31 January 2013

Desert (J. M. G. Le Clézio)

Desert by J. M. G. Le Clézio, translated by C. Dickson (David R. Godine, 2009)

Displacement, exile, refugee crossing, ethnic cleansing. J. M. G. Le Clézio's themes are heavy. They are the stuff of enduring human conflicts, the bane of civilization. Yet the register of his writing makes bearable the human failings and violence it seeks to redress. His prose register is poetry, but it is poetry lightened by silence and simplicity.

"There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another", says J. M. Coetzee's eponymous novelist in Elizabeth Costello; "There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination." Le Clézio's sympathetic imagination in the novel Desert is bounded only by geography (Sahara, Morocco, France) and time (20th century). His treatment of the plight of the marginalized people and their culture crosses over from place to place, from one generation to the next. It crosses over from an individual to the collective. Hence, the gaze of a young boy is also the gaze of his tribe or clan: "His face was dark, sun-scorched, but his eyes shone and the light of his gaze was almost supernatural." The young boy is Nour, and his people is being persecuted out of the African desert. In the same page, Le Clézio generalized the particular "light of his gaze":

They were the men and women of the sand, of the wind, of the light, of the night. They had appeared as if in a dream at the top of a dune, as if they were born of cloudless sky and carried the harshness of space in their limbs. They bore with them hunger, the thirst of bleeding lips, the flintlike silence of the glinting sun, the cold nights, the glow of the Milky Way, the moon; accompanying them were their huge shadows at sunset, the waves of virgin sand over which their splayed feet trod, the inaccessible horizon. More than anything, they bore the light of their gaze shining so brightly in the whites of their eyes. [2-3, my emphasis]

The poet Wislawa Szymborska expressed a similar journey across an inhospitable landscape. In her poem "Some People" (trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh), the same perilous rhythm can be detected.

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something like all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

A second narrative thread of Desert tells the story of Lalla, a descendant of Nour. Lalla's people no longer flee, but she chooses to escape her village. She runs away with a man when she was forced to marry another. The man she eloped with, "the Hartani", is a shepherd who lives like a hermit and doesn't communicate in the usual way.

He doesn't speak. That is to say, he doesn't speak the same language as humans. But Lalla hears his voice inside her ears, and in his language he says very beautiful things that stir her body inwardly, that make her shudder. Maybe he speaks with the faint sound of the wind that comes from the depths of space, or else with the silence between each gust of wind. Maybe he speaks with the words of light, words that explode in showers of sparks on the razor-edged rocks, with the words of sand, the words of pebbles that crumble into hard powder, and also the words of scorpions and snakes that leave tiny indistinct marks in the dust. He knows how to speak with all of those words, and his gaze leaps, swift as an animal, from one rock to another, shoots all the way out to the horizon in a single move, flies straight up into the sky, soaring higher than the birds. [69, The justified placement of text distinguishes Lalla's sections of the novel from Nour's, which are left-aligned.]

Le Clézio conveys the contradiction between silence and the power of words to express feelings and ideas. The Hartani seems to be representative of an old way of life, a simple life dependent on the natural elements, far from the priorities and demands of the city. The only way of speaking with him is looking through his eyes. But it is not mere looking.

She looks at him and reads the light in his black eyes, and he looks deep into her amber eyes; he doesn't only look at her face, but really deep down into her eyes, and it's as if he understands what she wants to say to him. [82]

The novel idealizes communication beyond words, in a natural setting, as opposed to the sounds of modernity in a city. Lalla can derive from the gaze of the Hartani the "essence" of things, maybe even those beyond the capacity of words to express.

Now Lalla knows that words don't really count. It's only what you mean to say, deep down inside, like a secret, like a prayer: that's the only thing that counts. And the Hartani doesn't speak in any other way; he knows how to give and receive that kind of message. So many things are conveyed through silence. Lalla didn't know that either before meeting the Hartani. Other people expect only words, or acts, proof, but the Hartani, he looks at Lalla with his handsome metallic eyes, without saying anything, and it is through the light in his eyes that you hear what he's saying, what he's asking. [100]

The descriptive function of words is not so much challenged as rejected. This passage, obviously of well chosen words, yet offers more than evocation of words. It is in the register of invocation ("like a secret, like a prayer") of a desert life, an elegy to a vanishing culture, to a threatened indigenous way of life.

The novel as a whole offers a way of seeing beyond the surface of things, beyond the superficiality of words. As a persecuted people flee the harsh distances of the desert ("bundles rocking on their backs, like strange insects after a storm", 181-182), their pitiful silence seems both prayer and protest. Their quiet dignity and martyrdom provide a contrast to the people of a European city (the city Lalla escaped to) who are at the mercy of "immobile giants". That city, Marseilles, is worded in void.

Lalla can feel the relentless dizziness of the void entering her, as if the wind blowing in the street was part of a long spiraling movement. Maybe the wind is going to tear the roofs off the sordid houses, smash in the doors and windows, knock down the rotten walls, heave all the cars into a pile of scrap metal. It's bound to happen, because there's too much hate, too much suffering… But the big building remains standing, stunting the men in its tall silhouette. They are the immobile giants, with bloody eyes, with cruel eyes, the giants who devour men and women. In their entrails, young women are thrown down on dirty old mattresses, and possessed in a few seconds by silent men with members as hot as pokers. Then they get dressed again and leave, and the cigarette – left burning on the edge of the table – hasn't had time to go out. Inside the devouring giants, old women lie under the weight of men who are crushing them, dirtying their yellow flesh. And so, in all of those women's wombs, the void is born, the intense and icy void that escapes from their bodies and blows like a wind along the streets and alleys, endlessly shooting out new spirals. [253-254]

The image of monstrous buildings sexually leveling people under them – 180 degrees from the idylls of desert – reinforces the cruelty and devouring of small people by powerful men. In this dank city, Lalla's adventures are told in descriptive words, not sacrificing the things that ought to be said, the things that count. They are words of suffering and degradation. That is, until her transfiguration and acquisition of a new kind of power.

Desert is an imagistic novel. From one exile to another, it recounts the never-ending quest for the equality of races and the security of a home. Beyond words, beyond aesthetic values, compassion resides in its pages.


  1. a remind I needed to read this had sat on shelves for three plus years ,all the best stu

  2. This does comes across as an interesting novel, liking the comparison with Szymborska. Also noticed the The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse in your shelf, I enjoyed that.

  3. Stu, it's reading time well spent for me.

    Gary, I just acquired the Penguin and excited about starting it.

  4. Belated thanks for this post, Rise (finally getting over an extended cold which just completely waylaid me). I've wanted to read Le Clézio for a while in part because of his possible parentage/affiliation with another Euro writer named JMG, and the poetic imagery and the exile themes you talk about here only intensify the desire in that regard. Anyway, must try to make room for this author sometime this year (thanks for the timely & much appreciated reminder)...

  5. Richard, I've been fascinated with JMG's namesake for some time too. Sadly I haven't made a dint on my TBR for these writers: the French, the German, and the French-Mauritian. (Still haven't gotten round to The King of the Forest!) The books of the first two seem to be out of print. At least Le Clézio has more than a dozen translated novels already.