All My Friends by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump

All My Friends is a book of short stories by French author Marie NDiaye.  The second book released by Two Lines Press – a new publisher associated with The Center for the Art of Translation in California, – it is translated by Jordan Stump.  I’d heard many good things about NDiaye, and Stump seems to have an affinity for translating unusual narratives, so I was looking forward to reading this book.

Which makes it hard to admit that on first reading I found the collection somewhat disappointing.  The five stories are not linked, but they share a common theme – the main character’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to connect with reality.  All five are written in the first person and each narrator drags the reader further into the rabbit hole of psychosis.  Because our perception of what is going on is so severely limited and dependent on a series of unreliable narrators, many of these stories are disorienting.  NDiaye makes little effort to distinguish between what is reality and what is delusion.  What breadcrumbs she leaves are sparse – small, easily overlooked clues as to what is actually going on.

The first story, “All My Friends”, is about a retired teacher stalking a former student.  The student is now his housekeeper.  His obsession with her dominates his life and defines his remaining relationships.  She, in term, loathes him – and seems to take a kind of sadistic pleasure in tormenting him with her disdain.  At least that’s what he believes.  The situation, as these situations tend to, crumbles.  The final scene is chilling… but a bit confusing if you think too hard about what triggered it.

“All My Friends”, along with two of the longer stories in the collection: “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day”, are particularly challenging.  The narratives are fragmented. and at times difficult to follow.  These short stories read as exercises, character sketches intended to be absorbed into a larger work (a novel perhaps) at a later date?  They lack emotional weight as stand-alone stories.  These narrators are so unreliable – their memories and perceptions so distorted – that it is impossible to believe anything they say.

I became increasingly suspicious… not to mention a bit paranoid.  I did not trust these people, but they were all I had.

And that’s what makes this collection so brilliant.  We are shown the world and events only from the narrator’s perspective.  And that perspective is a bit skewed – to say the least.

Jimmy’s dog ran towards her, leapt up, dampened her cheek with a hearty lick.  For the few seconds that the dog’s eyes were level with Brulard’s, she had the brutal feeling that she could see her own anxious soul reflected of submerged deep inside them.  The dark mirror of the dog’s pupils seemed to be showing her not her own miniaturized face but something else, unexpected, inexplicable – as if, Brulard told herself at a loss, her appearance had suddenly changed beyond all recognition, or as if the dog’s incomprehensible black eye were reflecting Brulard’s true, secret being, of which she herself had no notion, which she couldn’t describe, even on finding it thus revealed in the gaze of that pitiful creature.

The remaining two stories are less complicated, but equally rewarding.  They’re also easier to summarize than “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day” (which, though convoluted, are still wonderful) .  In “The Boys” we meet René: an awkward, teenaged boy who spends all his free time at a neighboring family’s farm – the Moers.  On one visit he witnesses the mother selling her attractive, younger son.  Though this event will ultimately tear the family he idolizes apart, René becomes convinced that this is the path down which his own happiness lies.  Things, needless to say, do not go as planned.

René, as a character, is fascinating.  As you learn more about his life you realize that in his family he is the golden boy.  René’s mother gives him the best food at dinner.  His brothers and sisters admire him.  But his family circumstances are very different from the Moers’.  René’s family appears to survive at the edge of starvation.  His mother is a prostitute for the migrant laborers in the area and all the children have different fathers.  And so his vision of himself waivers between grandiosity and soul crushingly low self-esteem.  Remove the strange circumstances this story places him in and René could be any young man-boy with a high opinion of himself that he has done little to justify.

In “Revelation” NDiaye switches from the son to the mother.  A woman takes her mentally handicapped son on a bus ride with the intention of abandoning him once they reach their destination.  This is a very short story, only six pages long, and focuses entirely on the mother’s emotions.  At first she tells us of how she hates her son.  How he annoys her and how she mistreats him at home.  “He’s unbearable, she sometimes thought.  And also: he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid.” Yet, we are told -

She was angry with herself for that.  This son was not cruel.  His capacity for meanness had waned even as the mother’s aggressive rancor grew.  She realized that her despair and her rage were fueled by nothing other than the progressive disappearance of those emotions in the son.

The mother, like all the characters in these stories, is self-absorbed.  She is concerned with events only in how they affect her, and as she sits next to her son she does not think about what will happen to him.  She has already begun the process of re-shaping the narrative in her head.  This son becomes the only son who understood her.  She is abandoning him because he is driving her mad, but once he is gone she will love him because of the loss her represents to her.*  She will make the most of the situation and will miss him as much as she previously despised him.

