by J.M.G. Le Clézio (Désert, 1980)
translated from the French by C. Dickson (2009)
David R. Godine (2009)
352 pp

When J.M.G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008, I had no idea who he was — as I’m sure was the case with many of you. Not that that’s uncommon when the winner is announced in October — often the press release is my first encounter. I was pleased, then, when I saw that Godine Press’s Verba Mundi series had two of his books available, The Prospector and, more recently, Desert. I started with Desert because it is the book cited by the Nobel committee as Le Clézio’s “definitive breakthrough as a novelist.”

Reading this book took me back to my days in university when I was very engaged with post-colonial literature. In fact, it’s a major disappointment that though this book was published in French in 1980, it was unavailable to us in English until nearly thirty years later — thirty years! It is as good as any of the post-colonial books I read (Achebe, Soyinka, Walcott, Naipaul, Rushdie), and it is better than most. I would have loved to study it in a class. It deserves some serious attention, and hopefully it is on the road to getting it.

Now, admitedly, there are some embarassing reasons it wasn’t available to us in English sooner. Desert begins with a fifty-page introduction, that reads as slowly and methodically as the trek through the desert that it is describing, taking us back to the winter of 1909 – 1910, to Saguiet al-Hamra, the “Red Canal” territory in present-day Western Sahara. There is a massive migration as the men and women and children of the desert are coming together at Smara at the feet of Ma al-Aïnine, their religious and political leader. It is slow — but it is breath-taking! This is a particularly beautiful passage that conveys the emotion and feel of the migration in the desert so wonderfully:

In the following days anxiety began to mount again in the Smara camp. It was incomprehensible, but everyone could feel it, like a pain in the heart, like a threat. The sun burned down hard during the day, bouncing its brutal light off the edges of rocks and the dried beds of torrents. The foothills of the rocky Hamada shimmered in the distance, and there were always mirages over the Saguiet Valley. New bands of nomads arrived each hour of the day, haggard with weariness and thirst, coming in forced marches from the south, and their silhouettes melted into the horizon along with the scintillating mirages. They walked slowly, feet bandaged with strips of goatskin, carrying their meager loads on their backs. Sometimes they were followed by half-starved camels and limping horses, goats, sheep. They set up their tents hastily on the edge of the camp. No one went to greet them or ask them where they came from. Some bore the marks of wounds from battles they had fought against the soldiers of the Christians or the looters in the desert; most were on the verge of collapse, spent from fevers and stomach ailments. Sometimes all that was left of an army arrived, decimated, bereft of a leader, womanless, black-skinned men, almost naked in their ragged garments, their glassy eyes bright with fever and folly. They went to drink at the spring in front of the gate to Smara, then they lay down on the ground in the shade of the city walls, as if to sleep, but their eyes remained wide open.

They are not in Smara long before Ma al-Aïnine, the founder of Smara, and already a bitter opponent to French and Spanish colonization then going on in North Africa (he had already proclaimed jihad against the colonizers), tells them they must all go north where more land is available for them to develop.

The book then shifts to some time after World War II. Here we meet the main character, Lalla, in some coastal town in Morocco or Algeria. Lalla is descended from these desert men, though she herself is now an orphan being raised by her aunt, Aamma. The Lalla passages don’t move any faster than the desert migration passages, but they are much more intimate, focusing in a most peculiar manner on this girl. She has an almost mythical past that keeps her elevated from us — that is, we try to approach her, but we never quite get inside her head.

She also speaks of the desert, the wide open desert that commences south of Goulimeine, east of Taroudant, beyond the Drâa Valley. It was there in the desert that Lalla was born, at the foot of a tree, as Aamma tells it. There in the open desert, the sky is immense; the horizon has no end because there is nothing for the eye to catch upon. The desert is like the sea, with the waves of wind over the hard sand, with the froth of rolling bramble bushes, with the flat stones, patches of lichen and plaques of salt, and the black shadows that dig out holes when the sun draws near to the earth.

Lalla herself seems to exist on some other plain along with her sometimes companion, the Hartani, a young man who also comes from the desert. Lalla sees the desert as a wonder-filled place, a rarefied atmosphere where she can commune with something primordial. It’s a nice contrast to the brutal desert we saw in 1909 when the migrants were dying there.

Lalla is moving forward, eyes almost closed against the reverberating light, and sweat is making her dress stick to her abdomen, to her chest, to her back. Never, perhaps, has there been so much light on earth, and never has Lalla so thirsted after it, as if she had come from a dark valley in which death and shadows prevailed. The air up here is still, it is hovering, it flickers and pulsates, and you think you can hear the sound of light waves, the strange music that resembles the song of bees.

The narrative shifts when the young Lalla begins to be courted by a rich old man. As the prospect of marriage becomes more concrete, Lalla decides to leave the desert. She migrates to Marseilles, where she and the other immigrants are very unwelcome. The chapter taking place in the desert was entitled “Happiness”; the chapter in Marseilles is called “Life with the Slaves.”

Lalla gets a lump in her throat when she sees them, or when she runs into an ugly young woman with a small child hanging at her breast, begging on the corner of the main avenue. She didn’t really know what fear was before, because back there in the Hartani’s land, there were only snakes and scorpions or, at worst, evil spirits making shadowy motions in the night; but here it’s the fear of emptiness, of need, of hunger, unnamed fear that seems to seep in from half-opened transoms into the horrid, stinking, basement rooms, well up from dark courtyards, enter rooms as cold as graves, or, like an evil wind, sweep along the wide avenues, where people are endlessly walking, walking, going away, pushing and shoving one another like that incessantly, day and night, for months on end, for years, through the unflagging sound of their rubber soles and, rising into the heavy air, the rumbling of their words, their motors, their grumbling, their gasping.

To me this is where the book really takes off. We’ve seen a series of migrations and settings, all very effectively exploring the world of migrants and immigrants from post-colonial settlements. Some would be theoretically appalled that a French author would deem himself capable of writing such an experience. I have no such qualms, and it is fascinating to see how Le Clézio manages to avoid the pitfall of appropriating Lalla’s voice. She remains, somehow I’m unable to figure out just now, distant even when we explore her thoughts. He doesn’t hold her in his hands as he discusses with us her experiences. There’s a great bit of scholarship there, so post-colonial theorists — if that is still partially in vogue — here is a piece worth your time. But for those of you with a less scholarly bent, as I have now, this is still an enriching reading experience.

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