Reviewed by Anderson Tepper
Here are two intriguing additions to literature about migration, inclusion and dislocation—or, in the words of one of the characters of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s novel Transit, the lives of “the peoples in motion through the shrinking world.” Of the two authors, Marie NDiaye, who grew up in France the daughter of a French mother and Senegalese father, is perhaps the more celebrated and better known. A precocious talent, she published her first book at eighteen; received the Prix Femina literary prize in 2001 for her novel Rosie Carpe, and went on to win the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for Three Strong Women. Waberi, who hails from Djibouti, a small country “the size of a postage stamp” in the Horn of Africa, is a prolific author in his own right. He is slightly more experimental and off-kilter, though. His slim, pastiche-like books, such as The Land without Shadows, In the United States of Africa, and Passage of Tears, tend toward fragmented, layered visions of his homeland viewed through the prisms of history, exile, and a bracing sense of the absurd.
Despite its title, Three Strong Women is not, strictly speaking, about three women; nor are the women who do appear particularly strong or powerful. In fact, the women of NDiaye’s loosely connected triptych find themselves in precarious situations, physically and emotionally, even as they inhabit vastly different, though intersecting, worlds. In the book’s first section, Norah, like NDiaye the child of French and Senegalese parents, is a Paris-based lawyer who has been summoned to Dakar by her aging father to cope with a crisis at the center of his new family. Surrounded by reminders of her father’s decline and her own painful childhood, Norah is also troubled by tensions of her relationship back home with a German boyfriend who has recently moved in with her and her daughter.
In the book’s second part, Fanta, the Senegalese wife of a French man, is actually more of a shadow figure, seen only in flashbacks to the couple’s early, happier days of courtship in Dakar before moving to a provincial French town. Her husband, Rudy Descas, whose bitter, psychological breakdown propels this section, is our window into Fanta, who is merely glimpsed in passing over the neighbor’s hedge and is barely audible in desultory phone conversations. The implications—of Rudy’s abuse, of Fanta’s paralyzing sense of isolation and loss—make this perhaps the book’s most devastating portrait. It is sadly ironic, too. In the novel’s final story, we meet Khady Demba, a young widow whose harrowing journey from Senegal is a doomed mission to find her way to Fanta, a distant relative Khady hopes will help her settle in France.
These crisscrossing lives and unsteady unions caught between Europe and Africa beg the question: Who is escaping, and who has arrived? The novel works wonderfully as a triptych, the stories carefully echoing and extending each other. And even if there is some unevenness (the first section can seem stilted and wooden compared to the parts that follow), in the end the book comes together, especially as Khady does discover the key to her own internal strength and willpower. Abandoned by her dead husband’s family, she is shuttled onto a dangerously overcrowded refugee boat before striking out on her own:
Although her calf hurt a great deal and her heart was beating so fast that she felt sick, she was filled with delirious, fervent, savage joy at realizing, clearly and indubitably, that she’d just done something that she had resolved to do, once she’d decided—very quickly—how vitally important it was for her to leave the boat.
Things worsen as she hustles her way north through crude desert towns, her body wracked with hunger and pain; still, she manages to find something to hold on to. “Her gums were bleeding. They left traces of blood on the bread. But her heart was beating gently, calmly, and she felt the same way: gentle and calm, beyond reach, shielded by her unshakable humanity.”
But where Three Strong Women is a book in finely rendered thirds, Transit, which was originally published in French in 2003, is a cacophonous work in pieces or shards. Here the voices come fast and furious, in a variety of styles and tones and degrees of urgency. There’s Bashir, the slangy, irreverent, doped-up former soldier of Djibouti’s 1990s civil war, cursing and lampooning the country’s corrupt politicians, fat cats and bureaucrats; Harbi, the café intellectual, who has been arrested and, like Bashir, expelled to France; and Alice, who rues the day she arrived in Djibouti as Harbi’s young French wife in the seventies, with the country on the brink of independence. There’s also Abdo-Julien, Harbi and Alice’s jazz-drunk, Mau Mau–inspired son; and Awaleh, Abdo-Julien’s grandfather who waxes nostalgic about the region’s nomadic, pre-colonial past.
It is Alice, however, who offers clues to the book’s stitched-together quality, as she spins memories for the benefit of her son:
When you tell a story, listen to me my love my rosebud my first picture book, yes, when you release the flow of a story, everything depends on the connection between the parts, the way one sequence fits into another, the sudden eruption of chance and the proper use of the catalogue and the series. The most natural order is rarely apparent immediately. It takes shape through detours, approximations, and the compass of ellipses—in other words, through renewed repetitions. The narrative voices push and shove each other, and you have to capture the force that drives them, that’s all.
Unfortunately, the effect of Waberi’s jump-cutting narration is often more jarring and disorienting than it is insightful. Bashir’s monologues seem pulled from a different work altogether, recalling African child-soldier sagas like Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged and Emmanuel Dongala’s Johnny Mad Dog; while Harbi and Abdo-Julien’s soliloquies reach for a more lyrical, cerebral appreciation of what they’ve lost as migrants and hybrid souls. “We’ve left our stories, our melodies, our books of magic, and our ancestors behind,” Harbi explains. “The danger awaiting us is this: if you live only in the present, you’re likely to be buried in the present.” Finally, that is what both of these books capture powerfully—the fragility of lives in limbo, poised between self-assertion and annihilation, in danger of being buried and forgotten in today’s “shrinking” world.
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