Caroline Lamarche: La Chienne de Naha [The Bitch of Naha]
The first point to make is that the eponymous bitch refers to a female dog and is not a sexist slur about a human female. The title comes from a tale told by the Triqui people of Mexico and we are introduced to this tale immediately though it will have greater import later on in the book.
The tale tells of a man who lives in Naha. Later in the book the narrator admits to not knowing where Naha is and wonders if it is cognate with the Spanish word nada, i.e. nothing. He lived on his own except for his female dog. Every day he went out to work his fields and when he returned, the house had been cleaned and his food prepared. But who was doing it? One day, instead of going to the fields he hid behind a tree and then sneaked up to the house . He saw that the dog had removed her hide and become a human woman and did the work. The tale continues and ends violently.
Our unnamed narrator is in a relationship with Gilles. The couple live half way between their respective mothers. The narrator’s mother is starting to get frail. Her sight is not so good and she seems more despondent than before. The narrator’s plan to write a book to cheer her up might be too late. As for Gilles’ mother she seems more depressed. and keeps mislaying objects. The narrator suggests getting suitable medication from her doctor but Gilles reacts badly to what he sees as a lack of sympathy. In short, the couple did not seem to be offering each other mutual support and Gilles ends up hitting her.
Like Lamarche, the narrator had grown up in Spain as her father had been sent there for his job. The parents had hired Lucía as their housekeeper and she had brought along her daughter, Maria. The narrator maintains that she had two mothers and two languages. She spoke French to her mother and Spanish to Lucía. She also has an elder sister who often treats her as a doll, washing her and changing her clothes.
They were there four years and then her father was transferred to Paris and they live in Montreuil. Lucía and Maria accompany them. The mother does not have a formal job but is always busy. In particular she tells her daughter tales from the Bible. However it seems to be Lucía who looks after her more and, when she was twelve, she told her mother that she preferred Lucía.
Lucía returns to Spain when she retired. When she died, Maria asked the narrator to come to the funeral but the long and complicated journey and the fact that she and Gilles had just got together put her off. She did consider it and Gilles, at this point, accuses her of being indecisive, a view with which she concurs. Maria, meanwhile goes off to Mexico with her boyfriend to help the Triquis. Five years after Lucía’s death, Maria asks her to come to Mexico. Again she hesitates but agrees when Maria sends her the Bitch of Naha story.
She initially goes to Mexico City, staying in the flat of a Triqui friend of Maria and we see Mexico City through her eyes from the police to the locals, from Frida Kahlo to the peseros. She then heads to Oaxaca and the rest of the book recounts her adventures in Oaxaca and Etla (where much of Under the Volcano is set, which she reads at the time.) She meets up with Maria and learns of her activities in helping the Triqui.
There are a few key things going on. Firstly, while she does not bang the drum on this, the treatment and the role of women is an important issue, as it is in her other books. The tone has been set with the legend of The Bitch of Naha, and this story will reappear a few times in the course of the book. We have seen her hit by Gilles. She is not the only woman to be hit by her partner in this book. She is also mugged in Oaxaca (by a man, of course). We see how the Triqui women suffer. They are expected to be married at the age of thirteen. Indeed they are sold. Those who have not been to school fetch a higher price. We follow one specific story of a thirteen- year old girl who is made to marry a man thirty years older than her and what happens when she not surprisingly shows some reluctance. Lucía’s treatment by her husband and the mockery the narrator’s mother gets when she drives the car in Spain instead of her husband are other examples of sexism. In Mexico, we learn of the violence against women – rapes, kidnapping, femicide and other brutality. There is apparently a local proverb which states Women are like a rifle, loaded and behind the door, which means, for the locals, that women must always be pregnant and must stay at home though the narrator decides to interpret it differently: women must always be like a loaded rifle, ready to shoot their male aggressors.
Linked to this is racism as she sees how badly the native Americans are treated, arbitrarily arrested and brutalised. We get a brief note at the end describing the brutality of the actual governor.
Linked to this is the idea of death . Our narrator is there during the Day of the Dead ceremonies. However death is often hovering around. We see it with Lucía and her husband but also with animals (animals are often key in Lamarche’s book) who are often killed in a cruel manner. She visits a convent in Copala and is told that people who are born in Copala die from bullets as it seems to be very violent.
For the narrator, there is clearly a big culture shock coming to Oaxaca and not just with the treatment of women and the racism towards the native population and she welcomes some of the differences but struggles with others. She says that Mexico is a nest of illogicalities. She herself has been between two cultures – the Belgian and Spanish ones – but has coped with that. While her knowledge of Spanish helps in Mexico, it does not when she is with the Triqui who speak their own language (a language, we learn, that is in danger of disappearing).
What really works in this book is seeing the world through the narrator’s eyes, She questions and challenges, but also observes and ruminates on what she sees and hears and it is her sharp commentary on the issues mentioned above but also, generally, on her life and the lives of those she comes in contact with, the places she visits and the things that she sees which is what we are reading.
First published in 2012 by Gallimard
No English translation