New Issue of The Critical Flame
Desert was acclaimed as Le Clézio’s “breakout” novel by the Swedish Academy, but the book’s mass appeal can be difficult to see at first — it is not the easiest read to get into. It starts with a gathering of thousands of Moroccans around the famous sheik Ma el Aïnine, a man who led an anti-colonial jihad in the first quarter of the 20th century and succeeded in deposing the Sultan before being turned back by the French military. Although we are introduced to certain characters in this opening scene, Le Clézio’s vantage is so wide that we never attain any degree of intimacy with anyone, and it is clear that what most interests Le Clézio is painting a portrait of this incredible accumulation of human beings and the environment in which they wait. Notably, in this opening section Le Clézio never once directly mentions the broader historical forces in which these people are caught up, or even the reason for which they will march. Though Desert is informed by those turn-of-the-century maladies, colonialism and warfare, it is not about either of these topics in the least. Le Clézio only cares for the lived experience of people caught up in these forces, and he does not dilute their lives with recourse to philosophical or historical abstraction. His panorama is powerful for its sense of humanity amassing in religious conviction from out of the wide and empty desert, but those looking to fiction for vivid characters and a strong sense of plot might be put off by these first fifty pages. [. . .]
All that is to say that Desert is not a page-turner, a fact most evident in the Lalla sections. As befits a book attempting to articulate a non-Western sensibility, Desert moves to a rhythm of its own, and those not willing to embrace the book on its own terms will likely find it dull. But those readers who are able to open their mind will find a rich portrayal of a distant way of life and a writer who is working quite hard to find a language with which to convey it.