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Desert by J.M.G. Le Clézio

Desert (1980)

by J. M. G. Le Clézio

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
I'm a Le Clézio fan, and I had been looking forward to reading this book for some years, but I didn't end up liking it as much as other books by him I've read. The novel consists of two interwoven stories, set off typographically. The first, taking place in the early years of the 20th century, tells the tale of the Saharan (and some sub-Saharan) Muslim groups that were targeted by mostly French Christian armies, and thus had to migrate from their traditional homes and livelihoods to find a place where they could be safe and find work/food. This part of the novel focuses on a boy named Nour and a holy man/sheik named Ma al-Aïnine, or Water of the Eyes. (They are Blue Men, or part of the Tuareg tribe.) The second part of the novel takes place probably in the mid-20th century and concerns a teenager named Lalla, a descendent of this group, who lives initially in a run-down area on the coast of Morocco and then ends up in Marseille, fleeing an older rich man who gives her family presents because he wants to marry her.

But the novel really isn't about these characters: it is about, primarily, the harshness and the beauty of the desert and the natural environment in general. In their seemingly endless travels, Nour and his tribe and the tribes that travel with them experience the heat, the light and the darkness, the sand, the dust, the thirst, the hunger, the illnesses, the death that the desert brings. Lalla has a friend, a mute orphan sheepherder, known as the Hartani, who introduces her to the rocks and dunes and hillsides around where she lives, and teaches her how to hide. In both these environments, Le Clézio makes the natural world come alive, as he did in previous books I read. It just seemed these sections went on too long and almost became repetitive after a while. Of course, it could be argued that that's what life was like, especially for Nour, and the book is just reflecting this.

The section in which Lalla flees to Marseille is titled "Life with the Slaves" and the mostly colonized people Lalla meets there are, if not slaves, at least wandering in a desert that is unfamiliar to them. This is in part a book about colonialism, as the ending sections of Nour's story make clear; they are dated (with 1912 dates) and reveal the final attacks by French troops (largely black African colonial soldiers with of course white French officers). Although the French think they are attacking ferocious guerrilla leaders, the reader knows that these are starving men, women, and children who were trying to find a place they could live. The attacks end up being massacres.

To come back to Lalla, she discovers she is pregnant and the end of the book was a little too melodramatic for my taste. But Lalla is a very strong character, both physically and psychologically, and I appreciated that Le Clézio could create such a female character. Lalla also has the ability to see beyond the present, in almost trance-like states.

So why didn't I like this book as much as others? Mainly it's because I thought it was too long and even repetitive, as noted above. The other Le Clézio books I've read were tighter and more focused.
3 vote rebeccanyc | Jul 25, 2015 |
Published in 1980, Desert was not translated into English until 2009, after its author had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a highly descriptive novel, immersing the reader in the heat, cold, brilliant light and starry darkness of the Sahara, the rugged rocks and dunes of the Moroccan coast. I have never been in the desert (if you don't count Las Vegas and Red Rock Canyon, which you can't, in this context) but I now feel as though I have escaped from it. Although there are two stories interlaced here, there is very little in the way of Story in Desert. It is almost exclusively about Place. In the first segment, set in the early 20th century, we meet Nour, a young boy of the Tuareg tribe of "Blue Men", Saharan nomads traveling in caravan searching for a new home after failing to resist the French Colonial takeover of their home territories. The contrapuntal segments are contemporary with the writing, and show us Lalla, a descendant of the Blue Men, an orphan living in a shanty town outside a coastal city, perhaps Tangier. Her days are often spent wandering into the hills and along the rocky coast, with no particular aim. Occasionally, she has visions of a Blue Man, with whom she feels a spiritual connection. She also connects, in a more earthly way, with a young man known as the Hartani, a mute shepherd. Lalla is as free as can be, until she begins to be pressured by her Aunt to marry an old man; she retreats to the hills with the Hartani, and eventually travels to France, where she survives as a hotel maid, and again spends her free time roaming, now through the streets, suburbs and environs of Marseille. The prose of Desert is often rhythmic, repetitive in a musical way, with many recurring metaphors and images. There is harsh beauty in it, as well as an homage to the traditional primitive way of life of the desert dwellers. It could have been a 5 star read for me, if only the characters had been a bit more multi-dimensional.

Review written in April 2014 ( )
1 vote laytonwoman3rd | Jan 14, 2015 |
Two parallel stories in the Western Sahara. Magnificent descriptions, profound depiction of the traditional against the invasive modern world. Two personal journeys full of humanity. I like this author. ( )
  Miguelnunonave | Aug 8, 2013 |

When Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years back, I was fascinated to discover that he had written a book set partly in the Western Sahara, which is indeed where his story starts and ends, following an uprising of then indigenous people against the Europeans of 1910-11, told from the viewpoint of a young boy close to but not in the events. But more than half of the book, interwoven with the sections set earlier, is the story of Lalla, set perhaps in the early 1950s, following her from a shanty-town near the coast, with her unspeaking herdsman lover, to Marseilles and back. It is Marseilles that turns out to be the real human desert, full of alienation for Lalla; Nour's desert is a vibrant human space, full of physical and cultural significance. It would be interesting to read some critiques of this from sources nearer the region, but I very much enjoyed Le Clézio's turning round the questions of who is alien, what is normal, where is the real desert. ( )
  nwhyte | Jul 20, 2013 |
Two linked stories about tradition and progress and what we as a civilisation have come to sacrifice to get where we are.
Beginning of the twentieth century, Nour, one of the last of a disappearing tribe who have to start a migration through the desert to find their homeland.
Lalla, the descendant of that now disappeared tribe, who has to take her own journey to find what's lacking in her life.

Prose which should be read as poetry, through the senses. I think that if you try to read this novel in the traditional sense, you won't be very satisfied with the experience.
There's a plot to follow, but sometimes great important facts seem to be omitted whereas details such as the smell of the sand or the texture of some clothes or the warm and salty water of a particular beach are described for pages and pages.
You have to feel more than to read this novel.
It reminded me of Woolf's writing style, dense, subtle, elegant and poetic.
Not for everybody. ( )
  Luli81 | Nov 12, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
The elemental lyricism of this book sometimes tips over into bathos. It will not be to everyone's taste. Perhaps Le Clézio's celebrity in France has something to do with the distinctiveness of his style when set against the austere formalism of much postwar French literary fiction. How he plays elsewhere relates to translation, and there are issues with Desert in that regard. Le Clézio cannot be easy to translate, and simply using an imported US translation will not do him any favours here.
added by peterbrown | editThe Guardian, Giles Foden (Mar 10, 2010)
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.
“Desert” is a rich, sprawling, searching, poetic, provocative, broadly historic and demanding novel, which in all those ways displays the essence of Le Clézio. As a reflection on colonization and its legacy, it is painfully relevant after 30 years. Weaving together two stories that span the 20th century, Le Clézio tells of the last days of the Tuareg, the desert warriors known as the blue men, who are being driven from their ancestral lands in North Africa by the French colonial army and “the new order,” and in counterpoint, the travails of a later generation trapped in the projects and shantytowns of Tangier and Marseille.

» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Le Clézio, J. M. G.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dickson, C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
芳郎, 望月Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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They appeared as if in a dream at the top of the dune, half hidden in the cloud of sand rising from their steps.
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After being driven from their land by French colonial soldiers in 1909, Nour and his people, "the blue men" must search for a haven out of the desert that will shelter them. Interspersed with the story of Nour is the contemporary story of Lalla, a descendent of the blue men, who lives in Morocco and tries to stay true to the blood of her ancestors while experiencing life as a modern immigrant.… (more)

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