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J. M. G. Le Clézio 1940-

(Full name Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio) French novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Le Clézio's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 31.

Le Clézio achieved instant critical recognition when...

(The entire section contains 45540 words.)

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J. M. G. Le Clézio 1940-

(Full name Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio) French novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Le Clézio's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 31.

Le Clézio achieved instant critical recognition when his first novel, Le Procès-verbal (1963; The Interrogation), published when he was twenty-three, received the prestigious Prix Théophraste Renaudot award. From that time on he has been regarded as one of France's major contemporary literary figures. His works often defy categorization and are not affiliated with any one literary or philosophical movement. Le Clézio's fiction frequently explores metaphysical questions, examining the nature of language as it describes and creates reality. Le Clézio also examines postindustrial life using both traditional storytelling styles and experimental narrative forms, which have proven to be both critically and commercially successful.

Biographical Information

Le Clézio was born on April 13, 1940, in Nice, France, to Raoul, a doctor of Mauritian descent, and Simone. Although Le Clézio was primarily raised and educated in France, he spent a portion of his childhood in Nigeria and England. He attended Bristol University and London University, and held a teaching position at the Bath Grammar School in England. He was awarded a license-ès-lettres degree from the University of Nice in 1963, a maîtrise from the University of Aix-en Provence in 1964, and a docteur-ès-lettres from the University of Perpignan in 1983. In 1963 Le Clézio published his critically-acclaimed first novel, Le Procès-verbal. In 1966 Le Clézio served a term of French military service by working as a teacher at the Buddhist University of Bangkok and the University of Mexico. He also spent four years living with Indian tribes in Panama, and has travelled extensively through North and South America and the Indian Ocean. A prolific author and educator, Le Clézio has continued to publish works and has lectured at Boston University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. In addition to the critical honors he received for Le Procès-verbal, Le Clézio has been awarded the Prix Valery Larbaud award from the Bibliotheque Municipale Valery Larbaud in 1972 and the Paul Morand literary prize from the Academie Française in 1980.

Major Works

Le Clézio's writing style has embraced both traditional narrative structures—particularly the quest or adventure story—and non-traditional, experimental forms. Both his fiction and essays address the devastating effects of urbanization on the natural world and the impact of colonial cultures on indigenous populations. His works also often examine issues of language and creativity. Le Clézio's protagonists are frequently uprooted, lonely drifters from Morocco, Central America, and other diverse locales, who struggle to discover their identities as they bounce from one geographical location to another. In Le Clézio's earlier works, his characters regularly meet grim fates, but in his later novels, his protagonists fare better, with many simply renouncing Western culture and returning to their homelands. In the short story collection La Fièvre (1965; Fever), the main characters wander numbly through modern metropolises, suffering from fevers that provide them with extrasensory perception and enable them to become acutely aware of the human misery that surrounds them. As their illnesses intensify the characters become surreally absorbed into their natural surroundings. Le Livre des fuites (1969; The Book of Flights) similarly focuses on characters in urban settings, including J. H. Hogan, who is questing for knowledge, but finds himself trapped in a limited and man-made environment. In another short story collection, La Ronde et autres faits divers (1982; The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts), Le Clézio's characters attempt to escape their bleak, postindustrial existences, but remain alienated due to the oppressive social order.

Origins and quests, exile and redemption, and colonialism and destruction figure prominently in Désert (1980), Onitsha (1991), Étoile errante (1992; which may be translated as Wandering Star), La Quarantaine (1995; which may be translated as The Quarantine), and Poisson d'or (1997; which may be translated as Golden Fish). Lalla in Désert, Esther and Nejma in Étoile errante, and Laila of Poisson d'or are each forced to leave their homelands against their wills. These young protagonists all experience geographical exile and embark on journeys which mirror their development towards adulthood. Twelve-year-old Fintan in Onitsha becomes part of a British colonial regime in an African city and deals with his feelings of exile as he adjusts to a new language and culture imposed on him by his father. Léon in La Quarantaine experiences isolation and loneliness while living in a quarantine camp on an island near Mauritius. All of these protagonists are desperate for a sense of identity, but despite their best efforts, they remain on the fringes of society. Each of them chooses to reject Western culture and the worship of materialism, deciding instead to return to the lands of their birth in an attempt to find a sense of self. While they wander in exile, Le Clézio's characters often write about their experiences. Le Clézio uses the acts of reading and writing in his narratives to explore the healing and educational powers of the written word. The novel Le Chercheur d'or (1985; The Prospector) and the short story “Awaite Pawana” also focus on journeys, but in these situations the quests are not forced: the characters in these works leave home as a result of their desire for financial gain. In Le Chercheur d'or Alexis follows his late father in search of gold, only to discover that achieving material success proves to be an empty and shallow experience.

Critical Reception

Le Clézio has been lauded by several critics for his expertise, storytelling skill, and prodigious imagination. His writings have proven popular with both readers and reviewers, with many of his works becoming best-sellers in France and abroad. Although some commentators have tried to place his prose style into the nouveau roman (“The New Novel”) literary genre, most critics agree that Le Clézio's diverse writing style resists classification. Le Procès-verbal has been praised for its unique portrayal of human sensory experience, although some reviewers have argued that the novel's themes are sterile and unoriginal. Le Clézio has been largely absent from the French literary scene—by his own choice—and a number of critics claim that this distance from his audience contributes to his mysteriousness which has only served to increase Le Clézio's popularity. His novels, in particular, have been noted for including autobiographical elements. His critics have complained that Le Clézio addresses the same basic ideas and characters over and over again in nearly all of his works and have claimed that his books offer little new material while focusing too heavily on Le Clézio's own life.

Principal Works

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Le Procès-verbal [The Interrogation] (novel) 1963

La Fièvre [Fever] (short stories) 1965

Le Déluge [The Flood] (novel) 1966

Terra Amata (novel) 1967

Le Livre des fuites: Roman d'adventures [The Book of Flights: An Adventure Story] (novel) 1969

La Guerre [War] (novel) 1970

Les Géants [The Giants] (novel) 1973

L'Inconnu sur la terre (essays) 1978

Mondo et autres histoires (short stories) 1978

Désert (novel) 1980

La Ronde et autres faits divers [The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts] (short stories) 1982

Le Chercheur d'or [The Prospector] (novel) 1985

Printemps et autres saisons (short stories) 1989

Le Réve Mexicain ou la pensée interrompue [The Mexican Dream, or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations (essays) 1989

Onitsha (novel) 1991

Étoile errante (novel) 1992

La Quarantaine (novel) 1995

Poisson d'or (novel) 1997

La fête chantée, et autres essais de thème amérindien (essays) 1997

Hasard; suivi de, Angoli mala: romans (short stories) 1999

Coeur brûle et autres romances (short stories) 2000

Neal Oxenhandler (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Oxenhandler, Neal. “Nihilism in Le Clézio's La Fièvre.” In Symbolism and Modern Literature: Studies in Honor of Wallace Fowlie, edited by Marcel Tetel, pp. 264–73. Durham: Duke University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Oxenhandler attempts to define the nihilism found in the short stories of La Fièvre.]

We know more about nihilism than we like to think.

—W. J. Dannhauser, from a lecture

Si vous voulez vraiment le savoir, j'aurais ne préféré ne jamais être né.

—J. M. G. Le Clézio, Preface to La Fièvre


The fictions of J. M. G. Le Clézio unfold on a devastated and devastating world. Few other writers in the tradition of Kafka and Sartre have celebrated as powerfully the emptiness of the contemporary cityscape. Numerous images of emptiness are brought into play to convey the reductive power of a nihilistic imagination.

The question I will put to Le Clézio's fiction has to do precisely with the meaning and extent of his nihilism. I wish to pursue this nihilism into various motifs of the stories, seeing what shapes it assumes and how it repeats itself. Once Le Clézio's nihilism has taken shape and substance we will be able to pose the question of its extent or limits. Obviously, if Le Clézio were a totally unrelenting nihilist he would not write stories. So the nihilism must be mitigated in some way. And perhaps it may even provide its own antidote. Is there escape from this nihilism—some possibility of redemption from (or perhaps through) it? I put this question to Le Clézio's book of stories La Fièvre because I think it his best work to date. Paradoxically, he poses the question of the meaning and limits of nihilism more effectively here than in his straight philosophical essays. One might ruefully apply to the Le Clézio of the later works, a novelist turned essayist, Rimbaud's devastating line on the misuse of talent: “Une belle gloire d'artiste et de conteur emportée!” (Une Saison en Enfer, “Adieu”).


Le Clézio's hero lives in a world of matter in motion:

Le mouvement renaîtrait dans le petit appartement, avec des à-coups, avec des ratés de moteur encrassé. Le mouvement viendrait. Il passerait sous la porte et se mettrait à ramper sournoisement, comme un reptile, vers le lit du malade.1

[p. 48]

This molecular motion creeps in everywhere—nothing can resist it. Le Clézio calls it “l'extase matérielle,” and it encompasses all of creation. It includes human consciousness and the world of created objects. All-invading and all-encompassing, it reveals a monistic universe, one with only local differentiation. All things ebb and flow between nodal points of energy.

Language is the privileged matrix of extase matérielle, since it is here that the flux turns back upon itself in a loop or fold and so contains itself by a reflexive act.2 Language as Le Clézio uses it is a material force: hence it is not primarily used to perform a cognitive act, i.e. to denote concepts or relationships. It is used as a magical power whose function is to change the material relations of the user. Language does not stand for an object; it is an object. It is not merely a symbol of the object but rather a material sign that contains it own referent. In what is the best article on Le Clézio to date, Gerda Zellner makes the point that Le Clézio uses language in a way diametrically opposed to the way it is used by the formalists of the Tel Quel group.3 He is fascinated with names because they somehow contain the essence of the thing named:

Qu'est-ce qui est marqué sur cette dalle? Les noms des morts, sans doute, et les empreintes spiralées des vivants. Les signatures aussi. Les dates des jours et les chiffres des heures, les numéros des années, les phases de la lune, les vents, marées, éruptions solaires. Le nombre des feuilles des arbres. Les écailles des serpents, les pattes des scolopendres. Arêtes, vieux vestiges, reliefs du festin, miettes, miettes! C'est cela mon domaine, ma prison. Je n'en sortirai pas; mais je veux compter les grains de sable et leur donner un nom à chacun, puisque c'est la seule raison de ma vie.4

The world is a trash heap littered with names, dates, graffiti. There are splendid remnants of the biological order—snake scales, spider legs. The writer's task is to rescue these remnants from the indeterminacy of the trash heap and to give them momentary prominence by the act of insertion in the mental order, an order which is directly cognate to their own, since it too is part of the extase matérielle.

This conception of the function of language no doubt has its roots in Symbolism with its view of the magical power of name-giving.5 Yet perhaps the clearest link is with the alchemical view of poetic language held by Rimbaud. Like Rimbaud, Le Clézio uses language to change the world. He possesses Rimbaud's acute awareness that this banal, daily world is somehow not the real one; and like Rimbaud, he uses language to void the world and penetrate through it to something else. That “something else” is Nothingness. No matter where one begins in a Le Clézio story one is always carried back to that emptiness at the center of his vision. Yet how one sees or interprets the void is the central issue for arriving at an understanding of Le Clézio's poetic ontology.

The flux of the literary text reveals itself in a constant process of making and unmaking. It is characterized by continual change and openness which is opposed to the deathlike sterility of the cityscape. And yet the flux of the text seems to be a directed process, a dialectic propelled by some inner urgency toward a meaningful opening-out.

Certain motifs return over and over again in these stories. A classification of these motifs would run as follows:

1. The walk through the city. This is the motif that occurs the most frequently in La Fièvre. The characters wander aimlessly through the teeming streets of a Mediterranean city (based on Le Clézio's own Nice), where they have a number of random encounters:

Il traversa à nouveau toute la ville, tout ce dédale sonore plein de coups de douleur et de frissons, cette espèce de blockhaus asphyxiant et sale où les couloirs partaient dans toutes les directions, pour mieux vous tromper, où les chambres se ressemblaient toutes, avec leurs meurtrières minces et leurs coins noirâtres, où se croisaient près du béton armé de lourdes odeurs de croupissures et d'excréments.

[p. 34]

2. Encounters in the city. The most powerful presence in the city is the crowd, which seems to live its trance-producing existence like an affliction or plague. The solitary walker is constantly on the verge of succumbing to the crowd's power, but the presence of human flesh awakens nausea in the hero and deep feelings of paranoid fear:

Au centre de cette viande suante, criarde, bariolée, des yeux vivaient, d'une vie presque indépendante, petites bêtes glauques et voraces. … Il était cerné par ces murailles de vivants, tenu fixement au milieu du trottoir, attaqué de tous côtés, en proie à toutes les sortes d'hommes, ceux qui marchent, ceux qui sont assis, ceux qui rient, ceux qui parlent, ceux qui sont derrière, ceux qui regardent, ceux qui dorment.

[p. 121]

Other encounters, however, are less menacing. There is, for instance, in Le Procès verbal (published in 1963, two years before La Fièvre) the extraordinary sequence during which the hero follows a dog for hours on end, abandoning his own autonomy to that of the animal. More frequent than encounters with animals, however, are those with children. There are a number of these in La Fièvre; all communicate a Rimbaud-like fascination with the nondiscursive intelligence exhibited by children. Perhaps most poignant is the child's ability to remove himself from the inhumanity of the city and to immerse himself in an imaginary world. Yet childlikeness does not provide an effective antidote to the constant aggression that the hero meets as he wanders through the city. Much of Le Clézio's paranoia seems to focus on the automobiles encountered during the city walk:

… il se dégageait de toutes ces machines à l'arrêt une sorte de rumeur confuse, qui n'était plus du bruit et pas encore le silence. … J'étais en quelque sorte nourri de cette rumeur. Elle entrait par mes oreilles et par toute ma peau et s'installait à l'intérieur de mon corps, déclenchant des mécanismes inconnus, des rouages. Au bout de quelque temps, j'étais devenu une sorte de voiture, moi aussi, une machine d'occasion sans doute.

[p. 93]

The automobile is the prime example that indicates the adversary relationship between the Le Clézian hero and all material objects. No doubt this follows from the dehumanization and pollution of the city by the automobile. Yet, at the same time, there remains a deep fascination with the car as a primary locus of fantasy life.

3. Encounters between man and insect. The insect presents to man a minuscule version of his own vulnerability. Often the text focuses down like a high-power microscope:

Martin pencha la tête vers la bête immobile au creux de sa main et la contempla longuement. Il vit le corps rond, noirâtre, la rainure des élytres, la tête et les antennes rentrées … il comprit tout de suite que le charançon était vivant, et qu'il faisait le mort pour qu'on le laisse tranquille. Il vit ça tout de suite, au premier coup d'œil, à cause de l'application que mettait le petit animal à rester levé sur lui-même, et peut-être aussi à cause d'un imperceptible mouvement de vibration dans les antennes pliées. C'était cela, la peur, ce petit grain de poussière, ce pauvre pépin de fruit, tout noir, tué sur lui-même, le temps arrêté, le corps à l'envers, les pattes serrées sur son abdomen où la vie palpitante se cachait.

[pp. 156–57]

Later in the story Martin himself will become an insect, when he is attacked by a ruthless band of children. Le Clézio is fascinated by the way in which the insect presents to man a reduced and elemental version of his own place in the cosmos.

4. The enabling emotion. Le Clézio's text is a crossroads of all the intellectual and aesthetic currents that precede him. As a continuator of the existentials, notably Sartre, he makes it clear that any important insight must be grounded in the body and must be accompanied by a powerful emotion. Le Clézio's heroes, updated versions of Sartre's Roquentin, are frequently subject to nausea. The prime example of an enabling emotion is the fever which gives the whole collection its name. The overwhelming vertigo and panic which crash down upon the character Roch are described at length as they overwhelm his mind and body. The fever mounts in him like a wave; he shivers and feels that his body is on fire; objects melt under his gaze or become part of a nebula. In this truly Rimbaldian story the hero reaches apocalyptic heights as he destroys the world with his glance. The world becomes an enormous cancer; and one thinks of Roquentin's intuition that being is “de trop” as he stares at the roots of the chestnut tree in the park of Boueville.

Like Roquentin, Le Clézio's hero, Roch, perceives objects as secretions:

Les choses sécrétaient, sans arrêt, laissaient couler des liquides brûlants. Il y avait des glandes partout, des cloques invisibles qui bouillonnaient au plus profond de la matière.

[p. 31]

It is, of course, the insertion of man into the world that makes reality viscous, since he must dye it with the stuff of consciousness before he can apprehend it. Emotion, which occurs at the endothymic juncture between body and soul, is for Le Clézio a guarantee (albeit a weak and fallible one) that man, anchored to the world through his tormented and fever-ridden body, is still viable, even if threatened.

If we ask what it is that threatens the Le Clézian hero, we return to the theme of nothingness which was our original starting point. For the intuition of the void seems to underlie every perception, every act. Finally, we realize, the Le Clézian hero must go through the void if he is ever to attain appeasement.

Nothingness functions not as a “motif,” but rather a permanent basso continuo always present at any point in the work's unfolding. The hero aspires to dissolve himself and vanish into the emptiness of space:

Ce qui était bizarre, offusquant, c'était que je me sentais vivre, dans la plus profonde évidence, et qu'en même temps, il me semblait être devenu transparent sous la lumière. Les vibrations de l'éclairage passaient à travers moi comme à travers un bloc d'air, et me faisaient onduler doucement du haut en bas. Tout mon corps, tout mon corps vivant était attiré invinciblement par la source lumineuse, et j'entrais longuement dans le ciel ouvert; j'étais bu par l'espace, en plein mouvement, et rien ne pouvait arrêter cette ascension.

[p. 91]

This is certainly one of the most positive of the Le Clézian hero's many transformations. It is important because it expresses the underlying monism of Le Clézio's work, his view that all reality is finally one. If we went further and added that the One or Underlying Principle is nothingness, nirvana, then we would not be far from the view of Buddhism. It is clear that Le Clézio is close to Buddhism in other respects: his view that all human existence is suffering is profoundly Buddhist. And from Buddhism we can borrow insights that will help us to understand the role of nothingness in Le Clézio.

Le Clézio's work must be approached with the understanding that it is deeply paradoxical, as is any text that attempts to express the meaning of life. Man is diminished yet retains, through his power to name, an awesome ability to create existence where before there was nothing. His heroes deny any meaning to existence while at the same time they endlessly record that meaning (or absence of meaning). All things, Le Clézio maintains, are one, yet he draws up endless lists of material objects. Perhaps the greatest paradox lies in the appeasement that comes, for apparently no reason, after the frantic wanderings (through material and imaginary space) of heroes such as Roch or Paoli or Beaumont or Martin. We see that the text is dialectically organized in such a way as to make this outcome necessary. The appeasement seems logical and inevitable; yet how explain it, how justify it in such an apparently comfortless cosmos?

The appeasement that is attained by Le Clézio's hero may come after a period of frantic efforts as it does to Roch, after his long bout of fever (p. 59). When finally the narrator is able to control movement (synonymous with change and hence life itself), then he will be wholly appeased. Appeasement thus seems linked with some kind of negative or downward closure on existence. Tranquillity comes as he vanishes, as he dissolves the apparent solidity of the self and evaporates into the night air. This attainment of nothingness, of nirvana as the goal toward which the self moves, is presented even more strikingly in a passage that appears earlier in the same story:

Il semble même que les pensées se répandent au-dehors, qu'elles sortent par mon nez et mes oreilles et vaquent dans l'espace, me font un lit. Les désirs forment des boules non loin de moi. Dans le fond d'une caverne noire, une impulsion palpite, isolée, enfin de moi visible. Je peux toucher mes mots, mes visions. Et moi, ce qui s'appelle moi, n'est plus rien. Vidé, soulagé, ma tête immense m'abandonne. Je suis enfin libre. Je suis enfin libre. Je n'ai plus de nom, je ne parle plus de language, je ne suis qu'un néant. J'appartiens à la vie, morte, anéantie, transfigurée par la splendeur de l'évacuation. Un souffle. Je n'ai plus de pensée, mon âme est un objet. Je gis.

[pp. 198–99]

The central paradox here amounts to a reversal of the Cartesian cogito: I think and perceive, therefore I am not. This is only an apparent paradox to one who has some understanding of the Buddhist goal of nirvana.

The affirmation of the nothingness of the self lies beyond the principle of contradiction and, at the very least, must be viewed as an unresolvable paradox. Yet there are a variety of meanings that can be attributed to the affirmation that the self is empty and strives to unite its emptiness with the absolute emptiness of nirvana.

There is, first, an effort to define the self as a protean and immaterial principle, a principle that has all forms and no forms, that dies and yet survives death. The very paradox quoted earlier, “Je n'ai plus de pensée, mon âme est un objet,” is dense with meanings. If I have this thought, how can I have no thought? Because, no doubt, I am an immaterial substance, that is, one occupying neither time nor space. Yet, he claims, the soul is an object. There is a Sartrean echo here, for the soul seems to lack any particular ontological privilege. Yet the surging, spontaneous, protean quality of the very passage quoted seems to place the “soul” in a category above and beyond all objects.

For Le Clézio, the soul is a pilgrim in quest of some dimension, some realm where it can subsist without the constant threat of annihilation. This realm, if it could be attained, would be nirvana. Yet here we return to paradox, for the only way the soul could exist would be to cease to exist. A further extension of the paradox of the soul's emptiness would be to read it as a vector pointing toward a profound or deep self, as opposed to the superficial self that functions in most of our daily transactions. This would be a view consonant with the depth psychologies or the psychology of Marcel Proust, whose entire fictional work is a descent into the depths of lost or vanished selves.