All My Friends is a slim little book.  After finishing and absorbing (and you definitely need time to absorb) what I’d just read, I couldn’t help but wonder what a longer story by this author – with all its edges softened and gaps filled in -  might look like?  That’s the tease of All My Friends.  A bit like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Marie NDiaye’s stories are just strange enough and interesting enough to spark readers curiosity.  And then leave them impatiently waiting for more.

Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 23 8

*Children, as a rule, do not fare well at the hands of adults in Ms. NDiaye’s world.

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The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman

The Honey Thief

One of my favorite covers ever. The effect of a watercolor or ink brush painting on the textured, matte dust jacket is gorgeous.

The best travel advice I’ve ever received is:  befriend the locals.  Or rather, convince the locals to befriend you. Whether it’s a small town in Maine or a village in Afghanistan (preferably when there’s not a war going on), no one knows a place like the people who live there.

I won’t be visiting Afghanistan any time soon – and sadly, I’m left to wonder if the Afghanistan it describes still exists – but be that as it may The Honey Thief is a great way to learn more about the nation and the Hazara people who make up roughly 22% of its population.  The book is  a collaboration between Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman.  Mazari is a native Afghani who left his home country in 2001 and now lives in Australia with his family. He is the author of the memoir The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif  Robert Hillman is the prize-winning Australian author of the autobiographyThe Boy in the Green Suit.  So both these men have some authorial experience behind them.  I call them collaborators rather than co-authors based on their  own description of the process by which this book was written  -

Najaf talks; Robert fashions what he says into the sentences that become the stories.  When Robert has completed a chapter or a story, Najaf reads it and offers suggestions.  The question Najaf asks himself as he’s reading is this:  “If these words were now translated into Dari, would my family in Afghanistan nod their heads and say, ‘This is our country.  This is true’?”

The result is an engaging little book of short stories and recipes told to us by a friendly and charismatic narrator It’s the narrative voice, Najaf Mazari’s voice I expect, that sells The Honey Thief.   His storytelling contains the perfect blend of honesty, exaggeration & nostalgia – capturing the charming informality of the oral tradition.

And the idea of including traditional recipes is pure genius.  These are written in the same style as the rest of the book and contain instructions like: “Fresh yoghurt.  This must be proper yoghurt, not that foolish yoghurt that is sometimes sold with bananas in it and strawberries and sugar”.  It’s as if you’re standing in the kitchen next to Mazari while he prepares dinner.  It’s a wonderful change from the ubiquitous discussion points meant to target the members of book clubs.

The recipes are a bonus feature that comes at the end though.  The Honey Thief starts by telling us about the Hazara people.

A tribe is a world.  I have described myself to people who are not of my tribe in this way and that, and usually I satisfy the person I’m talking to, and also satisfy myself, up to a point.    I say ‘ I am a pacifist,’ and so place myself in a very large tribe of people who share at least one belief with me.  Or I say, ‘I am a businessman,’ and the banker I am addressing knows that I can be relied on to keep an accurate account of what I buy and sell; that I make sensible decisions with my money.  I say, ‘I am a Muslim,’ and the Muslim listening to me will make a dozen assumptions about the life I lead, most of them correct.  When I meet a Hazara,  I don’t say, ‘Nice to meet you, I am Hazara.’ There is no need.  We will greet each other in a different way to the way we greet people who are not of our tribe.  We will be both excited and shy at one time.  Excited because we are brothers, shy because without even knowing my name, the man I am talking to can see deep into my heart…

From there you’ll go n to read an eclectic mix of histories, folktales, family stories and (of course) the recipes.  The Honey Thief really has a little bit of everything.  I particularly liked the stories set in the recent past (1970’s & 80’s). In many ways these are the most brutal, but that’s because they seem the most connected to current events.  Many of them follow the life of Abbas Behishti  who is a young boy dealing with the loss of his beloved grandfather when we meet him in the titular story.  As a grown man he makes a journey on motorcycle across a landscape stripped bare by  war with the Soviets.  The stark juxtaposition of a man whose way of life seems to have changed very little since his apprenticeship as a child to a beekeeper and the mujaheddin soldiers with machine guns he encounters as he travels across the country is startling… as much to him as to us.  The inclusion of these slices of a “modern” Afghanistan rounds out the book and turns it into something of a mini compendium on the Hazara people. 

Even with the introduction of modern warfare, this is still one of the more light-hearted  accounts of Afghani life I’ve read to date.  Alternating between  fables and stories makes them resonate and creates context.  Add the traditional recipes and it becomes an immersive experience.  Underlying it all is the deep love of an expatriate for the home he’s left behind. The Honey Thief is a chance to learn about a place and it’s people from someone who knows it best.

Publisher:  Viking, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 670 02648 7

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