So who is Le Clézio? The translation of his seventeenth book, Desert, and its publication in English is a good time to try to answer that question.
Le Clézio was born in 1940 in Nice, and spent chunks of his childhood in Nigeria, and Mauritius, where his family had lived for generations. He studied in Britain and France, and lived for four years among the Embera Indians of Panama. Since, he has taught in Bangkok, Mexico City, Boston, Austin, and Albuquerque, and travels widely. His wife is Morroccan. He published his first novel at the age of 23, and since has written over forty books of fiction and non-fiction.
Desert combines two tales. The first tells of Noor, a Tuareg boy traveling with a caravan of desert peoples fleeing through the Sahara to escape the onslaught of French colonialism in 1909. Le Clézio describes the landscape and the Tuareg’s sense of themselves as desert people in incantory language which dwells on the brilliance of the sun and its desiccating heat, the dryness and wind, the bitter cold of night, in all their harshness and the astonishing beauty.
The second story belongs to adolescent Lalla, a descendant of Noor, living in a shantytown in present day coastal Morocco. Fleeing an arranged marriage, Lalla flees to Marseille, although she doesn’t speak the language and has no money. The France she encounters is bleak, pitiless and ugly. Lalla survives by remaining true to her sense of herself as a child of the desert and desert people, the writing becoming more mystical without losing any of its sensuality.
I warmed to the book slowly, as I accompanied the Tuareg caravan on its slow-paced journey and Lalla in her drifting, but gradually the novel’s power caught up with me. The two crosscut tales build power over time and in relation to each other, with endings both eloquent and surprising. More, I came to appreciate Le Clezio’s ambition in portraying so vividly the immediate and long-term consequences of colonialism, a phenomenon with which the new world order is far from finished. Le Clézio is indeed an engaged writer taking part in the “great dialogue of literature.” If that, plus excellence of execution, is high among criteria for the Nobel, then Desert is evidence that he deserved the prize.
Desert is the thirteenth of Le Clézio’s works to be translated into English, which suggests that if there is insularity here, it can’t entirely be blamed on publishers. American readers need to demand translation of important foreign works—but, also, they must pull them off the shelves and read them. Desert is a great place to encounter this major French writer.