on 6 March 2009
Le Clezio's WAR is not so much a novel as a fictional discourse on the strange relationship between man and his internal and external environment. Thus, if the reader is seeking the comfort and security of a world where cause and effect are linked to produce a climax, as in the traditional novel, he will be disappointed. For there are no 'characters' as such, only a roving consciousness that inhabits the essence of things and creatures. To be fair, as in the author's equally engaging Terra Amata,there are named characters (Bea B and Mr X) through whose labyrinthine consciousness we wander, but they are evanescent creatures, not rooted, subject to strange transformations, difficult to pin down, but not difficult to identify with. For,as he does in Terra Amata, Le Clezio is able to delve even into the consciousness of an ant.
'And suddenly he would disappear in the human sea, he would vanish, swallowed up, unconscious, and no one would ever know that he'd been there.' Thus Chancelode in Terra Amata experiences the moment of terror felt by every large-brained upright mammal that he is but a fragment in a universe without meaning or purpose. But Chancelode will forget this primal terror by going to a funfair or watching girls on the beach; he will be caught up in that delicious whirlpool we call life. But ever the terror, the knowledge that Prospero had that 'Our little life is rounded with a sleep.'Le Clezio presents us again in WAR with an evolving universe in which homo sapiens appears and disappears in a blink. There is delight, but precious little comfort or security in a Le Clezio fiction.
This of course raises questions, not only phlosophical, psychological and teleological, but novelistic. For Le Clezio is not a novelist in any traditional sense. If you want ripping yarns you must seek elsewhere. For me he recalls another great French writer, a very special novelist who shatters our genre expectations, Marcel Proust. It you love Proust you will enjoy Le Clezio. There's no point giving a conventional plot summary of these fictions, for there is no plot. The only character is Mankind or Everyman, as in the Morality Plays, but here there is no morality being played out. There is no prospect for even symbolic immortality. If you want to experience (at second hand of course) Eliot's 'fear in a handful of dust' read Le Clezio. Ants figure quite largely in Terra Amata. They've been around longer than us, and should 'know' more about survival. We are on a head-on collision course, the underlyong theme of WAR. Ants are better organised as a species. Man is a latecomer to this planet and probably an early departer. Many will not wish to know this. The beautiful fiction WAR is not for them.
We are latecomers true, but meanwhile, as Hamlet says to the watchers at Elsinore, 'every man hath business and desires.' Le Clexzio shows these in all their energy and ultimate futility. But there is hope, not so much for mankind as for the universe as a whole. Chancelode or Le Clezio in Terra Amata knows that he is doomed and even writes his own epitaph (a highly comic scene set in a museum thousands of years hence. Man is a curious creature - in both senses - and this need to discover is what Le Clezio celebrates. For, according to darwin (who we celebrate this year) every microscopic act has an effect on the universe as a whole. Thus the flapping of a butterfly's wing in Peru may trigger a volcano in Japan. Only large-brained mankind needs to know or believe this. Any signal sent out in, say, Timbuctu in 2009 has an influence on animal or plant behaviour millennia hence. Difficult to accept? Yes, but then, we're only human, aren't we. Like Darwin, Le Clezio celebrates this fact.