Still another possible interpretation would be to insist that the second term of the assertion (nirvana) is not merely a “vide” but a “vide-plein,” to borrow the terms of the scholar of Buddhism, Joseph Masson. Masson sees in the asceticism of Buddhism the traditional steps: negation of the world and of attachment to the world; negation of the self, in preparation for the attainment of nirvana. He writes: “C'est en supprimant, théoriquement et pratiquement, le Soi, la personne, que l'on peut dépasser toutes les douloureuses limitations et parvenir à l'expérience béatifiante et illimitée de la mystique; c'est alors qu'il peut y avoir nirvana.”6

So much is clear in regard to the first stages of the mystical ascent. But beyond this point lies the vexed question whether nirvana is pure negativity or might not be rather a via negationis for arriving at the absolute, in other words, a “vide-plein.” This question must no doubt be answered differently for each of the different Buddhisms, not to speak of the different Buddhists. The Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki comes out strongly in favor of nirvana as a transcendence toward an absolute ground of being. Masson echoes this position:

Bien conduite, l'opération de dépouillement “doit déboucher,” semble-t-il, sur tout autre chose que le rien pur et simple; sur une “négation,” “un vide,” un “anéantissement” qui ne sont nullement le néant. … Nous serions ici en face … d'une via negationis vécue, anéidétique, et para—ou supra—conceptuelle … qui use du vide et de l'abolition pour connaître comme inconnue l'existence substantielle de l'âme.7

The Oriental scroll-painting, known as the mandala, presents a pictogram of spiritual states through which an individual must pass on his journey to enlightenment. In the center is the abode of the deity. This is contained within the palace of inner being, surrounded in turn by the different gates through which the pilgrim must enter. All these stages or way-stations, simultaneously present on the illuminated surface, impel the pilgrim to advance along his meditative way. Carl G. Jung took the mandala, essentially a meditative ritualistic device, and adapted it to therapeutic use, as a means for the neurotic to achieve self-centering.

One might see Le Clézio's stories as representing the different aspects of a quest from neurosis and toward enlightenment or at least appeasement. The Le Clézian persona moves through different spiritual and psychological states, all equally synchronous as he runs his predetermined course. He too follows a spiritual path, usually unrelentingly downward, into the throbbing city streets that lead him inwards, on his spiritual journey. Each hero seems to be drawn irresistibly toward the void, only to regain consciousness at the last moment, just before he succumbs to its hypnotic power and plunges into oblivion. Each story is a litany of negations and denials, a stripping of all camouflage and all defense from these characters until they are revealed totally naked.

Perhaps the immediate literary ancestor of Le Clézio's persona is the officer in Kafka's tale “The Penal Colony.” When the execution machine starts to run amok, the officer strips and lies down on the bed, allowing his body to be riddled and mutilated by the deadly needles of the harrow. One might add that there is a strong Oriental strain of impassivity and submission to suffering in Kafka, just as there is in Le Clézio.

But, after all, although he has a strong streak of the exotic, Le Clézio is not a Buddhist. And yet the Buddhist multivalent use of nonbeing helps to circumscribe Le Clézio's struggle with nothingness, helps to situate and schematize it. Le Clézio's personae move through nothingness and assimilate it or are assimilated by it as they progress along a spiritual path. The nature of their spiritual experience can never be stated once and for all. So it is that the writer uses metaphor and negation as he attempts to deal with this experience. And he begins the story over and over again. In a very profound sense each of these stories is the same story repeatedly told. Perhaps this explains Le Clézio's doubting and abandonment of the traditional narrative form. He seems to be making no progress, seems to be repeating himself. Again and again, the same motifs occur. Again and again, the story makes closure on an incommunicable experience, till finally he makes the decision to abandon the fictional form altogether and to seize the core experience directly, by a different kind of discourse. Like Rimbaud and like that contemporary Rimbaud, Jean-Luc Godard, Le Clézio may eventually abandon the struggle with the narrative form altogether. Yet this will not bring him any closer to nirvana.

Le Clézio is like the man in the parable that ends Kafka's Trial. He waits patiently, year after year, for a gate to open—not knowing that it was open all the time. In the mysticism of the void, to search is to have found; to desire is to be appeased; and yet there is no finding and no appeasement.


  1. All references are to La Fièvre (Paris: Gallimard, 1965) unless otherwise indicated.

  2. Le Clézio's fascination with matter and his exaltation of matter as an ecstatic force that implicitly contains consciousness as its inner dimension is reminiscent of the view of Teilhard de Chardin.

  3. “Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio: le roman antiformaliste,” in Positions et oppositions sur le roman contemporain (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971).

  4. J. M. G. Le Clézio, “Comment j'écris,” in Les Cahiers du chemin (Paris: Gallimard, 15 Oct. 1967).

  5. One is also reminded of the Sartrean view of poetry's ability to “unveil” or “disclose” a reality sunk in shadows until it is named.

  6. Le Bouddhisme (Paris, 1975), p. 173.

  7. Ibid., p. 182. The quotations are from an article by Jacques Maritain.

Emile J. Talbot (review date winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Talbot, Emile J. Review of La Ronde et autres faits divers, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 57, no. 1 (winter 1983): 62.

[In the following review, Talbot argues that the characters in La Ronde complement the characters found in Le Clézio's Mondo et autres histoires.]

Le Clézio previous collection of short stories, Mondo et autres histoires (1978), celebrated the attainment of a fresh intimacy with the universe by children who were able to bypass the confining world of modern urban life (see WLT 53:2, p. 249), but his latest collection, La Ronde, features characters whose efforts to escape lead only to defeat. The tone is set by the first story, “La Ronde,” a tale of a brief escapade on a motorcycle which ends in tragedy for a teenage girl. The attempts on the part of the central characters in the remaining stories to break out of their confines are similarly frustrated. A fearful, impoverished woman has to give birth unassisted in an overheated mobile home; an escaped convict is retaken after a painful ordeal; a young girl is gang-raped in a low-income housing development; a carefree trip to Italy ends in illness and arrest; a Yugoslav sacrifices everything to enter France illegally only to suffer exploitation there; a Portuguese immigrant has turned to theft to feed his family; a nine-year-old boy's search for his brother leads to crime. Le Clézio has labeled these stories as faits divers—that is, minor news items—and it is easy to imagine them as brief items in a newspaper or newscast, incidents of a kind so common as to become banal. But therein lies the irony: the fait divers are neither minor nor banal when experienced by these characters, who, from Le Clézio's gentle and sensitive perspective, deserve better than to suffer in solitude and whose ill-considered attempts to escape render all the more poignant their hopeless situations.

La Ronde, then, which at first seems to be in contradiction to Mondo, appears to be its complement. The sense of belonging to the universe that the characters of Mondo possess is possible only because they are unfettered by the constraints of civilization. The characters in La Ronde never approach any intimacy with the universe because, for all their attempts, they are unable to escape the harshness of contemporary life. Ariane, the young girl who is raped, lives in a neighborhood in which, Le Clézio tells us, there are no birds, grasshoppers or even flies. The smell of the nearby crematorium reminds us that both man and nature are dead in a civilization surrounded by concrete. It is no coincidence that Milosz, the illegal alien, works as a semi-slave in a cement quarry, for cement is the omnipresent sign of a Western civilization whose growth, characterized by parking lots, expressways and oversize apartment buildings, entails a diminishing of all that is human. La Ronde thereby takes its place as part of Le Clézio's continuing reflection on the alienating forces of the post-industrial world.

Alan Roberts (review date winter 1986)

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SOURCE: Roberts, Alan. Review of Le Chercheur d'or, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 60, no. 1 (winter 1986): 68.

[In the following review, Roberts asserts that Le Chercheur d'or is an enjoyable work if the reader can “accept the emotional wringing” of the central character, Alexis.]

Le Clézio's latest work, Le Chercheur d'or, falls into the category of a neoromantic novel, which may not appeal to today's public. Beautiful description of exotic lands, of travels on small nineteenth-century sailing ships to islands off the east coast of Africa, all overshadowed by the mystery of death, the cruelty of nature, and, above all, the self-pitying loneliness of the narrator, permeate its pages. The reader may wish that Le Clézio had refrained from his tendency toward verbosity in descriptive detail but is grateful for immersion in the picturesque realm of uncultivated nature.

Alexis, the solitary narrator through whose thoughts the reader follows the course of the story, begins by recounting his memories of a happy childhood among the sugarcane plantations on the island of Mauritius. His sole confidante is his sister Laure, for whom he develops an almost obsessive devotion. After his father's financial failure and death, Alexis sails to the island of Rodrigues in search of buried gold, a quest his father had contemplated before him. There, as Alexis wanders alone looking for the treasure of ancient pirates, lovely Ouma appears mysteriously. Together they swim among the coral reefs, listen to the wind in the trees, find happiness in each other's arms.

However, World War I, the product of man's hate, breaks out, and Alexis spends many months in the trenches of northern France. When he returns to Mauritius, his mother dies and Laure enters a convent; nothing is left. Ouma reappears for a year of supreme happiness in the beauty of the wilds. As might be expected, however, she too leaves, forced by the authorities to return to her homeland. Alexis, dreaming of happiness “de l'autre côté du monde, dans un lieu où l'on ne craint plus les signes du eiel, ni la guerre des hommes,” now realizes that gold no longer holds any appeal.

There is genuine pleasure for the reader in this refreshing novel, if he is willing to accept the emotional wringing of a modern Paul et Virginie.

Dominic Di Bernardi (review date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Di Bernardi, Dominic. Review of Printemps et autres saisons, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 2 (summer 1991): 262–63.

[In the following positive review, Di Bernardi praises Printemps et autres saisons for reexamining the oft-addressed themes of nationalism and racial purity.]

J. M. G. Le Clézio's newest collection of short stories, Printemps et autres saisons, might be more accurately described as a novella and four stories, and more aptly titled “Five Young Women.” Writers commonly exploit images of the opposite sex as vehicles for examining broader themes. These narratives, all written in Le Clézio's trademark impassive (and at times disappointingly deadpan) style, are focused on foreign women, mostly North African, whose (mostly failed) encounters with a variety of French males furnish the basic story lines.

For example, “Fascination” romantically evokes a man's pursuit of an ever-elusive Arab woman he first saw performing in a restaurant. “Le Temps ne passe pas” (“Time Doesn't Pass”) recounts the aborted romance between two teenagers, torn apart both by racial strife and economic necessity. “La Saison des pluies” (“The Rainy Season”) depicts the European exile of a woman named Gaby, who has left true love behind in the tropics. Finally, in “Zinna,” perhaps the single wholly unsuccessful story of the collection, we are presented with a rather skeletal and stale melodrama concerning a certain Zinna, a North African discovered by a producer and turned into a “goddess” of the entertainment world only to fall into equally sudden obscurity, a precipitous and predictable slide climaxed by a suicide attempt. The melodrama feels musty, reminding this reader of the sort of star turn only the likes of Josephine Baker might have breathed new life into during her French film career.

Yet Le Clézio makes an important addition to his voluminous oeuvre with the title novella “Printemps” (“Springtime”). In the simplest, most unpretentious way possible the author presents us with an initial situation: the apparent rescue of a young girl abandoned in war-torn Algeria by the well-meaning Colonel Herschel and his wife. With a steady hand, the narrator slowly unravels this presupposition and redefines his tale as the young girl returns to the land of her ancestors. During her stay she discovers the truth of her mother's oppression and courage, a woman who defied tribal custom, became pregnant with her out of wedlock, and left her in the care of the retired American couple at their farm, Nightingale, to follow her lover to Europe rather than be forced into a face-saving marriage by her family.

It is Le Clézio's poignant reconceptualization of home and roots—the mother's land is literally an immigrant's new world—which both gives a new spin to an old theme and invests it with a timely resonance in the context of a Europe in the throes of multicultural conflict and self-redefinition. In “Springtime,” this apolitical novelist has written an affecting tale that subverts the outmoded narratives of nationalism and racial purity, still the rallying cries of neo-Fascist forces on both sides of the Atlantic.

Marilyn Gaddis Rose (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Rose, Marilyn Gaddis. Review of Onitsha, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 304–05.

[In the following review of Onitsha, Rose focuses on Le Clézio's interest in non-Western settings.]

Once again J. M. G. Le Clézio, a novelist fascinated by the non-Western and an anthropologist respecting the Other, takes readers to a site that destroys Westerners; that is, the site either encourages their most egregious exploitative colonialism or puts them in the thrall of difference. The latter happens when the new non-Western environment casts a spell severing the Westerners from their own kind but keeping a barrier between them and the natives.

In Onitsha the time is the immediate postwar period, and the site is a British sub-Saharan colony about five years from independence movements. Geoffrey Allen, a distribution agent for the United Africa Company, retrieves his Italian wife Marilou and their son Fintan from their wartime refuge on the French Riviera. The twelve-year-old Fintan, Le Clézio's chief narrative consciousness here, must learn a “new” father and his language as well as an African river culture upon which the British have overlaid a colonial culture. His father is re-creating by twilight-sleep intuition the journey a fabulous black Egyptian queen must have taken to bring her people to a landmark up the river from Allen's outpost. Marilou, by another kind of intuition, connects with the female psyche of the native queen. Fintan, both intensely naïve and immensely intuitive, makes contact with but cannot become friends with two youngsters who might well be the last survivors of his father's imagined tribal royalty—if such ever existed. All three, however, must return to England when Geoffrey loses his job. At the novel's end, twenty years later in the late 1960s, Fintan, a French teacher in a British boys' school, knows that the special, troubled, riven society his family knew has been reclaimed not just by the native Africans but also by the roaring river and the overwhelming landscape, with few buildings remaining from the temporary colony.

Le Clézio, true to his method, protects himself from presumption by showing a non-Western setting from the point of view of spellbound Westerners who cannot penetrate it. It is the mystery of the unknowable Other, the Other forbidden to outsiders. The inner narratives imagined by Geoffrey are cast in the form of recorded oral history. The transitions between Fintan's traditional third-person narratives of almost understanding by a somewhat bedazzled adolescent who almost understands and Geoffrey's narratives of pseudo-oral history are made quite smoothly. The characters may be disoriented, but the readers never are. The ending, twenty years later, though a bit lame, does minister to our reader needs. All in all, an expertly managed piece of professional fiction-writing, but a little hard to take seriously.

Robin Buss (review date February 1993)

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SOURCE: Buss, Robin. Review of Étoile errante, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4688 (February 1993): 13.

[In the following mixed review, Buss praises Le Clézio's development of the two central female characters in Onitsha, but argues that the novel's content is superficial.]

The blurb on J. M. G. Le Clézio's new novel says that it forms a pair with Onitsha, published in 1991; but, in reality, the filiation goes further back, to Désert, (1980), in which Lalla, a Moroccan girl, experiences the alienation of the city, conceives a child, loses the father in a banal accident and gives birth after returning to a more natural environment. Esther, the Jewish girl in Étoile errante, follows a comparable odyssey and also gives birth to her child after the violent death of its father. In Onitsha, the young Fintan travels to Africa, to discover an older civilization beneath that imposed by colonialism. All three books express a similar message about harmony with nature and share the same identification with the oppressed of the world.

Esther starts her journey as Hélène, disguised under that name because she is the child of Jewish parents in a small town in the South of France during the Occupation. She has first to survive, and then to recover her proper identity. Escaping from the Germans with her mother, she travels to Israel, where she has a brief encounter with her Palestinian alter ego, Nejma, who then takes up the story. Throughout, Le Clézio mixes first and third-person narrative, present, historic present and past tenses, to give variety to the point of view. Though there is some variation in tone from one narrator to the other, and a careful sprinkling of references to Jewish and Palestinian culture, the sensibility of the two young women is fundamentally the same.

The keynote is the innocence of the gaze they direct on the cruelty and folly of mankind, and the closeness they feel to the processes of nature. “Le soleil ne brille-t-il pas pour tous?,” Nejma asks, repeatedly, in the course of her wanderings with other Palestinian refugees during the Arab-Israeli war of 1949. Sun, sea, rocks, earth and trees are evoked as reminders that we share the same planet, which we disfigure by our conflicts. Near the end of the book, Esther is driven to revisit the place in the mountains where her father was shot by the SS, and finds that it has somehow become the City of Light, Jerusalem, which he never saw. Feeling that she is the only living creature on earth, she considers that she has learned whatever she needs to know.

Asking precisely what that is would be missing the point: Le Clézio does not invite, or expect these private discoveries to yield to analysis. “Je ne sais pas trop comment cela est possible mais c'est ainsi: je suis un Indien,” he wrote in 1971, in an account of his visit to Central America; and here he is saying: “Je suis une Juive, une Palestinienne.” There is both naivety and arrogance in the claim that he can speak for these victims of oppression, though he might even see it as his duty to do so. The writing sustains our interest and the illusion of wisdom; and it is hard to fault him on the authenticity of the narratives of the two women. There is little here that is controversial, but also little of any great substance or originality, and few moments in which we can actually participate in the characters' emotions, or feel that the author himself is doing so.

Marilyn Gaddis Rose (review date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Rose, Marilyn Gaddis. Review of Étoile errante, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 67, no. 3 (summer 1993): 585.

[In the following review of Étoile errante, Rose compliments Le Clézio's attempt to write about lesser-known historical events, but criticizes how Le Clézio “renders history through a young woman's puberty.”]

The star of the title Étoile errante refers to the key character, Esther, called Estrelitta by her father, who is thirteen when the chronicle begins in the Alpine foothills near Nice, fifty-two when the book ends. The story concludes in the same place where it began, since on the occasion of her mother Elisabeth's death Esther has returned to visit the mountain site where her father died when his group of fugitives were mowed down by Germans. This was just after the Italians, having surrendered to the Americans, had pulled out of the little town where French Jews had taken refuge. During the intervening forty years, Esther and Elisabeth, who had reached safety in Italy, had wandered to Paris, then sailed to Israel on a freighter clandestinely loaded with refugees. They arrived at the very moment the state of Israel came into being and lived on a kibbutz until Esther's fiancé was killed at the front. In final synopsis chapters we learn that they have moved to Montréal, where Esther has attended medical school and has married. From there she has gone to Tel Aviv to practice pediatric medicine; her mother has returned to Nice to die. In the second half of the novel there is a disturbing one-hundred-page section focused on Nejma, a Palestinian refugee whose path had crossed Esther's upon arrival in Israel. This allows us to see the devastation which the Jewish homeland caused those who had inhabited the lands since the diaspora. Nevertheless, the framing gives preeminence to the cosmic justice prevailing in the Jewish saga of survival.

As in Onitsha (see WLT 66:2, p. 304), with which Étoile errante is designed to form a diptych, Le Clézio has written some very moving passages about less-known moments in recent history. He is far less convincing as an adolescent girl than he was as an adolescent boy in the earlier novel, and also as in that novel, he cannot keep a story going. The present narrative, chiefly third-person subject, is close to spellbinding for the first 135 pages, as Esther bounds around the rocks and ravines in Le Clézio's careful reconstruction of the Italian occupation of France, but it becomes tedious and repetitious after that. Moreover, in Le Clézio's concern for sufficient volume, he repeats the heroine's racing to undetermined sites and her subsequent repose in marveling near-hebetude once she reaches one, regardless of her age, the turn of events, or the geographic setting.

Étoile errante is, after all, a novel written in the realist mode, and so the criterion of credibility can be applied. From Le Clézio we expect a good story in an exotic, non-Western setting, all rendered believable by having as the narrative consciousness a Westerner stranded in an alien community. In Onitsha the formula still worked until the Western family left black Africa for the British Isles; at that point the novel became unpersuasive summary. Here the whole endeavor gradually becomes suspect when Le Clézio decides to render history through a young woman's puberty.

William Thompson (review date March 1994)

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SOURCE: Thompson, William. Review of Étoile errante, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. French Review 67, no. 4 (March 1994): 704.

[In the following review, Thompson offers a positive assessment of Étoile errante.]

There are two “wandering stars” in Le Clézio's latest novel, Étoile errante, two young women whose paths cross only once and for one brief moment which results in a solitary exchange of names on the blank page of a notebook. This chance encounter will, however, have a lasting, significant impact on both as the journeys of these two “stars,” Esther and Nejma, take radically different routes.

Esther, whom her father lovingly calls “Estrellita” (“Little Star”), is, as the novel begins, a young Jewish girl living with her parents in the mountains north of Nice. In fact, they are less “living” than trying to avoid the increasingly ominous Nazi presence in occupied France. Every day Esther and her parents, like the other Jews in the town, must present themselves at the Hotel Terminus to be accounted for and to receive their ration cards from the Italian troops stationed there. As the war progresses, Italy surrenders, and the Italian troops retreat, leaving the area they once occupied to the Germans. Esther and her mother must flee without knowing what has become of her father who has been contributing to the Resistance. The two women find refuge in Italy (ironically the homeland of their former oppressors), but after their fellow Jewish refugees have been captured and deported by the Germans. At the end of the war the two women travel to a chaotic but liberated Paris, discover that Esther's father has been killed, and begin a journey to settle in the land that will become Israel.

Upon reaching Israel, Esther and her mother set out for Jerusalem, and it is during this journey that Esther's path crosses that of Nejma, a young Palestinian who herself has become a refugee. The central portion of the novel thus leaves Esther's story behind (as she in fact nears the end of her physical journey) in order to focus on Nejma and the fate of another group of refugees, the Palestinians. Nejma has little understanding of her people's fate, and her life as a refugee both on the road and in a camp proves to be centered less on despair than on anticipation. She watches for the arrival in the camp of the trucks carrying humanitarian aid, and later cares for the infant child of another woman who has died. There is a constant apprehension about what might happen to these people; as time passes, the possibility of change becomes increasingly remote.

