The lack of any article in the title should immediately tip off the reader: Desert is not about a particular desert, such as the Sahara, or even the desert, that great thirsty body that covers the world in sandy blotches and makes travelers conflate Perrier with Dom Pérignon. Both are certainly integral to the novel, but the desert here is more than a geographical place, more than some combination of climatic conditions and topographical features. For Le Clézio, it is spiritual, the embodiment of a way of life and a means of interacting with the world that comes from the meeting place of a harsh landscape and a resilient human will. The analogy may be silly, but I am reminded of a post-colonial version of the Force from Star Wars—Desert as intangible power that liberates man from the constraints of time, space, and, more specifically, from the destructive powers that the French unleashed in Africa early last century, a destruction that the author traces through its modern iterations.
Desert chronicles the story of a young man and woman, separated by time and space, but unified by a common ancestry and the ubiquitous Desert they inhabit. The two plots are told intermittently throughout the book, but we begin with Nour, a young member of desert warriors known as “the blue men.” Forced to migrate by the steady encroachment of the “Christians,” Nour and his tribe, along with dozens more, move northward through the desert in a brutal and futile search for new lands. Decades later, in an unspecified part of Morocco, Lalla, a late descendant of the blue men, makes a similar journey. Less historical and thus more personal, in these sections we follow Lalla’s life in a shantytown called the Project. To avoid an arranged marriage, she becomes an immigrant in Marseilles where work and happiness are often hard to come by. So as Nour flees from the French, Lalla runs to them, yet both refuse to be conquered by circumstance: Nour joins the hopeless final stand of his people, while Lalla finally finds success as a model.
J.M.G. Le Clézio, who became known in America after he won the Nobel Prize last year, currently lives between Albuquerque, New Mexico, Nice, France, and the island of Mauritius, off the Southeast coast of Africa. If this does not suffice to make him absurdly cosmopolitan, he has also lived in Nigeria, England, and Panama, among other places. In this context, the geographical expanse of his novel seems less impressive—merely a hop over the Mediterranean from the African desert to Southern France—but Le Clézio’s Ulyssean life also underscores and explains his central thematic concern: how we live in a place, what it means to do so, and how that place becomes some part of us.
It is the treatment of these questions that is the books greatest strength, but also the source of its failings. Perhaps from all his traveling, Le Clézio seems to have gained an appreciation, an admiration even, for places that correspond to his own way of inhabiting them; just as he is free from the confines of one country, just as his characters are equally footloose, so too are the locations in Desert obstinate and independent. They are marked by disappearance and infinitude and thus cannot be contained; they refuse to be marked by humans. Le Clézio says of the desert, “It was the only—perhaps the last—free land, the land in which the laws of men no longer mattered.” In our age of environmental erosion, such a land untouchable by our hands can be highly appealing, and Le Clézio’s writing is at its best when describing this mystic place:
It was as if there were no names here, as if there were no words. The desert cleansed everything in its wind, wiped everything away. The men had the freedom of the open spaces in their eyes, their skin was like metal. Sunlight blazed everywhere. The ochre, yellow, gray, white sand, the fine sand shifted, showing the direction of the wind. It covered all traces, all bones. It repelled light, drove away water, life, far from a center that no one could recognize. The men knew perfectly well that the desert wanted nothing to do with them.
The same sense of an imperturbable and unalterable space reoccurs in the descriptions of Lalla’s life abroad. She leaves the African desert to find its reflection in the anonymity of the city, though whereas the indifference of the African desert appears majestic and liberated, in Marseilles this same characteristic is more ambivalent. When Le Clézio describes the hotel where Lalla works, his prose maintains its precise descriptive power, but the images it leaves is far more elegiacal:
None of those people really exist, except for the old man with his face eaten away. They don’t exist because they leave no trace of their passage, as if they were nothing but shadows, ghosts. When they leave one day, it’s as if they’d never come. The bed with canvas webbing is still the same, and the wobbly chair, the stained linoleum, the greasy walls, where the paint is blistering, and the bare, flyspecked, electric lightbulb hanging at the end of its wire. Everything stays the same.
Yet it is in this context that Lalla can pass unnoticed, that she can slip back into her Desert: “Even in the middle of straight avenues, where there is a constant flow of cars and people going up, going down, Lalla knows she can become invisible.” And so too the blue men become invisible, wiped out by the French and more or less forgotten by history.
Desert is the chronicle of people and places that refuse to be tamed and this we can admire, but the novel often falls prey to its namesake. Page after page of description, however beautiful it may be, gives one a sense of sprawling expanse, but it also bogs down the reader despite constant evocations of freedom. At times, too, it seems that the characters are either living extensions of the places they inhabit, pawns placed there for the author to make his points about setting. While reading the novel, the historical context frequently feels like an afterthought, an excuse to put characters in a specific circumstance. As for Nour and Lalla, with symbolic weight comes an absence of individuality and interest; the desert is, ultimately, the most intriguing character of the novel.
And, finally, there is the problem of what it means to be untouchable and anonymous, to stand unbendingly against the forces of change. For the blue men it inevitably leads to destruction; Lalla maintains her fierce independence and finds success as an immigrant, but at the human cost of aloofness—she refuses to use her real name as a model. Ultimately in this novel, only nature can maintain the ideal, only the desert can ignore human life without loss. But is this even possible? Recent studies suggest that the climate change we have induced has caused a greening of the Sahara. It is a frightening testament to our destructive power that thirty years after it was published, Desert can be read as a utopian novel.