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.