, is that we all seem to be reading the same books. It’s unavoidable, of course, but there it is. You can’t even say we’re all just reading new releases because that’s not the case either. It really reinforces how small the pool to choose from actually is. (Two examples of what I’m talking about occurred in the last week or so: Meytal mentioned she plans to post a review of Suzanne Dracius’ The Dancing Other and someone else, I can’t remember who, posted on Twitter that they were reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Both books are sitting on my TBR&R pile. This happens all the time). It also highlights how small presses are carrying the load in publishing translations. And how so many of the reviewers I follow, and I myself am guilty of this, seem to focus on literary fiction in translation and overlook genre in our coverage.


In other news: I’m always on the lookout for novels that feature interesting, middle-aged and above female protagonists. I’ve had some success, but I wouldn’t call it a huge category. Betty Boo by Claudia Pineiro, Eventide by Therese Bohman (which I’ll be reviewing later this month) and Minae Mizumara’s novels immediately come to mind. Last year the Best Translated Book Award judges received a little book titled An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good: Stories by the Swedish writer Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy. The only word for it is DELIGHTFUL. It was a favorite among the judges, even though it didn’t make the longlist. Tursten is best known for her Detective Inspectors Irene Huss and Embla Nystrom series, which I need to read. Both Hus and Nystrom make an appearance in the last of the five stories, but it’s the elderly lady who steals the book.

My favorite in the collection is An Elderly Lady Has An Accommodation Problem. Maud, who is 88-years-old, has been living in her rent-controlled apartment (rent-controlled = free) in a now gentrified (gentrified = expensive) section of Sweden since she was a child. The building’s housing association wants rid of her to no avail, her contract is ironclad. Her family is all dead, she never married, and she mostly keeps to herself. So when her young neighbor, a flighty artist named Jasmin, becomes extremely — even intrusively — friendly Maud can’t quite figure out why. Is the girl looking for a friend? A mother figure? A project?

It wasn’t until she read a new entry in Jasmin’s blog one day that things started to become clear. I’m so excited! I might soon be moving into a bigger apartment! Which means a bigger studio, of course!!!! I really need more space. And when I say bigger, I mean BIGGER! MUCH BIGGER!!!

…That little bitch was after her apartment.

Obviously, something will need to be done.

All the stories are Maud’s and each one is more deliciously wicked than the last. Tursten injects just the right amount of joie de vivre into the old biddy’s activities. It comes as a surprise to learn, in a brief note at the end, that Maud was a character born out of necessity. Her creator needed a short story for a Christmas anthology and had no idea what to write. Until she hit upon the idea that a frail old lady would make the perfect criminal. No one would suspect her. She could get away with murder! And so she does, quite literally, to all our amusement.

Which sounds a bit twisted when said out loud. It goes without saying that nobody likes a serial killer, even a clever one. And yet… there’s something truly endearing about Maud and her antics. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. Honestly… all her victims had it coming. *side eye*

Title: An Elderly Lady Up To No Good
Author: Helene Tursten
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Soho Press, New York (2018)
ISBN: 978 1 64129 011 1

Hybrid Child: A Work of Wide-Screen Baroque Science Fiction by Mariko Ōhara

A question that came up during this year’s Best Translated Book Award was how much attention should be given to supplementary material? Or, put another way, how important is the context in determining how you feel about a book? An author’s or translator’s note, a forward or afterward by a famous fan, a podcast analyzing the text chapter by chapter or an interview with the author — all of these things can drastically change your relationship to a piece of writing.

But there are also times when extra information, additional insight into the text, can enhance your reading. You can’t always depend on being able to navigate a novel intuitively. This is often a challenge when reading translations, where we’re navigating cultural, historical and linguistic differences in addition to the complexities of plot and structure. Hybrid Child, by Mariko Ōhara, is a futuristic novel that spans centuries. Crowded with multiple narratives, any one of which could be detached and developed into a standalone book, understanding it as a work of “widescreen baroque” is essential to appreciate the intricacies of Ōhara’s writing.

The term “widescreen baroque” was coined by the writer Brian Aldiss to describe a sci-fi subgenre characterized by elaborate, over-the-top plots, a preoccupation with metaphysical ideas, and a taste for the dramatic. Books that fall into this category “…obey a dictionary definition of baroque; which is to say that they have a bold and exuberant rather than a fine style, they are eccentric, and sometimes degenerate into extravagance. They like a wide screen, with space and possibly time travel as props, and at least the whole solar system as their setting.” Every page turn should introduce a new spectacle. The plots should jump from one incredible premise to another. If you don’t feel a little bit off-balance, then the author is doing something wrong.

Hybrid Child is divided into three sections, each one set in a completely different time and terrain. The sections are connected by a small group of reoccurring characters, chief among these is a cyborg, B #3. But Ōhara uses a cacophony of perspectives and voices to tell her stories. Hybrid Child is a chaotic and noisy text. Her secondary characters are often the more compelling: a young man who is kept alive in a mobile egg he likens to a coffin and a housekeeping robot whose emotions push against the borders of her programming are two of my favorites.

