Despite having published more than 40 books, JMG Le Clézio remains an enigma for most English-speaking readers. Published in France in 1980, Desert was singled out by the Swedish Academy as his “definitive breakthrough as a novelist” in its Nobel prize citation. As this work reaches Britain for the first time in English, the opportunity arises to unpick something of the mystery of a writer who has always been concerned with journeys and adventures, especially those undertaken by the dispossessed.
The novel is told from two viewpoints, in a double time scheme. On the one hand is Nour, a Tuareg boy who finds himself part of an uprising against the French colonists that took place in North Africa between 1910-12. On the other is Lalla, a striking and determined orphan girl descended from the same blue-robed clan as Nour. She grows up on the coast of Morocco during some unspecified time after the second world war – perhaps the 1970s – before making her way through the hostile terrain to France.
Nour marches with the followers of the seer Sheikh Ma Al-Ainine (“Water of the Eyes”), first to the city of Smara in Spanish Sahara, then north to Morocco. Clézio paid a lot of attention to the landscape and able to quote the names of every village and towns and geographical landmarks like Oasis and mountains and valleys, as Ma Al-Ainine’s followers migrate to the North.
Initially proud, the rebels are worn down by the harsh desert conditions and lack of sustenance. As the colonial troops close in on them, the followers trust on the guidance of Ma Al-Ainine’s “Each day people edged a little further into despair and anger, and Nour felt his throat growing tighter. He thought of the Sheikh’s distant gaze drifting out over the invisible hills in the night, then coming to rest on him for a brief moment, like a flash in a mirror that lit him up inside.”
For a while, Lalla, living with her aunt and uncle in a shanty, is happy in her village and at one with the nature and the desert. She spends most her time on the dunes, playing with seabirds, bees and beetles. Every once in awhile, she remembers the gaze of a spectral Toureg Blue man and hears the murmurs that speaks to her from the desert. El Ser (“the secret”), as she calls him, as I understand it stands for the Touregs that has been lost in the desert in the Sheikh’s migration.
Through all this Lalla befriended and fell in love with a boy called Hartani (a disparaging Arabic name for black oasis-dwellers), who himself was abandoned at a nearby well by one of the blue men, and now works as a shepherd. Against her aunt’s will she eloped with him to Europe. Except Hartani didn’t make it, but Lalla did.
She arrives in Marseilles and found work as a cleaner. Here Clézio describes another life which is different from where Lalla’s come from, slave nonetheless, the life of immigrants in France. Through one lucky encounter, she finds employment as model for a fashion photographer. She became famous but it all meant nothing for a young lady who has lived without much need in the desert.
The book is not an easy read. It takes patience and perseverance, which doesn’t necessarily a good thing if you seek to be engrossed and entertained. The depth of writing and research is prevalent throughout the book, at times it reads like a history book. The central message is the consequences of the lives who originate from a more traditional societies with the brute forces of mechanised imperialism; and in a lesser extent, the migrants who came from rural societies and trying to integrate and adapt to the metropolitan ones.
Throughout it all, I get the sense of mystic and escapism from reading about the Sheikh’s migration. It is my dream to able to go to the desert again one day, the sense of vastness and emptiness has intrigued many explorers in the past and the blue men who thrives and live their entire lives draw us into their spirits and courage that enable them to adapt to their harsh living condition, is something that beyond my own comfortable living’s comprehension. But it is Lalla’s nature to be free and no modern living shackles is going to tie her down.
“But it was their true world. The sand, the stones, the sky, the sun, the silence, the suffering, not the metal and cement towns with the sounds of fountains and human voices. It was here – in the barren order of the desert – where everything was possible, where one walked shadowless on the edge of his own death. The blue men moved along the invisible trail towards Smara, freer than any creature in the world could be.” – page 12
Paperback. Publisher: Atlantic Books 2011, originally published in French in 1980; Length: 230 pages; Setting: Smara Morocco, Marseilles France. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 14th April 2012.
About the writer:
Le Clézio’s mother was born in the French Riviera city of Nice, his father on the island of Mauritius (which was a British possession, but his father was ethnically French). Both his father’s and his mother’s ancestors were originally from Morbihan on the south coast of Brittany. His paternal ancestor François Alexis Le Clézio fled France in 1798 and settled with his wife and daughter on Mauritius, which was then a French colony but would soon pass into British hands. The colonists were allowed to maintain their customs and use of the French language. Le Clézio has never lived in Mauritius for more than a few months at a time, but he has stated that he regards himself both as a Frenchman and a Mauritian. He has dual French and Mauritian citizenship (Mauritius gained independence in 1968) and calls Mauritius his “little fatherland”.
Le Clézio was born in Nice, his mother’s native city, during World War II when his father was serving in the British army in Nigeria. He was raised in Roquebillière, a small village near Nice until 1948 when he, his mother, and his brother boarded a ship to join his father in Nigeria. His 1991 novel Onitsha is partly autobiographical. In a 2004 essay, he reminisced about his childhood in Nigeria and his relationship with his parents.
After studying at the University of Bristol in England from 1958 to 1959, he finished his undergraduate degree at Nice’s Institut d’études littéraires. In 1964 Le Clézio earned a master’s degree from the University of Provence with a thesis on Henri Michaux.
After several years spent in London and Bristol, he moved to the United States to work as a teacher. During 1967 he served in the French military in Thailand, but was quickly expelled from the country for protesting against child prostitution and sent to Mexico to finish his military obligation. From 1970 to 1974, he lived with the Embera-Wounaan tribe in Panama. He has been married since 1975 to Jémia, who is Moroccan, and has three daughters (one by his first marriage). Since the 1990s they have divided their residence between Albuquerque, Mauritius, and Nice.
In 1983 he wrote a doctoral thesis on colonial Mexican history for the University of Perpignan, on the conquest of the P’urhépecha people (formerly known as “Tarascans”) who inhabit the present day state of Michoacán. It was serialized in a French magazine and published in Spanish translation in 1985.
He has taught at a number of universities around the world. A frequent visitor to South Korea, he taught French language and literature at Ewha Womans University in Seoul during the 2007 academic year.
More from Guardian: Perhaps Le Clézio’s celebrity in France has something to do with the distinctiveness of his style when set against the austere formalism of much postwar French literary fiction. How he plays elsewhere relates to translation, and there are issues with Desert in that regard. Le Clézio cannot be easy to translate, and simply using an imported US translation will not do him any favours.
But his achievement is not simply a matter of language; it is also to do with his chosen subject-matter, in which he has long been more adventurous than his peers, in his own country and elsewhere. Thirty years ago, when this book was first published, migration and separation from the natural world were pressing social problems. Now these issues have become critical globally. The academicians voted in Le Clézio’s favour as much for this wide engagement as for his prose, which is often uneven. They will also have been impressed by three of his other novels, which many consider superior to this, Le Chercheur d’Or, Onitsha and Revolutions. Until these are easily accessible here, it seems likely that this remarkable writer will continue to mystify.
Eventually the Sheikh’s warriors are massacred by French troops: the fact that most of the soldiers who attack the Tuaregs are Senegalese serves to point up one of the main themes of the novel, which is the compromising encounter of traditional societies with the brute forces of mechanised imperialism.