J. M. G. Le Clézio: Le Chercheur d’or (The Prospector)
It is books like this that won Le Clézio the Nobel Prize. It is certainly not a conventional novel but neither is it experimental. It deals with common twentieth century themes – the search for a meaning to life, the relationship between whites and the people they have colonised, the difficulties of love and the disastrous effects of war. As the title indicates, Alexis, our hero/narrator, is searching for treasure (though not necessarily gold), though the hunt for treasure is something of a MacGuffin. Indeed, for much of the novel, he does not really know what he is searching for and probably does not find it, though that is left ambiguous at the end.
Alexis and his sister Laure – they are very close – grow up together in semi-idyllic conditions in Mauritius. They love the landscape, both the forests and the sea, and spend their time playing in this landscape. However, there is, of course, a problem. Their father is facing financial problems. He has grandiose schemes – the latest one is to create a wave-based power station, which is both impractical and way ahead of its time (it is the beginning of the twentieth century). The children gradually become aware that something is wrong but is only when the hurricane hits that they see the real problem. A furious hurricane devastates the island. Their father is almost killed when he is out driving but manages to shelter. However, a tree falls on their house, causing extensive damage. This is the final straw and their father is obliged to let their Uncle Ludovic take over the poverty – he owns much of it, anyway, through mortgages – and they move to Port Louis, where their father works as a shipping clerk. It is all too much for him and he eventually dies of a heart attack. Alexis takes over his job with the shipping company.
Their father had always dreamed of finding the treasure of a pirate whom he calls the Corsair (in French) and the Privateer (in English – the English term is used in the French text). He and Alexis become fascinated with the adventures of pirates and read a lot about them. But the father has both a map and documents relating to the hidden treasure of the Privateer on the island of Rodrigues. When he dies, Alexis inherits the map and documents and dreams of going to Rodrigues to find the treasure. One day he sees a ship – the Zeta – docked in the port and, when he finds it is going to Rodrigues, he pays the fare to go. The journey itself is described in detail, particularly the relationship between Alexis and the captain, an Englishman called Bradmer.
It is on Rodrigues that Alexis seems happiest. It is not clear from the documents of the Privateer where the treasure is and Alexis spends a lot of time going after various clues which he may or may not have correctly interpreted. Is the treasure hidden in a hiding hole? Is the gorge natural or has it been dug out by the Privateer and his men and, if so, is the treasure not hidden at the bottom of it but further up? What about the giant M that seems to be written on the mountain? He follows all these clues, all the time revising his views of where the treasure is found. When he believes he has found it and digs out a hiding place, the hiding place turns out to be empty. He even recruits some locals to help him dig further but they also find empty hiding places. Many of the locals think that he is prospecting for gold and let him be as they are not interested in gold.
But one treasure he does find is Ouma. Ouma is a girl who, while she considers herself local, is half French and half Indian. She lives on the edge of the forest and befriends Alexis. She hunts fish with a harpoon and seems to be the typical literary noble savage. It is not clear if they have a sexual relationship but the implication is that they do. However, when he is planning on leaving and asks her to accompany him, she refuses, primarily because of the racism she has experienced before coming to Rodrigues. When Alexis finally checks on the time, he realises it is four years that he has been there. It is now the summer of 1914 and the news of the impending war in Europe has reached Rodrigues. Alexis, along with many of the other locals, signs up for the British army and soon is off to the front. We follow his army experiences which are fairly conventional ones that we have seen in many other World War I novels – mass slaughter, gas, friends being killed next to him, freezing temperatures, flooding, poor food and incomprehensible military decisions. He ends up with typhus and is invalided out with a pension.
He returns to Mauritius where his mother is ill and Laure is struggling to look after her but when the Zeta reappears at the port, he is off back to Rodrigues. But there is no sign of Ouma. He continues his explorations and makes what he thinks is further headway, even coming up with the theory that the whole island is a map of the universe. However, when he gets a letter from Laure that their mother is on her last legs, he makes plans to leave. However, just before he leaves, a hurricane hits the island. All his landmarks are destroyed and he loses his maps and documents. He manages to get back to Port Louis before his mother dies but she soon does. He gets a job from his cousin, the son of Uncle Ludovic, working on a plantation, and it is there that he catches up with Ouma again. But even then it is not straightforward.
Le Clézio leaves us at the end with some clue as to what Alexis will do but it is not entirely clear. What we do know that he has realised that he will not find the treasure of the Privateer and that what matters, what really matters, is Ouma. The other things that had driven him – the search for the treasure, revenge against his uncle and cousin for their ill-treatment of his father, a career and even his love for his sister – suddenly seem to be less important. But Alexis’ struggle to get there, to realise what matters, is what makes this novel worthwhile.
First published in French 1985 by Gallimard
First English translation Godine 1993