Suddenly, the tin robot felt sad and hopeless. At least if she were human, she could have a short nap, or a deep sleep, or get tipsy on booze — there would be all kinds of options.

Deep in reverie, the tin robot thought about the girl who had flown away and left her.

“What is it? Looks like you want to say something. Come on, say it. It’s almost time for you to make dinner.”

The tin robot looked at the old master with her two widely spaced eyes.

“…Heaven.”

As for the plot: the first section is a horror story which descends into a standoff with the military. We are introduced to an unnamed, middle-aged woman, living in isolation. Everything about her home, from the house to the landscape around her (snowcovered), is relentlessly and antiseptically white. B #3 has escaped from the government facility where he was created and is being tracked by soldiers. As he approaches the house he shifts into the form of a Dadazim, a doglike creature genetically engineered to be the perfect house pet. The woman welcomes and feeds him. B #3 begins communicating with the home’s only other occupant, the house’s A.I., which manifests as a holograph of the woman’s dead daughter. It’s not exactly an Ex Machina situation but conveys the same sinister feel.

B #3, we soon learn, is capable of taking on the form of any biological creature by sampling its cells. He can even combine samples of different organisms, creating entirely new species. By the end of the first section, B #3 will take the form of his host’s dead daughter, Jonah. As Jonah, he escapes and finds temporary sanctuary and happiness in Section Two: Farewell. In Section Three: Aquaplanet (which makes up the bulk of the novel) she will make a journey through space and time to a new planet whose inhabitants live with uncertainty. The A.I., Milagros, who controls the planet’s systems is teetering on the edge of madness.

According to the translator, Jodie Beck, whose clear prose styling deserves credit for holding the book together, “the three stories that compose Hybrid Child were originally serialized in SF Magazine in Japan between 1984 and 1990, and all three were compiled together and published as a single book by Hayakawa Publishers in 1990.” That, and the knowledge that the author intended this as an example of “widescreen baroque”, goes a long way toward explaining the disconnected nature of the three parts. Though Ōhara threads elements and characters through the different plots in an attempt to unify them, the changes in the setting are abrupt. Time jumps add to the discord.

Perhaps Ohara’s greatest strength is the vividness of the characters she creates. One of these is the Military Priest, for whom time is not a linear construct. He slips through the time stream, manipulating it to bear witness to key events and to pursue B #3/Jonah. The fact that he exists untethered to a specific time or place eventually drives him insane. But not before he hatches a plan to put an end to B #3/Jonah. He is an irredeemably evil character, endowed with godlike powers.

Like Yoshio Aramaki, whose novel The Sacred Era* is also part of the University of Minnesota Press’ Parallel Future series, Ōhara’s book is burdened by Judeo-Christian metaphors. Mother-figures weighed down by Freudian symbolism appear in every section. There are awkward (and disturbing) sex scenes. There’s a lot to unpack… more, perhaps, than is necessary. I’d argue that, in the end, each individual section is better than the sum of its parts.

I found Hybrid Child a problematic book on many levels. In a way, Ōhara’s novel can be read as a complex coming of age story that explores our place in the universe, the nature of consciousness and the existence of god. But these themes are so deeply buried under extraneous rubble that they lose definition, becoming amorphous. And, despite being written by a woman, there are parts which have me questioning it being labeled a feminist work of science fiction.

This perceived messiness, though, is also an essential characteristic of the project. And, admittedly, there’s something charming about its imperfections. But are they working in service to, or distracting away from, the emotional connection the reader is meant to feel to the story? Therein lies the danger of writing within the framework of a genre.


*”The Parallel Futures book series is dedicated to translations of key works of Japanese science fiction intervening creatively and critically into temporal processes of social and political subjectification… These works prefer temporal juxtaposition, disjunction, and multiplication, seeking intensifiers of mobile force and difference rather than forms of representation, aiming not to pull the future into the present but to generate parallel, diagonal, and transversal futures whereby space-time emerges, as not yet again.”

-from the University of Minnesota Press website

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump – The Los Angeles Review of Books #WITMonth

“WE’RE ALL WAITING for Marie NDiaye’s breakthrough book in English. You’re waiting, too, whether you know it or not. Despite being an award-winning French writer (she won the Prix Femina in 2001, the Prix Goncourt in 2009, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and shortlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award) whose first book was published when she was 17, whose work is both regularly translated into English and generally well reviewed by American critics, NDiaye has yet to gain traction with American readers. At 50, she still hasn’t established the niche audience of, say, Michel Houellebecq, a writer with whom she shares nationality, a tendency toward the cerebral, and a provocateur’s spirit (though the nature of her provocations is more earnest and less performative than Houellebecq’s)…”

Why this failure to connect? Click on the image to find out.

Happy Women In Translation Month!