The many ironies in Étoile errante will not be lost on the reader: the fleeing Jews following their former captors, the Italian troops, as both groups escape from the Germans; the displacement of the Palestinians as the once-displaced Jews arrive in the Middle East; the parallel discoveries of both Esther and Nejma about the wonders of love, but on opposite sides of the war; the end of Esther's journey in Israel, the beginning of Nejma's in the same country. With the past destroyed and with the future uncertain, Esther and Nejma are forced into a present of wandering and of searching for an ill-defined goal. Esther admits at the end of the novel: “Je ne savais pas ce que je cherchais, ce que je voulais voir. … J'ai peu de temps. Si je ne trouve pas où est le mal, j'aurai perdu ma vie et ma vérité. Je continuerai à être errante” (326). For Esther this search is successful, but for Nejma, “La route n'avait pas de fin” (284).

Avid readers of Le Clézio's novels may find Étoile errante less intriguing than some of his previous work, in particular the recent Onitsha and Le Chercheur d'or. However, readers interested in the “mode rétro” of contemporary French fiction and French writers' interest in the real and imaginary characters of World War II will find in Étoile errante a worthy addition to Le Clézio's œuvre. Although not the most impassioned or moving fictional work on the fate of the Jews or Palestinians in our century, Le Clézio's novel contains a well-developed plot and intriguing characters, which provide a satisfying reading experience.

Robin Buss (review date 10 May 1996)

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SOURCE: Buss, Robin. Review of La Quarantaine, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4858 (10 May 1996): 22.

[In the following review, Buss offers a generally positive assessment of La Quarantaine.]

When J. M. G. Le Clézio won the Prix Renaudot in 1963 with his first novel, Le Procès-verbal, and was acclaimed as the most promising new voice in French literature, the cultural establishment appeared to be playing one of its games. Here was the story of an outsider, an assault on the values of modern society; but with the inducement of a few plums, its talented author could probably be persuaded out of this stance of late-adolescent revolt.

Le Clézio was not to be seduced. He refused to be drawn into the Parisian literary scene (he now lives in New Mexico), and has remained a misfit among French writers, continuing to explore his unease with modern European society, increasingly from the point of view of the persecuted and the disinherited of the Third World. Most of his work in the past fifteen years has been on this theme, often using protagonists who are as far as possible from the author himself and his own immediate experience—the Moroccan girl in Désert, the Africans of Onitsha, the Jewish and Palestinian women of Étoile errante—as though the author felt the need to extend still further a consciousness already shaped by a heterogeneous family background (French, Breton, Irish), an unconventional upbringing (in the 1940s, his father worked as a doctor in Nigeria) and a life-time of travel.

The inspiration for his new novel came from a trip to Mauritius, a country with strong links to both France and England, and connections with Le Clézio's own family. His grandfather nearly emigrated there; but when he arrived at Flat Island, the small island off the coast which served as a staging-post for immigrants during the compulsory period of quarantine, he changed his mind and went back to Europe. The central and longest section of La Quarantaine is set on Flat Island and told by just such an immigrant in the last years of the nineteenth century: Léon has arrived here with his brother, a doctor, and his sister-in-law; but, instead of turning round and heading back to France, he falls in love with an Indian woman living on the island, gradually separates himself from the European settlers and disappears. His narrative is framed in accounts of how his grand-nephew in 1980 (the year when Le Clézio turned forty, suggesting another possible meaning of the title) sets out to find the trace of Léon and Suryavati, the woman he loved.

As well as the elements from Le Clézio's own family history, there are references to public events, particularly to the life of Arthur Rimbaud, whom the doctor, Jacques, is supposed to have glimpsed. Rimbaud is clearly an emblematic figure in the novel, as a misfit who rejects Europe and disappears into Africa, and one would expect Le Clézio to consider him an exemplary figure. His appearances in this novel are brief, but memorable.

So are the passages in which Léon describes the progress of his love for Suryavati, from the first chance meeting on the beach to the sexual consummation and Léon's gradual dissociation from his European family and colleagues. Eventually, at a key moment in the novel, he comes to renounce revenge against those who have tried to stand in the way of his passion:

La vérité est simple et belle, elle est dans la lumière qui étincelle sur les dalles de basalte dans la puissance de la mer, dans cette nuit illuminée le long de la baie des Palissades, comme un miroir de l'infini. Ce qui est vrai, c'est le visage très doux et ancien de cette femme.

Such lyrical passages teeter on the edge of banality, and in some of Le Clézio's earlier novels have toppled over it. But in La Quarantaine, he can get away with them, in the context of a strong and absorbing narrative. It is one of the best, as well as one of the most characteristic works we have had for some time from a notable outsider.

John L. Brown (review date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Brown, John L. Review of La Quarantaine, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (fall 1996): 909.

[In the following review, Brown offers a positive assessment of La Quarantaine.]

From the start, J. M. G. Le Clézio has been considered a maverick, but a maverick of genius. In 1963, at the age of twenty-three, his first novel, Le Procès-verbal, received the Prix Renaudot. Since then, he has published some twenty-three works, of which La Quarantaine is the most recent. They take place all over the globe, from South and Central America (Le Clézio has a particular fondness for Mexico and has translated some ancient Mayan poetry) to India and Africa. He spends little time in France, preferring to live in Albuquerque (New Mexico) or in Michoacán (Mexico). He even refused to return to Paris to sign copies of La Quarantaine for Gallimard's service de presse. He disregards the literary establishment, which considers him “une maladie contagieuse”! But readers apparently love him. In a poll taken last year by Lire he was chosen as “le plus grand écrivain contemporain de la langue française.” Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Chateaubriand are frequently cited as among his “great ancestors.” He hates the world of modern technology, which “tyrannizes man by mechanical and psychological means for commercial ends” (Les Géants, 1973). A truly human society has survived only among “primitive peoples,” and he often extols his experience in Panama, living with an Indian tribe of which he became a member. Technology has created concentration camps of every sort, and quarantaines now exist everywhere, “in Asia, in Africa, even in France.” He desperately desires to “get away from it all,” to be a part of nature, to be swallowed up by the sea.

Like much of Le Clézio's work, La Quarantaine contains much autobiography, some of it authentic. Of Irish origin, Le Clézio's ancestors emigrated to Brittany and then moved on to Mauritius (an island near Madagascar), there to make a fortune as sugar planters. The “patriarch” of the family. Alexandre Archambeau, brutally expelled his son Antoine from the island, refusing to pardon him for marrying Amalic, a Eurasian. (Le Clézio is constantly denouncing the racism of European colonial societies.) The young couple fled to Paris with their sons, Jacques and his younger brother Lèon. Jacques went to study in England, became a doctor, and married Suzanne, an English girl. But both brothers had a nostalgia for their place of birth and, in 1891, embarked for Mauritius. Their ship was not permitted to land there, however, since the authorities feared that the passengers might be infected with smallpox and cause an epidemic. Consequently, all of them, Europeans as well as Indian immigrants, were quarantined on “Flat Island” near Mauritius.

Up to this point, Jacques has been the narrator, but now Léon (a double of Le Clézio) takes over and recounts the horrifying details of life in the quarantine camp. When a passenger dies, the authorities take the body to a nearby island and burn it. Soon the mortally ill as well as the dead are being transported there. For Léon, a ray of hope appears in the darkness when he meets Surya, a Hindu girl, whose father, a British soldier, was massacred at Cawhpoor, and who is confined with her mother in the camp of the Indian immigrants. Nearly half the novel is devoted to a movingly romantic description of their love for each other, with Léon playing the role of Paul to Surya's Virginie. Finally, the long-awaited schooner returns to release the quarantined victims. Jacques and Suzanne embark to return to Europe, but Surya and Léon refuse to leave their “paradise of love.”

Years later, in 1980, the narrator travels to Mauritius to find out what happened to the lovers. He got in touch with Anna, the granddaughter of “the Patriarch,” but she was unable to help him. On his way back to Paris, he stopped at Marseille to visit the cemetery where Rimbaud was buried. Rimbaud haunts the pages of La Quarantaine. He appears in the book on two occasions: in 1872, when Jacques catches a glimpse of him in a café on the Place Saint-Sulpice: and in 1892, when Jacques, his wife, and Léon, en route to Mauritius, stop at Aden, where, in the hospital, they perceive a wild-looking man who is dying of gangrene. At the end of his quest the narrator asks himself. “Have I been pursuing an illusion?” But Le Clézio himself can certainly be assured that he has not been and that this wide-ranging, multifaceted novel, a “Himalaya littéraire” (one not always easy to scale!), confirms his reputation as an outstanding writer of his generation.

Warren Motte (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Motte, Warren. “Writing Away.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 689–94.

[In the following essay, Motte examines how Onitsha addresses the concept of the “mother tongue.”]

For many critics, J. M. G. Le Clézio's principal virtue as a writer is his ability to construct a novelistic landscape that is dramatically different from the real world of his readers, a deeply evocative, seductive “elsewhere” to which we travel on the virtual journey of his fiction.1 Such a technique is of course one of the privileged gestures of narrative, at least since Homer; yet in Le Clézio's texts it assumes a richly personal specificity which may be read, I think, as his authorial signature. I should like to examine that effect, focusing upon what I consider to be the most exemplary of Le Clézio's recent novels, Onitsha.

Like many of Le Clézio's writings, Onitsha is a novel of apprenticeship. It tells the story of a young boy named Fintan who leaves France for Africa with his mother in order to join a father whom he has not seen for many years. The very first words of the novel inscribe the theme of the journey and announce that it will occupy the foreground of the tale: “Le Surabaya, un navire de cinq mille trois cents tonneaux, deja vieux, de la Holland Africa Line, venait de quitter les eaux sales de l'estuaire de la Gironde et faisait route vets la cote ouest de l'Afrique, et Fintan regardait sa mere comme si c'etait pour la premiere fois” (13). Fintan's reluctance to embark upon that journey—“Je ne veux pas partir, je ne veux pas aller la-bas,” he protests (16)—may be interpreted as a move in the strategy Le Clézio deploys in order to enlist his reader in the imaginary voyage of the novel. For Fintan's remark is figural of the reader's own natural hesitation to leave the familiar behind and strike out for the unknown. It serves to situate the reader in solidarity with the principal character of the novel and to suggest that, just as Fintan's journey becomes inevitable once he embarks upon the Surabaya, so too our journey becomes inevitable once we begin to read.

During the ocean voyage, which occupies the first of the novel's four parts, Fintan will refer to his destination as “la-bas.” It is an apparently simple term, and yet the fact that it recurs in Fintan's discourse with such insistence leads one to believe that it is less innocent than it might seem.2 It is useful to remember too that the term la-bas comes equipped with certain literary connotations in the modern French tradition, and a broad allusive field fashioned in the first instance by Baudelaire and Mallarme Baudelaire's “Invitation au voyage,” much like Onitsha, describes an initiatory ocean journey toward a radical “other,” a place that is utterly different from the word we know: “Mon enfant, ma sieur / Songe a la douceur / D'aller la-bas vivre ensemble!” And Mallarme's “Brise marine” likewise prescribes an ocean journey into the unknown as antidote to the mortal ennui which afflicts the poet: “La chair est triste, helas! et j'ai lu tousles livres. / Fuir! La-bas fuir?’

Clearly, Le Clézio appeals to that tradition in the first part of Onitsha. Under his pen, the term la-bas is powerfully intertextual, an overdetermined signifier that serves to designate a place defined, for the moment, only by its alterity. Throughout his novel, Le Clézio will play on the idea of alterity, shaping it and nuancing it within the structure of the text in order to propose it as his principal theme. Gradually elaborating his novelistic vision of Africa, Le Clézio relies on a discourse of opposition: seen through European eyes, Africa is a place where everything, from social conventions to the most trivial protocols of daily life, is different. In refining that difference, Le Clézio exploits the notion of the exotic massively,' invoking it as both a natural and a cultural term.3 On the one hand, Africa is vast, tropical, abundant, and opulent, a perfect example of Mallarme's “exotique nature.”4 As a landscape, it is everything that metropolitan France is not. On the other hand, its cultural conventions, as they are described in Onitsha, seem bizarre, “foreign,” and strangely encoded to Fintan—and, by extension once again, to Le Clézio's readers.

The most powerful technique that Le Clézio uses to project his vision of the exotic upon the reader is involved with his naming practice. In the economy of fiction, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, the proper name is “the prince of signifiers.”5 Proper names, whether anthroponyms or toponyms, are always semiotically motivated in fiction, unlike in real life; they speak volumes about the people or places they designate. Le Clézio's novel is no exception to this rule, and in fact his onomastic strategy is announced in the very title of the book. For most of Le Clézio's readers, the word “Onitsha” is a floating signifier, waiting to be invested with meaning. As such, it is the first cipher in the hermeneutic code6 of the text, for it serves to pique the reader's curiosity. Clearly, the word is a “foreign” one whose resonances, to a French ear at least, are exotic. Even if the reader happens to know that “Onitsha” is the name of an actual city in Nigeria, the evocative force of the word is undiminished, within the same connotational field. In other words, the title of the book itself serves to announce the theme of the journey toward the unknown; and it will serve throughout the novel as the principal locus of “otherness.” To ensure that his reader will recognize this, Le Clézio stages the word “Onitsha” very deliberately: “C'etait un nom magique. Un nom aimante. On ne pouvait pas resister. … C'etait un nom tres beau et tres mysterieux, comme une foret, comme le meandre d'un fleuve” (46).

The word itself has an incantatory power, Le Clézio suggests; in Fintan's mind it conjures up a world of mystery and strangeness. For Fintan, it is the primary term in a catalogue of other “magical names” that he hears during his voyage.7 The reader is encouraged to interpret it in the same way. Moreover, granted the elaborate way Le Clézio weaves the word “Onitsha” into the associative texture of the novel, we recall each time we encounter it that it is also the title of the text. That is, it serves as a sort of shifter, urging us to read doubly, not only on the level of the novel's intrigue but also on the metaliterary level, reminding us incessantly that the novel is not only the story but also the writing of the story. And if Le Clézio intimates so often that the word “Onitsha” casts a sort of spell upon Fintan, he obviously hopes that the novel of the same name will have an analogous effect upon its reader.

On the ship carrying him to Africa, Fintan succumbs willingly to the power of the place-name: “Il y avait ces noms, qui circulaient de table en table dans la salle a manger: Saint-Louis, Dakar. Fintan aimait entendre ce nom aussi, Langue de Barbarie, et le nom de Gorre, si doux et si terrible a la fois” (31). Indeed, the mere enunciation of those exotic names sends him into a dreamlike state, a kind of trance. Uttered one after another, as in a litany or an incantation, they make Fintan dream of strange worlds: “On allait vets Takoradi, Lome, Cotonou, on allait vers Conakry, Sherbro, Lavannah, Edina, Manna, Sinou, Accra, Bonny, Calabar …” (36). In short, for Fintan at least, those names are the initiators of fiction, projecting his imagination into realms of rich—and hitherto unsuspected—narrative possibility. In similar fashion, Le Clézio intends that these names should open a narrative vista for his readers, a horizon upon which his novel will take shape.

Just as the toponyms in Onitsha evoke the unfamiliar, the “foreign,” so too do the anthroponyms. Fintan's own name, for instance, is a very strange one. Indisputably, it is not a French name; and indeed a French reader would find it difficult to identify its origin. Perhaps it sounds Celtic. But in any case, granted its opacity in the referential code of the text, it marks the character who bears it as a strange person. And indeed, all the other major figures in the novel bear the same stamp of alterity, imprinted upon them in the first instance by their names. Fintan's mother, for example, is named Maria Luisa, for she is Italian by birth; his father is an Englishman named Geoffroy Allen, who is marked by the archaic spelling of his first name; the ship's officer who takes Fintan and his mother under his protection during the ocean voyage is a Dutchman named Heylings. When Fintan and his mother arrive in Onitsha, the reader is bombarded with a variety of native names that seem equally strange to a French ear: Marima, who keeps house for Geoffroy Allen (and after whom Fintan's sister, conceived in Onitsha, will be named); Okawho, a servant in another European household; Bony, a fisherman's son who befriends Fintan; Oya, a young woman upon whom Fintan and Bony spy as she bathes in the river. Among the European community, there is Sabine Rodes, a shadowy acquaintance of Geoffroy's. Rodes is marked by the fact that his first name is that of a woman rather than a man. Yet Le Clézio suggests that his alterity is more profound still, and Fintan's father warns him away from Rodes, insisting precisely upon the strangeness of his name, appealing to a logic that the reader understands, even if Fintan himself does not: “Il a dit, Rodes, ca n'est pas un nom tres bien, ca n'est pas un nom comme le notre. Tu comprends? Fintan n'avait rien compris” (100).

In one way or another, then, all the principal characters in Onitsha are designated as “other”—if to varying degree—by virtue of the fact that their names fall outside the referential field of French language and culture. And there is another curious phenomenon at work here, for in fact there is no character who bears an ordinary, easily identifiable French name. It is as if the referential field defined by the language of the novel had no sure guarantor, no center as it were. Personal identity (which the proper name normally serves to reify, after all) is consequently unstable and problematic in Onitsha. This is exacerbated by the fact that the central figures of the novel are plurinymous. Heylings calls Fintan “Junge,” for instance. Fintan himself refers to his mother not as “Maman” or even “Maria Luisa,” but rather as “Maou.” Fintan cannot bring himself to call Geoffroy Allen “Father,” and his mother refers to her husband sometimes by his first name, sometimes by his family name. Bony's name is likewise unstable: “Il s'appelait de son vrai nom Josip, ou Josef, mais comme il etait grand et maigre, on l'avait appele Bony, c'est-a-dire sac d'os” (69). One suspects early on that this plurinymity is a very deliberate effect, and that it is deeply intricated in the thematics of the novel, a suspicion that is amply confirmed by the final words of Onitsha, where Fintan learns of Sabine Rodes's real identity, some twenty years after he first encountered him: “La lettre precisait que, de son vrai nom, il s'appelait Roderick Matthews, et qu'il etait officier de l'Ordre de l'Empire Britannique” (251).

Le Clézio's use of onomastics to elaborate a discourse of alterity is part of a broader strategy through which he questions language itself. His novel constantly puts “foreign” languages into play against the backdrop of the referential language, French. When Fintan gets to Onitsha, he is fascinated by the languages he hears there. He listens with delight to the native voices, which suggest vast new linguistic possibilities to him: “Ils criaient le nom de la pluie: Ozoo! Ozoo! … Fintan ecoutait les voix, les cris des enfants, les appels: ‘Aoua! Aoua!’” (62–63). His mother shares his fascination, and in fact sets out to learn Marima's language: “Maou apprenait des mots dans sa langue. Ulo, la maison. Mmiri, de l'eau. Umu, les enfants. Aja, chien. Odeluede, c'est doux. Je nuo, boire. Ofee, j'aime ca. So! Parle! Tekateka, le temps passe. Elle ecrivait les mots dans son cahier de poesies, puis elle les lisait a voix haute, et Marima eclatait de rire” (149). But there are other new languages too, such as English, the language of the colonial rulers. That is Fintan's father's native tongue, of course; curiously, however, Fintan turns toward Bony rather than Geoffroy Allen for advanced instruction in English—and in another language as well: “Il savait toutes sortes de jurons et de gros mots en anglais, il avait appris a Fintan ce que c'etait que ‘cunt’ et d'autres choses qu'il ne connaissait pas. Il savait aussi parler par gestes. Fintan avait rapidement appris a parler le meme langage” (69).

Throughout Onitsha, Le Clézio interrogates the notion of the “mother tongue.” For the vast majority of his readers, that language is French; yet for Fintan, things are not quite as simple, because his mother's native language is Italian. Maou speaks French with an accent, with “foreign” inflections that appeal strongly to Fintan's ear: “Fintan ecoutait la voix chantante de Maou. Il aimait son accent italien, une musique” (21). Often, Fintan asks Maou to speak to him in Italian: “Parle-moi dans ta langue,” he says (119). And when she does, the music which Fintan hears in that language becomes literal, for Maou sings to him in Italian: “Maou se balancait dans le fauteuil de rotin, elle chantonnait des filastrocche, des ninnenanne, doucement d'abord, puis plus fort. C'etait etrange, ces chansons, et la langue italienne, si douce et qui se melait au bruit de l'eau, comme autrefois a Saint-Martin” (155). Whereas for most of us the idea of the “mother tongue” is essential and largely unproblematic, subtending much of the way we view the world of experience, Le Clézio carefully points out how slippery that notion may be. For Fintan, his mother's tongue is strange—that is, “strange” or “foreign”—and yet he takes great joy and comfort in it.

Not everyone in Onitsha shares his linguistic relativism. When Fintan's family attends a party at the home of the British Resident, for instance, Maou happens to call out to Fintan in Italian, with socially catastrophic results:

Maou avait appele Fintan en italien. [] Rally etait venue, elle avait dit, de sa petite voix effarouchee: “Excusez-moi, quelle sorte de langue parlez-vous?” Plus tard Geoffroy avait gronde Maou. Il avait dit, en baissant la voix, pour montrer qu'il ne criait pas, peut-etre aussi parce qu'il sentait bien qu'il avait tort: “Je ne veux plus que tu parles a Fintan en italien, surtout chez le Resident.” Maou avait repondu: “Pourtant tu aimais ca autrefois.” C'etait peut-etre ce jour-la que tout avait change.


