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J. M. G. Le Clézio: Désert (Desert)

Amazingly, this book was not available in English translation till the summer of 2009 and, obviously, would probably have never been translated at all if he had not won the Nobel Prize. Do you I need to tell you that you could get it in German in 1989, in Spanish in 2008, in Swedish in 1984, in Finnish in 1980, in Portuguese in 1986, in Polish in 1985, in… well, you get the picture. It is not that it is a great book – it is not – but it is still not a bad book and one that has had a certain amount of critical success, well before Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize.

There are two stories running in parallel. The first concerns a tribe based around Smara in what is now Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Their story takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century. The tribe is on the move, looking for land and apparently skirmishing with others. However, it eventually becomes apparent that they are on the run from the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Spanish) who are taking over the country. The tribe is desperate for water, desperate for food and desperate for arms, all the while pursued by the technologically far superior French and their mercenaries, primarily Senegalese. We follow their story through a boy called Nour. He, of course, does not understand what is going on, particularly as their sheikh is giving the impression that all is well. He follows his father, he helps a blind warrior, he follows his leaders and, only at the end, when the tribe has been virtually wiped out by the French, with their machine guns and Senegalese mercenaries and the old sheikh dies, does he realise that an era has come to an end.

The second story, set in the present (the book was published in 1980), tells the story of Lalla. Like Nour, she is descended from the”blue men”. Her parents are dead and she is now living with her aunt and uncle, who treat her well. But, like Nour, she doesn’t quite fit in and spends her time with the old fisherman, who tells her tales of his travels, which light up her eyes, and with the young deaf-mute shepherd, who leads her on adventures, showing her the secret places he goes. She does her work in the house without a fuss and gets on well with everyone. She is interested in her ancestor Lalla Hawa, whose name she has inherited, and her aunt is able to tell her some tales of her. However, when her aunt and uncle plan to marry her off to an older, rich man, she revolts. She has simply no desire to marry him. So she sets off with the shepherd boy. We do not follow their travels but only learn later that she nearly died of thirst and starvation and had to turn back, while he went on. However, in the meantime she has arrived in Marseilles, where her aunt is already installed, but without her cousins.

Lalla initially cannot find work and is accused of being a prostitute. However, she eventually she goes to work as a cleaner in a cheap hotel. It is not nice work but the owner treats her well. There she befriends an old man (who eventually dies) and when her aunt needs the space for the imminent arrival of Lalla’s cousins. Lalla goes to live in the hotel. She becomes friendly with Radicz, a beggar boy younger than her. She learns that the beggars are controlled by one man, who only uses them when they are young. Radicz is training to be a car thief, currently merely stealing items from cars, rather than the cars themselves (he is too young to drive). However, he is caught by the police, with dire consequences. Meanwhile, Lalla is spotted by a photographer, who photographs her. She becomes famous as photographic model but, as with much of the rest of her life, she is not interested in fame or fortune but merely seeing life. She travels around and finally returns home to where she was from.

Lalla often seems as though she is drifting through life but she is not stupid or unaware. She observes, makes friends and seeks to travel. However, she has none of the standard Western ambitions that can be bought by money and fame. Is Le Clézio making a point, comparing Nour and Lalla? If he is, it is not overt. As with other novels he has written, he is clearly interested in children growing up and, in this case, how they deal with the adversity they face, caused, at least in part, by colonialism. Both children are very much victims of their circumstances. Both are from the same part of the world and both are obliged to make a life apart from the adult world and turn for support to those younger or those much older. In short, as with many twentieth century protagonists, they do not fit in to the world they are born into. It is not a great novel but it is certainly a fascinating read.

Publishing history

First published in French 1980 by Gallimard
First English translation 2009 by David Godine