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Posted August  30, 2009
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The Price of Colonialism



J.M. G.  Le Clézio


Before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, J. M. G. Le Clézio had only the faintest of presences in America. Readers may or may not have remembered him as the handsome young Franco-Mauritian who in the early days of le nouveau roman had won the Prix Renaudot for his first novel, an aimless, intriguing experiment called “The Interrogation” (“Le Procès-Verbal”). By the late 1970s, Le Clézio, who has known many countries, had turned to his habit of travel for inspiration and was exploring distant landscapes and primitive cultures in books like “Desert” (“Désert”), which won another prestigious prize in France. “Desert,” however, was never published in English. Before the Nobel, Le Clézio’s early experimental novels had fallen out of print, and his latest works, drawn from his childhood and his concerns about the environment, had received passing notice. Le Clézio himself is said to be reclusive and keeps a low profile. His sudden eminence is understandably something of a wonder.
By J.M.G. Le Clézio
Translated by C. Dickson
352 pp. Verba Mundi/David
R. Godine. $25.95.
The American publication of “Desert” is therefore an event, bringing into closer range one of the leading writers in France. “Desert” is a rich, sprawling, searching, poetic, provocative, broadly historic and demanding novel, which in all those ways displays the essence of Le Clézio. As a reflection on colonization and its legacy, it is painfully relevant after 30 years. Weaving together two stories that span the 20th century, Le Clézio tells of the last days of the Tuareg, the desert warriors known as the blue men, who are being driven from their ancestral lands in North Africa by the French colonial army and “the new order,” and in counterpoint, the travails of a later generation trapped in the projects and shantytowns of Tangier and Marseille. His central characters are the stalwart young boy Nour, who in 1909 is migrating north across the Western Sahara in a caravan of nomadic Berber tribes, and a dreamy, copper-skinned young orphan named Lalla, descended from the blue men, whose parentage helps her survive immigrant life in the 1970s. There are secondary characters, historical figures like the legendary sheik Ma al-Ainine, revered by his people and demonized as a fanatic by the French, and such fablelike creations as Lalla’s two kindred spirits (the Hartani, a mute shepherd who can communicate with animals, and Naman, the old fisherman who tells her wise ­stories) or the pretty Gypsy boy Radicz, who is being trained as a thief on the streets of Marseille. In an important way, however, the presiding force of “Desert” is the land itself. As the omission of the definite article in the title seems to suggest, the desert, the jagged rocks and blistering heat, the maze of dunes, the waves of open space, “timeless,” “deep in their bodies,” is not only a setting, but also a kingdom, a resource and a state of mind.

“Desert” moves slowly, its pace set in the beginning by the tortuous trek across the Sahara and by Le Clézio’s way with language — the minutely detailed descriptions of the suffering, the recurring images of the sky, birds, the wind and light, the long waves of insistent prose designed to saturate and surround, like music. Repetitions are deliberate, rhythmic, metaphors are meant to enlighten and reflect. “Men go out into the desert, and they are like ships at sea; no one knows when they will return.” Le Clézio is writing about people who are close to the earth and sea, whose stories come from there, and at the same time about the vast epic of nature and its sustaining force. The connection between the land and all its creatures, humans, plants, animals, insects, has been a passionate theme in Le Clézio’s later work, and it is the lesson of Nour and more directly Lalla, who, to escape the harsh realities of her life, inhabits the mystical world of her ancestors, fed by visions of whirling winds and glistening sand and her communion with al-Ser, the spirit of the blue man warrior, “a dream that has come from afar.” He has the light of the desert in his eyes, as Lalla does too, which helps account for her success as the international fashion model Hawa — a career she abandons to return to her old neighborhood in Tangier and give birth.

Le Clézio is an unusual storyteller, often called difficult or unclassifiable, which he says is only appropriate to a novelist and the brew of ideas called the novel. His work, more than 40 books of both fiction and nonfiction, has been shaped by his mixed roots and his own wanderings — born in France of a family who had lived for generations on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, he grew up thinking that there was a somewhere else that embodied his homeland — and he writes from experience, bearing witness but, as he says, without giving a message in the manner that Camus and Sartre did. Camus, a Nobel laureate a half-century ago, who grew up in French Algeria, comes to mind in reading “Desert,” for his own lyric descriptions of the desert and sea and the invisibility of the poor, and for his own feelings about colonialism and the indigenous culture of Algeria. Camus, like Le Clézio, wrote directly about experience and also about what Le Clézio calls the contradiction of experience, referring in particular to Camus’s dilemma during the Algerian war when he was unable to choose between the independence and his love of his native land. The tragedy of the Algerian war, like his memories of African chain gangs building a swimming pool in Nigeria or, later, his four years living with the Emberas Indians in the forests of Panama, lie behind Le Clézio’s compassionate attitude toward the third world and his empathy for the blue men and other native cultures. He is the sum of images from every­where, he has said in interviews. “My books are what resemble me most.”

There is an element of the missionary in Le Clézio, just as there is still something of the rebel in him, in search of the new novel, trying to break loose from the traditional bonds of fiction and language to mirror a wider world — as the Nobel citation described, to explore “a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” Beneath his pantheism and ethnology, there is also a serious critic of contemporary Western civilization and its rationalism, pointing out the conflict between nature and cities, the disconnect between man and mythology. In “Desert,” a powerful anger erupts in his portrayal of the underbelly of Marseille and the lost people that poverty has brought to France, people who “don’t exist because they leave no trace of their passage.” Le Clézio, who has dual passports from France and Mauritius and now spends part of the year in New Mexico, thinks of himself as an exile too, who finds his home in the French language.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, August 30, 2009.
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