The late Alfred Nobel's fortune derived, fittingly, from the foreign hard-currency sales of his breakthrough in using silica to transform volatile nitroglycerin into a substance thereafter known as dynamite. A century later, the jurors of his eponymous Prize for Literature seem eager to replicate his signature experiments, with obscure fizzles interspersed with the occasional transformative bang (e.g., Naguib Mahfouz or Gabriel Garcia Marquez). In 2008, the laurels went to an uncompromisingly anti-colonial French-Mauritian, J.M.G. Le Clezio. Of his 60 published works in French over 69 years, 18 to date have been rendered into English, of which one of the most prominent is Desert, a tale of two Tuaregs.
Desert is a caustic critique of the ongoing effects of colonialism in northwest Africa, conveyed through language imbued with the author's sensitivity to the plight of marginal, indigenous people. Though primarily set in Morocco, Le Clezio's tale transcends its time and place, emphasizing the deep desert's diminution of man in the face of the infinite. It is also in the desert where, beyond the reach of repression, the untethered human spirit may take wing, aloft, above life's woes.
Desert intertwines the lives of two nomads. We first meet Nour, a keen-eyed Tuareg boy at the turn of the 20th century. Led by a charismatic shaykh endowed with the spiritual magic of baraka, Nour's tribe is fleeing drought. The flight becomes a parched and protracted death march worsened first by the refusal of sedentary Berbers to proffer any aid to the suffering wanderers, and then by the encroaching menace of French-led [End Page 149] native African forces subduing other natives. The second strand of Le Clezio's story takes up with Nour's descendant, a dreamy orphaned loner named Lalla, who spends her days roaming the Atlantic beach dunes and the periphery of the untamed inland desert on the outskirts of her shantytown abutting a nameless city in contemporary Morocco. The copper-skinned Lalla radiates a purity which draws humanity to her, particularly men. Yet it is she who willingly distances herself from society.
A procession of supporting characters propels her story from Morocco to Marseilles. There, an expectant, runaway Lalla enjoys a short-lived career as a coruscating fashion model. Throughout her journey she draws upon the strength of her blue-veiled ancestors' warrior spirit to keep her aloft during the dark hours of hunger and hardship. An ensuing tragedy drives the story to its climax, the French army's decimation of Nour's tribe and the violent, ecstatic birth of Lalla's daughter at dawn, alone on her native sands.
The distinction of Le Clezio's writing resides in its appeal to the senses. As in many of his works, Desert relies more on meditation, description, and form than on plot. In the first half, wherein Le Clezio contemplates the landscape, the dazzling light, and lashing winds of the desert and the ocean, the pace is, at times, numbingly slow. Then, in the second half, a radical narrative shift occurs once Lalla disembarks in Marseilles. There, the tale's frenzied pace mirrors the malaise of an immigrant penned-in amidst the confining urban spaces. What comes through in Le Clezio's lucid language is the strength of the Tuaregs' tenacious character, born of the arduous life along the Saharan caravan routes that allows them to endure in a menacing modern world.
Though born in France during World War II, Le Clezio grew up in Nigeria, where his father served as a French army physician stationed in West Africa. Largely educated in post-war England and France, Le Clezio has taught or lived in venues from the United States and South Korea to Panama and Thailand. He also has long been intrigued by Mesoamerican cultures, though some of his post-Nobel republished writings on the subject have been strongly rebuked for their lack of nuanced cultural perception and outmoded research. Having sojourned among the world's various indigenes, Le Clezio affirms in his work what...