France has seen quite some of her writers rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature: René F. A. Sully Prudhomme (1901), Frédéric Mistral (1904), Romain Rolland (1915), Anatole France (1921), Henri Bergson (1927), Roger Martin du Gard (1937), André Gide (1947), François Mauriac (1952), Albert Camus (1957), Saint-John Perse (1960), Jean-Paul Sartre (1964), Claude Simon (1985), Gao Xingjian (2000), and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (2008). Their names are stars twinkling in the literary sky although some have become hard to make out in the growing haze of the years. However, it would almost feel like a sacrilege to ignore them all in the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, so I decided to review at least one work by a French Nobel laureate. My choice fell upon Desert by J.-M. G. Le Clézio.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born in Nice, France, in April 1940, but his ancestors had been living on the island of Mauritius since the late eighteenth century. He began writing as a seven-year-old and already in 1963 his first published novel, The Interrogation (Le Procès-Verbal), earned him a renowned literary award, the Prix Renaudot. In the following decades he finished his studies, travelled extensively and worked as a professor at different universities along with producing several important novels like The Flood (Le déluge: 1966), Terra amata (1967), The Book of Flights (Le Livre des fuites: 1969), War (La Guerre: 1970), and The Giants (Les Géants: 1973). As from the late 1970s J.-M. G. Le Clézio’s style changed and his books began to attract a wider public. Some of his most notable later works available in English are Desert (Désert: 1980), The Prospector (Le Chercheur d'or: 1985), Onitsha (1991), Wandering Star (Étoile errante: 1992), and The African (L’Africain: 2004). In 2008 the French-Mauritian writer of novels, short stories, essays and also some children’s books was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His latest published novel is Ritournelle de la faim (2008) and not yet translated into English. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, Mauritius, and Nice, France, with his family.
The impressive scenes of Desert are Morocco or Western Sahara and Marseille, France, alternately in 1909/10 and in modern times, probably the period when the novel was conceived in the 1970s. The two plot lines are interlaced and linked in various ways. One such connection is the desert itself and the deep love for it which share the Tuareg teenager Nour and the orphan girl Lalla Hawa although about sixty years separate their stories. Another common point is the Blue Man, a wonder-working man of the Tuareg people and maternal ancestor of Lalla Hawa. In the early twentieth century the desert warriors under their aged leader Sheikh Ma Al-Ainine, who was a disciple of the Blue Man, stand up against the Christian (colonial) army. They set out to chase the Infidels from their beloved country in the name and with the help of Allah. Nour and his family are among the track of men, women, children and livestock struggling northwards through the desert regardless of heat, cold, thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. In the 1970s their descendant Lalla Hawa lives with her aunt’s family in some shanty town at the Atlantic coast where the dunes of the desert end. It’s her greatest pleasure to roam the beach and the dunes to observe the sea, the animals and the plants in solitude or to meet her mute shepherd friend, a foundling called “the Hatani”, on the stony pastures although she is ever again warned against seeing the boy. Lalla grows up to be a young woman in a poor neighbourhood without other “schooling” than that of household routine and the stories which the old fisherman Naman and her aunt keep telling, but she doesn’t mind since her nomadic soul only longs for freedom. She is happy. When her aunt arranges a marriage for her with a wealthy middle-aged man from the city, Lalla flees into the desert with the Hatani and counts on being no longer a suitable match for any honourable man, especially if she got pregnant. Half dead with thirst and hunger Lalla is rescued and when she has enough recovered, she joins her aunt who meanwhile went to Marseille. Alas, nothing there is the way she had expected and she misses the desert. Only when a photographer notices the beautiful seventeen-year-old, fate turns in her favour.
The stories of Nour and Lalla are filled with the spirit of the Desert which – of course – accounts for the novel’s title. The protagonists move about in a world of beauty and frugality, of secret and magic, of life and death which J.-M. G. Le Clézio describes in countless poetic pictures. The protagonists are fully aware of their surroundings and see things that nobody else, above all no European, might notice or even appreciate. They love the desert no matter how hard it is to survive in such a harsh environment and they belong to it. For Lalla emigration is no rescue from misery, but imprisonment. The pace of the novel is slow like that of a caravan making its way through the desert under a merciless sun. Time is of no importance. The novel is written in a simple language which made it easy for me to read the French original.
Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio may not be a novel to everybody’s taste, but I loved it. I feel that there is much more in it than I could grasp reading it only once and rather quickly. It goes without saying that I warmly recommend this novel.
Original post on Edith's Miscellany: