16 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We did it! Here’s the final featured title from this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Desert by J.M.G. Le Clézio. Translated from the French by C. Dickson. (France, David R. Godine)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. Thanks again for all your help covering the longlist titles!

Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is a perfect example of why Le Clézio won the Nobel in 2008, even though he was little known in the United States—sprawling, place specific narratives that bring to life the histories of cultures we do not know and that the world is quickly forgetting. One thing not to expect when you read Desert is a fast-paced narrative that immediately transplants you into another place and time. It does take you to another place, but in a slow, slightly repetitive pace that moves like the Earth’s rotation. A pace that you know is happening but subtly enough that you don’t notice.

The novel begins with the story of Nour, fourteen year old boy who is part of a North African people, the Taureg, more commonly referred to as the “blue men” because of the sky blue robes that they wear to honor the father of their people. In 1909, the French Colonialists are forcing the blue men out of their native land and into an aimless horrifying journey through the desert, led by their frail spiritual leader, Ma al-Aïnine. From the onset of the novel, there is the presence of an unnamed character, which is the Earth itself and all it’s natural elements. Throughout the novel, we learn Nour has a family—parents, sisters and brothers—and we learn of his staid character, his generous and loyal nature. But mostly he is the observer, the eyes we see through as we watch this Berber tribe lose their land, their leader and their hope to ward off the superior warring efforts of the Christians. Although, it’s the Earth that is just as prominent in the narrative being equal parts friend and enemy, and becoming a major character that only has allegiance to itself. The Earth shows no favoritism. She provides food and water to sustain them yet also tortures them with unrelenting rugged terrains and a scorching sun that dehydrates and destroys. Nour observes the toll of the journey and the effect of the elements on his people:

Standing by the side of the trail, he saw them walking slowly past, hardly lifting their legs, heavy with weariness. They had emaciated gray faces, eyes shiny with fever. Their lips were bleeding; their hands and chests were marked with wounds where the clotted blood had mixed with golden particles of dust. The sun beat down on them as it did on the red stones of the path, and they received a real beating. The women had no shoes, and their bare feet were burned form the sand and eaten away wit the salt. But the most painful thing about them, the most disquieting thing that made pity rise in Nour’s breast, was their silence. Not one of them spoke or sang. No one cried or moaned.

The close third person point-of-view by Le Clézio makes it difficult for us to not feel the effects of the sun, the scorching ground under our feet, the utter exhaustion that Nour and his people must endure. To combat complete fatigue of the reader, he introduces Lalla, a young girl living in the slums of Tangier as a descendant of the blue men. This is where nature becomes cleansing, vivifying and spiritual. Lalla does not go to school. She does not read or write. Instead she wonders her countryside jumping dunes, laying on the white sand and running along with the wind, breathing in its rhythm and essence. She lets the sun edify her, erasing her hunger and loneliness, inhaling it as if it were the source of life itself. She befriends flies and wasps, recognizing their role in the cycle of life and she finds comfort and solitude in the sea and the freedom it offers.

But the voice is still murmuring, still fluttering inside of Lalla’s body. It is only the voice of the wind, the voice of the sea, of the sand, voice of the light that dazzles and numbs people’s willpower. It comes at the same time as the stranger’s gaze, it shatters and uproots everything on earth that resists it. The in goes farther out, toward the horizon, gets lost out at sea on the mighty waves, it carries the clouds and the sand toward the rocky coasts on the other side of the sea, toward the vast deltas where the smokestacks of the refineries are burning.

Lalla lives with her Aunt Aamma. Lalla’s parent died when she was young and what she knows of them is through Aamma. Lalla has friends like the shepherd boy, the Hartani, who does not speak and the fisherman, Naman, who regales her stories of all the places where he has traveled. There is al-Ser, which stands for the Secret, a spirit she visits in the middle of the desert who fills her with an overwhelming sense of well-being and becomes her spiritual guide. After an attempt by her aunt to arrange a marriage for her, Lalla leaves with the Hartani to escape her destiny. The Hartani and Lalla become separated and Lalla ends ups months later in Marseilles, where her aunt has already situated herself in one of the immigrant tenement housing projects. Lalla finds work and befriends a gypsy teenager, Radicz, who steals for a living. She is thrust in the eye of the public as the ethnic model, Hawa, after a photographer spots her in a café and she becomes his muse. She goes through life like the wind, without a true purpose, flowing in any direction that pulls her. But the freedom and solitude that nature offers her are the only real things that compel her to thrive. Eventually she returns to Tangier to give birth to the son of the Hartani in the vast landscape of Morocco with its promise of peace and independence.

Le Clézio facilely creates the symbiotic relationship between the Taureg and nature. Lalla and Nour listen to the earth for answers, sustenance and portents. The wind, the sun and the sea do not control their lives, but they pulse within their blood and live within their hearts. This is what Le Clézio gives to the global readership, a perspective of a people that roamed the desert in search of their own land and their own traditions. But the hunger for power slowly wipes clean the slate of ethnic diversity. Desert is Le Clézio’s effort to give voice to the people who spoke through their journeys and through their respect for nature and through their silence, he makes hear how much they deserve a place on this Earth.

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Desert, translated from the French by C. Dickson and published by David R. Godine as part of the amazing Verba Mundi series.

Timothy Nassau, an intern here last summer and current student at Brown, wrote this review. Tim’s a really sharp reader, and has reviewed and written for us in the past.

Desert made the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist, and we will be featuring this next week in our one-a-day series. Tim seems to have some mixed feelings about this novel, but he does make it sound really interesting:

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.

Click here to read the full review.

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

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.

9 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second issue of The Critical Flame is now available online, including a review of J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert by Scott Esposito:

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.

....
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