BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : A Powerful Tale of Dreams, Exploration : THE PROSPECTOR <i> by J. M. G. Le Clezio</i> , <i> Translated from the French by Carol Marks</i> , David R. Godine, $22.95, 320 pages


This novel has the ingredients of an adventure story: pirate maps, buried treasure, windjammers, hurricanes, riots, war, an exotic love affair.

It has elements of myth: an idyllic childhood, an irrevocable disaster, a departure, a voyage compared to Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece, ordeals by isolation and madness, a homecoming and, at the end, a desperate retracing of what the narrator believed would be his route of escape from time and fate.

It has the documentary feel of history, whether J. M. G. Le Clezio (“The Interrogation,” “The Flood,” “The Mexican Dream”) is describing life on sugar cane plantations on Mauritius in the 1890s, life aboard a trading schooner in the Indian Ocean, or death in the trenches of the Western Front in 1915-16.


As a whole, “The Prospector” fits none of these genres, although it comes closest to myth. Le Clezio has written it in a lyrical, leisurely style, full of foreshadowings and echoes, that is fiction’s equivalent to a film director’s use of soft focus. The story told by the narrator, Alexis D’Etang, for all its realistic detail, is hazy and blurred, like a series of dreams.

Alexis, a French plantation owner’s son, and his sister, Laure, grow up in a loving family, surrounded by the beauty of nature, although their garden has a “tree of good and evil,” and a nearby ravine once was the hide-out of runaway slaves.

But this Eden is snatched away. Alexis’ friendship with a black boy is forbidden, his father’s impractical schemes lead to bankruptcy, and a violent storm destroys the plantation. Soon the father dies, leaving a chest of papers hinting that gold was buried by an “Unknown Corsair” on the neighboring island of Rodrigues. The survivors’ only other legacy is a life of genteel poverty--and their memories.

Alexis condemns his mother and sister to even worse privation by abandoning his job as a shipping clerk and sailing to Rodrigues. He hopes to find the gold and restore the family’s fortunes. And there’s more: He wants to restore the world of his childhood. Even as he puzzles over pirate symbols chiseled into cliffs and falls in love with Ouma, a descendant of marooned slaves, he is obsessed by what Vladimir Nabokov, writing of his lost youth in pre-revolutionary Russia, called “unreal estate.”

Time dawdles and races in “The Prospector” as it does in the stages of a person’s life. The voyage to Rodrigues and Alexis’ early explorations seem to take forever. Then he is caught up in World War I--just another dream to Alexis, but a nightmare that moves with accelerating speed. And finally, when he returns middle-aged to Mauritius, there is no time left to save anyone: his mother, Laure, Ouma or even himself.

Le Clezio seems to say that we live in a world of dreams--we can’t help it--but that history works outside of those dreams and eventually wears through them. Politics, economics and racial prejudice grind away relentlessly--even at Ouma, who at first appears to be a figure of pure romance.


To convey this sense of a life detached from the reality that constantly threatens it, Le Clezio chose a method that disregards much of the popular wisdom about how to write a novel: Keep the paragraphs and chapters short. Use a lot of cinematic jump-cuts. Make it at least 80% dialogue.

Here the formula is 95% description. Most of the dialogue Le Clezio writes is summarized and indirect. Only rarely does anything break the spell that Alexis’ consciousness casts around itself. The flow of the narrative (gracefully translated by Carol Marks) only rarely solidifies into a scene. “The Prospector” is more a meditation than a drama.

There is a price to be paid for this, and Le Clezio cheerfully pays it. “The Prospector” is a slow read, unlikely to appear any time soon at a drugstore near you. But it has beauty and power, and an ending that surprises and haunts us with its desolation.