Within the narrative economy of the novel, that event is crucial, because it marks a point where Geoffroy Allen begins to distance himself from his wife and his son. Thematically, it is crucial too, for it is emblematic of the way in which, according to Le Clézio, we are determined by language. In the eyes of the British colonial community, Maou is marked as “other” by the fact that she speaks Italian, and the members of that community will shun her because of that. Though other reasons for excluding her are invoked (she is too “familiar” with the natives, she is unwilling to embrace the colonial ethic, she is “unconventional,” and so forth), her original sin is linguistic in character: her language is not the language of power. The “ceremony of punishment,” as Michel Foucault puts it (49), must be enacted upon Maou; she must be marginalized in order to preserve the disciplined society of Onitsha.

The novel which bears that name, however, takes a rather different stance on the issue of language and power. Just as Le Clézio problematizes the idea of the “mother tongue,” so too does he suggest that language's capacity to establish and preserve power is not absolute. Onitsha presents its reader with a linguistic polyphony in which a variety of languages—and theories of language—vex one another, question one another. The French of Le Clézio's novel is deliberately unstable, constantly interrupted by other languages: Italian, English, African languages, pidgin. In the place called “Onitsha,” Le Clézio asks us, what is a “native language” and what is a “foreign language”? Is autochthony a question of birth or of power? What makes for an exile? When Maou is banished from colonial society, it merely serves to confirm a marginality which marked her from the beginning of the story. Born into an Italian family, uneducated and dirt-poor, Maou was already a marginal figure, even in metropolitan France. The fact that she was an orphan was indeed one of the reasons Geoffroy Allen had been attracted to her: “Peut-etre etait-ce pour cela que Geoffroy l'avait choisie, parce qu'elle etait seule, qu'elle n'avait pas eu, comme lui, une famille a renier” (84). Yet she is not alone in the margins of Onitsha's society, whether “native” or “colonial.” Oya, the young woman whose sexuality fascinates Fintan and Bony, is an outcast among the natives: “On disait que c'etait une prostitute de Lagos, qu'elle avait ete en prison” (93). Sabine Rodes is feared and shunned by the other Europeans: “Il etait sans aucun doute l'homme le plus deteste de la petite communaute europeenne d'Onitsha” (99). More broadly still, Le Clézio describes the radical alienation of both the native community and the European community, pointing out an essential truth about colonial regimes: in such a society, nobody is truly “at home.” Through the evocation of issues such as this, as in his onomastic strategy, the lesson that Le Clézio wishes to convey is that there is no center here, no fixed, reliable point from which the question of marginality may be adjudicated.

In that sense, Onitsha is a book about exile, in which that condition is taken to be universal. The principal vehicle of that discourse is Fintan himself. Like his mother, he is described from the beginning as a marginal being. He is a male, yet he grew up in a feminine universe, ruled by his grandmother and his aunts as much as by his mother. He is a young boy, and thus he sees the adult world from outside. He is French, but his mother is Italian and his father is English. In Onitsha, he is not enfranchised in European circles; yet neither is he admitted into the society of Bony and the other African boys. When he returns to Europe near the end of the novel, he is sent to an English boarding school. There too he becomes a pariah, and it is interesting to note that his alienation is linguistic in origin. Quite simply, the English boys exclude Fintan because he doesn't speak their language:

Quand il etait arrive au college, Fintan parlait pidgin, par megarde. Il disait, He don go nawnaw, he tok say, il disait Di book bilong mi. Ca faisait fire et le surveillant general avait cru qu'il le faisait expres, pour semer le desordre. Il l'avait condamne a rester debout devant un mur pendant deux heures, les bras ecartes. Il fallait oublier cela aussi, ces mots qui sautaient, qui dansaient dans la bouche. … Il ne pouvait pas lire dans leur regard, il ne comprenait pas ce qu'ils voulaient. Il etait comme un sourd-muet qui guette, toujours sur ses gardes.


Fintan's keenest insight—and the crux of this novel of apprenticeship—comes as he gradually recognizes his existential status as an “outsider” and learns to deal with it productively. It has been pointed out, by critics such as Sander Gilman, Edward Said, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for example, that the outsider, while painfully excluded from society, nonetheless occupies a position which offers certain real advantages in terms of perspective.8 Speaking of the alienation of the intellectual in society, Said argues that point eloquently: “So while it is true to say that exile is the condition that characterizes the intellectual as someone who stands as a marginal figure outside the comforts of privilege, power, being-at-homeness (so to speak), it is also very important to stress that that condition carries with it certain rewards and, yes, even privileges” (1994, 53). Fintan's situation in Onitsha is a similar one: though he cannot speak the language of power to power, his very exclusion from power, coupled with his sharp recognition that his marginalization emanates from a highly dubious “center,” enables him to survive. He will engage in what Ross Chambers has called “oppositional behavior”—that is, he will exploit small faults, or flaws, in the system of power, in order to disturb that system (Chambers, xi).

According to Le Clézio, one of the areas in which power's hegemony may be seen to be less than total is in its cultural practices, and most conspicuously in literature. When all else fails and his marginality threatens to submerge him, Fintan takes refuge in stories. He inherits his taste for literature from his mother. Maou is a reader, Le Clézio tells us; she turns constantly toward literature in order to palliate her solitude and her sadness. Alone with her infant son in France during the war, with Geoffroy in Africa and unable to join them, Maou reads Gone with the Wind (82); depressed and ill with fever in Onitsha, she reads Joyce Cary's novel The Witch (108). Geoffroy too is a reader, and he sees in literature a radiant image of everything his life might have been, had things turned out differently. His library in Onitsha contains various kinds of books: anthropological studies by Margaret Mead, Sigfried Nadel, and E. A. Wallis Budge; novels by Cary and Rudyard Kipling; travel narratives by Percy Amaury Talbot, C. K. Meek, and Sinclair Gordon (110). As different as they may seem, however, Geoffroy's books share a common theme: like Onitsha itself, they are all devoted, in one way or another, to the evocation of an exotic “other.” And Geoffroy is powerfully seduced by that “other.” He spends days poring over the Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, losing himself in it, until the world it offers him comes to seem more real than the far less attractive world surrounding him in Onitsha. In a sense, then, Maou and Geoffroy are ideal readers: they enter into the textual contract wholly and unreservedly, fulfilling the role assigned to them as readers to the very letter. Clearly, Le Clézio hopes that we will approach his novel in much the same manner.

Fintan's devotion to literature is still more profound. Like many children, he is introduced to literature by his mother: as far back as he can remember, Maou had told him stories, recited nursery rhymes and poetry to him. During moments of particular stress, he continues to ask her to do that, even now that he knows how to read on his own. During the ocean journey, for instance, he asks Maou to recite some “verses” to him, and she responds with a poem in Italian, which soothes him (29); once they get to Onitsha, he continues to ask her for the same sort of consolation, and she recites Italian nursery rhymes to him (113, 208). In each case, Le Clézio produces these texts in Italian in the pages of his novel, perhaps to suggest that, for Fintan, the “mother tongue” is literature itself. For it is through his mother's voice that Fintan accedes to the world of fiction and dream. Indeed, the text itself is less important to Fintan than the voice that reads it, for the voice has a power to shape the text—any text—to its own ends. As Maou reads aloud to him from a book called The Child's Guide to Knowledge, for instance, Fintan perceives a strange and wonderful world through the simple, prosaic words of the text: “Fintan aimait rever a toutes ces choses extraordinaires, ces merveilles, ces peuples fabuleux” (204). Once again, Fintan's experience is staged as emblematic, for Le Clézio intends that we should approach literature in the same way, and that through our reading of Onitsha we should be offered a vision of the marvelous “other” similar to Fintan's own.

If Le Clézio proposes reading as a means of ingress into that “other,” he also intimates that writing may lead one there. In Fintan's case, just as his mother's example had guided him in his apprenticeship as a reader, so too does her writerly activity inspire him. For Maou writes incessantly, and writing, like reading, offers her a way of coming to terms with her alienation. Her writing is not sophisticated or polished, but, on the contrary, naive (in the mathematical sense of that word) and happily unaware of literary convention; it is process rather than product. Moreover, Le Clézio carefully describes Maou as being free of specific linguistic constraints when she writes, as if writing itself, ecriture, were somehow beyond the various languages that she is obliged to juggle, with more or less success, in her daily life: “C'etait des histoires, ou des lettres, elle ne savait pas tres bien. Des mots. Elle commencait, elle ne savait pas ou ca irait, en francais, en italien, parfois meme en anglais, ca n'avait pas d'importance” (26). Writing represents for Maou everything that her daily experience refuses her: integration, serenity, expression, and the access, through dream, to a virtual, and better, world: “Ecrire, en ecoutant le froissement de l'eau sur la coque, comme si on remontait un fleuve sans fin. … Ecrire, c'etait rever. La-bas, quand on arriverait a Onitsha, tout serait different, tout serait facile” (26–27).

Her example is a determinative one for Fintan. Watching her write, he is awakened to the possibilities that writing offers a person, even one as besieged as his mother. After returning to Europe, Maou gradually ceases to write. When she moves to the South of France, leaving Fintan in boarding school in England, she gives him her old notebooks. Two decades after the events in Onitsha, Fintan looks back upon Maou's writings from that period, seeing in them a powerful, enduring legacy:

Elle n'ecrit plus l'apres-midi dans ses cahiers d'ecoliere les longs poemes qui ressemblent a des lettres. Quand Geoffroy et elle sont partis pour le sud de la France avec Marima, il y a plus de quinze ans, Maou a donne tous ses cahiers a Fintan, dans une grande enveloppe. Sur l'enveloppe elle avait ecrit les ninnenanne que Fintan aimait bien, celle de la Befana et de l'Uomo nero, celle du pont de la Stura. Fintan avait lu tousles cahiers l'un apres l'autre, pendant une annee. Apres tant de temps, il sait encore des pages par coeur.


Maou no longer writes now; but Fintan does. Following his mother's example, Fintan had begun to write long ago, during the ocean voyage from France to Africa. Even at that initiatory moment, Fintan senses that writing may provide him with the same kind of solace that Maou finds in it. Troubled by the attentions that an Englishman named Gerald Simpson is paying to Maou on the Surabaya, and dreading the encounter with his father which awaits him at the end of his journey, Fintan sits down to write a story: “C'etait bien, d'ecrire cette histoire, enferme dans la cabine, sans un bruit, avec la lumiere de la veilleuse et la chaleur du soleil qui montait au-dessus de la coque du navire immobile” (49). His story is the tale of a young woman who goes to Africa for the first time and discovers a strange new world. Clearly, he is writing his own story, scripting it as he wishes it to unfold, using fiction—much like the marvelous new African words he hears during the voyage—as incantation. And he will continue to work on his story throughout his time in Onitsha,9 embroidering upon his fictional world in an effort to come to terms with the experiential world he encounters there.

Fintan entitles his story “Un long voyage.” The fact that this is also the title of the first part of Le Clézio's novel, during which we see Fintan begin to write, suggests in a very compelling manner the theory of literature that Onitsha proposes to its reader. For literature is essentially reciprocal, Le Clézio argues: its reciprocities are played out creatively and infinitely in any literary exchange—between writer and writer, for example, or between writer and reader. Fintan's “long voyage” is emblazoned in specular fashion within Le Clézio's “long voyage.” Yet from our perspective as readers, the relations of container and contained are not quite that clear, for in fact we read the one as we read the other. Thus do stories speak to each other, Le Clézio implies, easily traversing boundaries that in real life may appear to be hermetic. The uses of literature too are distributed reciprocally among the partners in literary exchange, and they also may be turned toward a questioning of the boundaries that surround us. A character in a novel may choose to write a story in which he invokes an exotic, foreign world as a means of coming to terms with his own sense of being an “outsider.” A novelist may offer an imaginary journey to his reader in order to encourage him or her to consider what alterity means and how it works in our lives. A reader may see the literary construction of the “other” for what it is and begin to consider otherness as, precisely, a construct.

That is the range of reflection which Onitsha presents most eloquently, I think. At the end of the novel we once again see Fintan writing, this time as an adult. He is composing a letter to his younger sister Marima, trying to tell her about Onitsha. It is a world that she has never seen, starkly different from her own. Yet Fintan feels that it is crucial that Marima should imagine that world—if only through his description of it, and thus tentatively. For he is deeply persuaded that, however distant and foreign it may be in Marima's eyes, Onitsha is somehow hers too. We leave him there, struggling to build another world from words, much like Le Clézio himself, writing away.


  1. See, for example, Didier Pobel, pp. 79–80: “La force de J. M. G. Le Clézio semble, certes, resider pour bonne part dans son aptitude a faire de nous, sans exotisme, d'indissociables compagnons d' Un long voyage. … Lire Le Clézio, c'est etre protege et etrangle a la fois, au cours d'Un long voyage dans l'immobilite du regard, en quoi nous ne cessons de nous reduire, en quoi nous ne cessons de nous depasser, en quoi nous ne cessons de nous renouveler.”

  2. See also pp. 17, 18, 27.

  3. Here I demur at Didier Pobel's assertion that Le Clézio's manner of enlisting his readers in a “voyage” excludes exoticism. Quite to the contrary, Le Clézio positions his text explicitly in a literary tradition which uses the “exotic” as one of its central terms. That practice distinguishes him, moreover, from many of his contemporaries (Jean Echenoz, Marie Redonnet, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Emmanuele Bernheim come to mind) whose writings evoke ordinary, quotidian, “endotic” worlds.

  4. See “Brise marine”: “Steamer balancant ta mature, / Leve l'ancre pour une exotique nature.”

  5. See Barthes, “Analyse,” p. 34: “Un nom propre doit etre toujours interroge soigneusement, car le nom propre est, si l'on peut dire, le prince des signifiants; ses connotations sont riches, sociales et symboliques.”

  6. In S/Z Barthes defines that term in the following manner: “L'inventaire du code hermeneutique consistera a distinguer les differents termes (formels), au gre desquels une enigme se centre, se pose, se formule, puis se retarde et enfin se devoile” (26).

  7. See, for example, p. 20: “Un chapelet d'iles noires etait accroche a l'horizon. ‘Regarde: Madeira, Funchal.’ C'etait des noms magiques”; and p. 24: “Il avait dit des noms magiques: ‘Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote.’”

  8. See Gilman, p. 17: “I am not neutral, I am not distanced, for being an outsider does not mean to be cool and clinical; it must mean to burn with those fires which define you as the outsider”; Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. xxvii: “Yet when I say ‘exile’ I do not mean something sad or deprived. On the contrary belonging, as it were, to both sides of the imperial divide enables you to understand them more easily”; and Spivak's response to the assertion that her critical attitudes reflect the fact that she is an “outsider”: “I have thought about that question. Even after nineteen years in this country, fifteen of them spent in full-time teaching, I believe the answer is yes. But then, where is the inside? To define an inside is a decision, I believe I said that night, and the critical method I am describing would question the ethico-political strategic exclusions that would define a certain set of characteristics as an ‘inside’ at a certain time. ‘The text itself, “the poem as such,” intrinsic criticism,’ are such strategic definitions. I have spoken in support of such a way of reading that would continue to break down these distinctions, never once and for all, and actively interpret ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ as texts for involvement as well as change” (102).

  9. See, for instance, pp. 56, 95, 106.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “Analyse textuelle d'un conte d'Edgar Poe.” In Semiotique narrative et textuelle. Claude Chabrol, ed. Paris. Larousse. 1973. Pp. 29–54.

———. S/Z. Paris. Seuil. 1970.

Chambers, Ross. Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1991.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975. Alan Sheridan, tr. New York. Pantheon. 1977.

Gilman, Sander. Inscribing the Other. Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press. 1991.

Le Clézio, J. M. G. Onitsha. Paris. Gallimard. 1991.

Pobel, Didier. “‘Un long voyage’ dans l'immobilite du regard: Variations autour d'Onitsha et de quelques autres livres de J. M. G. Le Clézio.” Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 464 (1991), pp. 76–80.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York. Knopf. 1993.

———. Representations of the Intellectual. New York. Pantheon. 1994.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York/London. Methuen. 1987.

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date fall 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5474

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “J. M. G. Le Clézio's Désert: The Myth of Transparency.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 703–08.

[In the following essay, Knapp examines how the characters in Désert seem to randomly appear and disappear.]

The myth of transparency (Latin, trans, “beyond,” + parere, “to appear” or “show through”) lies at the heart of J. M. G. Le Clézio's 1980 novel Désert. The hallucinatory images or visions rising up as if from nothingness at certain junctures in the novel invite the reader to glimpse, but only briefly, a world of imponderables. Since ambiguity and mystery are the essence of myth in general and of Le Clézio's novel in particular, the reader faces a confluence of perpetually vibrating signs, palpating arcana, and sensations that enunciate their livingness in, paradoxically, silent transparencies.

Le Clézio's myth of transparency relates a primordial experience, sometimes personal but more often transcendental: a reflection of a living and burning reality that exists in the psyches of his characters. The creatures of the author's fantasy are not flesh and blood. Like shadow-play beings, they appear as active observing presences in the pursuit of their ever-circular travels. Individual existences are effaced in favor of collective movements. Sentimentality, gentleness, relatedness, and bonding in deeply feeling relationships are banished. The impersonal and violent sex drive alone functions. As an instant turns into an eternal present, the sexual act, like a hierogamy, links heaven and earth in the numinosity of the moment. It alone sees to the perpetuation of humankind, its sorrows and joys, as generation after generation plays out the sameness of their destinies.

The first two sections of Le Clézio's novel, the most gripping and the ones on which we will focus, take place in Morocco's Sahara Desert. The events narrated, experienced in a kind of eternity, recount a myth, as previously mentioned, but not the classical type. Unlike the myths of old, Le Clézio's does not deal with inexplicable occurrences, or with fabulous beings, or with lives of divinities, heroes, heroines, or supernatural powers. Rather, it deals with Berbers (Chleuh), a people inhabiting North Africa since, it is surmised, 3000 B.C.E. Although the first study devoted to the Berbers was written by the famous Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), since that time little factual knowledge has been unearthed concerning their origins.

Emphasis in Le Clézio's novel is centered on the “Blue Men” or “Blue People” (Tuaregs), ancient warriors of the southern desert. Impoverished and ragged in Le Clézio's tale, they are nevertheless set apart by their attire: they wear deep blue flowing robes and veils, and where the dye has rubbed off, their skin also becomes blue-tinted.

Le Clézio's characters are, as in ancient myths, endowed with a powerful religious quality, to be understood in the sense of religio (Latin, a “linking back”). That a microcosm inhabits each protagonist suggests the presence of a whole intelligible and unintelligible world which enables the individual to live not only outside of temporal time but also in an expandable space of his or her own manufacture. The divine experience, be it in the form of prayer, in an animistic relationship with nature, or in the sexual act, invites the worshiper to penetrate “beyond, … through,” or “across” what others, devoid of inner sight, might consider to be impervious opacities. Le Clézio's world of transparencies in this regard follows ancient mythic patterns: the individual, gradually removed from circumscribed and limited frames of reference, is plunged into a collective experience—a kind of theophany.

Although Le Clézio is not oblivious to the difficulties the Blue People have in surviving the desert experience, he nevertheless contrasts their way of life favorably to that of the city dweller. Industrial societies with their factories, organizational apparatuses, pollution, and legal abstractions serve to enslave humans by cutting them off from their source: nature. The freedom of worship and the joy of earthiness these desert nomads experience are also opposed by Le Clézio to organized religion, with its tightly knit rituals, regulations, and emphasis on lucre. The latter's structured credos sap and constrict worshipers' spiritual surges, thus impeding the emotional and spiritual flow toward Divinity. Le Clézio returns the desert space to the Berber wanderers so that they can worship freely—and experience Dimity as a permanent state of creation.


The archetypal image of a caravan that opens Le Clézio's novel or dreamscape symbolizes the cumulative, interminable cyclical wanderings of a people. Such activity embedded in immobility is reminiscent of the virtually unbroken pilgrimages, exiles, and quests throughout history: Muhammad's journey from Mecca and to Medina, the Israelites' forty-year journey from the Sinai Desert to the Promised Land, the Christians' search for the Holy Grail. For some Islamic mystical thinkers and poets, such as Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240) and Ibn al-Farid (1235), the arduous and dangerous caravan treks through the desert symbolize an ever-fermenting journey into one's own soul (Schimmel, 208).

As in a frameless diorama, the Blue Men, ancient masked fighters of the desert armed with daggers and long rifles, make their way toward visibility (Désert, 17). “Ils sont apparus, comme dans un reve,” we read at the novel's outset, “au sommet de la dune, a demi caches par la brume de sable que leurs pieds soulevaient” (7). Just as the origin of these nomads is buried in the sands of time, so the caravan in Le Clézio's opening image seems to appear out of nowhere—as a mirage, within the hiddenness of altering verticalities and horizontalities. And just as a dream ushered into existence may be said to be real (or at least a fragment of something that occurred either consciously or unconsciously in the author's psyche), so the reader observes the caravan as both concretion and abstraction—in transparency: “Ils marchaient sans bruit dans le sable, lentement, sans regarder off ils allaient. Le vent soufflait continument, le vent du desert, chaud le jour, froid la nuit. Le sable fuyait autour d'eux” (7).

The caravan men and their women, children, and animals have been walking the sands in silence since a primordial dawn. Their footprints, although embedded in the sands of linear time, have left no traces in eternity: “C'etait comme s'ils cheminaient sur des traces invisibles qui les conduisaient vers l'autre bout de la solitude, vers la nuit” (9). Harsh desert winds at times have smoothed their way, at other moments impeded their march forward. Wind and breathing, conveyed phonetically in the following quotation, take on cosmic amplitudes and harmonies:

Le bruit rauque des respirations se melait au vent, disparaissait aussitot dans les creux des dunes, vers le sud. Mais le vent, la secheresse, la faim n'avaient plus d'importance. Les hommes et le troupeau fuyaient lentement, descendaient vers le fond de la vallee sans eau, sans ombre.


