When we die, how will the people we leave behind talk about us? What will they say about our secrets? In Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe, translated into English by Jordan Stump, the story of the Cheffe is told by an unnamed narrator after the Cheffe has passed away. As far as he knows, he was the Cheffe’s only close friend and confidant, so he relates the history of her life as she told it to him in many intimate late-night conversations.
The story is told semi-chronologically, with the narrator jumping between times and places as one thought reminds him of another. We see snippets of the present moment while he discusses the Cheffe’s childhood, growing up in Sainte-Baizelle poor but happy. We often return to the public’s opinion of the Cheffe’s own restaurant as the narrator tells of a cooking apprenticeship she had in her youth with the Clapeaus, humorous (and gluttonous) characters whose deeply overwhelming love of food offers the Cheffe a unique playing field to hone her skills.
The narrator met the Cheffe just as he was beginning his culinary career as a young, hopeful assistant. As he worked alongside the older Cheffe, a master of her craft, he fell in love with her, and he would carry this unrequited passion with him for the rest of his life. It colors everything he shares with us. That we’re introduced to her through this perspective means she appears to us glorified, legendary, mythic. An impossible person, and just someone else’s impression. “That’s how she was,” he says. “At least I think that’s how she was.”
At times, the novel is less about the Cheffe and more about this man’s idea of her. Our narrator spouts self-importance at every turn. “People sometimes called her too cautious, afraid to offer a prompt, clear opinion, always holding back,” he chides. Other people’s critiques of the Cheffe are always followed with dissent: “They couldn’t have gotten her more wrong.”
The novel breeds fascination, and the narrator’s obsession with the Cheffe is catching. Words about this unknowable character feel full of crucial details and, as the reader hopes, perhaps in the telling of the story there will be one detail that gives the Cheffe away, that reveals the source of her grandeur, that allows the reader to understand her. This is what the narrator is obsessed with, too: a love that comes from supposed understanding.
Still, NDiaye surprises us when the Cheffe’s fame fades during more intimate moments. When the narrator tells of the midnight kitchen hours when he and the Cheffe could speak openly, NDiaye’s writing reaches a beautiful honesty. The strange loveliness of them meeting in such an unlikely space is peaceful and genuine, private and therefore more intimate.
NDiaye utilizes the relationships between these characters to observe the wide scope of love in our lives, how it drives us, and where. Despite sparse dialogue, the thoughts and innermost lives of these characters take the forefront, and what they say out loud to each other is far less important than what they mean.
The Cheffe is a story about impressions, ideas, and the extreme subtleties of human relationships. We see in so many small gestures how the circumstance of a moment or even one’s whole history is implicitly understood by a loved one. It’s possible to glean meaning from a glance, a gesture, or a smile. These moments of connection, for the Cheffe and her companion, are the actions that make up a life.
By Marie NDiaye
Published October 30, 2019