Recent Reads

Desert  by  JMG Le Clezio (translated from the French)

Where to start?  I wanted to read this because I’m fascinated by deserts and this book is about nomads in the Sahara.  Secondly, the writer has a huge reputation.  He won the 2008 Nobel Prize of Literature.  He has written over forty books and been translated into thirty six languages!

The cover blurb said “A writer of something akin to genius”.

His style was to do long lyrical passages about the desert, the heat, the light – which was okay at first, quite spellbinding actually  – but very repetitive after the first hundred pages.  And then he did the same thing, when he was describing the poor areas of Marseilles.  Somehow this  approach was incongruous when applied to an urban setting.

And the book structure. It opened with a historical account of the early 1900s – the great trek of the  tribal people to the coast, under the leadership of a mystical sheik – and their eventual wholesale slaughter at the end of the book.  I suppose part of the novel – apart from the beautiful prose aspect – was an indictment of European colonial policy in North Africa.  I had to read the Morocco section of Michael Palin’s Sahara   to get a perspective.

The gist of it all was that Lalla – the chief protagonist, a young nomad girl, – was a descendant of the mystical sheik  – she was filled with wanderlust and had an affinity to the desert – which pulled her back from urban immigrant life in Marseilles.  You could take the girl out of the desert but not the desert out of the girl.

His portrayal of immigrant urban life was really grim and makes you wonder if they would not have been better off staying in North Africa.  But I suppose it’s the lure of a cash economy.

Apparently this book is considered to be le Clezio’s “definitive breakthrough as a novelist”.  Was quite surprised to read this.  I found I really had to work hard to read the book and to finish it (350 pages).  Had I not know this was such a landmark book, I’m not sure I would have laboured on to the end.

Just imagine: over forty books!  Alexander McCall Smith has a similar (in fact bigger, I think) score, but he won’t be nominated for the Nobel prize –apparently comic novels don’t really count when it comes to prestigious global  prizes.  And look at Terry Pratchett’s output – also over the forty mark.   The master of them all, P. G. Wodehouse wrote something  ninety six  books in addition to  plays, song lyrics, poems, and articles. No Nobel Lit Prize for him!

SAHARA – by Michael Palin, photos by Basil Pao

This is the book version of the BBC TV series.  The series was entertaining at the time, but by flipping though the book just to enjoy the photographs, one is spared Michael Palin’s somewhat forced humour.  I enjoyed the rich ochre colours of the dunes and the wave-like ripple patterns in the sand.  Pao perfectly captures the mystique of deserts, their immensity, the sheer emptiness and the vivid contrast of a blazing blue sky that definitely borders eternity.  And his portraits of the natives of the Sahel: pitch black skin and vivid boldly patterned fabric wraps – the colours are so bold and so primary.  Perhaps they make such an impact because the backgrounds are sand and there is nothing to distract the eye?
I’m fascinated by deserts  – quite why, I’m not sure.  All that space and emptiness?  An echo  – of sorts –  of the Buddha’s teaching as seen by the Zennists where emptiness is a recurring theme.

Note to self:  I must hunt up my review of the Freya Stark autobiog, plus my notes about her own voluminous travel diaries and writings. And then there is the  book I borrowed from the Ixopo Library, in 1990, which has haunted me for years – an account by a young Westerner who joins one of the few remaining salt caravans across the Sahara, and nearly dies on the journey, from heat, thirst, loneliness … the book made a huge impression on me, and of course, I’ve forgotten his name and the title.


Filed under DESERTS

8 responses to “BOOKS ABOUT DESERTS

  1. Mmmmm… sounds like the author has a very good imagination at descriptions. Maybe it could become a good reference book for adjectives, answer to describing various colours , landscape, weather, plants, etc.

    Reminds me of school days, detention was writing a 1000 words on the inside of a tennis ball.


  2. Mari Lee

    I never realised we shared a passion for desserts!! I need to spend time in one every few years or I just go coo coo. I also read a book on a guy that joined a salt caravans that departs from Timbuktu some years ago. It was called Men of Salt by Michael Benanav. Absolutely facinating. I found his narration very beautiful and haunting. Maybe the one you read was an older book??


    • I have recently found out about the Michael Benanav book & would like to read it; but no, this is not my ghost book – the Ixopo Library book must have been written sometime in the 1980’s because I read it in 1990.


  3. Excellent reviews Alison… objective and descriptive. I might skip “Desert” by Le Clezio, but enjoyed the BBC series of Palin’s “Sahara”, so it might be worth the read. The artist in me especially appreciated the visuals of those bold patterns and colors against the background of sand… Hope you find your “ghost” book; I am intrigued. Thanks so much for sharing.


    • Thanks for subscribing – there’ll be another desert-themed review shortly. I’m with you entirely on the artistic aspect of deserts – the colours, he sand-pattenrs …Wow!


  4. I too have a fascination for deserts, but that’s probably because I was born in one!

    The most famous non-fiction book written about the Namib desert was a book by Henno Martin, called “The Sheltering Desert” (website). The German title was “Wenn es Krieg gibt, gehen wir in die Wueste” (If war breaks out, we’ll go into the desert).

    A summary from here to whet your appetite:
    “At the outbreak of World War Two they fled into the Namib desert, where they lived for two and a half years. The undescribable phsyical and mental hardship they had to bare, the challenge to survive in the vastness of the Namib desert, the constant threat of detection and their gradual adaptation to live a life as ancient bushmen, while being confronted on the radio with the horrible clash of civilsations in Europe is described in this book, The Sheltering Desert.”

    If you want to read it online, the English version is apparently available here – it looks like you can also download the PDF.


    • The title rings a faint bell – I think I read this book (thanks to the Public Library) some years ago – an incredible story. Quite amazing what feats of endurance humans can perform. But not me – too old and too much of a wimp! Although, on second thoughts, childbirth ……


  5. Mari Lee

    Alison, I have “The Sheltering Desert on my bookshelf if you or the book club want to read or re-read it. Still one of the most facinating books on desert experiences. I think because the two guys (geologists) who went to hide out in the Namib were almost clueless and not even good marksmen with a rifle. They even took their dog Otto. Named that because, like the name , he looked the same from the back and the front!
    Ironically, the one guy survived the desert and was killed in a motor vehicle accident after returning to civilisation. So maybe deserts are not the most difficult places to survive?


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