Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump
(Influx Press, 2021)
Review by Lulu Allison
‘December 2003 – Evening has come, and the Garonne is rising hour after hour in the dark.’
So opens Marie NDiaye’s Self Portrait in Green. This beguiling novel composed in less than a hundred pages seems to flow, to seep, to rise like the river Garonne, becoming wide and slowly unruly, claiming more space than those scant pages would suggest. It’s a mysterious fiction that is both captivating and elusive.
The coming flood is a menacing backdrop, an ongoing threat. But it is also expected, part of life in the small village of southwestern France where the nameless narrator lives. The flood will come; it is a question of how high, of whether the levees will be breached. The flood brings ‘something black and quick’. What is it? Nobody knows. Something elusive, a portent, perhaps.
This unease, this watching and waiting, is present throughout. Wary questions about what might happen, uncertain recollections of what already has occurred, the expectation that if you live here, you must bear the flood that comes, you must bear the not-knowing. Waiting and watching, and the uncertainty this implies, has, in some way, been chosen.
The narrator, a woman with young children, encounters on the school run the first in a series of female characters she will describe as ‘women in green’. Her attention is caught, uncertainly, compellingly, by the appearance of the strange woman, who seems to merge, like the floodwater, with her surroundings – with a lush banana tree standing in her ‘barren’ yard. She can’t tell if the woman is real, and recruits her children to describe what they see. But they see nothing.
An antidote to her dreamy confusion and uncertainty, the children are unsullied. Their clean limbs, their lithe form and freshness is a kind of clarity opposing the uncertainty of flood, of greenness, the unknown future and soft confusion of a shifting past.
When she encounters the second woman in town, greenness is at first present simply in the colour of the women’s clothing:
‘Christina’s shorts are something else altogether, because I hadn’t expected them, and because green isn’t the usual colour for women’s shorts in the first days of spring, is it? Christina keeps her hands behind her, pressed flat against her powerful hind quarters to display her shorts’ exuberant colour as flagrantly as she can.’
There is subtle humour, as in this encounter with a woman who might or might not be Christina, might or might not be a dear friend. This passage also heralds a theme, of stories being repeated, overlaid, so they shift slightly, so they happen to different characters, so we can’t quite tell where they belong. The narrator asks for help from her children, from the reader – we sense her telling is not reliable, either to herself or to us.
Another theme of the book is of intergenerational burden – the things that generations do and don’t – or perhaps shouldn’t – know of each other. She visits her mother in Marseille, discovering that her mother has metamorphosed into a woman in green, and ‘one of that type’s most alien and troubling forms… untouchable, disappointing, infinitely mutable, very cold, able, by force of will, to become very beautiful, and able, too, not to want to.’
She goes to Burkina Faso to see her estranged father and stepmother in Ouagadougou. He is bitter about perceived slights, and grandiose in his vanity. It is a disappointment. Stories change; parents and siblings transform, mesh in ways she had not marked before, appear with new, lusher stories, defy their sorrows, reclaim their joys, then lose them again.
The narrator is autonomous, curious, combines uncertainty and endurance. Her community, her family, the geography of her world is mutable, subject to untrustworthy shifts. We are left to grope for clarity, yet the bounty of this book is that we do not require it. Any attempt by the reader to pin down, to locate a precise meaning is deftly skewed by the author. We are required, with wonderful skill (in a beautiful translation by Jordan Stump), to remain hooked and yet uncertain, under a spell as compelling as that worked by the green women, just as elusive as the something black and quick that came with the flood, then disappeared before anyone could make the naming of it.