Breathing and wind, pure forces of transparency, are associated in Genesis with the Deity's breath moving along the primordial waters during the Creation (Gen. 1:2) and infusing a living “soul” into Adam (Gen. 2:7); in the Koran they are frequently identified with the Arabic word rub, signifying “soul” or “spirit,” one of the three principles of existence; they also refer to a presacral state during which time “the angels and the Spirit ascend unto Him [Allah] in a Day, whereof the span is fifty thousand years” (Surah 70:4).

In addition to the image of collective solitude implicit in the above citation from the novel, feelings of mystical awareness of God's being also abound, underscoring thereby the supernatural mood of timelessness. The sonorities, rhythms, metaphors, and analogies used by Le Clézio in this and in so many other passages in his novel lend harmony to the poetics of poesis—that is, creation. Like an annunciation, they are signs, informing the reader that something is about to be born, to be awakened into existence.

Two men now emerge into being in the text: the man with the gun, the patriarch, who guides the group, and his son Nour. The father, contemplative by nature, often looks toward heaven and points to both the glitter and solitude of certain stars. Neither is it uncommon for him to personalize them by referring to each by name, as God had done following the Creation: “By the heaven, holding mansions of the stars” (Sfirah 85:1). In so doing, the patriarch relates his tribe's beginnings and history to celestial bodies—and by analogy to a cosmic embrace.

The patriarch and Nour finally reach the small tomb of a holy man. Its white rounded roof, which seems to reach directly into the heavens, replicates their yearning for silent communion. As the patriarch's senses take on audibility, he perceives a slow unearthing of marvels hidden within his primordial beginnings: “C'etait le centre du desert, peut-etre le lieu ou tout avait commence, autrefois, quand les hommes etaient venus pour la premiere fois” (27).

The patriarch penetrates the small tomb on his knees, lies on his stomach in complete submission, then utters his prayer: “Aide-moi, esprit de mon pere, esprit de mon grand-pere. J'ai traverse le desert, je suis venu pour te demander ta benediction avant de mourir” (28). The long, rounded, detached syllables of his invocation vibrate in melodious tones, only to explode moments later into enigmatic protracted silences. With eyes closed, he enunciates such basic-sounding words as “Je suis venu,” interiorizing them as he repeats them over and over again, thus building up momentum until the ecstasy of prayer is experienced. Such tremendum as the patriarch knows creates a tumultuous inner climate of harmonious relationships. Tonalities, rhythms, repercussions, vibrations, and bodily movements open him up to the atemporal domain of the holy man he had come to worship. Reminiscent of the Sufi's dhikr (recollection) or the Hindu's mantra, prayer helps the patriarch unearth the eternal marvels hidden within a buried past.

While bending low during his recitation, he cups the red earth in his hands, rubs it on his face, forehead, eyelids, and lips. The feel of the earth, identified with the passive feminine principle, arouses within him the active masculine tonalities implicit in his prayer. These dual powers, serving to accentuate the flow of life within him, bring him closer to uniting the dual aspects, the fascinans and the tremendum, the holy man inspires in him: “C'etait comme si quelque chose d'etranger entrait en lui, par sa bouche, par son front, par les paumes de ses mains et par son ventre, quelque chose qui allait loin au fond de lui et le changeait imperceptiblement” (29–30).

Although the patriarch looks drained and depleted after his religious encounter, he is in fact renewed. An indiscernible energy that comes with exposure to the sacred floods his being: he is oblivious to hunger, thirst, and the passage of day into night. Inhabited by another power, a different sphere of being, and a different time scheme, he feels divested of human attachments, transformed: “Peut-etre qu'il … etait devenu semblable au desert, silence, immobilite, absence” (32). Man had become legend.

Le Clézio's novel, studded with religious encounters between worshipers and divine spirits, also explodes in sequences of spiritually oriented dance:

Les hommes frappaient le sol dur sous leurs pieds nus, sans avancer ni reculer, serres en un large croissant qui barrait la place. Le nom de Dieu etait exhale avec force, comme si tousles hommes souffraient et se dechiraient au meme instant. Le tambour de terre marquait chaque cri:

“Houwa! Lui! …”

et les femmes criaient en faisant trembler leur glotte.

C'etait une musique qui s'enfoncait dans la terre froide, qui allait jusqu'au plus profond du ciel noir, qui se melait au halo de la lune. Il n'y avait plus de temps, a present, plus de malheur. Les hommes et les femmes frappaient le sol de la pointe du pied et du talon, en repetant le cri invincible:

“Houwa! Lui! … Hayy! … Vivant! …”


The rhythms, sonorities, movements, and verbal inhalations and exhalations emanating from the performing artists, musicians, and poets are so powerfully incised that time, pain, and even joy are dispelled—inviting Divinity alone to occupy that inner space within the individual. Tremulous sounds invade the entire atmosphere, as dancers, their eyes virtually closed, stamping on the ground, cry out the name of God in increasingly rapid succession, as if in a single giant cosmic respiration.

To dance is to create form through rhythmic body movements, to make patterns that are interwoven in three-dimensional space. The images which come into being, only to vanish moments later as they do in the dream, reveal an inner life, a primordial experience, and in so doing they take on both personal and collective meaning. Delineating the gestures of dance by means of movement, image, musical accompaniment, and accented and unaccented beats, Le Clézio has transformed words into visible images: symbolic like metaphors; musical in their phonetic resonances; and rhythmic, in keeping with the pulsation of the numinosum taking root.

The feeling-values and ideas Le Clézio communicates to his reader in the dance and prayer sequences summon up a world of fantasies, a whole new living and dynamic energic center. The expanded vision ushered in by the spiritual and visceral encounters, like an apotheosis, concludes the first section of Désert.


Lalla, a child of nature who spends a great deal of her time in the desert, is also attuned to animate and inanimate forces. The magic embedded in her being intoxicates her, encourages her to walk and/or glide up and down the dunes and rocky plateaus, or feel into the freshness of ponds and water holes. Seduced by the variety of textures and colorations that touch her feet and skin, she glories in whatever grows. Plants, and insects in particular, are her playmates: red ants, flies, green and gray lizards—even wasps, although she is careful not to arouse the latter.

Lalla, an individualist, keeps to her own private agenda. Although conscious of things around her as they are, she feels attuned to everything, everywhere, that lives, even those beings she conjures for herself when the spirit moves her. From each, she derives a sense of enchantment. That she neither knows how to read or write nor even understands the meaning of words in no way impedes the effect on her of the strange musical sonorities that inhabit her soul. If, for example, she hears a word such as “Mediterranee” in a song on the radio, its multiple tones seem to mesmerize her, to nourish her in some way, and she in turn hums or sings them over and over again as in a religious chant (77).

While Lalla knows her way in the desert sands, she ignores the interdictions of society, religion, and morality. Her credo resides in following her dream. Not an outcast of society, she is simply a loner who loves the endless desert spaces, the sea in all its flow. Observant of human and animal imprints in the sands, she glimpses the markings her own feet make as they shape the glistening particles on the desert floor. Yet she is under no illusion, cognizant that moments later these tracks will have vanished into oblivion.

Unafraid of portents and signs, she walks into her world, fertilized and catalyzed by the power of her senses and the richness of her glowing imagination. There, time is timeless. As she opens her eyes to the sky above, she absorbs its transitoriness, accepts its fleetingness as part of the cyclicality of the life process.

Of all the elements, Lalla identifies most strongly—perhaps because of its evanescence, its spirituality, its transparency—with wind: “Elle pense au vent, qui est grand, transparent, qui bondit sans cesse audessus de la mer, qui franchit en un instant le desert, jusqu'aux forets de cedres, et qui danse la-bas, au pied des montagnes, au milieu des oiseaux et des fieurs. … Lalla pense qu'il [le vent] est beau, transparent comme l'eau, rapide comme la foudre” (80).

Lalla is also sun-drenched: a flame, an energetic and self-generating principle who relies on nothing but her own inner heat and light, her own turbulence, to proceed through life. Senses condition her likes and dislikes. For her, sensation is perception. When she feels a flower, for example, she perceives its stem, leaves, habitat, but also experiences its sensuous attributes: its colorations, its aroma, its admixtures of smooth and rough. Rather than dichotomize them, she integrates their every aspect into her environment—as part of her. When the sea calls to her, for example, she feels its liquidity, inhales its aroma, and revels in its cleansing freshness.

Although contemplative, Lalla never loses herself in meditation. She constantly questions the aunt who adopted her (in whose home she lives) about her origins. Her father had died during a Chleuh caravan trek, just prior to her birth. Her mother, when she felt the child to be coming, left the group at night and in secret and made for a nearby fig tree. She knew that shade and water were necessary during the birth process. As soon as the child emerged into the world, her mother, for lack of other linens, wrapped her in her own blue cloak.

Although the stories Lalla's aunt relates about her mother vary at each telling, they never cease to fascinate the young girl. They help her build up stronger and stronger connections with her own origins. Such maternal bonding, the only one she has ever really known, strengthens her to the point of helping her build up her own myth. That her mother had come from the great desert area of the South, and that she had sung the songs of the Chleuh people, fills Lalla with pride. The knowledge that her mother also possessed curative powers in her hands, that she could interpret dreams, predict the future, and find lost objects, inspires Lalla with awe. A whole occult world enshrouded within her mother's memory exists as a presence within Lalla.

Because she feels at home in a world divested of material objects, she rejects the mirages society has created to provide—so it is said—security for individuals. A vagabond at heart, she avoids responsibilities except for the daily chores her aunt imposes on her, such as carrying large pots of water to the house and grinding wheat to make flour.

Although she withdraws from human contact, preferring the nothingness of immense blocks of open space, there are a few individuals, like the fisherman Naman, to whom she is drawn. She revels in the world of wonderment he evokes for her each time he tells her about his experiences at sea and in the foreign lands he has visited. She is particularly drawn to the mysterious tonalities hidden within such names as Algeciras, Granada, Seville, and Madrid, and the dreamworld they induce in her (102).

Miracles also entice Lalla's imagination, particularly those performed by Al Azraq, a holy man of the desert. His early years were spent as a Blue Man, a renowned desert warrior. Only after he began curing the blind and transforming gold into scorpions and serpents, thereby instilling the mysterium tremendum in the hearts of his worshipers, was he declared to be a saint.

Above all others, Es Ser, the man of the desert, endows Lalla with the spiritual solace she sometimes craves. Although she does not speak his language, she hears him; although she does not see his face, she feels his presence as a protective and radiating force. His face is covered with the blue cloth of the desert fighters. His eyes alone, brilliant in their transparency, appear to her in all their comforting wisdom:

Lalla entend sa voix a l'interieur de ses oreilles, et il dit avec son langage des choses tres belles qui troublent l'interieur de son corps, qui la font frissonner. Peut-etre qu'il parle avec le bruit leger du vent qui vient du fond de l'espace, ou bien avec le silence entre chaque souffle du vent. Peut-etre qu'il parle avec les mots de la lumiere, avec les mots qui explosent en gerbes d'etincelles sur les lames des pierres, les mots du sable, les mots des cailloux qui s'effritent en poudre dure, et aussi les mots des scorpions et des serpents qui laissent leurs traces legeres dans la poussiere.


Because he is mystery, she knows instinctively that to reveal his presence would be to desacralize the power of the experience, to annul the explosive nature of her dream/fantasy.


Hartani, the Chleuh shepherd, is mute. He rejects all human contact, save for Lalla's. Because he is different, people believe him to be a mejnoun, an incorporeal evil being, with power over serpents and scorpions (112). Although unable to speak, he communicates with Lalla on many levels, through a composite of signs, gestures, and impersonations of people or animals. His efforts inevitably enlighten her as to his feelings and needs. Lalla, on the other hand, frequently resorts to a medley of sounds and rhythms to convey her thoughts. Yet it is the eye, the organ of perception, that feeds directly into the other's soul:

Elle le regarde, et elle lit dans la lumiere de ses yeux noirs, et lui regarde au fond de ses yeux d'ambre; il ne regarde pas seulement son visage, mais vraiment tout au fond de ses yeux, et c'est comme cela qu'il comprend ce qu'elle veut lui dire.


According to the Koran, to see signifies to understand, to experience a direct correspondence with the other person's heart—essence and source. Untold secrets lie buried within the alternating transparencies of Lalla's and Hartani's eyes.

Although Lalla loves Hartani in her own way, she does not, strangely enough, remain with him for long stretches of time. Sensitized to his mood swings, she is apprised by a hardening and rigidifying of his facial expression the instant he seeks to withdraw from the world: “C'est comme quand un nuage passe devant le soleil, ou quand la nuit descend tres vite sur les collines et dans le creux des vallees” (135) Despite her desire to remain with him, she knows instinctively that nothing can change his course and is not surprised when he vanishes into a vague nothingness, like an animal.

Hartani's origins are veiled in mystery. All that is known is that one day, years back, a man on a camel, dressed like a desert warrior, wearing a large blue veil and coat, stopped near a well to let his camel drink. When he left moments later, Yasmina, the wife of a goatherd, noticed that he had deposited an infant wrapped in blue cloth on the ground. Since no one wanted the baby, Yasmina kept him and brought him up as her own son. They called him Hartani because his skin was as black as that of the slaves from the South. As a lad, he watched over Yasmina's goats, and he still does. From the very first day he began working as a shepherd, he revealed an innate understanding of animals: he knew instinctively, for example, how to direct them without ever hitting them, how to call them by simply whistling between his fingers.

During those moments when Hartani and Lalla sit together at dusk, immobile as they peer into the rocky hills and beyond, into transparencies, space and time seem obliterated. Yet, from within, invisible and unheard, “les paroles circulent librement, vont vers le Hartani et reviennent vers elle, chargees d'autres sens, comme dans les rees ou l'on est deux a la fois” (112–13). Just as nature in all its manifestations is personified for Lalla, so it is for Hartani. Both, for example, are fascinated by the slow circular flight of the falcon, which for Rumi (d. 1273), the Sufi poet, represented a returning soul, thus a spiritualizing force. The flight of this proud and intelligent solar force as it makes its way in the immensities of the heavens serves not only to enlighten Lalla and Hartani, but also to liberate them from the weight of telluric existence. The rapacious falcon plays a particularly telling role for Hartani: “Le terrible silence du centre du ciel, le froid de l'air libre, surtout la lumiere qui brule, tout cela l'etourdit, creuse un vertige. … C'est comme si l'oiseau etait son frere, et que rien ne les separait” (128).

From the airy brilliance of spiritual heights, Lalla and Hartani withdraw into the darkness of the grotto to meditate. Grottoes may be considered fearful abysses, underground regions where beings are enchained, as in Plato's allegory of the cave. On the other hand, as symbols of the unconscious, they may represent a storehouse of telluric energy needed for the germination of new life. As protected areas into which saints and holy people withdrew for prayer and meditation, grottoes and caves have also been endowed with sacrality. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta (1304–77), for example, mentioned the grotto on Mount Thaour, where the Prophet and his father-in- law, Abou Bakr, found protection during their flight to Medina.

It is in the grotto, as inner sanctum, that Lalla and Hartani sit and experience the togetherness needed to deal with their inborn solitude. On one occasion, Lalla, particularly in need of warmth from her only human friend, puts her mouth to Hartani's ear, and while inhaling deeply the goat odor that permeates his hair and skin, she enunciates his name in low rhythmic tones. Suddenly, Lalla grows frightened and tries to

echapper a l'etreinte du berger qui mainfient ses bras contre la pierre et noue ses longues jambes dures contre les siennes. Lalla voudrait crier, mais comme dans un reve, pas un son ne peut sortir de sa gorge L'ombre humide l'enserre et voile ses yeux, le poids du corps du berger l'empeche de respirer. Enfin, dans un dechirement, elle peut crier, et sa voix resonne comme le tonnerre sur les parois de la grotte.


Lalla's initiation into womanhood does not take place. As Hartani loosens his hold on her, she feels his anguish and is herself overcome with sorrow. Lalla, the guide, takes his hand and leads him out of the grotto into the brilliant sunlight.

Lalla senses that the freedom and intense relatedness she has known as a child and adolescent has come to an abrupt end. At home, her aunt insists she take a job and earn her living. She tries weaving, but cannot cope with the dark and airless working conditions forced upon her. One other alternative is left: to marry a rich old man. Lalla refuses.

In times of trouble, Lalla always searches out Es Ser, the Blue Man in the desert. More than ever, she longs for his gaze. Her wish is granted in the form of a dream:

Les yeux fermes, accroupie dans la poussiere, elle sent le regard de l'Homme Bleu pose sur elle, et la chaleur penetre son corps, vibre dans ses membres. C'est cela qui est extraordinaire. La chaleur du regard va dans chaque recoin d'elle, chasse les douleurs, la fievre, les caillots, tout ce qui obstrue et fait mal.


Lalla senses that something has been severed, broken, crushed within her. She knows she must leave. The idea of marrying the rich old man who has asked for her hand is abhorrent to her. Secretly she packs some blue material, dried bread, dates, and a gold bracelet that belonged to her mother and returns to the desert in search of Hartani. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, he appears to her, immobile in his transparency. She hugs him, sits down beside him, shares her food with him, and then they take a walk. They rest and await nightfall, and it is then that Lalla is initiated into the love experience: “Ils ne voient plus la terre, a present. Les deux enfants serres l'un contre l'autre voyagent en plein ciel” (221).


The now-pregnant Lalla encounters Europe only to find the environment and living conditions in Marseille antithetical to her dreams. Although ugliness greets her everywhere, Lalla, the wanderer, is a survivor. She knows that to find release from suffocation requires that she keep walking in the city, to the water's edge, and outside of it, to the suburbs.

After she finds work as a cleaning woman in a shoddy three-story hotel occupied mostly by North Africans, chance intervenes in Lalla's life. One day, as she is seated in a restaurant, a man walks over to her. He apologizes for approaching her in this fashion. He is a professional photographer, he tells her, and would like to hire her as a model. The encounter turns into a magnificent fairy tale. The photographer begins taking stills of Lalla—who now calls herself Lalla Hawa. Success is hers: billboards, magazines, cards of all types carry her image throughout the city. She has a following. Many have even fallen in love with her.

Popular to the extreme, Lalla is brought by the photographer to Paris. Even greater success. More photographs. He never ceases taking her picture. Is he entranced by some inner power buffed within her or by the incandescence radiating from her face? Or is he simply intrigued by her as enigma? Her nature is blurred in mystery.

Soon Lalla does not recognize herself. She understands that the photographer has given her a new persona, an outer form to which people are drawn as if by magic. He is generous in money matters and kind, she further reasons. Although she knows instinctively that nothing within her has altered, she questions herself as to Lalla Hawa's identity. Who is she really?

One evening the photographer takes her to a dance hall. The noise is deafening, the lights blinding. Lala is frightened. Yet something from within, incredible, powerful, vertiginous, moves her to dance. No sooner does she begin her undulations than everyone withdraws from the floor. She alone stands in light: “Son corps soupie ondoie, ses hanches, ses epaules et ses bras sont legerement ecartes comme des ailes. … Elle danse, pour partir, pour devenir invisible, pour monter comme un oiseau vers les nuages” (355). Bursts of energy feed her body and spirit as her hallucinatory dance begins. She feels invaded by the incandescence of the desert, as if Es Ser's gaze had suddenly fallen upon her:

La lumiere d'un seul coup se met a bruler avec une force insoutenable, une explosion blanche et chaude qui etend ses rayons a travers toute la salle, un eclair qui doit briser toutes les ampoules electriques, les tubes de neon, qui foudroie les musiciens. …


The living, creating process has centered in Lalla as transcendence. Time, country, character, empirical existence have vanished. Body language has amplified her feelings, has provoked and evoked subjective but also collective and cosmic modalities within the fiber of her torso, legs, shoulders. She no longer occupies center stage. She has enveloped the stage as an archetypal image, a transpersonal force whose visual sequences reflect various stages of an ongoing process of evolving form.

A whole developmental operation is being lived out in Lalla Hawa's leaps, circles, pirouettes, glides, a whole psychological climate exteriorized in the specific patterns actualized on stage, as waves of muscular activity flow forth in rhythmic contours. What has been dichotomized prior to the kinesthetic experience—wholeness and fragmentation, love and hate, anxiety and serenity—has been integrated into her being. The European Hawa and the Lalla of the desert, once at odds, have now fused in dance, as repressed instincts which had fallen into the depths of her collective unconscious upon her arrival on the continent finally find release. Metaphors of her silent inner and banished world reveal an archaic mold that will point her in the direction she is to take. So traumatic is the revelation that Lalla Hawa falls to the floor unconscious.

The photographer takes her home. Later, without warning or farewells, but predictably, Lalla leaves Paris for the desert, there to fulfill a secret age-old ritual actualized by the child within. The moon rises as Lalla Hawa takes the path leading to the dunes. Stabbing pains begin. Contractions. Sweat. Tears. She knows that no one is there to help her. Fear grips her. In vain she calls out to Hartani. As if replicating her mother's actions, Lalla Hawa drags herself to a nearby fig tree, gives birth, cuts the umbilicus with her teeth, washes the infant in the salted sea nearby, hears its cries, and wraps it in her cloak.

So the infinite round has been repeated. The myth of transparency has been accomplished in its spiritual leaps into a world beyond and in the reliving of the eternal sameness of empirical life—from one generation to the next.


Chebel, Malek. Dictionnaire des symboles musulmans. Paris. Albin Michel. 1995.

