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Mauritania, Morocco, and Marseille...,
This review is from: Desert (Paperback)
LeClézio won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2008, primarily for this work. In the making of such awards, like the premise that the Supreme Court makes its legal decisions based on the results of the last election, there are undoubtedly significant political considerations. LeClézio has written about "The European Dilemma," to play off a phrase originally formulated by his fellow European, Gunnar Myrdal, when he wrote An American Dilemma: Negro Problem and Modern Democracy: 1 (Black & African-American Studies) in 1944. Each book, in quite different ways, examines the problems of a democratic society with a significant unassimilated minority, which has been brought, or induced to come, for the value of their "cheap labor." LeClézio's book concerns France, a country that is nominally Christian, but largely secular, far more so than the United States; 10-12% of France's population is Muslim, mainly from the Maghreb (Northwestern Africa.) The "assimilation," or lack of same, of the latest arrivals to France is the central theme.
LeClézio novel is presented as two alternating stories; the first is of the coming-of-age boy, Nour, and is set in 1909-10, when French forces are hunting down "rebel" leaders and their followers in Mauritania and southern Morocco. The second narrative is of Lalla, a coming-of-age girl who decides to flee her bleak life in a "bidonville" (a shanty town) and seek her "fortune" in Marseille. The author does not give an exact date for her story, but it must be in the late `70's. The author never directly addresses the "cause and effect" aspects of these stories; it is left to the reader.
"Desert" isn't an easy read, but then neither is Faulkner or Joyce. I felt the real strength of the novel is LeClézio's ability, as someone coming from an industrialized country, to depict accurately the pre-industrialized outlook. It is fully attuned to the natural world, where awareness of the phase of the moon is intrinsic; a life without watches; a life full of djinns and spirits. LeClézio's novel reminded me of the works of AbdulRahman Al Munif, particularly Cities of Salt: A Novel in which he depicts the pre-industrialized outlook in Arabia as it collides with the foreign oil workers from Aramco. I also found Lalla's experiences in Marseille quite evocative. It is a city that I had disliked for a considerable period, but finally adjusted my outlook; instead of trying to see another Provencal village, I realized it was simply a "sunny New York."
However, I did have some problems with the novel. Sorry, I do have a watch, and a calendar, and Lalla's experiences over the nine months of her pregnancy were just too unrealistic. Among other matters, she became fluent in French in apparently four or five months. I also felt that various descriptions of the desert world were too expansive, and at times redundant. And geographically, the depiction of the location of the "bidonville" did not conform with the landscape of Northern Morocco. There could also have been tighter editing; for example, how many times was the reader told about the "bristling hair" on the dogs in Marsaille? And then there is a problem for mono-lingual readers. Books written in English sometimes have non-translated French or German, assuming the reader knows these languages, or inferring the meaning by context. LeClézio ups the language requirements by including non-translated Arabic, such as the words: "majnoon," and "ummi." Ok, so maybe we should be learning, and in these cases its "crazy," and "my mother."
Much credit should go to LeClézio for his depiction of one of Europe's central problems, not now, when there is so much focus on the so-called "clash of civilizations," but rather at its very inception, in the `60's and `70's. His novel will remain a seminal work as we seek solutions to the problem. Finally, it was heart-warming to note that Leclézio has chosen Albuquerque as his home, for six months of the year. No doubt the desert environment, similar to Mauritania, is a pull. Unfortunately he seems to be unrecognized in his adopted hometown, which may be the way he prefers it. Still, it is an honor, and he should be much more widely read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on March 05, 2010)