by Jean-marie Gustave Le Clezio
Reviewed by Maya Muir
When the Swedish Academy awarded French novelist J.M.G. Le Clezio the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008, the announcement was met in this country by raised eyebrows. The reported reaction: Who is this guy (and why didn't Philip Roth win?). The permanent secretary of the Academy inflamed sentiments further when he was quoted saying that U.S. literature is "too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," a statement that created its own predictable wave of outrage.
So who is Le Clezio? The translation of his 17th book, Desert, and its publication into English is an excellent time to try to answer that question.
Le Clezio was born in 1940 in Nice and spent chunks of his childhood in Mauritius, where his family had lived for generations, and in Nigeria. He studied in Britain and in France, and lived for four years among the Embera Indians of Panama. Since, he has taught in Bangkok; Mexico City; Boston; Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque, N.M., and he travels widely. He published his first novel at the age of 23 and has written more than 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. Desert combines two tales. The first tells of Noor, a Tuareg boy fleeing through the Sahara with a caravan of desert peoples to escape the inexorable advance of French colonialism circa 1909. Le Clezio describes the landscape and the Tuaregs' sense of themselves as desert people in incantory language that dwells on the brilliance of the sun and its desiccating heat, the fierce winds, the changing colors and patterns of the sand, the bitter cold of night, in its harshness and the astonishing beauty.
This tale is complemented by that of Lalla, a descendant of Noor, living in a shanty town in present-day coastal Morocco. Fleeing an arranged marriage, Lalla arrives in Marseille. As an immigrant without resources who doesn't speak the language, the France she encounters is bleak, pitiless and ugly. Lalla survives by remaining true to her sense of herself as a child of the desert and desert people, as Le Clezio's writing becomes more mystical without losing any of its sensuality.
The book starts slowly while the caravan makes its journey and Lalla drifts, but gradually the two cross-cutting tales build power, leading to endings surprising and eloquent. Moreover Le Clezio has vividly portrayed the immediate and long-term consequences of colonialism, a phenomenon the new world order is far from finished with. Le Clezio is an engaged writer taking part in the "great dialogue of literature." Descriptions of his other works would indicate this is true of them, as well.
Desert is the 13th of Le Clezio's works to be translated into English, which suggests that if there is insularity here, it can't entirely be blamed on publishers. Yes, American readers need to demand translation of important foreign works -- but, also, they need to pull them off the shelves and dive in. Desert is a great choice for a first date with this major French writer.