Le Clézio, J. M. G. Désert. Paris. Gallimard. 1980. Abbreviated as D where needed for clarity.

Schimmel, Annemarie. As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam. New York. Columbia University Press. 1982.

The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, tr. New York. New American Library. 1953.

William Thompson (essay date fall 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6190

SOURCE: Thompson, William. “Voyage and Immobility in J. M. G. Le Clézio's Désert and La Quarantaine.World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 709–16.

[In the following essay, Thompson studies the two diametric themes of voyage and immobility by comparing Désert and La Quarantaine.]

I have often enjoyed embarking on a voyage with Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. In his fictional works, he has led his readers on an extensive and culturally rich voyage across the planet: to the islands in the Indian Ocean in Le Chercheur d'or and La Quarantaine, to West Africa in Onitsha, to North Africa, Europe, and even America in Désert and Poisson d'or, and to the Middle East in Étoile errante. I have spent many a quiet evening at home, in the comfort of my reclining chair, accompanying Le Clézio around the world, exploring places which I have never visited and perhaps never will. Yet at the same time I have been immobile with Le Clézio, never leaving my chair as I sit, transfixed, immersing myself in the exotic locales he depicts, and as I immobilize the text, lingering over and rereading the rich descriptive passages that so capture my imagination. But I have also literally traveled with Le Clézio, as copies of his works have accompanied me on my own voyages, less adventurous to be sure: home for the holidays and to the MLA convention in Washington, as I prepared to write this article.

I might well have chosen other substantives in the formation of the title of this study in an attempt to encapsulate the two features of Le Clézio's works which are the focus here. Instead of voyages I might have spoken of travel, movement, dislocation or relocation, wandering, flight or escape, yet without failing to convey the fundamental quality of these works that interests me. By the same token, instead of immobility I might have chosen stasis, inactivity, waiting, or confinement, all equally representative and appropriate terms. But I chose voyage and immobility for three specific yet simple reasons. First, these two words are frequently utilized by Le Clézio himself in the works to be considered here: Désert and La Quarantaine. Second, they both possess multiple and potentially contradictory definitions that I shall elucidate in my reading of the two novels. And third, since the following is an analysis in English of works composed in French, I have chosen two English terms with French cognates, thereby rendering the transition from Le Clézio's French texts to my English-language interpretation a less linguistically problematic task.

Le Clézio's works have, on several occasions, been analyzed with particular emphasis on the theme of voyage. (Although I shall not quote from these other studies directly, I would like to refer the reader to the studies listed in the bibliography for further analyses of the theme of voyage in Le Clézio's writings.) Yet what has come to fascinate me in my own reading of these texts is the complex interrelationship of the concept of voyage with that of immobility, the latter being, at first glance, less visible yet nonetheless a prevalent phenomenon. In order to establish a more precise context for understanding the dichotomy created by the presence of these concepts in Désert and La Quarantaine, I would like first to engage briefly in some definitions of the two key terms here.

On the basis of a variety of dictionary definitions, one may summarize that to be immobile can mean to be incapable of moving or being moved, both literally and figuratively. Such a definition may allude to resistance, weakness, resignation, or stubbornness. At the same time, immobility can suggest fixedness or stability, a total lack of movement that may be desired or required, that may in cases be permanent. It can more simply mean stationary, designating a person, object, or condition temporarily at rest yet capable of movement at any time.

While these meanings hold few surprises, I am certainly struck more by my findings as I went in search of the various connotations of voyage. In its most simple definition, a voyage is merely the act of traveling, a journey by which one goes from one place to another. Yet these two basic descriptions can suggest radically different endeavors. The act of traveling does not necessarily imply a fixed destination. And if fixedness was one of our definitions of immobility, the lack of a fixed destination suggests a destination that is itself moving, traveling, voyaging. In contrast, the journey that does have a precise destination is, obviously, more clearly delineated; there is a starting point and a point of arrival, and the act of the voyage is merely that which connects the two and thereby has less significance in and of itself.

Yet there exist other more restrictive definitions of voyage. A voyage may refer more specifically to a journey by sea or water or by air, or a journey undertaken with a military purpose. More interesting, however, for the discussion here, is the figurative definition of voyage as any enterprise or adventure of a private character, or of voyage as the course of human life in general. Finally, a voyage may be the written account of a journey. It is these latter definitions, without doubt, that hold particular and compelling significance in light of the discussion of Le Clézio's novels.

Two factors underlie my decision to concentrate on just two of Le Clézio's novels—Désert and La Quarantaine—in this study. First, these two works share structural similarities: each alternates between a primary narrative thread and a subnarrative which parallels the first. They are both rich in allusions to the implications of voyage, and at the same time they appose to the depictions of travel or voyage numerous situations in which immobility or stasis characterizes the protagonists. Also, another motif, that of the desert, dominates both texts, albeit in radically different manners. The Sahara Desert of Désert is vast, seemingly without limits, while the desert island of La Quarantaine is confining and claustrophobic. Although the themes at the center of this analysis are not unique to Désert and La Quarantaine, the fundamental similarities between these two works allow for a revealing investigation into Le Clézio's oeuvre as a whole.

There are two narrative threads in Désert; first, the story of Lalla, a young woman living in the slums of a North African city, between the desert and the sea. Lalla's adventure will take her from her cite, from the desert in which she was born and which she loves, as she flees to avoid an arranged marriage to an older man she barely knows. Her voyage will lead to France, where she will explore the Europe she has heard of only in mythical terms from an old sailor. She will live and wander through Marseille, experiencing an improbable rags-to-riches tale as she becomes a top model in Paris. Yet at the same time, Désert comprises the story of the nomads of the desert, from whom Lalla has descended, as they undertake an arduous journey in an attempt to escape and confront the invading French army, a narrative based on real events. In the end, both Lalla and the nomads return to the desert; Lalla returns to Africa to give birth to the child she conceived just before leaving for Marseille, and the nomads, defeated and massacred in great numbers by the French, will disappear back into the desert, their home.

The multiple definitions of desert, like those of voyage and immobility, are revealing to an understanding of Le Clézio's use of the word as the title of this work. The word's origins lie in the Latin desertus, meaning abandoned or deserted. It thus originally refers less to the geographic characteristics of a region than to the complex interrelationship of this region with its inhabitants: human, animal, or vegetal. Desert as a noun may be defined as an uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country, again according primacy to the human presence in nature, while the modern connotation is of a desolate, barren region, waterless and treeless. Although this latter definition certainly applies to Le Clézio's title and the region described throughout the text (particularly in the story of the nomads), what is more revealing is the definition of desert when it is an adjective. The fact that Le Clézio's title lacks any article certainly allows for the possibility that desert does not refer to a place but to a characteristic found within the text. The many possible definitions of the adjectival form—forsaken, abandoned, uninhabited, unpeopled, desolate, lonely, unproductive, barren, waste—assist us in our voyage through Le Clézio's text, as they explain the distress of the nomads and of Lalla. The physical desert, that barren, waterless, treeless region, is their home, and within the confines of this home they feel comfortable. It is only when they come into contact with French civilization, Lalla by traveling to and living in France, the nomads by engaging in battle with the French soldiers, that they encounter qualities such as abandonment, desolation, forsakenness, waste. And it is after such contact that they flee back to the desert, that seemingly immobile, unchanging, and unchangeable place.

Le Clézio himself includes in Désert a description that complements the preceding definitions:

There, in the country of the great desert, the sky is immense, the horizon is endless, for there is nothing that breaks the view. The desert is like the sea, with the waves of wind on the hard sand, with the foam of the rolling scrub. … There, in the desert, men can walk for days without coming across a single house, without seeing a well, for the desert is so great that no one can know it in its entirety. Men go into the desert and they are like boats on the sea, no one knows when they will come back. … Everything is so different in this country, the sun isn't the same here, it burns stronger, and there are men who return blinded, their faces burned.

(180–81; my translation)

For the nomads in Désert, the desert is both home and site of travel, of an endless voyage that is both physical and spiritual; their lives are comprised of constant voyage, their lives are nothing but voyage, with no apparent destination or aim: “The routes were circular, they inevitably led to the point of departure, tracing increasingly narrow circles around Saguiet el Hamra. But it was a path than had no end, for it was longer than human life” (24). The voyage that characterizes their life is perpetual, yet it will have a final destination, death: “The men and women lived thus, walking, without finding rest. They died one day, surprised by the light of the sun, struck by enemy fire, or ravaged by fever. … From the moment they were born, the men belonged to the endless stretches of land, to the sand, the thistles, the snakes, the rats, to the wind above all, for that was their true family” (25). The act of voyage becomes indistinguishable from life itself, so inherent is it in the existence of these people.

Within the voyage there is also emptiness, movement combined with a stagnant immutability: “No one had forgotten the suffering, the thirst, the terrible burning of the sun on the rocks and the endless sand, nor the horizon that always seemed to be drawing back. No one had forgotten the hunger that eats away, not only the hunger for food, but all hunger, hunger for hope and for liberation, hunger for everything that is lacking and carves dizziness in the ground, hunger that pushes forward in the cloud of dust in the midst of the startled flocks” (56). Less a positive movement forward, the voyage thus seems a source or cause of complete and total emaciation, the taking away of life.

Similarly, for the young Lalla, the roads she takes into the desert lead nowhere, have no destination, or simply return to the point of origin, making the prospect of any journey seem futile: “Lalla knows all the paths, those that lead beyond the long gray dunes, between the scrub, those that curve and come back, those that never lead anywhere” (76). Perhaps it is not surprising that the animals which particularly fascinate Lalla are the flies that are everywhere where she lives. She admires the manner in which they move through the air, at once moving quickly yet zigzagging, seemingly going nowhere in particular yet somehow arriving at a destination, surviving.

When Lalla makes the decision to leave her cite, terrified by the prospect of marrying a much older man whom she neither loves, respects, nor trusts, the only relevant matter is that she depart; her eventual destination is secondary in importance. Voyage becomes not a search for a new place but simply a need to abandon the old one, even at the risk of disappearing forever: “Where does the route go? Lalla does not know where she is going, she is adrift, carried by the wind of the desert which blows, sometimes burning her lips and eyelids, blinding and cruel, sometimes cold and slow, the wind that erases men and causes the rocks to fall to the bottom of the cliffs” (204).

Perhaps the ultimate voyage (perhaps the only one truly possible) is that which leads to oblivion, to the obliteration from this world of those who embark on this journey. This ultimate voyage need not necessarily result in death, but merely in the disappearance of the travelers from the face of the earth. The final passage of Désert suggests such a journey, as the defeated nomads return to a land where no one except they themselves would dare venture: “Each day, at the break of dawn, the free men returned toward their homes, toward the south, there where nobody else knew how to live. Every day, with the same gestures, they erased the traces of their fires, they buried their excrement. Turned toward the desert, they silently prayed. They departed, as in a dream, they disappeared” (439). In Lalla's case, and in spite of her earlier desire to flee her home, she will embark on a voyage that is precisely a return to her origins, as the baby that was conceived just before Lalla left Africa will be born shortly after her return. Her voyage to France becomes a temporary incongruity in her inextricable association with the desert of North Africa, and all reminders of this journey and of her presence in France are eradicated, as she leaves Europe forever.

For the most part, voyages are a direct reaction to the characters' desire to escape the immobility that dominates their lives, to avoid stagnation, or to arrive at a place where immobility will be tolerable. Just as voyages are described as both beneficial and detrimental to the lives of those who embark upon them, immobility too is depicted in both a positive and negative light. The word immobile itself is found frequently in Désert, indicative of a recurring state characterizing the population of the novel throughout their endeavors: in the stability and stagnation of their everyday lives, in their time spent observing what occurs around them, even, ironically, when they are in the process of traveling.

In the cite where Lalla lives, immobility is endemic: “The people wait. Here, in the city, they really do nothing else. They are stopped, not very far from the shore of the sea, in their shacks made of planks and zinc, immobile, couched in the thick shade. … They talk a bit, the girls go to the fountain, the boys go work on the other side of the river or idle in the streets of the real town, or they go sit down on the edge of the road and watch the trucks go by” (92). And later: “The men often remain sitting, on a rock, in the sun, their heads covered by their coats or a towel. They look before them. What do they look at? The dusty horizon, the roads where the trucks roll by. … That's what they look at. They don't want to do anything else” (184). The irony in these two passages is clear: when one is immobile out of a lack of anything else to do, the one activity in which one is in fact capable of engaging is watching other people as the latter undertake a voyage.

The bleakness of the above passages stands in stark contrast to other depictions of immobility in Désert, which portray a state that is comforting, peaceful, and genuinely appealing. Lalla and Le Hartani (the mute shepherd who fathers Lalla's child) often engage in a similar activity—sitting immobile, simply looking around them—which appears to be a pleasurable experience: “Often, since they do not speak, they remain immobile, sitting on the rocks by the stony hills. It's difficult to understand what they are in fact doing at these times Maybe they are gazing ahead, as if they could see through the hills and behind the horizon. Lalla herself doesn't understand how it happens, for time no longer seems to exist when she is sitting beside Hartani” (112). When not opposed to the appealing connotations of voyage, immobility is a desirable state, providing an alternative form of escape to those unable physically to flee their grim surroundings.

Even in the midst of voyage, characters come to be immobile, as the two concepts are far from mutually exclusive in Le Clézio's works. When Lalla embarks on her journey away from the cite and the empty future it holds for her, her progress is soon interrupted: “Now she is immobile in the center of the great plateau of stones. Around her there is nothing, only masses of rocks, powdery light, cold hard wind, intense sky, without clouds, without moisture” (201). Yet this immobility marks neither the end of the voyage nor abandonment on the part of the traveler. Rather, it captures a moment of intense anticipation, as if the voyage, at the moment it becomes irreversible, must be contemplated in all its implications, temporarily incapacitating the traveler.

Similarly, the young nomad Nour and his fellow voyagers are immobilized when they come upon the city of Taroudant: “Immobile on the sand in the midst of the men of the desert, in the silence, Nour looked at the magic city that was awaking. The light trails of smoke rose in the air, and one could hear, almost unreal, the familiar sounds of life, the voices, the laughter of children, the singing of a young woman. … All the men were immobile, their eyes wide open, watching without blinking, until it hurt, the high red wall around the city” (254). The arrival at the apparent destination is virtually unbelievable, a seeming mirage in the desert landscape that is not to be trusted. The end of the journey is thus marked not by satisfaction, but by a transformation of the travelers from wandering nomads to static, indeed petrified, and overwhelmed spectators of a vision that was always their goal but which now seems incredible.

Perhaps the most intolerable form of immobility is that which seems inescapable, from which one believes, only in vain, that there is delivery, as in this description of Lalla and her surroundings in Marseille: “They are prisoners of the Panier. Maybe they don't really know it. Maybe they believe that they will be able to leave, one day, go elsewhere, return to their villages in the mountains and the muddy valleys, find once again the ones they left behind, family, children, friends. But it's impossible … [everything] holds them, surrounds them, makes them prisoners, and they will never be able to free themselves” (289). Here immobility stands diametrically opposed to voyage; it is precisely the inability to travel in its worst manifestation.

Voyage and immobility seem to be united in Désert most intricately and harmoniously when Lalla, still in Africa, asks the old fisherman Naman to tell her about his travels and about the cities of Europe. He does so only when he is immobile, sitting mending his nets: “Some days, he is sitting by the sea, in the shade of his fig tree, and he repairs his nets. It is at this moment that he tells the most beautiful stories, those that take place on the ocean, on boats, in storms, those in which there are shipwrecks and people arrive on unknown islands” (105). And when he is telling his stories, time appears to stand still; only in his narration is there movement, voyage, such that Lalla wishes it would go on forever (148).

When Lalla herself finally reaches Europe to live in Marseille, her life will be a constant alternation between movement and motionlessness. On the one hand she will devote much of her ample spare time to wandering through the streets of Marseille, seemingly impervious to the dangers awaiting a young girl alone in the unfamiliar climate of a large city. Yet at the same time she will spend many hours immobile, sitting watching the events that anonymously occur around her, or merely sitting doing nothing, or even dreaming of as yet unrealized and unrealizable travels: “She becomes like a piece of rock, covered with lichens and moss, immobile, unthinking, dilated by the heat of the sun. Sometimes she even falls asleep, leaning against the blue canvas, her knees under her chin, and she dreams that she is floating in a boat on the flat sea, as far as the other side of the world” (294–95).

One of Lalla's favorite activities in Marseille is to sit in front of the train station, contemplating the travelers who enter and exit, on their way to and from journeys which are the cause of both fascination and envy on Lalla's part. Yet Lalla observes something more subtle in the coming and going of the voyagers: “It's as if the great city was not yet completely finished, as if there was still a great hole through which people continued to arrive and leave. Often she thinks that she too would like to leave, to climb into a train going north, with all these place-names that both fascinate and frighten, Irun, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, Leon, Dijon, Paris, Calais” (272). The voyages are thus not only the endeavors of individual travelers engaged in their own personal activities; they are a constant, ongoing effort on the part of humanity to contribute to a society, a civilization in the process of being created. Yet Lalla excludes herself from this particular activity when at one point she climbs into a train herself but quickly jumps back onto the platform just as the train is about to depart. She immobilizes herself in this rejection of voyage, never actually intending to make the journey (she has not, after all, bought a ticket), perhaps knowing from experience the futility of such travel, a fact proven by the unhappiness she feels as a consequence of her journey from Africa to France in the first place.

When Lalla embarks on her return voyage home, the union of voyage and immobility is strikingly portrayed in the description of the passengers in the bus that carries Lalla on the final stage of her journey in Désert. While the bus makes its way along the dusty road into the hills, inside the vehicle “the passengers are immobile, passive. The men are wrapped in their wool coats, the women are crouched on the floor, between the seats, covered by their blue and black veils. Only the driver moves, grimaces, glancing in the rearview mirror” (412). Those riding in the bus are trapped, immobilized as if reluctant companions on a voyage which they cannot control. Even the driver is focused less on the road ahead than on what lies behind him. Lalla's return completes a cycle that negates the voyage. Born in the desert, she returns there to give birth; she has physically returned and spiritually always remained where she began.

In La Quarantaine Le Clézio engages his personal interest in the tiny French colonies of the Indian Ocean, as he describes in great detail the fate of three travelers who are forced into quarantine, in the latter stages of the nineteenth century, on a small, uninviting island not far from their destination of l'Ile Maurice (Mauritius). The first-person narrative of this adventure, related by one Léon Archambau, is framed by the efforts of another narrator. The latter, living at the end of the twentieth century, is the great-nephew of Léon and the grandson of Jacques and Suzanne Archambau, Léon's brother and sister-in-law, who together with Léon are abandoned in quarantine on l'Ile Plate. The brief framing narrative attempts to recuperate and understand the story of Léon, Jacques, Suzanne, and their frightening adventure.

The agony and incertitude of the forced confinement on l'Ile Plate dominate the text, and the considerable attention paid to sensual detail intoxicates the reader, who cannot help but empathize with the protagonists in their struggle against illness, excruciating heat, hostile plantation workers, and isolation as they attempt to survive on this island. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the narrative is the manner in which the at-first chaotic situation is adapted by the creation of a microsociety by the few inhabitants on the island. The initial feeling of disorientation is replaced by the needs of the isolated and immobilized travelers to feed themselves and to keep themselves free of the smallpox that is rapidly afflicting the island's population. As some fall victim and die, others must resort to desperate measures to protect their health and their sanity in this forced confinement.

Léon will seek refuge in his fascination with and love for Suryavati, a young Indian woman who has lived her life on this island and for whom he will abandon everything in the end. Through Surya we will also meet her mother, Ananta, whose own intriguing story will be told in apposition to the main narrative. Leon's imagination is also fueled by his and his sister-in-law Suzanne's love of literature, and the text abounds with literary references relevant to the tropical location of the characters' story: Baudelaire, Longfellow, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Defoe. By far the most striking reference is to Rimbaud, who is not only quoted but also figures as a character at two points in the text. Jacques Archambau as a young boy sees a drunken Rimbaud in a Parisian cafe, and the famous poet appears later when Léon and Jacques, now a doctor, stop in Aden during their voyage to Mauritius. These encounters will fascinate the author of the framing narrative, who sees in the fate of the unfortunate Rimbaud many similarities to that of his forebears, especially Léon: “I believed that he had been hidden, chased away, just because he was a thug, that he has left, abandoning everyone, like Léon” (463). For the narrator, the story of Léon, who seems to disappear from the face of the earth with Suryavati, cannot be told with any certainty, just as the details of Rimbaud's later life long remained mysterious. In the end, they are not immobilized; rather, they embark upon an infinite journey whose outcome is not known. Yet the very fact that the truth cannot be known is motivation enough to tell the story: “So everything is invented, illusory, just as life continues differently when one pursues a dream, night after night” (457).

If I may indulge in a final definition, I would like to consider briefly the connotations of quarantine. The French quarantaine, of course, is ambiguous, its translation depending on the context. In its original meaning quarantaine indicates a number around forty. It is the second use, however, that which has been borrowed into English, that retains our attention. A quarantine is a period (originally of forty days) during which persons thought capable of spreading contagious diseases are kept isolated from the rest of the population. In particular, this applies to travelers or voyagers before they are allowed to enter a country or town and mix with the inhabitants, and it applies to the period during which a ship capable of carrying contagion is kept isolated upon its arrival in port. The English word also has the added meaning of that place where quarantine is enforced, as a quarantine thus thwarts and immobilizes voyage. Ironically, the numerical origin of the word in French loses all value for those in quarantine on l'Ile Plate, as their confinement and immobility make days indistinguishable from weeks, make time lose all significance.

