Desert, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, David R Godine, 2009, 352 pp
This French author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008. I had never heard of him before his award, as is embarrassingly true of many of the Nobel Prize winners when they are not American or English. Recently I resolved to read at least one book of each of these writers as long as they write novels. Having read Desert, I understand why he was awarded. The book was originally published in French by Editions Gallimard in 1980 and translated into English for release in 2009.
Easily one of the most intense books I have ever read, Desert takes place in North Africa in two different time periods. The first is the very early 1900s when many tribes, deprived of their homes and lands by European colonialists, are on a desperate march through the desert to a promised land prophesied by their most revered religious leader, Water of the Eyes. This doomed endeavor is seen through the eyes of Nour, a young boy whose family has joined the march.
Lalla is a young girl being raised in a shantytown near a coastal city in Morocco during the late 20th century. She is a descendant of Water of the Eyes, orphaned at birth. When the aunt that is raising her tries to arrange a marriage to an older man, Lalla runs away into the desert with her most beloved friend, a deaf mute goat herder. Later she and her aunt end up as immigrants in Marseilles, eking out a miserable existence in the most depressing area of this modern city.
The power of this book comes from Le Clezio's writing. For example, his account of a religious ceremony held with the natives and their spiritual leader awakes in the reader every impulse for spiritual freedom that mankind has ever had.
The immensity and harsh beauty of the desert, its sand dunes, wind, burning sun and frigid nights, is a continuous presence throughout the story as well as a symbol of both the devastation of these characters and their deepest love.
Never again will I be able to read a novel which romanticizes immigrant life and poverty. In fact, the value of reading the literature of Europe and Asia is its ability to penetrate our very American refusal or inability (I am not sure which it is) to comprehend the hopeless misery and yet the essential strength of the dispossessed peoples of this earth; these victims of greed and "progress."
If there is any chance at all that mankind do a better job of living together, it would have to start with the so-called winners taking a good look at how the so-called losers are created.
(Desert is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)