I’ve been meaning to read Marie NDiaye’s ‘Trois Femmes Puissantes’ since it won the Goncourt in 2009 with a certain apprehension, this was a major work of literature that had been favourably compared to Toni Morrison. The book’s title tells us of the strength of the three main characters, Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba developed in three novellas where this strength, their self belief is put into perspective by their isolation and their fragility amid a certain mystical background.
In the first novella Norah a successful lawyer arrives in Senegal, without knowing why, at the request of her father who she has not seen for twenty years. This is the opening of the three stories relating these women’s experiences in their personal journey between Senegal and France, Norah was born in France but lived a childhood trauma as her father ran back to Senegal tearing her younger brother from her, her sister and her mother for ever.
‘Their father, in answering the phone one day to their grieving mother who told him she would borrow the money to buy airline tickets in order to come to see her son at his house since he refused to send Sonny to her on holiday, said if I see you turning up here I’ll cut his throat and then my own in front of you’***
Norah discovers that Sonny is now in prison for murder and her father wants her to drop everything and to defend him. As the mystery slowly unfolds and Norah questions herself for having left her own daughter behind with her partner, she reconsiders her own life and her relationship to her father through the first of a series of related Anthropomorphic images within the book. She feels she can see and smell him as a large vulture perched on the flame tree outside her bedroom window looking in with his wings folded under his shirt.
The story ends with both Norah and her father perched high up in the flame tree, giving the image of a possible reconciliation between a them.
The strong woman in the second Novella, Fanta, is never present except through the thoughts, words and actions of her husband, Rudy. Fanta is at at a different point in her personal journey between Senegal and France. From a modest background in Senegal she had become a teacher and had met Rudy, a not entirely stable character who was teaching in Senegal. Rudy had lived a traumatic incident as a child in Senegal when his father after killing his Senegalese business partner then committed suicide, forcing Rudy and his mother to return to France in poverty. Coming back to Senegal for him was proving something to himself but especially to his mother.
When Rudy loses his job through an incident at the school he proposes to take Fanta back to France with him where she can teach and live with him, nothing is planned or researched they just up and go, Rudy who has no resources moves back to the countryside near his mother and Fanta’s teaching credentials are not recognised in France.
We pick up the story after a particularly violent dispute between Rudy and Fanta as Rudy incapable of holding down a job or understanding the difference between a plan and a dream has slowly forced Fanta into a corner with no way out and as in the first story a series of anthropomorphic images of Rudy being attacked by a buzzard which he is persuaded is Fanta and which scratches his forehead.
The third strong woman, Khady Demba is still in Senegal at the time of the novella, this story is by far the saddest, following the death of her husband leaving her childless and thus a worthless mouth to feed in the eyes of her husband’s family, where she slowly becomes invisible in their eyes in order to survive. When one day without warning she is sent of with a man who is supposed to take her to a far off land from which she will have to send back money, Khady herself knows nothing of the world outside of her village and thus begins a long tragic journey.
After fleeing the people taking her when she see’s the state of the boat supposed to take her from the Senegalese coast she teams up with a young man Lamine from whom she learns,
‘what she needed to keep in mind was that the trip could last months, years as was the case for one of Lamine’s neighbours who reached Euorope, whatever exactly Europe was and where it was she put off learning until later, five years after setting out’***
Despite a seriously injured leg in the escape from the boat Khady and Lamine set out across the desert where they are robbed of their remaining money by the military before in order to pay for a meal and then later to gain a little money to go further, Khady is prostituted out by the cafè owner then robbed of her meagre gains and abandoned by Lamine. Throughout all of this she keeps proudly in mind that she is Khady Demba. As time goes on she wishes she could
‘soon acquire an unfeeling mineral body with no desires and no needs which would only be a tool to serve an intention she didn’t yet know but which she would be forced to come to terms with’***
This novella ends in a refugee area near a fence once again in a mystic fashion as Khady falls from a ladder trying to cross the fence
‘And then abandoning, letting go, falling softly backwards and then thinking that the essence of Khady Demba, less than a breeze hardly a movement of air, was certainly not to hit the ground but to float……Its me, Khady Demba, she thought at the very moment her head hit the ground and with her eyes wide open she saw a grey bird with long wings gliding slowly above the fencing, it’s me Khady Demba she thought with a dazzling revelation knowing that she was this bird and that the bird knew it’***
Why did I put off reading this book for so long?
First published in French as Trois Femmes Puissantes by Gallimard in 2009
Translated into English by John Fletcher as Three Strong Women and published by MacLehose Press in 2012