Supposedly, Desert marked the departure from experimentation for J.M.G. Le Clézio, whose previous oeuvre focused on a particular interplay between language and meaning. The Interrogation, his breakthrough first novel, is astounding for the way language obfuscates the protagonist's potential madness, the way language quells the reader and holds truth at bay.
Language, of course, is devised to do exactly the opposite, and this is, in large part, why and how the novel works. The reader wants to fall sway, is trained to willingly suspend disbelief. It is the particular trickery located between language and communication where this sort of writing lives, and Le Clézio's slyness, his elegant usage of language in this regard, is ingenious.
In his acceptance speech for the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature, Le Clézio said, "Writers, to a certain degree, are the guardians of language. When they write their novels, their poetry, their plays, they keep language alive. They are not merely using words - on the contrary, they are at the service of language. They celebrate it, hone it, transform it, because language lives through them and because of them, and it accompanies all the social and economic transformations of their era."
Desert is, to my mind, another type of language experiment, one in which the experiment isn't necessary to enjoying the story (and yes, in this, it is less puzzling a read perhaps than The Interrogation), but for those readers engaged in its cryptic gifts, Desert offers up much more than a good read.
The story is, in fact, two, in counterpoint. The first revolves around Nour, a boy following his warrior tribesman as they march through the Saharan desert away from their colonialist/Christian defeaters toward both hope and freedom, circa 1909. They are "the blue men," who regard the desert and their place in it with a particularly nomadic sanctity. The sand, the oases, the sky, are blessings from God, not plots of land to be quantified as resources.
The second story, set in the 1970s, revolves around Lalla, a descendent of this same tribe. It catalogues her naive youth in Morocco, her flight away from an arranged marriage and into the desert, her eventual arrival in Marseille, and her iconic destiny.
The two-story plot device (simplistically approached) is a clear indictment of colonialism. Lalla's and Nour's stories are brutal, bereft and almost cliché in their call to arms for this lost tribe, and also for this one tribe as it stands in for all tribes lost to the greedy machinery of colonialism. Published, as it was originally, in 1980, Desert is clairvoyant in its deliberation on poor attitudes toward immigrant populations. Yet, in 2009, ghetto suburbs in France's large cities continue to seethe and erupt, the oppressors equally bound by what they have wrought.
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Stopping there in one's inspection of this novel would be missing out. The wind, the sand, the ocean, time and memory play key roles. Both children are repositories of their cultural history spun to them by various wise people, and by the cyclical shifts of nature. And as these stories ebb and flow, another attribute emerges. The energy of Le Cézio's language, laconic and ineffable, like a wind itself, rolls through the text with mesmeric, constant motion.
Nour follows his tribe as they walk, starving, northward through Africa. Meanwhile, no matter where she is, Lalla walks, too. In her youth in Morocco, she falls in love with the shepherd Hartani and follows him everywhere - into vast underground caves and eventually to the desert.
Of him: "But the Hartani doesn't understand the language of human beings; he doesn't answer questions. Aamma's eldest son says that the Hartani doesn't know how to speak because he's deaf. Anyway, that's what the schoolteacher told him one day, it's called deaf-mute. But Lalla knows very well that isn't true, because the Hartani hears better than anyone. He knows how to hear sounds so subtle, so faint, that you can't even hear them by putting your ear to the ground. He can hear a hare jump on the far side of the plateau of stones, or else a man who is coming along the path at the other side of the valley. He can find the place where the crickets sing or the partridge nests in the tall grasses. But the Hartani doesn't want to hear the language of human beings because he comes from the land where there are no humans, only the sand dunes and the sky."
Hartani is the desert, orphaned on the doorstep of civilization, a bridge between Nour's lost tribe and Lalla. He is the silent teacher of autonomy and dignity, indicating that memory is not yearning or nostalgia, but as real as one's willingness to step into it.
With almost no dialogue, Desert is a purposefully quiet book. The characters do, and in doing, they listen to the energetic pace of freedom, that truer connection the individual has with nature and therefore the world.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the novels Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner.