Translated by Jordan Stump
Two Lines Press, 2014, 164 pages, paperback
Personal copy received as part of subscription to Two Lines Press.
Shortly after I finished reading this book, I checked my Twitter feed and was led to the J. Paul Getty Pinterest gallery of Museum Selfies, a collection of artist's self-portraits.
What is a self-portrait? Is it the way the artist sees him/herself? Is it the way the artist wants to be perceived by the world? Is it a way to explain the artist's life and work? Or perhaps it is an artistic exercise. How close to the truth does the artist dare go?
French author Marie NDiaye was born in France, her mother was French, her father Senegalese. Her father left the family early on (Marie did not meet him until she was a teenager).
It is not a surprise, then, that the narrator of Self-Portrait in Green is a French writer from a broken French/African family. How much of the "self-portrait" is true, how much is imagination, how much is delusion is not at all clear. It's much like the murky water of the Garonne River which flows through the background of the portrait, threatening to flood and inundate the settlements along it banks. As the river rises, the narrator muses on a series of mysterious women in green that flow through her life and perplex, intrigue, and haunt her.
Who are these women in green? Are they real? Are they manifestations of the narrator's self identity? One is daring, jumping off balconies but not in a suicidal fashion, she knows she'll come to no harm. Another is suicidal. Some are people known to the narrator, others are strangers.
NDiaye's writing is visual, painting mini-portraits and landscapes that take you into her world. On a rare visit with her mother the narrator observes:
Whenever she lets down her guard, I see her eyes darting uneasily this way and that,
never looking straight ahead. She then raises her hands to take off her shawl, forgetting
she's not wearing one. Seeing that I've seen her, she furrows her brow.
Then there is the neighbor Katia who takes refuge with the narrator's family when the lower floors of her house are flooded:
An absolute woman in green, Katia Depetiteville never shows any trace of gratitude
for a favor that's been done her. Comfortably settled in with us, she exercises her rights
as a houseguest with a voracity, almost a brutality, that I never see when I stop by her
place for a cup of coffee, when the monotony of her life and the dreariness of her house
so weigh on her that a gentle numbness is all she's capable of. Now she's come back to
life, she speaks out, butts in with her opinions, lets herself be served and coddled.
There is a harshness in many of these descriptions. There is also a detachment from reality in the encounters with the women in green (some of them are family members). When visiting her father, she sees the desperateness of her father's wife to get out of a miserable situation and return to France. She could help her, but she doesn't. Later she wonders if the woman did manage to leave, but she doesn't seem to care enough to find out. The same with a much younger half-sister: she wonders what happened to her but makes little effort to find her. Instead, she dreams that maybe several years in the future the sister will show up on her doorstep.
Green is often the color associated with envy. Our narrator, at time, seems envious of the women in green. She is certainly drawn to them. She doesn't want to lose them. She may want to become one of them.
This is a book that is as strange as its cover art; all those green branches reaching out and touching nothing. They are somewhat entwined as they leave the stalk, they seem to promise to get back together, but they never really connect.
This one goes on my TBRR (to be re read) shelf.
(French Bingo note: where to put this? A5? B4?)