A Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye
Translated by Jordan Stump
Two Lines Press, 2017
Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In is a brilliant account of the fluidity of perception, the deterioration of social bonds, and the (non-spiritual) grace of humility. Though originally published in France in 2007—a decade before the current nationalistic inclinations of the western world—it slyly details the tragedy and absurdity of humanity’s dire need to assign an other.
The story is told by Nadia, who has become, for reasons completely unknown to her, a pariah. People harass her on the street: hissing nasty words, giving damning stares, jostling and bumping her; work colleagues shun her; students—she was a well-liked school-teacher—are afraid of her; and neighbors—all except one—keep away. She seems to have committed a terrible crime that is apparent to all but her. The premise is almost unrealistic—though this isn’t a piously realistic novel—until one imagines the possible experience of a Syrian refugee family at a 2016 Trump rally: society, it would seem, has unanimously turned against it.
The public’s seething animus quickly turns violent: Nadia’s husband, Ange, receives a wound in his stomach on his way home from work. While physical violence is the logical conclusion to righteous anger—a person can only ideologically hate another for so long before he or she feels inclined to destroy the other person (Heather Heyer’s murder is a real-life example)—it isn’t clear, in this novel, how the blow was dealt. The time, location, weapon, and perpetrator are murky; as if the circumstances slipped into a celestial black hole. Was he stabbed by a stranger (who moments before had spit on Nadia)? Was he stabbed by one of his students? Did the wound appear as a supernatural omen, portending calamity or guilt? The novel doesn’t budge on its refusal to enlighten the reader.
Two exceptionally strange things happen after the stabbing. The first is that Nadia is advised by all those who rush to her apartment to help—her two, adult step-children, as well as the downstairs neighbor, Noget—that her husband should not be taken to the hospital. Even her husband makes this plea. It isn’t that he’s too fragile to be moved, but that a doctor would take advantage of his vulnerability and finish him off. Logic and reason are disturbed.
There is an unspoken code of behavior and thought—as one may find in a totalitarian state—that is known to all but Nadia (who is ignorant of this code, or in denial). The code is that after one is accused, one does not seek outside help from a state-sanctioned professional. In an unambiguous situation, of course, one must rush a grievously injured person to the hospital; it is often the only correct action. To do otherwise—to put a Band-Aid on a fractured bone, or walk-off a collapsed lung—would be an act of insanity. But NDiaye’s world is one where insanity is interlaced with reality.
(But so is ours: think of the uninsured individual who attempts to nap away a serious bacterial infection—when anyone would’ve told him to get to a doctor ASAP. And what about US citizens—a word I use catholically—who have lived and worked here for a generation but weren’t born here? What officials and services must they avoid?)
The second strange occurrence after the stabbing is Nadia’s reactive stance to her downstairs neighbor. While Noget only wants to help—besides food and care for Ange, he offers, importantly, an explanation of the townspeople’s ire—Nadia hates him. She finds him grotesque: he has, “A tangled, dirty gray beard, hollow cheeks pocked with fifty-year-old acne scars, a sharp, heated gaze without a single trace of sympathy” (68). She also names him “fat,” “flabby,” wretched,” and “filthy.” To her, his appearance reflects his character. The words used to label something—in this case a person—constitutes the reason she doesn’t like that thing. It is as if his “sharp, heated gaze without a single trace of sympathy” were caused by his “dirty beard” and “acne scars.” But it has been a long time since the pseudo-science of physiognomy has attempted to connect one’s exterior to one’s interior (and yet US policy—voter ID laws, travel bans, invented “Black Identity Extremist” groups—still use the appearances of people as a basis for discrimination). This description also speaks to the over-arching ambiguity of the novel: Noget’s gaze—or Nadia’s interpretation of that gaze (skewed by her own fear?)—is the opposite of his sympathetic behavior. Nadia seems to be guilty of some of the same crimes being committed against her.
As soon as her husband is stabilized and has fallen asleep, Nadia pushes Noget out of the apartment. But he is persistent in his wish to assist—or interfere—and returns the next morning with a big breakfast. She’s certain that Noget’s intentions are duplicitous, that he’s there to spy on her, but she eats his breakfast, finding it “delicious and comforting.” And when Noget returns at every meal with more delicacies, Nadia begrudgingly cleans her plate. Noget’s intentions do seem nefarious—almost as if he wanted to plump up Nadia like the witch who plumped up Hansel and Gretel—but his actions are saintly.
In beginning of the book, Nadia says, “You always have some idea, I thought, of the wrong you’re being blamed for” (4). But then claims complete ignorance of her “wrong”—which is understandable: what person in a million can see the speck in her own eye? Any ego will shrink from blame, from a truth that is too scouring. And Nadia’s instinct is to shrink. When she is at the drugstore to buy compresses for her husband’s wound, the pharmacist takes pity on her; she not only sells her compresses, she also offers to tell Nadia what happened to her husband. But Nadia says, “I don’t want to know…” (17). And later, as she pushes Noget out of her apartment, and he attempts to explain the reason for her current situation, she says, “I’m closing my ears… I’m not going to listen to you anymore, not at all, ever again” (41). This is like the person who knows she should eat healthily and exercise but finds the idea of doing either exhausting. It is easier—in the short term—to not think about it. This willful denial is evidence against her, it suggests she is nebulously aware of a moral tally that contains more bad than good. Or, she is so arrogant and self-righteous and certain that she is innocent that her arrogance and self-righteousness are the crime.