As in Désert, voyage may have multiple effects on the characters. Early in La Quarantaine, the young Jacques is described after he leaves Mauritius for Paris: “In France everything appeared magnificent and terrifying to him” (16). The destination has become the great unknown, a formidable challenge to be confronted and conquered. The liberating and exhilarating effect of the voyage is tempered by the confined, claustrophobic spaces of the European city, full of narrow streets, ominous, crowded buildings, and unfriendly passers-by.

The contrast between Paris and l'Ile Plate on which the characters will be confined is exemplified most acutely in the text by the numerous references to French poetry, especially Baudelaire, whose “Invitation au voyage” and “Parfum exotique” are mentioned, and the latter quoted, in the text (251): “Quand, les deux yeux fermes, en un soir chaud d'automne, / Je respire l'odeur de ton sein chaleureux, / Je vois se derouler des rivages heureux / Qu'eblouissent les feux d'un soleil monotone.”

The feeling of immobility and confinement that will reach its apex in the time spent in quarantine on l'Ile Plate is announced early on even in the description of the passengers on the boat sailing for Mauritius. The people on this vessel are described as “prisoners on board” (33), overcome with boredom and impatience. Their intense desire to reach Mauritius will make the time subsequently spent in quarantine unbearable, will make the hours seem long and tense. Exacerbating their situation even further is the fact that they are confined to an island within sight of Mauritius, their final destination after a journey of thousands of miles, so close yet frustratingly unattainable, like a mirage in which they will cease to believe after time, so remote seem the chances of ever reaching it.

The despair created by their confinement on l'Ile Plate renders any mention of departure suspect to ridicule, as Léon states: “I heard the words that Jacques said to Suzanne, just as one speaks to make a child sleep, absurd words: ‘Tomorrow, you'll see, they'll come to get us, the boat will take us to Mauritius’” (59). Yet the possibility of departure, of the completion of their voyage to Mauritius, is the only thought that is capable of reassuring those trapped in quarantine, even if any vestige of hope seems futile, as this description of Suzanne displays: “She is no different than Jacques, Bartoli, or Veran, the only thing she is waiting for is the return of the ship, she can't stop thinking about it, it's the only thing that counts for her, to get away, to save herself. That's what is glimmering in her eyes, a fever, a madness” (215). The illness ravaging the island's reluctant population engenders another illness, this one mental, caused by the overwhelming desire to avoid disease and to escape from the island.

Yet even in isolation and confinement a greater isolation is possible. Those who contract smallpox and risk infecting the others are sent to the ironically named l'Ile Gabriel, an even smaller and more desolate island just off the coast of l'Ile Plate, from which the chances of returning alive are remote. In addition, contact with the other island inhabitants, from whom the Europeans have been sequestered, could lead either to the spread of the illness or to violence. Consequently, the primitive barracks in which the travelers spend their quarantine is not only a source of revulsion but, ironically, of comfort, described by Léon at one point as black and hostile (126), yet soon after as soothing in spite of their wretchedness, for it is the only location remotely resembling the Western society with which they are familiar, and the only place where survival seems possible.

For the narrator Léon, his own confinement allows for the possibility of liberation from normal social dictates. He succeeds in no longer feeling restricted by the quarantine and, subsequently, by his own identity within society. Rather, in his immobilization he feels merely isolated and anonymous, a condition he relishes, especially in the company of Suryavati: “She seems to dance on the reef, she is intoxicated by the sea which rises and by the wind, by all this golden light which envelops us. The lagoon is smooth and impenetrable like a mirror. I have never felt more free. I no longer have a memory, I no longer have a name” (398). Like Lalla in Désert, Léon finds repose in the stories he hears, in his case from Suryavati, and the stories he tells her of Europe, for these stories erase the preoccupation with time; they provide invaluable moments of pleasure in the midst of discomfort and death. Her stories speak of exotic places; they take him on voyages that make him forget his own immobility, and at the same time allow him to understand the woman he loves. His time with Suryavati has effaced all that is occurring around them and indeed everything that he has previously experienced.

I know that I cannot expect anything beyond this island. Everything I have is here, in the curved line of the reef, the magic silhouette of Suryavati who walks on the water, the light of her eyes, the freshness of her voice when she asks me about London and Paris, her laugh when what I say surprises her. I need her more than anyone in the world. … She belongs to the quarantine, the black rock of the volcano and the lagoon in the quiet sea. And now I too have entered into her domain. (124)

For some time it appears that Léon will decide not to leave the island when the opportunity finally presents itself, that he will choose to perpetuate his immobility rather than complete the voyage which has led him here. When Jacques and Suzanne climb into the boat that will allow them to reach Mauritius, Léon remains on the beach, watching them for the last time. He will disappear forever from their lives, immobilized as a component of their past. On the eve prior to their departure together from the island, Léon and Surya lie together on the beach, and he envisages the journey, both physical and spiritual, on which they are about to embark: “Together we flow on the sea, toward the other end of time. I have never lived any other night than this night, it has lasted longer than my entire life, and everything before this night has been only a dream” (407). Although Léon will eventually leave the island, taking Surya with him, the destination will not be Mauritius but one that will permanently eradicate his contacts with his past life and will capture the joy he finds in his static confinement with Surya.

I shall leave the final word on this topic to Le Clézio himself, quoting not from one of his fictional works but from a brief commentary in L'Express about the beauty of the French language. In this text Le Clézio attempts to explain his personal relationship with his mother tongue, and he describes himself in a striking passage that reveals much about his own individual connection with the concepts of voyage and immobility: “For me, an islander, a descendant of a Breton who emigrated to l'Ile Maurice, someone who is from the edge of the sea, who watches the cargo ships pass by, who wanders through ports, someone who has no land, who does not take root anywhere, like a man who walks along a boulevard and who cannot be from any single neighborhood or city but from all neighborhoods and all cities, the French language is my only country, the only place where I live” (40). Le Clézio the great traveler and narrator of travel, the insightful observer of the complexities of the world in which he lives, immobilizes himself in his language, eternalizes in his writing worlds which we the readers may also explore and in which we too may immerse ourselves.


Le Clézio, Jean-Marie Gustave. Désert. Paris. Gallimard. 1980.

———. “Eloge de la langue franacise.” L'Express, 2205 (14 October 1993), pp. 40–41.

———. La Quarantaine Paris. Gallimard. 1995.

Li Sou-Yeul. “Le voyage dans l'oeuvre de Le Clézio.” In J. M. G. Le Clézio: Actes du colloque international. Elena Real, Dolores Jimenez, eds. Valencia. Universitat de Valencia. 1992. Pp. 245–53.

Mezade, Jean-Paul. “Le voyage's rebours.” In Jean-Marie Le Clézio. Gabrielle Althen, ed. Marseille. Sud. 1990. Pp. 149–54.

Onimus, Jean. Pour lire Le Clézio. Paris. PUF. 1994.

Pobel, Didier. “‘Un long voyage’ dans l'immobilite du regard: Variations autour d'Onitsha et de quelques autres livres de J. M. G. Le Clézio.” Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 464 (September 1991), pp. 76–80.

Bruno Thibault (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Thibault, Bruno. “‘Awaite Pawana’: J. M. G. Le Clézio's Vision of the Sacred.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 723–29.

[In the following essay, Thibault explores the central themes in Le Clézio's lengthy short story “Awaite Pawana.”]

“Awaite Pawana” is a long short story of some fifty pages, published by J. M. G. Le Clézio in 1992, the very year of the commemoration of America's discovery by the Europeans. But in this text the mood of the author is not one of celebration: “Pawana” is an apocalyptic tale. It does not evoke the age of great discoveries but rather the closure of the “western frontier” and the systematic destruction of America's natural resources.

The central action takes place at the beginning of 1856, the period that saw the development of colonization on the California coast. At first Le Clézio describes, with a certain realism, the fishing boats and the merchant ships that converge from throughout the world on the Pacific coasts of North America and Mexico. Then he pictures for us the diverse crews of these boats and ships: the buccaneers, the traffickers, the gold seekers, the immigrants coming from all four corners of the globe. It is still a savage and brutal age, although cities are developing, San Francisco in particular.

Le Clézio goes on to show how the whaling companies, replacing the beaver hunting of the past, are in the process of creating a true economy on a continental scale: a trade empire which stretches from New England to the west coast. In this way he manages to seize the moment when the entire North American continent is about to be domesticated and exploited by man. The pages which describe the hunting and butchering of the whales in “Pawana” are striking. The whale hunt is presented by Le Clézio as an industry of death: as a brutal and indiscriminate desecration of nature. These pages are evidently made to reflect, in part, Moby-Dick. It is clear that “Pawana” is a direct homage to the work of Herman Melville, which Le Clézio knows well. It is not by chance that one of the main characters of “Pawana,” the captain of the ship Leonore, is named Charles Melville Scammon.1 This individual, as we shall see, plays a key role in Le Clézio's story: as the unscrupulous man who, lured at the outset by the bait of profit, embarks upon a journey that will transform his life.

However, “Pawana” is in fact not only a dismal and pessimistic testimony to the destruction of the natural environment by modernity; the story also offers the reader an account of a marvelous voyage. The Leonore is a whaler whose home port is Nantucket: under the command of Captain Scammon, it sets sail one beautiful morning in search of a fabulous cove where, the sailors say, all the gray whales from the Pole and the Pacific converge to bear their young. As always with Le Clézio, the voyage is highly symbolic: it recounts an initiation and includes a revelation. Two narrative voices alternate in recounting this journey: that of John, the eighteen-year-old cabin boy from Nantucket who undergoes the initiation in this instance; and that of the aged Captain Scammon years later, haunted by his memories and by the “horror” that he committed—somewhat like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. These two characters, the cabin boy and the captain, are also evocative of Alexis and Commander Bradmer in Le Clézio's 1985 novel Le Chercheur d'or (Eng. The Prospector). As I will argue, they embody the same problem.2

One also finds in “Pawana” a third voice, although one that is more discreet: an Indian voice which sometimes blends with the accounts of the two men. This third voice manifests itself first in the title of the story. “Awaite pawana” is the cry uttered by the lookout when he spies the whales. Le Clézio teaches us that the lookouts on the great whalers of the past were often Nattick Indians, natives of Nantucket. Such is the case of the lookout on the Leonore. This Nattick Indian is a “visionary” in every sense of the word. His sight is keen: he is capable of scanning the infinite expanse of the ocean for hours on end. In addition, he does not sleep at night: he scrutinizes the darkness and seems like the master of dreams. The Nattick Indian resembles the native Comoran helmsman of Le Chercheur d'or like a brother: he possesses the same supernatural powers of concentration and contemplation.

The Indian voice is also that of John Nattick, the old Indian of Nantucket who tells the young cabin boy about the exploits of the Indians of the past through mime and gesture. These mimed stories are important for Le Clézio because they resuscitate the “gestures of the past”: the sacred gestures of the gods and of the founding heroes. John Nattick is himself a visionary: he remembers the gods who have disappeared and the life of the Indians of the past. In a hoarse and incantatory voice, he recounts the passage of the whales off Nantucket and the great myths that accompanied them.

Finally, the Indian voice is presented in “Pawana” in the person of Araceli, the young Indian slave of a house of prostitution. Araceli is assassinated by her master, the Spaniard Emilio. Araceli's murder, like the disappearance of the Nattick Indians who sink into alcoholism, symbolizes the disappearance of the ancient Native American races in the narrative. In one sense, it is this Indian voice which the author tries to restore through his story, because for him it corresponds to a “sacred thought,” bearer of the great archetypes of humanity.

“Pawana” is therefore, despite its brevity, a complex work of fiction which presents a dual plot and a double set of themes. Aside from the difficult life of adventurers and whale hunters of mid-nineteenth-century California, the story evokes the decline and disappearance of Native American races at the end of the nineteenth century. Araceli's brutal death symbolizes the end of the “Indian dream” and the disappearance of “savage thought.” Le Clézio presents in “Pawana” what he calls in his essay Le Réve Mexicain (1988) the “drama of the interrupted thought” (120). Let's look now at how this expression might be interpreted.


At the time of his narration, John, the erstwhile cabin boy of the Leonore, has become an old man. He finds himself alone, in 1911, in Punta Bunda, on All Saints Bay near Ensenada, Baja California, and he recalls an episode from his youth. Punta Bunda had once been a village of buccaneers, an active and turbulent port, with shipbuilding shops, forges, and men mending sails and braiding ropes. Currently, though, the village is in ruins, abandoned and forgotten by everyone: it is a deserted outpost on the edge of civilization, littered with whalebones and debris from ships. Punta Bunda is, for Le Clézio, the representative modern locus. On the one hand, it is from the beginning a site of the exploitation of nature and the violence of human relations. It is a prototype of the modern metropolis: without “center,” without foundation, and without holiness, a simple human grouping sustained by economic interest and development. It is clear that the ruins of Punta Bunda form the antithesis of the Indian cities Chancah, Tixcacalet, and Chun Pom, the true centered and sacred places described by Le Clézio in Trois Villes saintes (1980).

On the other hand, however, Punta Bunda corresponds to an apocalyptic vision: the ruins of the buccaneer village prefigure the world of tomorrow, when men will exhaust natural resources, leaving behind them large vacant cities, dilapidated and barren. In Punta Bunda all is empty and dead because men have devastated everything: “Les hommes ont brule les mezquites, les pins, les buissons epineux, les racines et jusqu'aux pitahayas, pour fondre la graisse des baleines et faire chauffer la poix. Tout ce qui etait vivant ici s'est transforme en charbon” (“Men burned the mesquites, the pines, the thornbushes, the roots, and even the pitahayas, to melt the whale blubber and to heat the pitch. Everything that was living here has been transformed into coal”; 19).3

Paradoxically, it is in this sterile, abandoned place that John, the cabin boy from the Leonore, comes to seek peace and to prove his fidelity to his memories. It is in this disaster-stricken and barren “zone” that he can renew contact with the great elemental forces. John walks endlessly on the deserted beach, dazed by the light, whipped by the wind, the dust, and the sea spray. This life adrift, solitary and anonymous, illustrates for the author the situation of the modern consciousness, haunted by catastrophe, cut off from nature and its profound roots.

From this point on, time splits in the narrative and proceeds on two levels. On one level John recollects the expedition of the Leonore a half-century earlier, in 1856. He remembers how Captain Scammon, so as not to alert his competitors, had never informed his crew as to the goal of the voyage. On the other level he tells how, after several days of navigation toward the south, the ship entered into unknown waters, for which the maps of the Admiralty were very sketchy at best. At that time the crew of the Leonore had the sensation of leaving ordinary historical time and entering a new primeval realm, the time of origins: “C'etait autrefois, c'etait il y a si longtemps. Alors la mer etait telle que l'homme l'avait trouvee quand il etait venu dans le monde” (“It was a long time ago, it was so long ago. Then the sea was as it was when man found it upon his arrival in the world”; 14).

The Leonore's voyage of exploration is, as always in the work of Le Clézio, an initiatory one. It is a voyage that leads, through the experience of profound time, to the world of symbolic and mythic thought. The exotic metaphor is obvious here: Le Clézio uses the sea voyage to symbolize a plunge of the spirit into the depths of the unconscious. As in decisive dreams and fairy tales, it is by accident—and in the grip of a sudden intuition—that the captain of the Leonore makes his great discovery. To avoid being caught at sea at nightfall, the captain approaches the Mexican coast and there sees the indentation of an unknown channel: “Il y avait quelque chose d'inquietant, et meme de sinistre, dans cette baie au crepuscule. La solitude de Ia cote, l'aprete des montagnes couleur de cuivre, la blancheur des salines, et l'eau sombre a l'entree de Ia lagune …, tout cela ressemblait au passage vers un monde fantastique” (“There was something worrisome, and even sinister, in this bay at dusk. The solitude of the coast, the grimness of the copper-colored mountains, the whiteness of the salt marshes, and the dark water at the entrance of the lagoon …, all this resembled a passage toward a fantastic world”; 33).

This passage toward a fantastic world corresponds to the emergence, in the story, of the unconscious. The captain and the cabin boy, together with several crew members, take a rowboat ashore, where they soon fall asleep on the beach. Almost immediately, the men are awakened with a start: “Peut-etre que l'Indien avait pousse son cri dans sa langue, le ‘Awaite Pawana!’ que nous attendions tous” (“Perhaps the Indian had uttered his cry in his own language, the ‘Awaite Pawana’ that we were all waiting for”; 34). An extraordinary spectacle takes place before their eyes: at high tide, hundreds of whales slowly come back up the channel, the jets of spray from their blowholes gushing everywhere, the foam fringing their somber backs. The appearance of the whales is the core of Le Clézio's text, its central and most gripping image. We witness this appearance first through the eyes of John, the young cabin boy. But Captain Scammon comes back to it repeatedly. Again and again, he sees the entrance of the lagoon at sunset and the innumerable bodies of the whales: “Il me semblait que j'etais entre tout a coup, par effraction, dans un monde perdu, separe du notre par d'innombrables siecles” (“I had the feeling that I had suddenly trespassed into a lost world, separated from ours by countless centuries”; 36). The appearance of the whales is for Captain Scammon an obsessive and sacred vision: “Je jure, amen, que rien de tel n'aura ete donne deux fois dans notre vie” (“I swear, amen, that nothing like this will have been granted us twice in life”; 50).

Mircea Eliade showed that for the primitive mentality the irruption of the sacred has the effect of detaching a “holy” place from the indifferent natural environment. The appearance of the sacred defines a “center” in the middle of chaos; it permits one to delimit and thus to define, in opposition to the profane and barbaric world, a divine space: a sanctified and coherent realm.4 But, Eliade noted, men are not free to choose the location of the sacred. Mysterious signs—meetings of men or of animals, voyages of exploration or military expeditions, visions or nocturnal dreams—determine it instead, and in an unexpected way. It is an event of this type that Le Clézio describes in “Pawana.” The discovery of the unknown lagoon and the arrival of the whales possess all the traits of a primitive hierophany.

Geography is a metaphor for psychology in Le Clézio's work. On the one hand, the lagoon where the whales come to give birth symbolizes the origin of the world, its matrice (womb) and its ventre (belly): the lagoon is “le centre de la terre, entre le ciel et la mer, la ou la vie pouvait commencer” (“the center of the earth, between sky and sea, where life could begin”; 53). The lagoon is the very locus of creation, periodically regenerated. On the other hand, the unknown lagoon is the site where man can be reborn according to the truth of origins. The Le Clézian hero has a quest: he searches for a place where he might recenter himself. This secret and sacred place corresponds to the primitive core of the psyche, simultaneously center and totality. In other words, the lagoon symbolizes the origin of the world, the Urwelt or primitive word, and also the source of the psyche, the Id, where the great archetypes are born. This is why the cabin boy, the author's spokesperson, declares without hesitation in reference to the lagoon: “Depuis mon enfance j'ai reve d'aller la, dans cet endroit ou tout commencait, ou tout finissait” (“Since childhood I dreamt of going there, to this place where everything began, where everything ended”; 7).


While the cabin boy contemplates, dumbfounded, the appearance of the whales, the crew, led by Captain Scammon, jump into a longboat, armed with hooks and harpoons. The hunt begins. The first victim is a giant female who surfaces on the starboard side, in an extraordinary leap, like “une montagne dressee dans l'air, dans une nuee de gouttes” (“a mountain rising in the air, in a cloud of drops”; 38). This spectacular vision petrifies the sailors and leaves them powerless because of its beauty and might. This image of the colossal whale, suspended for an instant in midair, is the image of the divine archetype, surging suddenly from the depths of the unconscious.

James Baird has pointed out that the giant whale is an ancient symbol, authentic and particularly complex, of the divine.5 In primitive thought, whales are vestiges of the original waters of life. These are the antediluvian creatures, races of giants and monsters, which evoke the origin of the world, before the coming of man. The whales emerge from the depths of the ocean just as they emerge from the depths of the ages: they irresistibly evoke primitive life emerging from matter. In penetrating into the lagoon, the sailors of the Leonore are projected in illo tempore.

Furthermore, the whales symbolize the agonizing world before the differentiation brought about by human consciousness. These titanic monsters personify animal nature, enemy of the rational and emotional nature of man: they thus correspond to an archaic prototype of divinity. The giant whale, life force in the raw state, provokes in man both the terror of “evil” (that is, of a life force indifferent to human destiny) and a certain anticipation of divine power. Le Clézio insists on both of these aspects in “Pawana”: Captain Scammon describes on various occasions the whales' bodies, “aussi grands que des dieux” (“as huge as gods”; 50; my emphasis), but he also sees them as “des poissons-diables” (“devil-fish”; 38).

The massacre of the giant whales in “Pawana” is the expression of the instinctive fear of humans when confronted with deep-sea creatures: giant octopuses, sea serpents, et cetera. It is also the manifestation of a death instinct as fundamental as the life instinct, and scarcely concealed by the veneer of civilization. It is, finally, the symbol of the modern spirit, nihilistic and destructive of the divine milieu. Note, however, that death is in itself neither agonizing nor repugnant in “Pawana”: it is the industrial butchering of animals that provokes horror. This is an important point: Le Clézio distinguishes clearly in his work between the killing of the first whale, the gigantic female, and the hideous and systematic massacre that will follow. The killing of the giant female offers, despite its violence, a numinous aspect. The sailors rushing in pursuit of the whale embody at the outset all the brutality and ferocity of men without gods. But thereafter they appear to be seized by a mystical horror: they are shown silent and immobile in the lagoon reddened by the blood of their victim. This important scene of course evokes passages of Moby-Dick in which Stubb and the men of the Pequod cut up the bodies of whales and cover themselves with the animals' blood and sperm. A similar scene is presented in Le Chercheur d'or, where Commander Bradmer orders the massacre of giant turtles on the island of Saint-Brandon. Each time, the episode is experienced by the sailors as a gesture imbued with sacred significance, indeed as a sort of divine sacrifice.

