Friday 19 August 2011

100% DYNAMITE - The Nobel Project 3

The Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio

So once again, I’m reading intercut dual histories, set many years apart, but Desert is a very different book to ‘The Way to Paradise’, dealing as it does with two anonymous and fictional unknown protagonists, their lives several decades apart somewhere in North Africa (and more on that ‘somewhere’ later).

The first narrative (which essentially forms a framing device for the second, longer story) concerns Nour, a young tribesman on an immense Saharan trek, following their Imam/tribal patriarch as many tribes flee white colonial oppression in the North to rendezvous at a sacred place to muster for an uprising. It’s an immense and incredibly moving story, a macrocosm rendered comprehensible by being seen through the eyes of a small boy, and it’s an all too familiar story of one of colonialism’s many ‘Trails of Tears’. Thousands upon thousands, dispossessed and unable to fully comprehend the futility of their situation, march in quiet optimism behind a leader who has never failed them – there’s a grim inevitability to the story as starvation, thirst and in-fighting slowly morph the optimism to desperation to nihilistic acceptance.

The second story takes place some decades later in a North African coastal shanty town, where a young girl, Lalla is undergoing an another all-too-familiar trope, the rite of passage from girl to woman. There’s no sense of hope here initially, only browbeaten resignation to the misery of the battered, fly-ridden shacks, the relentless heat and unchanging poverty. But Lalla dares to dream; she listens to the stories of the old fishermen who have travelled the world, she runs to the desert to the tribal vagabond kid she calls the Hartani and she dreams of the eyes of the mythical, mystic Blue Man.

Essentially the two narratives play as elegant counterpoint to each other; the slow erosion of hope and identity under biting desert winds played against the shanty girl whose imagination soars with the gulls and drives her to find an escape. And the links between the two characters, while never exactly delineated, are always clear. Lalla is a foundling, the daughter of a desert woman, Nour is among the last of the nomads. Le Clezio never fills in the precise drawstrings that connect the two, and the novel is all the better for that lack of exposition, because this is not a story about two heroes, but about nations, cultures, belief systems and histories – Lalla and Nour are simply our entry points and our exemplars.

But therein lies what was to me, a bothersome flaw to the novel. Le Clezio has chosen an epic, sweeping writing style, grandiose and majestic but deceptively simple in vocabulary. If Mueller uses the personal one-on-one familiarity of the classic fairy tale narrative, Le Clezio’s writing embraces the style of The Saga, or the Greek epic, where small stories are buried like mileposts in a vast plain of narrative. The problem with this style is that leaves no room for pesky little trifles like context and historical perspective. There are no dates, no recognisable place-names, no western historical indicators to tell us when and where this is happening. I absolutely understand that to have included too much of such detail would have been deleterious to the narrative style, but I found myself frequently wondering what the context was, which armies people were fleeing and when, and even where Lalla lives. It’s disorienting to be without a map or timepiece when you’re reading and while I applaud Le Clezio’s courage in rejecting these details, it made for a tough read – a two page foreword would have helped.

But that’s a minor quibble; this is a scorching novel, powerfully evoking the elements as human metaphor, personalising the political and painting the minutiae into a much broader tragedy of colonial evil.

Next Up: Hopefully more familiar ground with ‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

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