Her efforts to fend off an explanation are only partially successful. The pharmacist tells her:
“It’s no one’s fault… but it’s also everyone’s fault. My daughter told me about it. She didn’t do anything, she only saw it; she didn’t object because those horrible ideas have infected her too, they’re infecting even innocent children now, no matter how I try to…to make her understand that she mustn’t…that it’s not right.” (19)
And her neighbor says:
“You two, it must be said, have… an inappropriate attitude toward life—unacceptable, from certain points of view, and I would even add, forgive me, obscene—and of course that in no way justifies people tormenting you, and indeed no one would be tormenting you if it were only that, but since there’s also, as you know, as you suspect…your face, and the look on your face…” (70).
Whatever the pharmacist’s daughter’s idea may be—presumably ideas that allow her to hate Nadia or allow her, more generally, to assign blame to another—they are “not right.” It is as if this infection has dissolved the cellular walls of morality, or ruptured the chemical bonds between right and wrong. While Nadia has been wondering about the source of her crime, the truth is that, “It’s no one’s fault…but it’s also everyone’s fault.” That Nadia is being harassed because of the “look on [her] face…” is like her shunning Noget because of his “dirty beard.” The order of cause and effect, good and bad, guilty and innocent are irrelevant. There is no difference between fault and innocence. Hate is arbitrary.
When she can no longer stand the apartment—disturbed by her husband’s worsening condition and Noget’s lurking presence—Nadia ventures out into the city. But she can’t escape the mordant malaise, the “horrible” ideas that have “infected” everyone. The city is beginning to decay:
The fog is still there, as it is every day, and I’ve come to think it will never lift again, that it’s become a part of Bordeaux’s character, its very essence, that this fog is the city’s breath, in a sense, as if, I tell myself, some deep-seated, stubborn, perhaps incurable illness were rotting my beloved city’s entrails, and that’s why its breath has become so unwholesome. (134)
We know what this “deep-seated, stubborn, perhaps incurable illness” is. It is the gangrenous wound. Everyone in town is expelling a putrid fog, because all are sick. It isn’t that there are no good people in NDiaye’s novel, it’s that it’s nearly impossible to accurately see one’s own guilt; a criminal cannot pass sentence on herself. During her walks—which are more like headlong hurtles through a labyrinth—evidence against her continues to accrue: she runs into her ex-husband, a man she cheated on and then financially destroyed in the divorce; she encounters an old friend whom she had ignored when the friend was homeless; and she visits her son’s ex-boyfriend and complains of her estrangement from her son—an estrangement that has its roots in her disgust with the name, Souhar, chosen for her grandchild. She, too, has an “unwholesome” breath.
Later, Nadia flees to her son’s home in southern France. Her city has become too inhospitable, and perhaps the sunny, Mediterranean climate will burn away her (internal) fog. On the train ride, she befriends a traveller in the seat next to her. Or rather, the woman does not shun her—she lets Nadia take the adjacent seat. And then gives Nadia her (mostly uneaten) dinner. Nadia is thrilled that this woman doesn’t immediately hate her. But she can’t quite tell if she is just too distracted by her own thoughts, her own problems, to bother disliking Nadia or if the woman is genuinely nice. Either way, Nadia is changed:
Still, how I wish I could come together with her grief, try to distract it with good thoughts. But now that cold, hard mistrust I know so well is freezing my uneasy heart, now I’m secretly relieved to know nothing of this woman’s sadness, even if my gratitude to her is far keener than my relief is to me, or my icy mistrust. How can I fight back that reflex? (185)
It didn’t take much: some snacks and not sending her away. But it is evidence of kindness, which Nadia desperately needs. It gives her a new perspective. She now wants to soothe this woman, to “distract [her grief] with good thoughts.” She has begun to see, through the haze, the outlines of humanity: she could help this woman or, with her “icy mistrust,” she could allow this woman to suffer. One might also call these the lines of right and wrong. Nadia must still reconcile the chaos in her life—the novel isn’t over—and it isn’t likely that the town will forgive her, but the book suggests that an antibody exists.
This is a strange, beguiling, and exceptional work. It shows the knotted horror of Nadia’s selfishness and bigotry—her guilt. While also showing how she is innocent of being an “other,” a category that exists only in the eye of the accuser. Marie NDiaye conveys a known, important, but often unheeded truth: if we are not noble, humble, and helpful—if we condemn a person or a group to a demeaning category—we will be “hemmed in” by the latent disease carried in our hearts.