The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye (transl. Jordan Stump): A culinary enigma

Cover imageSeveral things attracted me to Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe: I’ve a weakness for novels about food, given its author and subject I expected a healthy streak of feminism and there was the promise of an unreliable narrator. My liking for those may be even greater than my predilection for foodie fiction. NDiyae’s novel is the story of the eponymous, celebrated cook known only by her profession and notorious for keeping her own counsel, told by the man obsessed with her.

One of eight children, the Cheffe was born into poverty, the daughter of two farm labourers with scant regard for the education of their children. Hers was a happy childhood. She left school at sixteen finding a job for herself as a maid with the Clapeaus, a gluttonous couple who opened the culinary world to her when their cook refused to accompany them on holiday. Her talent proved prodigious. She learnt quickly and well, delighting her employers then distressing them when she left to have her daughter. Unable to stay out of the kitchen for long, the Cheffe found herself a job, then set herself up in her own bistro, plain but smartly presented – much like herself – gaining a reputation that eventually won her recognition from an esteemed restaurant guide, much to her horror. She and the young apprentice whose adoration remains unspoken, talk long into the night. She occasionally spills details of her life which he eagerly pieces together, quietly scornful and disbelieving of her professed love for her daughter living in Toronto. As her young acolyte – now an ageing hedonist – tells her story, apparently giving the interview after her death that the Cheffe would never have granted, he waits apprehensively for a guest to arrive.

I mentioned an unreliable narrator in my introduction and they don’t come more unreliable – or blindly adoring – than the unnamed young apprentice looking back on the love of his life and telling his version of her story. Our narrator retails the sparse details of the Cheffe’s life, larding it with his own interpretations – her love for her daughter merely feigned, her beloved parents neglectful, all of her own actions considered and selfless. She is, for him, perfection. He’s a triumph but Ndiaye’s slow, reiterative style is something of an acquired taste. I remember giving up Ladivine for the same reason but became quite fascinated by the self-delusion of The Cheffe’s narrator who verges on the stalker in his obsession. In telling her story, he reveals a great deal more about himself than his intensely private beloved who remains something of an enigma, intent on her culinary explorations and often oblivious to everything and everyone else.

For those wondering about the title, there’s a footnote explaining it:

“Cheffe” is a recently-minted word in French; its meaning, of course, is “female chef”. Because no good English equivalent exists, this translation will use the French word.

Perhaps women are finally being taken seriously in what, for some reason, became a male-dominated profession.

MacLehose Press: London 2019 9780857058904 288 pages Paperback

That’s it for 2019’s rviews from me. The rest of the year will be all about the shiny and new on offer in January 2020.

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