J. M. G. Le Clézio: La quarantaine [The Quarantine]
Two brothers, Jacques and Léon, living on Mauritius, are the focus of this novel but most of the focus is on Léon, the narrator of much of the novel. Jacques, the first time alone and then, twenty years later with his brother, twice sees Rimbaud. The first time is as a young unruly drunk in France, the second time, twenty years later, as a sick and cantankerous man, old before his time, lying in a sick bed in Aden. We are given a brief introduction to the brothers and their family. Both had returned to France but are now returning to Mauritius. The majority of the novel concerns their stay on Flat Island, a quarantine station just a few miles off the coast of Mauritius.
Their journey to Mauritius had not been uneventful. It was in Aden that they met Rimbaud. However, they had inadvertently picked up two sick passengers, possibly as stowaways. As a result their ship was quarantined at Flat Island or, rather, the passengers were, the ship leaving them to fend for themselves. The island already had a large group of immigrant (mainly Indian) workers. The few Europeans are sent to a quarantine village, with the immigrants on the other side of the island, working in the fields. The story is relatively uneventful as the Europeans wait out the quarantine, hoping that the schooner will soon return. They deal with the mundane issues of life such as finding food, but also deal with the sickness, (Jacques is a doctor), the often difficult relations with the immigrants and trying to contact the authorities on Mauritius, using a heliotrope. Léon, however, is a typical Le Clézio hero. In other words, he does not always fit in with his fellow Europeans but is more interested in the native population. He travels around the island, partially to observe the botany – we are given botanical reports – and what is going on but also to see the natives. He soon sees Suryavati, a woman collecting sea shells to sell, and befriends her. He tells her about England (her mother was born in England and her parents were killed at Cawnpore) and about himself. But gradually, as a good Le Clézio hero, he moves away from his own people and becomes more involved with Suryavati and her people. His botany companion dies, his sister-in-law gets sick and his brother becomes more and more involved with helping the sick, as far as he can.
This is quite a long book and most of the book is taken up with Léon’s account of their stay on the island (and their removal to Gabriel, an island offshore of Flat Island when Sarah, Jacques’ wife, seems to get worse). But it is also an account of Léon’s account of his movement away from the French/British and his attraction with Suryavati and her people We learn about their past, the Cawnpore incident and their travels to Mauritius but we also learn about their issues on the island. Will they be rescued from the island? On the rare occasions a ship does come, it merely seems to throw food from a short way offshore and then leaves the immigrants to their fate. We have an idea of what happens, as the other Léon – the great-nephew of the Léon of this story – tells his story in the present time. We know that Léon does get off the island but then disappears, presumably with his Suryavati. What happens to him? Léon the younger has an idea, which he learns from his own visit to Mauritius and a meeting with his great-aunt Anna but it is not 100% certain. But Le Clézio’s skill is keeping us interested in, indeed fascinated by Léon Senior’s gradual movement from being a European to being something else – going native. The suspense of the quarantine and who will live and die, how the Europeans and the Indian immigrants will mix and how they will survive (or not) and when (or even if) they will be picked can only add to what is a fine book. And, of course, you cannot read this book in English, though you can read it in Spanish.
First published in French 1995 by Gallimard
No English translation