The Europeans in North Africa, the “Christians,” as the people from the desert call them–but isn’t their true religion money?
What more can the old man from Smara do against this wave of money and bullets?
Desert, a novel published in 1980 by 2008 nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio, was not what I expected. The barest bones of the blurb on the back hold true: two narratives tell the tale of the “last free men,” and the characters in both seek, desperately, to retain freedom, and the background of the story is Europe’s colonial legacy in North Africa. Likewise, for each narrative. Nour is a young tribesman who accompanies his tribe on its long trek in 1909–part of a holy war, it is later revealed–to defeat the Christians who have come to enslave them. Years later, Lalla, a descendant of the same tribe, flees from her shanty town in Morocco to Marseille in order to escape a forced marriage.
Despite not being nearly as enthralled as I expected to be based on this premise, something compelled me to keep reading. In part, my curiosity was piqued by the narrative disjunctures, the child-like dream-logic that governed the flow and description of events–there was too frequently a tendency to skip from point A to point B with minimal explanation, and things just happened; similarly, I found myself meditating on the laboriousness of overwritten description. (Not something that can be written off as a translation issue, I think. There should also be an emphasis on childlike since both narratives are told from the P.o.V. of a child and so there is a veil between the concerns of adults and observations of children.)
The other part of the compulsion is that within this epic tale with almost no action–charitably, an “ethereal slow-burn”–there is a subtle discussion of freedom. Adults endure trials for freedom, but no definition is offered. Money can offer temporary respite, but, ultimately, it will enslave people tighter than any chain. And yet, responsibility, love, and need enslave, too. It is notable that the centerpiece of both narratives is a child and that each has people and things he or she cares for diligently, but out of choice rather than strictly need. This is where I saw the greatest dissonance between what the blurb said and what I read. Lalla is resilient and has to work to survive, but so does everyone else. The more remarkable thing about Lalla is that she never succumbs to the obsession with money or even the need for literacy that are the trappings of the servitude of the modern world. Partly, this is Lalla the child of the desert. Partly, this is something more innate to Lalla the orphan outsider. The other characters in the story are enthralled by Lalla and all that she represents (variously: beauty, youth, fertility, freedom, family, honesty). Lalla, herself, dream-walks her way through life convinced that freedom is not being tied down by any one thing, largely oblivious to how reliant she is on the charity, help, or needs of others to maintain her freedom, and drawing ever closer to the end of that freedom.
A novel’s “secret center” is how Orhan Pamuk describes the central message of a novel, positing that while the outline of that message may be evident early on, it should not become clear until the end of the book. By this definition of a great novel, Desert works. Le Clézio brings the thematic resonances between the two narratives together with two chapters, one from each period, that are told from a point of view other than the two characters. The message is clear: more than anything else, money enslaves. The background to the story is European Colonialism, but the colonialism brings money and the implication is that it was brought about by pre-existing debts. Further, only in a few short chapters is the colonial legacy really explicitly foregrounded. Elsewhere it is a necessary backdrop to the narrative, but the issues of freedom emerge more from the issue of “civilization” than from colonialism. Yes, the two are inextricably linked, but it is possible to compare the vision of freedom in Desert favorably with that of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which does not emphasize the colonial legacy. These two books are not remotely the same except in their visions of freedom, which is why I hesitate to agree that there is something more central than setting to the colonialism.
The New York Times referred to Desert as “sprawling, poetic” which is another way of saying “boring, wordy.” There is something here captivating and intriguing, but it is a book in which very little happens, so people who like a tightly constructed plot should probably avoid it. I’m not likely to put this on a list of my favorite novels, but there is enough in this story that I’ll be giving Le Clézio at least one more shot in the future.
Up next is Curzio Malaparte’s novel, The Skin.