What follows is not, as they say, a spoiler, because the book begins like this: “The baby has died.” So it starts Sweet song, by the French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani. Those starts that are a cross to the jaw, as requested by Roberto Arlt. And the appointment is a direct arrow to that other beginning, a classic at this point, from Abroad, by Albert Camus, another author of French nationality but born in Algeria: “Today mommy has died”. Camus, Algerian; Slimani, Moroccan. Both Northwest African countries, both former French colonies. And that is, in part, the key to reading these works. African otherness in the land of Gustave Flaubert.
The novel is read at once and with anguish, because the end is known from the first two pages. And yet it raises many questions for us.
What follows the dead baby is no more encouraging. The doctor assures that the child, “at least”, did not suffer: “They tended him in a gray sheath and closed the closure on the disjointed body that floated among the toys.” Instead, the girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived, “she fought like a beast” to survive, she was agitated, her throat was full of blood, her lungs were punctured, her head was beaten. A bathroom and a room full of blood, furniture thrown, toys scattered, two children stabbed at bath time, this is a crime scene.
“The other also had to be saved. With professionalism, with objectivity ”. The other is the murderer, who is no other, neither more nor less, than the children’s nanny. He wanted to commit suicide, he stuck the knife in his throat. But he did not die and is hospitalized.
All this happens in the first two pages of the novel that won the 2016 Goncourt Prize, one of the most important literary awards in France. From then on, what follows will be the reconstruction not of the crime, but of the life of that nanny and that family.
Despite her husband’s resistance, Myriam Massé wants to resume her work activity at a law firm. For that they need to leave Mila and Adam with a babysitter. The selection process reveals the power relations, the pressure on motherhood and the social prejudices in force in French society (Although it can also be extended to current events in Argentina, why not: we have known, in recent times, the conflicting cases of the employees of Pampita, Nicole Neumann and Victoria Donda, to mention only those with media coverage). As well interculturalism.
Leïla Slimani, a promising voice.
That the nanny candidate has the papers in order, “for the painter or the cleaning worker it does not matter if she does not have the papers, but for the nanny it is important, to see if she is afraid to call the police or go to the hospital ”: France, like Argentina, receives many immigrants who seek a better quality of life than in their countries of birth and enter the labor market. And both in France and Argentina, upbringing is often in the hands of immigrant women: Ivorian, Moroccan, Senegalese in France; Paraguayan, Peruvian, Bolivian in Argentina. We see and hear them in the squares. That the nanny, in short, is neither very young nor very old, that she does not smoke, that she does not have children or that those children are already grown up and also live in the country, to see if she still has to travel far. That is not “Maghreb”, “I don’t want him to speak Arabic to the boys”.
Thus, in those phrases that are said in the past, as comments, Slimani, 39 years old and also a journalist as well as a writer, builds the discourses of discrimination already naturalized circulating, in this case, in a bourgeois family in France. The “micro” practices, as they are now called: micro-discrimination, micro-chasms, micro-patriarchy, micro-racism.
And then Luisa arrives. A fallen angel from heaven. The ideal babysitter. Boys love her. Marriage too. Who wouldn’t want to have her as a babysitter? But here is a broken cliché, which causes a start in the reader: Luisa is not an immigrant, she is French, white, middle-aged, she is blonde. Slimani breaks the common place – the nanny is not an immigrant – while confirming the act of racism: from the nanny candidates, they choose the French one.
Leïla Slimani was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1981.
Then they take her on vacation with them, to Greece, because “after all, what else does she have to do?” Little by little, we are getting to know Luisa. She is a widow, her husband left her nothing but debts, she has a bad relationship with her daughter (who also lives far away), she is lonely, she lives in the suburbs in a rented room that is sad, she does not relate to anyone. Luisa’s whole life goes through taking care of these two boys. And she goes further: without anyone asking her, she starts cleaning the house, preparing food, shopping, taking out the garbage, ironing clothes, arranging the closet and she even wants Myriam to get pregnant again so she can perpetuate her job. in that house.
From small situations and gestures, Slimani, born in 1981, in Rabat, Morocco, but of French nationality, builds, with patience and meticulousness (anxiety, as always, is the responsibility of the reader), that relationship of interdependence between the two parties, family-nanny, which will eventually end in tragedy. “At first, I wanted to write about the relationship we have with a nanny, because it is a very ambiguous power relationship between two women. An intimate and professional relationship, in which affection and jealousy are mixed, ”Slimani herself said in an interview with Clarín at the end of 2019, when the book arrived in the country from the Cabaret Voltaire publishing house (it is not so easy to get nor that cheap, but it is, and if not, you can search in e-book).
“Sweet song”, by Leïla Slimani (Cabaret Voltaire, $ 3,663).
Slimani was inspired by a real event to tell this story: a Dominican nanny who stabbed to death the two boys she looked after in a house in New York, in 2012. “A nanny spends a lot of time in your house, she knows everything about you , even the most intimate details of your life. And it has great power over you because it takes care of your children. And very often, employers adopt a certain indifference towards them. They pay him, they give him orders, but they don’t want to know who he is, what his life is like. This discrepancy and what it generates is precisely what I wanted to show, ”he added. Slimani, about his second novel.
The author, who studied Political Science and wrote in the magazine Jeune Afrique on the problems of the North African countries, he supported the candidacy of Emmanuel Macron in the last presidential elections and became his representative for La Francophonie.
His book reached the cinema in 2019, by the hand of the director Lucie Borleteau and with Karin Viard in the role of Luisa. There is another adaptation underway in the United States, where the book was translated with a kind of “reading guide”, where Slimani explains certain passages in the writing process. This annex was necessary because of the disturbing nature of the topic it touched on: the fear that the children will suffer, the fear of losing them. Touchée.