‘Desert’ by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio


A Novel

J.M.G. Le Clézio, translated from the French by C. Dickson

Verba Mundi/David R. Godine: 352 pp., $25.95

When Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, criticized the American literary establishment for its insularity last fall, I couldn’t disagree with him. A small handful of non-Anglophone novelists do steal their way into stateside dinner-party conversation each year, but for the most part, we don’t care much about what’s written outside of the U.S. and Britain -- or South Africa if we’re feeling worldly. Our own novels are arguably poorer for our failure to engage. But Engdahl made it hard to endorse his criticisms too warmly: He wasn’t advocating cosmopolitanism, he was vying for the crown. “You can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world . . . not the United States,” he sniffed in an interview with the Associated Press, as if anyone had mentioned centers.

So it’s no great surprise that the Swedes chose to give the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio -- a prolific French novelist who attempts in much of his work to give voice to the non-European “other” -- rather than to an actual non-European. For the record, the Swedes have awarded four of the 108 Nobels for literature to Asian writers and another four to Africans; two of whom were white South Africans. I am not arguing for a mandatory affirmative action policy in the distribution of international literary awards (though it couldn’t hurt), but against an insidious variety of parochialism, the kind uninterested in all that lives outside the “center,” unless, of course, it can be represented by a qualified ambassador.

Which brings us back to Le Clézio, whose 1980 novel “Desert” has just been released in English. The problem with “Desert” is not that its author is European or that he won the Nobel, but that it is a truly dreadful book, a dull and dimly plotted fable based in one of the West’s oldest and most self-serving myths, that we are the locus of all corruption and that purity lies outside. What better escape from the beguiling demands of humanity than to strip another of all complexity and will?

Two story lines wind through the novel. One follows the young beauty Lalla Hawa, who flees an idyllicchildhood in contemporary coastal Morocco after her aunt decides to marry her off to a wealthy older man. The second is set at the beginning of the last century, when the European powers were still consolidating their hold on northern Africa. Following a young Berber boy named Nour who accompanies the doomed campaign of the historic rebel Sheik Ma al-Aïnine against the French, it is less a plot than a refrain, an unvaryingly hungry and thirsty march toward the inevitable. Ma al-Aïnine’s ragged army is torn apart by French machine guns. Nour survives.

The names alone suggest that Le Clézio’s protagonists are meant to function more as mythic forces than conventional characters. Nour is Arabic for “light.” Lalla Hawa means “Lady Wind.” And there is a lot of wind in “Desert.” Landscape is important here, and the wind is as crucial to Le Clézio’s desert as the sand or the sky or the sun. It stands in for the cold, mystic purity of the absolute and, occasionally, for the vengeful wrath of those dispossessed by colonialism: “Lalla thinks it’s beautiful, as transparent as water, quick as lightning, and so powerful it could destroy all the cities in the world if it wanted to.”

When the wind knocks down the tar paper shacks of the shantytown (called “the Project”) in which she lives, the people don’t mind having to rebuild their homes, but “laugh as they do it because they are so poor they aren’t afraid of losing what they have. Maybe they’re happy too, because after the storm the sky is even vaster, bluer, and the light even more lovely.”

It’s nice to think so. The poor, in Le Clézio’s world, are happy with their lot, at least until they go to France. At home where they belong, they are unburdened by history and all the nagging anxiety of existence: “Days are the same every day, here in the Project, and sometimes you’re not really sure what day you happen to be living. . . . As a matter of fact, no one really thinks about it here, no one really wonders who he is.”

In the dunes outside of town, things are even better. "[H]ere, everything is pure.” Lalla frolics in the desert with a young shepherd called the Hartani, a noble savage who speaks no human language but can commune with birds and rocks. In Le Clézio’s metaphors he is more beast than boy, compared to a dog and generically described as “like an animal.” (The legendary Ma al-Aïnine suffers a similar fate: His chanting sounds like “the distant bleating of a goat.”) This is apparently meant as a compliment.

Like all Edens, Lalla and the Hartani’s idyll is short-lived. A “wind of ill fortune” blows, provoking her aunt -- who, anomalously, is not so into being poor -- to consider foisting Lalla into matrimony. Instead, Lalla flees across the Mediterranean to Marseille. Strangely, her aunt has arrived before her and settled in as a cook in a hospital cafeteria. Lalla finds work cleaning hotel rooms in a boarding house for immigrants.

In Marseille, Le Clézio shifts from breathless adorations of nature to full Dickensian mode, though without a dram of Dickens’ wit or delight in human eccentricity. The immigrant quarter is a dank, rat-infested slum. Its inhabitants are depicted as little more than wretched ghosts, perverted by the miasma of the city, stripped of all agency and capacity for self-reflection. “Death is upon them everywhere,” Le Clézio writes, “it lives . . . in the rooms of the men, in the halls. They don’t know it, they don’t even have the slightest inkling.”

Lalla befriends a beggar boy named Radicz, whose evil gypsy mother has sold him to the Fagin-like Lino. Radicz stares with “the eyes of animals,” so we know he’s OK. But he doesn’t last long. Lalla, who at this point has been pregnant for at least a year (by the Hartani, we assume), is discovered by a photographer and becomes an internationally famous super-model. (Really.) An interviewer asks her where she’s from. “The country I come from has no name,” she says. " . . . It’s in the place where there is nothing, where there is no one.”

We in the West are trapped by language, Le Clézio implies. Salvation lies outside its snares: “Lalla knows that words don’t really count. It’s only what you mean deep-down inside.” That line should rouse suspicions. Writers work in representation. We trade in words. A writer who disavows language but wants to hold on nonetheless to the possibility of meaning is hiding something. And a writer who represents whole cultures as blessedly outside the grasp of language and history is not giving them voice, but silencing them. His compassion is a mask for disdain.

Ehrenreich is the author of the novel “The Suitors” and a fellow of the Horizon Institute.