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Lost on the sands of time
on 3 August 2011
Le Clezio's 'Desert' is an elegy to a bygone age, to a lost way of life and to a lost people. Ostensibly, the novel links two children across the ages; a young boy, Nour, at the turn of the twentieth century travelling with his tribe across the desert to escape the encroaching Christian colonisers; and an orphaned girl, many years later, who despite living in a shanty town with her aunt, is relentlessly drawn to the desert and to the nomadic way of life. It's a loose link though and like the sands they both walk on, any significance between their stories shifts as the novel progresses.
Where Le Clezio's novel is beautiful is in its depiction of the desert. This is both broadly cinematic, full of the wide horizon scorched by the burning sun and intensely personal with the description of the trail left in the sand by a passing snake or the sharp stones that cut the feet, among others. Le Clezio spends a huge proportion of the novel deep in the sands of the desert, bringing the heat, the wind and the grains of sand so vividly to life that nothing else seems to have any real significance.
In many ways therefore, Nour's story (by far the shorter of the two) puts a human context to the desert. His life shows the ancient synchronicity between man and the extremes of the desert, stripped as his story is of almost all traditional or religious details. Lalla's story in turn seems simply to underline the atmosphere he portrays in the desert: Her story is far from entirely credible (how does she travel without papers,how does she achieve so much in so little time, how does she return without the ability to read and why is everyone suddenly obsessed with her eyes?) but she embodies the mysticism of the desert, of the legends of the desert peoples and illustrates how at odds they are with our modern world.
So, 'Desert' is a deeply evocative book but it is not a traditional character-based yarn. It's a beautiful book, but at times strangely paced and some of the sudden leaps in Lalla's story can be quite jarring. The title however is 'desert' and make no mistake, the central character here is very much the desert not the people. If you have the patience to bear with that, you will enjoy it.