I was looking for a short story collection, something that might fit neatly into the Women in Translation theme that is guiding the reading of many of my fellow bloggers this month. Having heard so much about French author Marie NDiaye I decided to have a look at her collection All My Friends. What I found was a portal to a bizarre, surreal, mildly horrific literary Twilight Zone. If you like your stories neat and clear cut this is territory best avoided. If you enjoy challenging tales peopled by troubled characters who stretch the boundaries of reality, fueled by obsessions, fantasies and psychoses, well, step right in.
The final heartbreaking, but relatively straight forward story, is very short. The four stories that proceed it are long, convoluted and slippery. The reader really has to surrender him or herself to the experience, to the strangeness and stunning evocative beauty of the language. After finishing this slim volume I had a glance at a number of other reviews and was surprised how differently others saw or interpreted the stories. And perhaps that is the ultimate power of this collection.
The title tale, “All My Friends” is narrated by a school teacher whose wife and children have left him. He leaves his house like a museum and hires a former student, Séverine, to work as his maid. His attraction to her is complex, a curious blend of obsession and loathing that extends back to the days when, as a beautiful student, she resisted his charms and his efforts to impart knowledge on her. She is, however, married to another former student, an unassuming Arab that the teacher can barely remember. And then, to add to this peculiar triangle (quadrangle?) is Werner, yet another former student from the same cohort who went to Paris to better himself and returns, wealthy and well educated, to win Séverine’s love. Complicated? Definitely, especially because, so far as I could tell, Séverine herself is portrayed as a rather cold, obstinate creature and it is hard to imagine what sort of appeal she holds over all the men who are drawn to her.
Two of the stories revolve around celebrity. In “The Death of Claude François”, the passing of a famed singer devastates the women of a housing project. As the story opens, Dr Zaka meets her former best friend, Marlène Vador, after a 30 year separation. Marlène has remained on the project, nursing it seems, an undying love for the long dead hero. Dr Zaka never shared the depth of that affection:
“How ridiculous, she told herself, all that sniveling, all that sweat, all that sorrow simply because a man has died, a perfect stranger to every one of the women on the lawn, although dearer to their wanting hearts than the many children they’d borne, than the husband who had begotten them, whose eyes stayed dry on the death of that luminous, splendid stranger, so French, so blue eyed, so blond-headed.”
However, if the death of the French idol failed to move her, Dr Zaka has conceived a most unusual “gift” for her friend, presumably to make amends for leaving so many years before. In the longest story, “Brulard’s Day”, an overtired, psychotic woman has retreated to a resort town in the mountains. She is clinging to the idea that she was once a famous actress although the true extent of her acting career is not clear. She has left her husband and daughter and is awaiting funds she expects from a mysterious lover. In the meantime she is haunted by visions of her younger self, mortified by the fact that she is reduced to wearing – gasp – loafers and attempting to perform an appearance that befits her image of herself. When her husband appears on the scene it begins to become evident that neither have more than a desperate desire to be more than they are or have ever been.
Finally, the story, “The Boys”, reads like a dystopian tale in which poor rural families seek wealthy women to purchase their sons. A family fortunate to have a son handsome enough to fetch a price as a sex slave will stand to benefit from the income. As the Mour family pass their handsome son on to his fate, René, a poorer boy from a nearby home who picks up odd jobs with the family but is otherwise allowed to disappear into the shadows, watches and comes to decide that he too would like a ticket out.
“He’d always known he could make a gift of himself. Assuming someone would take him, assuming someone was eager to have him, a colorless boy named René, he could subjugate himself to the will of anyone at all. Little matter if he was purchased or picked up for free.”
Tightly paced, haunting and deeply disturbing, this is perhaps the strongest entry in the entire collection.
Born in 1967 to a French mother and Senegalese father, NDiaye trained as a linguist at the Sorbonne. She was was playing with form and style at an early age and her first novel was published when she was only 18. In 2013, at the age of 45, she was long listed for the International Booker. This collection was originally published in 2004. The English translation by Jordan Stump was published in 2013 by Two Lines Press.