This is my review of Désert (Collection Folio) by Le Clezio.
This book has just been published in English, and I would be interested to see how it translates. (As an English speaker, I laboured through it in French, with a handful of phrases for which I could not work out the sense.)
I doubt whether any translation (except perhaps one by the bilingual author) can do justice to the language, which is like a long, rhythmic, hypnotically repetitive free verse poem about the harshly beautiful infinity of the desert to which man must adjust, for it makes no concessions. The lives of the nomads, barren existences of grinding poverty in the initial estimation of a privileged westerner, are in fact shown to have a dignity and sense of community, in balance with nature.
The narrative switches between 1909-12, when the desert warriors, the men in blue veils, are making their last abortive stand against the Christian imperialist invaders of North Africa, and the late C20 where the North Africans live a debased life in the coastal shanty towns – debased since they are desperately poor, but have lost contact with their old culture of desert-based nomadic self-sufficiency – and dream of life in great cities like Marseilles. Each thread focuses on a particular individual – in the earlier period, a young boy called Nour follows the ill-fated trek north across the desert to the sea in the wake of the charismatic leader Ma el Ainine, rendered ineffectual by age and his inadequate resources to fight the westeners with their artillery.
Nour's modern-day descendant is Lalla, the beautiful young girl, fascinated by and in tune with the desert, who nevertheless makes the journey to Marseilles where she is thrown into the squalid life of the immigrant scraping a living in a corrupt and ugly city which is portrayed as another type of desert, until her life is transformed in a way that I cannot reveal for fear of creating a "spoiler" except to say that I found it implausible and could not see how it added to the tale.
The book often frustrated me in its slow pace. Small details observed in passing, or the "greater scheme of things" seem more important than a strong plot line and well-developed series of interactions and events. Perhaps this is intentional, all part of a contemplative, spiritual focus which appears to be Le Clezio's main concern. The narrative speeds up with more moments of real pathos and drama towards the end – crises of life and death – but some of the significant events and characters on the way are underdeveloped – again, this may may be deliberate, since the book is mostly about the ambience and power of desert places. Given the missed opportunities for engagement between the main characters, I was struck by the way Le Clezio seems to have made an exception in the over-romanticised portrayal of Lalla.
Despite these apparently strong reservations, this book will stay with me, in terms of the evocative power of the language and the vivid visual images it conjured up of the desert landscapes in various lights, and of the nomads. Le Clezio describes the relatively few events of this book, people's thoughts and sensations, in minute detail. In so doing, he makes the reader more self aware, more attuned to the details of his or her own surroundings…..