She won the accolade of the Prix Goncourt in 2016: Leïla Slimani, aged 35, born and raised in Rabat, based since her eighteenth year in Paris where she works as a journalist and writer. She is the 12th woman to be awarded this prize in its 113-year history.
“That at least raises the quota to 10 %, though it still doesn’t even things out – I’m delighted all the same”, Leïla Slimani remarked during the award ceremony. Her success has also seen the number of Goncourt prizewinners from Morocco double over the past 30 years: from one to two. In 1987, the writer Tahar Ben Jelloun earned this distinction, and recently he was one of the jury to award Leïla Slimani the prize. Nonetheless, he clearly felt compelled to explain this choice, “she didn’t write the expected novel from the Maghreb about the situation of women, about couscous or other folklore. Only one criterion counts for us: literature.”
Actually, in her second novel Chanson douce (Sweet Song) Slimani leads the reader into the epicentre of Parisian life – far from any kind of Orientalism. Nor is her style characterized by exuberantly romantic storytelling, as is usually claimed for writers from the Maghreb: it’s sober.
Like Anne and Georges in Michael Haneke’s drama Caché, Slimani’s plot is rather middle-class: Paul und Myriam are in their early forties, married with two children, and they live in the trendy 10th arrondissement, which on 13 November 2016 was at the heart of the Paris terror attacks.
Paul works as a production assistant in the music industry, although he is not concerned which artists he promotes, just as little as Myriam is interested in whom she defends as a lawyer. After her maternity leave she is happy to be back at work again, so a nanny has to live in the house. A friend advises her against employing someone with their own children, and if she does, then only someone “in the country”, in other words from further afield, but in her homeland – i.e. Slimani gently hints that French women rarely apply for these kinds of jobs. Myriam is “embarrassingly touched” by this rather flippant kind of discrimination. But the couple is well aware that by employing a nanny, they naturally accept some form of social inequality at home. Slimani’s socio-critical narrative tackles precisely this awkward point.
Before interviewing for the position of nanny, Paul and Myriam busily tidy their apartment to clarify the ground rules. They want to demonstrate, “that they are decent, serious and professional people who only want to offer their children the best. [The candidates] should understand that both of them are the bosses in this home.”
But the opposite happens when Louise, who seems to be the perfect nanny, moves in with them. She quickly makes herself indispensable, assuming a central status within the family. Soon, however, the honeymoon period of harmony gives way to unspoken tensions. Jealousy, feelings of guilt, prejudices and mistrust arise – and a murderous plan forms in Louise’s head.
The novel begins with the disaster: both children are murdered because of the nanny’s revenge. Slimani is inspired by a true story; as a qualified sociologist, she is also particularly interested in the process of the family conceding its own complicity in the brutal act.
For a long while, the topic of “children and career” seemed rather irrelevant in France. There was always a high birth rate. The “bad mother debate” raging in Germany was met with incomprehension. Mothers like the ex-Minister of Justice, Rachida Dati, who was back at work within five days of giving birth to her daughter, were considered normal. Ultimately, childcare in France is better than in other European countries.
The fact that it is safeguarded not merely by a well-functioning system of state institutions and socially dependent “nounous” (nannies) – often travelling for hours from the suburbs to the families in the centre, or as in the old days, living in maids’ rooms in the attic – was not called into question. Leïla Slimani’s novel, however, puts a finger on the wound of France’s modern two-tiered society. And it obviously hit a nerve.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright