Desert was first published in 1980. With its publication, J. M. G. Le Clézio abandoned the avant-garde literature of his beginnings. Instead of directly critiquing Western culture and its rationality, he chose in this novel to celebrate a non-Western culture that provides its people with a grasp on the universe and their place in it. He also continued to defend the oppressed. Desert is considered, together with Le Chercheur d’or (1985; The Prospector, 1993), one of the best works by Le Clézio. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008.
Desert is composed of two different narratives: a historical one about the colonial war of the French army and its African allies against the tribes of the desert, and the contemporary story of Lalla. These narratives, distinct by their contents, are also presented on the pages of Desert in different ways: the first one is printed in a column narrower than the column used for the second one.
The historical narrative is precise: readers can follow the march of the caravan on a map, from Smara to Agadir; the decisive events are dated. It is not a chapter in a history book, however. The narrative provides a vivid description, rich in detail, of the travelers, their surroundings, their origins, and their activities. It also has a spiritual content: the legends, values, and beliefs of the desert tribes, especially the Berik Allah (“those who are blessed by God”).
The figure of al-Azraq, the ancestor, the Blue Man, serves as an example for the warriors of the caravan. His teachings are an inspiration for all. On Earth, the leader of the travelers is the formidable Sheik Ma al-Aïnine, whose gaze moves young Nour and can relieve a blind soldier. The caravan travelers are part of a tradition; they are also part of the world that surrounds them—the stones, the sand, the rivers, and the night. Their daily activities are shaped by these spiritual realities, which account also for the epic tone that permeates their narrative. This epic style is achieved through the use of stylistic elements, such as long lists of names, places, or tribes, which are repeated as if they were incantations. Nour, the boy who witnesses and survives the destruction of his people, adds a human dimension to the collective drama. In the vision presented here, the people of the desert have a tradition and spiritual guidance. The Christians, by contrast, have weapons and businessmen waiting to exploit the region’s natural resources. They are said to have only one god:...
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