By Colin Smith
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J M G Le Clézio, Atlantic, £16.99
Issue 347

I have to confess that I had not heard of J M G Le Clézio before he won the Nobel Prize in 2008. Once I had, I found his books were hard to get hold of. Desert, described by the Nobel committee as his definitive breakthrough, has only just been published in English after 30 years. It is worth the wait.

This is a story about colonialism and its effects. It is also a story about the desert, dust, light and wind – the beauty and brutality of the natural world, and human society’s struggle within it. It is about the cycle of life and death, about humanity, independence and companionship. It is metaphorical, and magical, and much more.

There are three main narratives in the book: the story of Lalla, a young Moroccan girl living in a shanty town by the sea; the story of an older Lalla, living amid poverty and racism in Marseille; and a much earlier tale set around 1910 with which the book starts, about Nour and his tribe, “the last free men”, struggling to survive in the face of French invasion. Rather than being told chronologically, these three narratives interweave and overlap, adding to the magical feel of the novel. This also serves to highlight the links between the narratives and ultimately the effects of African colonisation.

We feel Lalla’s longing for a past she barely knew, before her people were driven out of the desert. We share her sense of loneliness and fear in the sprawling city of Marseille, where her isolation makes it seem like far more of a desert than the one her ancestors were forced to flee. And we feel the irony of her only success coming from a strange fascination with her exotic beauty on the pages and covers of French magazines.

Many other important points could be mentioned too – for example, the question of religion. Le Clézio effectively draws out the cultural significance of Islam for the people of the desert, as part of their lives and routines rather than the uniquely backward ideology that we are all too often presented with.

Seeing their struggle to exist contrasted with the occupiers’ descriptions of them as savages and fanatics has contemporary parallels.

This is a fantastic book, in both senses of the word. Appearing 30 years after it was written, its relevance today is as clear as the desert sky, and the telling of this tale and all those within it is truly beautiful.

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