Review: That Time of Year

Novel by MARIE NDIAYE

Translated from the French by JORDAN STUMP

Reviewed by ELLIE RAMBO

rambo review

I first encountered the phrase “victim of hospitality” in the Republic of Georgia, where after many elaborate toasts in their honor, plates of food pushed their way, and cups of wine pressed into their hands, tourists begin to sense the impossibility of turning something down. As generously good-natured as these offers are, at some point the visitors’ inability to reject them represents their larger lack of control within the unfamiliar setting.

In Marie NDiaye’s novel That Time of Year, translated from the French by Jordan Stump, a schoolteacher from Paris experiences a more ominous loss of control over his life while on vacation. The character, Herman, becomes the victim of a much darker kind of hospitality, and he is eventually so numbed by local good manners, glacial bureaucracy, and gloomy weather that he loses his desire to escape his hospitable captors.

Herman and his wife decide to return to the city from their summer home just two days later than usual, but on the first of September she disappears, along with their child. By the time the narrative begins they are already gone, so readers never really meet Herman’s wife or son, nor do they see how the couple interacts under normal circumstances. From the beginning Herman is isolated and off-kilter, with only hazy memories of the village during past summer holidays, which are quickly washed away by constant rain in the present. A confident, determined Herman appears for only a few pages before realizing that he has “crossed over the border of summer” and now finds himself in an alien place, “which he didn’t know in such weather” despite his ten years of vacationing just outside the village. He moves into a hotel in the village itself, both because his summer house is unheated and because through close observation of the villagers he hopes to discover secrets that will lead him to his family. The abrupt relocation, change in weather, and disappearance of his family rapidly change Herman into another character altogether—a hesitant man anxious to see his wife and son again but unable to navigate his new environment.

In addition to the effect on Herman’s character, the abrupt start of the book in the first days of fall has a more subtle effect: the perspective of tourists is barely represented at all. Even Herman, a former tourist, has limited access to his memories of the village in summer. Also, although he is not a villager, after the summer season ends he has become something other than a tourist. By this point Herman is a true outsider, with neither deep local knowledge of the village nor the assumed, comfortable familiarity of a summer visitor. NDiaye’s omission of certain details—the name of the village, any personality traits of Herman’s family members, a distinct impression of the village in summer—contributes to the uncanny feeling. The result is not an allegory, but a horror story with its details washed away.

Occasionally, Herman searches the nearby village in a state of frantic agitation, but mostly he waits aimlessly in the damp hotel, since on the first day of the month the weather abruptly shifts from sunny warmth to endless drizzle. In fact, Herman seems more immediately concerned with the abrupt change in weather than with the disappearance of his wife and son. He’s surprised that in the absence of tourists the area hasn’t “gone into hibernation, awaiting their return the next summer, perhaps preserved in a perpetual green mildness.” Rather than making Herman appear callous, his preoccupation with the weather has a stranger implication: that somehow the change of season has caused his family’s disappearance, as well as the newfound hostility of his surroundings. While attempting to get help with his case from an uninterested policeman, Herman follows his description of the incident with a justification:

“You must understand,” he repeated, though he knew he’d said more than enough, “I’ve never seen the fall here before, this rain, this biting cold… We were always gone by now, and we had no idea what happens here afterward.”

One meaning of “what happens here afterward” is a straightforward reference to the weather—“the autumn rain and the stinging cold that inevitably settled in on the first of September”—but another meaning includes whatever fate has befallen Herman’s family. In Jordan Stump’s translation, the ambiguity here and at other moments allows Herman’s fear to shift from one possible cause to another quite fluidly, and the character’s disorientation is part of his malaise. He’s not only trying to locate his wife and son, but also the reason they left him alone in the village. From the beginning, he suspects it has something to do with the season. “‘Everything’s turned hostile all of a sudden,’ he groaned. ‘Is it because I’ve seen the fall, is this the price you have to pay?’”

