The vast Saharan Desert, as with the appropriately named “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian Peninsula to the east, has often provided the material by which authors and painters were able to conjure images used to symbolize desolation and foreboding. The extreme vastness of these deserts, with their featureless terrain save the occasional brush or water hole, and wind-swept dunes takes on mythical proportions that convey both the enormity of their boundaries and the emotional emptiness they seem to embody. In the opening of J.M.G. Le Clezio’s 1980 novel Desert, this author of French-Mauritian heritage emphasizes the contradictory nature of life in and around the Saharan Desert, emphasizing its tremendous scale and natural beauty while capturing its desolation and, at times, hopelessness. There is a passage early in the novel in which the caravan of refugees fleeing fighting to the south is gradually making its way across one of the largest expanses of nothingness on the planet. Le Clezio’s young protagonist – of the early 20th Century period of his novel, the other period, of course, being modern day – is summoned by “the man with the rifle,” the sole evidence of modern weaponry in the possession of this ragtag convoy of desperately poor migrants. The boy, Nour, is shown the way of the desert by this adult, who demonstrates for Nour how to navigate by the stars over the featureless terrain by using the astronomical constellations. Concentrating on the stark contrast between the emptiness of the desert and the fullness of the universe above, Le Clezio describes Nour’s reaction as follows:
“There were so many stars! The desert night was full of those sparks pulsing faintly as the wind came and went like a breath. It was a timeless land, removed from human history, perhaps, a land where nothing else could come to be or die, as if it were already beyond other lands, at the pinnacle of earthly existence.”
Le Clezio’s “desert” is more than just the foreboding terrain over which these refugees must cross to reach safety; it is a symbol of the timelessness of nature and of those who live among its featurless terrain. These are people at home in the desert, as Le Clezio’s narrative describes:
“There was nothing else on earth, nothing, no one. They were born of the desert, they could follow no other path. They said nothing, wanted nothing. The wind swept over them, through them, as if there were no one on the dunes. . .There were men and women of the sand, of the wind, of the light, of the night.”
There is a reason Le Clezio’s novel, which tells of people with origins in the Saharan region during two distinct periods of time is titled Desert. It is because the Sahara is more than just a setting; it is a culture and a symbol representing the alienation in which Nour and the others making this long trek and Lalla and her people are condemned by circumstances beyond their control. Lalla’s eventual return to the desperately poor tribal village of her clan in modern day northern Africa, following her surprisingly successful period as a professional model, is testament to the pull one’s tribal homeland continues to have on those who leave it, and to the enduring misery associated with those who cannot escape it. The desert in Le Clezio’s imagination has that mythical and cultural connection for those who are from it that has enraptured other artists and writers over centuries. The contradictory nature of this setting was encapsulated well by Le Clezio in the following passage from the first part of his novel:
“It was as if there were no names here, as if there were no words. The desert cleansed everything in its wind, wiped everything away. The men had the freedom of the open spaces in their eyes, their skin was like metal. Sunlight blazed everywhere. The ochre, yellow, gray, white sand, the fine sand shifted, showing the direction of the wind. It covered all traces, all bones. It repelled light, drove away water, life, far from a center that no one could recognize. The men knew perfectly well that the desert wanted nothing to do with them.”
Note that last sentence: “The men knew perfectly well that the desert wanted nothing to do with them.” Yet, Lalla is drawn back to it and Nour finds the magic of the night there.