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J. M. G. Le Clézio: Ourania [Urania]

Another novel by the Nobel Prize winner not available in English (though you can get it in Spanish). It is a fascinating novel, dealing with his favourite theme of escape and love for the exotic, though with a slight variation. It starts with Daniel Sillitoe who is living in France, as a child, when it is under German occupation during World War II. The war and his family situation make him long for an imaginary land that he calls Ourania (i.e. Urania), which he gets from a book of Greek legends his mother has. We later cut to Daniel as an adult. He is now a geographer, working in Mexico. He is working with a group of both Latin Americans and foreign researchers, all associated with an institute. Most of them are anthropologists. Also located in the valley is a group of Mexican outcasts who are abused and exploited. They are the subject of study of one of the anthropologists. The Latin Americans look down on them but Daniel and some of the other foreigners are more sympathetic to their plight.

On his way to the institute, Daniel meets on the bus a young man, Raphaël Zacharie. Raphaël is Canadian by birth. We later learn that his father, a Native American, is in prison. His wife, Raphaël’s mother, was a blue-eyed blonde but had recently died. Raphaël has fled and ended up in Campos. Campos is located near the institute and is a sort of idyllic community of various outcasts, where there are no leaders, extended families, no official institutions, no organised religion and no money. Everyone works as best they can. It was set up by Anthony Martin, another exiled Canadian, known as Jadi (it means antelope in Diné, the language of his mother, as he was a fast runner). Daniel is eager to learn about this community and he does. But the community, despite its ideals, has to deal with the real world and faces two conflicts. The first is from within, from Efrain, a Brazilian with a criminal record who is only interested in enjoying himself (sex and drugs). The second is from the outside as the powers that be want to use the land to relocate the outcasts to redevelop the land they are on.

We follow the story of Campos and its inhabitants and its ultimate and inevitable fate. We also follow Daniel’s own story, with his relationship with Dahlia, a fellow researcher, separated from her son, and his relationship with Lili a very much exploited prostitute whom he tries to help, though he is clearly attracted to her. We also follow the internal politics of the institute – it is messy -and the fate of the researchers. Le Clézio is clearly making the point that the modern, Western way of doing things – money, authority, exploitation, capitalism/profit, politics – is all wrong and we should aim at a more Utopian ideal though, he says, that is not really possible in our modern world. Daniel, Lili, Raphaël and Dahlia and some of the others end up with a workable compromise, with the final paragraph giving a bleak prognosis for the world. There is no doubt which form of organisation Le Clézio prefers.

Publishing history

First published in French 2006 by Gallimard
No English translation