In addition to the newly grim weather, there’s hostility lurking behind the local hospitality. The villagers are known for their warm welcome of summer visitors, “which for many was nothing short of a mania.” But as soon as his family vanishes—and as soon as fall begins—Herman detects a new chill in the locals’ careful manners. In his first confused search for his wife, Herman notices many disapproving looks from shopkeepers as he runs through the downpour. “Maybe the people around here didn’t like outsiders experiencing autumn,” he thinks. The weather and chilly civilities are linked even in their particulars: when returning the bow of a politely unhelpful neighbor, rainwater slides down Herman’s neck and he begins to shiver. He is unable to warm or dry himself for the rest of the book: “His bones, he thought, his entrails, everything in him was similarly saturated, stiff and cold.”

The climate and local customs conspire to keep Herman from finding his family. During a useless visit to the town hall, he realizes: “These people are so considerate, so obliging… They’re holding me captive, more securely than they ever could with orders and interdictions.” Instead of trying to find Herman’s missing family or even feigning such help, the locals offer him sympathetic pleasantries. Their responses redirect his search to other areas: would he like to meet the president of the Chamber of Commerce? Perhaps attend a dinner hosted by local shopkeepers? Or return tomorrow when the police department reopens?

As Herman’s initial desire for answers is cooled by the polite disinterest of the villagers, his ability to focus on his search dissolves in response to the ceaseless rain. After weeks in the village, Herman “thought he could feel his waterlogged brain dripping onto the walls of his skull, water trickling all through his body with nowhere to drain.” Consumed with his own discomfort and frustrated by the villagers’ stalling, Herman loses his initiative and time warps around him. Eventually he is absorbed into a predictable daily routine, which continues undisturbed due to the consistency of the weather and the routines of others around him.

The days went by in the village, Herman no longer troubling to determine the date. Lying on his bed, hands clasped behind his neck, he watched the comings and goings through his open door, and that was all that occupied him for the day. When Charlotte [the hotel keeper’s daughter] went by he sat up, called out to her, and they exchanged a few words about the rain.

He has successfully immersed himself in village life, which allows him to observe it during the off-season. But by submerging himself in the villagers’ daily lives, he has also become part of the village—dreary, unchanging, incurious. By the time melancholy apparitions begin to appear around the village, he has trouble asserting himself strongly enough to ask questions about them. The revelation of what happened to Herman’s family is gradual, which creates a sinister atmosphere, rather than a series of shocking twists. Still, NDiaye maintains enough suspense to keep readers’ interest, however distant a curious reader might feel from the dazed protagonist.

The novella has dark implications, especially considering how Herman’s difficulties are connected to the uncontrollable local climate. Remembering his family’s previous lack of consideration, Herman thinks, “It was certainly true that they’d never given a moment’s thought to the climate or anything else of this place, once the thirty-first of August came and they headed homeward; their long, invariably happy, sunlit vacation at an end.” This sentiment is likely familiar to any traveler who has put a coral reef, rainforest, or endangered coast out of mind on the plane ride home. Moreover, are all early twenty-first century readers nearing the end of our own long, sunlit vacation? It’s not the specific details of the climate shift Herman experiences that feel familiar in 2020, but the way he becomes numb to this shift. By treating a place as disposable for so many years, he has allowed what happens there beyond his notice to expand and fundamentally alter the course of his life. Rather than an indictment of Herman’s irresponsibility, the gradual way he accepts the new state of things is disturbing in its inevitability.

Other than the outsize role of climate, many elements of the novella recall other absurdist fiction, although That Time of Year is fresh enough for readers interested in the spooky and surreal. The book is especially reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, with its protagonist locked in an endless struggle against impenetrable bureaucracy. From his first visit to the town hall, Herman tries to emphasize the urgency of his case, although he knows “in truth he was already beaten.” In a sense That Time of Year is the contemporary version of Kafka’s incomplete novel, as NDiaye focuses on the interactions between a corrupt local government, the climate, and a much-abused outsider. There are also glimmers of Nikolai Gogol’s grotesque works here, like the increasingly deranged speech at the novel’s end by a taxi driver missing his nose. Ultimately, despite the echoes of other writers, this misty nightmare is particular to NDiaye—and it is all the more compelling for its unexpected connections.

 

Ellie Rambo is a PhD student in English at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studies American and Russian literature. She is managing editor of The Carolina Quarterly, and her work has also appeared in World Literature Today.

Review: That Time of Year

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