Mircea Eliade has pointed out the meaning of the ritual hunt for primitive man: it is a matter of imitating the gestures of the gods of creation and, in so doing, of projecting oneself in illo tempore, into the sacred time of origins, in order to regenerate oneself by contact with the living forces of creation. Ritual combat was founded by the gods and by the mythic ancestors. In carrying it out, primitive man reenacts superhuman or divine behavior. The killing of the giant female whale in “Pawana” evokes a ritual hunt of this type. The battle of the sailors against the leviathan corresponds to the battle of the founding heroes against the dragon of primitive chaos. The killing of the whale is a ritual and divine sacrifice: that explains why this scene of carnage paradoxically possesses a numinous element, both for the characters and for the author.6

We find, moreover, in “Pawana” the direct evocation of such a ritual, sacred battle. When he relates his childhood in Nantucket, John remembers in particular a day when the old Indian, John Nattick, had mimed for the village children the story of a whale hunt by the Indians of the past: “En tatonnant, il est monte jusqu'a la proue de sa barque, et il a brandi un long baton, et les pecheurs qui passaient se sont moques de lui, parce qu'il etait aveugle” (“Groping, he went up to the bow of his boat, and he brandished a long stick, and the fishermen who were passing by mocked him, because he was blind”; 14). One can see in this touching scene an important symbol. The old man, blind yet visionary, is an accurate representation of Indian thought, thought inspired and haunted by the invisible. The jeers of the passers-by express in return the reaction of rational thought when confronted with manifestations of the sacred.


Araceli, the young Indian girl with whom John falls in love, is an image of the anima, like Fayaway for Melville and Atala for Chateaubriand.7 As anima, Araceli plays the determining role in the formation—or rather, the transformation—of the young hero. Pawana, after all, is the story of a “conversion” to Indian thought, as was the case in Haï (1971). The Le Clézian hero must reestablish contact with primitive thought, the vehicle of myths and archetypes, in order to become a total and authentic man.

Araceli appears for the first time to the young cabin boy in the water of the river, where she bathes herself each morning: “Elle nageait dans les bassins, d'une curieuse facon, jetant un bras pardessus sa tete et disparaissant entierement sous l'eau, puis flottant, le visage au ras de la surface, le temps de reprendre sa respiration, et disparaissant encore” (“She swam in the inlets, in a curious manner, throwing an arm over her head and entirely disappearing under the water, then floating, her face skimming the surface, just long enough to take a breath, and disappearing again”; 21). In this passage Araceli's strange swimming style evidently recalls that of the whales. This detail is important, because on the symbolic level there is a close connection between Indians and whales. For Le Clézio, the Indian race is heir to the race of giants and gods of yore, a race that it was able to preserve alive in its rites, its beliefs, and its customs.

In his book-length essay Le Réve Mexicain (1988) Le Clézio noted that Mexico played in the European imagination the same role as the Tahiti of Gauguin. Mexico was viewed by many travelers as the privileged site of the dream of a lost paradise, and it is presented in precisely this way in “Pawana” as well. For Le Clézio, the Mexican land is one of the privileged sites of mystery and legend, “a place where the very moment of creation still seems close when already, inexplicably, the other supreme moment, that of the destruction of that world, is about to occur.”8 It is specifically this double moment—the sacred moment of creation and that of destruction—that the whale massacre comes to symbolize so strikingly. Moreover, in the purest romantic tradition, Le Clézio underlines the mysterious correspondences that exist between the land of Mexico and the female character. Araceli appears in “Pawana” as the genius loci or spirit of the place: she is profoundly anchored in the strength of the soil, and she incarnates the two faces of Mexico, simultaneously world of creation and world of destruction. In Le Réve Mexicain Le Clézio stresses that one of the strangest features of ancient Mexican thought is that it carried in itself the elements of its own demise: “Their destruction was foreseen, announced, one might even say expected in many of the Indian cultures” (173). On the other hand, he notes the radical identification of the Indian, and perhaps above all the nomad Indian, to Mother Earth: “The symbol of an earth mother both nourishing and mortal was at the center of Amerindian philosophy. … The world that surrounded them was much more than a decor; it was the very expression of the divinity” (202).

One finds these two “Indian” traits in the character of Araceli. She is viscerally attached to the earth, and she also knows she is menaced by death. The heroine of “Pawana” belongs to a nomadic tribe of the north, the Seri. As a nomad, Araceli attempts repeatedly to run away. Certainly the young Indian wants to escape the bad treatment that her master, Emilio, inflicts upon her. But the text also suggests that, more profoundly, the young Indian girl senses the exhaustion and the destruction brought by the white man: “La mort est venue des hommes. C'est elle peut-etre qu'Araceli fuyait, a perdre haleine, quand elle a quitte Emilio” (“Death came from men. It is this perhaps that Araceli was breathlessly fleeing when she left Emilio”; 18).

After her murder, Araceli is buried unceremoniously in Punta Bunda amid stones and whalebones. Thus it is clear that the killing of the young Indian corresponds within the symbolic network of “Pawana” to the massacre of the whales. Araceli's death, like the slaughter of the whales, symbolizes the death of sacred thought. For Le Clézio, the silence of the Indian world is terrifying. It is a catastrophe which engages at the same time both the Indians and the Europeans, because in destroying Native American cultures, the European also destroys a part of himself, a part of himself he may never find again.

This is the reason the narrator, John, comes to wander through the ruins of Punta Bunda and to meditate on Araceli's grave. He tries to reestablish contact with sacred Indian thought, the anima without which modern man feels nothing but emptiness and nonfulfillment: “C'est elle que je cherche ici, le souvenir de sa peau, … de ses yeux brulants, de sa voix, de son souffle” (“She is the one I am searching for here, the memory of her skin, … her blazing eyes, her voice, her breath”; 45). John listens to the whistling of the wind through the reeds and through the whalebones on the beach: “Je frissonne, parce que c'est comme la voix d'Araceli, son souffle qui chante pres de la riviere invisible” (“I shiver, because it is like Araceli's voice, her breath that sings near the invisible river”; 48).

Thus, two centuries later, Araceli's tomb recalls the tomb of Atala. The entire French tradition of travel literature stands between Chateaubriand and Le Clézio. Certainly the reversing of perspective seems complete between the two authors. Whereas Chactas, the uncivilized Indian, mourns the disappearance of Atala, the young and beautiful Christian, the Le Clézian hero in contrast mourns the disappearance of Indian thought. But this opposition is superficial. The conventional moral which Chateaubriand added in extremis to his Indian epic does not erase the praise of Indian life that one finds in Atala. Is Chactas converted? The readers of Chateaubriand were not fooled. The fascination that Atala produces, even today, is not explained by its melodramatic conclusion but by the “Indian dream” which is found expressed in the work. Through this Indian dream, Atala voices, like “Pawana,” the quest for the anima and the obsession with the sacred.9


In “Pawana” one finds illustrated in exemplary fashion all the great themes of J. M. G. Le Clézio in the 1970s and 1980s. Here the tale of adventure, grafted onto the epic of the American West, combines with a legendary Indian fable to relate a quest for the primitive symbols of the sacred. But “Pawana” presents in addition a psychological framework. This story offers us an abbreviated version of the great rites of passage in the individuation process. As in Le Chercheur d'or (1985) and La Quarantaine (1995), where this central theme is developed, the hero of “Pawana” experiences in Araceli's company a complete initiation: of the spirit, of sexuality, and of death.

Lastly, one finds in “Pawana” a lamentation for the passing of Indian thought, what one might term Le Clézio's ecriture du desastre (writing of disaster). The author has a sense of infinite waste: “Le siecle nouveau commence, plus rien ne sera comme avant. Le monde ne retournera plus a son origine. … Comment peut-on oublier, pour que le monde recommence?” (“The new century begins, nothing will be as before. The world will no longer return to its origin. … How can one forget, so that the world begins again?”; 49). The Le Clézian hero mourns the loss of Indian thought and of the great gods who have disappeared: how can these be restored to life?

At the end of the tale, John has become a shadow, similar to old John Nattick, haunted by the gestures of the past, immobile before the dead waters of the lagoon he no longer sees. This imaginary filiation between characters reproduces itself on the level of writing, which, through an incantatory narrative voice, reminds us of the “voice” of Indian storytellers and shamans: “C'etait au commencement, tout a fait au commencement, quand il n'y avait personne sur la mer, rien d'autre que les oiseaux et la lumiere du soleil, l'horizon sans fin” (“It was at the beginning, at the very beginning, when there was no one on the sea, nothing but birds and sunlight, the endless horizon”; 7). This poetic incipit, with which John's narrative begins in “Pawana,” seems modeled on the prophetic words of the Codex Florentinus, of the Relation du Michoacan, and of the Chilam Balam. The sentence designates the very goal of Le Clézio's writing: his quest for a way out of linear time, into the cyclical time of myth—that is, at the center and at the origin of the psyche.


  1. Charles Melville Scammon is also a historical personage, the well-known author of The Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America, published in 1874. Scammon's logbook, Journal Aboard the Bark Ocean Bird on a Whaling Voyage to Scammon's Lagoon, Winter of 1858–1859, was published in Los Angeles by Dawson's Book Shop in 1970, with notes by David A. Henderson.

  2. These two narrative voices, which present two contrasting perspectives of the same event, possess a certain theatrical quality. Georges Lavaudant staged “Pawana” for the Festival d'Avignon in July 1992.

  3. J. M. G. Le Clézio, “Pawana,” Paris, Gallimard, 1992. All translations from this text are my own.

  4. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, New York, Harcourt & Brace, 1959. See especially pp. 27–28.

  5. James Baird, Ishmael, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956. See in particular the chapter titled “The Dragon Whale,” pp. 317–37.

  6. On the battle with the monster of primitive chaos, see also Eliade, pp. 47–48.

  7. Concerning the key concept of the anima in Jungian psychology, see the study by James Hillman, “Anima: An Anatomy of a Personified Notion,” Dallas, Spring Publications, 1985.

  8. J. M. G. Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream, tr. Theresa Lavender Fagan, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 161. All citations from Le Réve Mexicain are taken from this edition.

  9. Atala, like most exotic tales born of Romanticism, describes specific steps in the process of individuation. James F. Hamilton makes a curious mistake concerning the profound implications of Atala in his essay “The Ideology of Exoticism in Chateaubriand's Atala: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective,” French Literature Series, 13 (1986), pp. 28–37. One cannot study Atala in the context of eighteenth-century religious ideology and traditional Christian symbolism without considerably weakening the significance of this text.

William Thompson (review date fall 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

SOURCE: Thompson, William. Review of Poisson d'or, by J. M. G. Le Clézio. World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (fall 1997): 748.

[In the following review, Thompson relates how Poisson d'or follows in the thematic tradition of Le Clézio's previous novels.]

Poisson d'or is the first-person account of a young North African woman, Laila, who is kidnapped and sold as a young child and who encounters in her journeys (through Africa, Europe, and America) a vast range of humanity, rich and poor, kind and cruel. Some mistreat and exploit her; others suffer and struggle like her. Midway through the text, Laila—the “golden fish” of the title—realizes that the many people with whom she comes in contact each have their own personal agendas to follow, and that she cannot depend on others to assist her as she confronts the harsh realities of life: ‘J'avais compris que si les gens ont a choisir entre toi et leur bonheur, ce n'est pas toi qu'ils prennent.” With no family and no known origins or identity (for she does not in fact know her real name), Laila must endure the cruelties of life on her own.

Although sold into virtual slavery early in life, Laila leads an existence with Lalla Asma—her “mistress” and “grandmother”—that is far from desolate. The death of the latter, however, leads Laila to embark on a potentially endless journey whose destination and purpose she never comes to understand. Eventually she will arrive in France as an illegal immigrant and there will meet many like her—Gypsies, North and West Africans, Haitians—who seek their place in a world hostile to those who do not or cannot conform and adjust to its norms. Laila despairs that “il n'avait un endroit paisible dans le monde, nulle part.” As this need to find a welcome home is unrealized in France, her adventure will lead her to the United States—Boston, Chicago, and California—and to an improbable new life first as a singer and later as a jazz pianist. Yet she will also again encounter those who find themselves marginalized in society: African Americans, Mexican Americans, drug dealers. Laila's adventure in America will be brief, resulting, ironically, in her return to France in order to play in a jazz festival and in her decision to return to Africa to complete her voyage.

The reader already familiar with the novels of J. M. G. Le Clézio (see e.g. WLT 66:2, p. 304, 67:3, p. 585, and 70:4, p. 909) will find in Poisson d'or many of those themes present in his previous works: the fate of the oppressed, the tension between so-called First and Third World societies, the both physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery. In particular, readers will detect many affinities between this work and Désert (1980), which also focuses on the life of a young North African woman who, like Laila, leaves Africa only to return in the end, abandoning an unsatisfying Western world in order to rediscover her true origins and identity.

Jean-Philippe Imbert (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Imbert, Jean-Phillipe. “J. M. G. Le Clézio, Writer of Exile: A Treatment of Childhood and Exile in Désert and Étoile errante.” In Exiles and Migrants: Crossing Thresholds in European Culture and Society, pp. 201–11. England: Sussex Academic, 1997.

[In the following essay, Imbert analyzes the motifs of exile and childhood in Désert and Étoile errante.]

When the unaware reader embarks on Étoile errante,1 little does he realise that a decade earlier Le Clézio had undertaken a similar voyage when writing Désert,2 both books describing two departures into exile, two quests for self-discovery.

Désert, written in 1980, presents the reader with Lalla, a daughter of the hommes bleus (the Tuaregs, Berber nomads in the Sahara), whose past of untold tales of fighting for freedom will forever prevent her from remaining in France. In Étoile errante, published some twelve years later, set in summer 1943, the reader follows Esther, a young Jewish teenager, on a journey from a land of fear and humiliation to her Promised Land, where she will meet Nejma, a Palestinian refugee who is setting off for her new camp.

Twelve years separate these two novels, yet the similar themes of searching for the lost purity of childhood and atonement through exile from a world doomed to the void reappear. In this chapter, we will analyse to what extent the handling of the themes of exile and childhood in Étoile errante has changed from the way these themes were treated in Désert. Our discussion falls into three parts. First, we examine how much these two books are books of exile, and how this writing of exile is linked to the issue of childhood. Any exile entails a quest, and the reader will be witness to an everlasting quest for purity, a purity that has been lost long ago. In the second part of the paper we see that this quest seems to be doomed to failure, while the last part addresses the final redemption that is then sought through writing.

Both novels explore the childhood of exile, the ultimate root of everything, at the level of the story-line as much as at the narratological level. Soon, these tales of the childhood of exile will narrate the exile of childhood, where childhood will be seen as a movement constantly away from where it originated.

The etymological root of the word ‘exile’ is pregnant with meaning. The word originates from the Latin prefix ‘ex,’ to which was added the Latin root ‘salire,’ meaning ‘to leap.’ It is also the same etymological root that produces the word ‘exult.’ So exile becomes a compelling subject as much as a propelling action, and its outcome will always involve an idea of transcendence. Exile will name a figure and establish a narrative ground. We will consider an exile to be someone who inhabits one place and remembers or projects the reality of another.

The peoples chosen in each book are peoples whose very pasts are rooted in exile. In Désert the reader follows the diaspora of the hommes bleus. In Étoile errante, Esther's plight is the sad inheritance of an everlasting Jewish fate of uprooting and is echoed by the similar story of the young Arab girl, Nejma. The reader is thus presented with communities whose histories are marked by an ineluctable transience.

The three peoples—Chleuh, Jews and Arabs—are all facing a new ordeal that will force them to depart for a new world. Désert is set between two dates, ‘Saguiet el Hamra, hiver 1909–1910’ (D 7), which opens the novel, and ‘Agadir, 30 mars 1912’ (D 397), which heads the ultimate paragraph of the book, these two dates corresponding to the establishment of the Protectorate, a period of political and social turmoil in Morocco. Étoile errante is also located at a time of political and social shifting, opening in ‘Saint-Martin Vésubie, été 1943’ (E 15). The Jewish community sheltering in this small village on the French-Italian border of the Alps is forced to set off, because of the imminent arrival of the Nazis. The Italian army is leaving; the Americans have arrived, but the Nazis are yet to be feared. From the outset of the novel, the reader is placed in an in-between place where neither beginning nor end are present, where movement is at the core of everything. All the more so that every family structure encountered in the novels is transient. One is constantly between a death and a birth. In Désert, Lalla's father is never to be mentioned, thus denying her a sense of belonging to the chain of time. Her birth into the narrative and to the tribe coincides with her mother's death (D 82).

So life has become death, the two movements have merged into each other and beginning has become ending. The past—Lalla's mother—has died into the future—Lalla's life—through a present which will constantly be reiterated, and which will develop into so many avatars of itself (D 84). Lalla's mother's death is being told over and over again and its very anamorphosis will confer on Lalla's life a sense of infinity and otherness.

Similarly, the family set-up of Étoile errante is also one of transience. If Hélène's father vanishes for ever in the maquis, somewhere beyond life and death, depriving the young girl of a stabilising father figure, she is to undergo the same predicament as her mother. Both women will flee to Jerusalem, each intermittently mothering the other. Thus, movement deprives Hélène of that which stands for the figure of authority, and of a consciousness able to withstand instinctual drives, while also cancelling any representation of harmony and of anima, of the unconscious, since she will become her mother at times, hence erasing the margin between herself and the other. Hélène will be seen later on giving birth, by herself, in Canada, after the death of her child's father, thus recreating the same original situation which was once hers.

The reason for the transience of the family units lies in the very fact that the entity of each protagonist is dual. In Désert, Lalla, the young girl of the tribes, will change her name to Hawa once in France (D 324). Naming is creating. Knowing the name, pronouncing it, is to exercise power over the being or the object. Here, this power is denied to whoever attempts to capture the very being of Lalla. Since her name is changeable, her entity cannot be grasped. In Étoile errante, naming Hélène is calling Esther. The young girl uses both names according to different situations. The narrator will also refer to the young Jewish girl as either Hélène or Esther, regardless of how the character names herself (E 22). Entities will fluctuate, each protagonist of each novel will be herself as much as herself, conferring to the narrative as a whole a feeling of mirrority that will reflect an image as much as reality.

Transience is thus the all-pervading essence of every aspect of the two novels, from the most external one, the peoples chosen to be dealt with, to the most internal one, the actual entity of the protagonist of each book. This movement from unity to multiplicity is enhanced by the exile-like structure of both narratives. Indeed, the architecture of both books is twofold. Each novel contains two strands of narratives, which overlap each other in Désert and complement each other in Étoile errante.

In Désert, the first narrative depicts the diaspora of the hommes bleus. Its central character is the young Nour, who befriends a blind old warrior whose aim is to regain sight. The second narrative is that of Lalla, a young girl who decides to flee Morocco to the Promised Land of France. But her taste for freedom is such that she cannot bear the plight her fellow immigrants undergo. She ends up working in a dingy hotel, befriending a young Gipsy shoplifter and discovering fame through a photographer who turns her into a top model. But at the back of her mind is her motherland, to which she ultimately returns to give birth to a daughter. We will entitle the two strands of narrative Nour and Lalla. The overall structure of the novel can then be described as follows: Nour1—60 pp.; Lalla1—136 pp.; Nour2—31 pp.; Lalla2—92 pp.; Nour3—25 pp.; Lalla3—34 pp.; Nour4—14 pp.

Nour, half as long as Lalla (130 pp. versus 262 pp.), serves as a foil to the second narrative, which represents the main part of the text. It serves as a foil insofar as the issues at stake in Nour—the fight for freedom, the claim for a world of harmony—are not raised in Lalla, since they are taken for granted as being non-attainable. Freedom cannot be found, harmony is nowhere to be seen. Thus, the bitter taste of the ultimate pointlessness of it all in Nour echoes the feeling of the lack of determinism which is at the root of Lalla.

The meeting-point between the two narratives is a thematic meeting-point of silence, a silence which separates the last sentence of one strand of narrative from the first sentence of the following one. This writing of silence creates an oxymoronic movement of severing as well as of merging of both strands. This constant system of thematic fade-in/fade-out enables the reader to exile himself from one narrative into another, while being unaware of where the threshold lies.

Both narratives are similar narratives of exodus, of quest for the self and of apparent redemption through silent suffering. If Nour is a tale of timelessness, and if Lalla is about spacelessness, both narratives are to meet in silence to bring to the fore and apprehend the issue of a human nature doomed to exile. Nour stands out as being the ‘ur-text’ of Lalla, providing some silent reasons for the existence of the second narrative, reasons that may or may not be discerned by the reader, while presenting the creation of a narrative of exile ‘in the making.’

Nour is typographically exiled away from the left-hand side border of the pages, appearing to the reader as being self-contained, conferring an almost scroll-like quality on the text. This poeticisation of the text physically prints the metaphor, which lies not so much in the content of the story, but in the form of the narrative. Any metaphor is an exile from a primary meaning; this one is the exile of the essence of the problem: no reasons are to be found for the pointlessness of the tribe's fate. Hence, Nour will be the myth backing the legend of Lalla, insofar as Nour will raise questions never to be answered, thus mirroring Lalla, which will attempt to bring answers to questions which haven't been asked. This will account for the indomitable silence which separates both narratives while linking them at the same time.

This silence is enhanced by the dream-like essence of the ur-text. The novel and Nour open in a limbo, half-way between fiction and reality:

They appeared, as in a dream, from the top of the dune, half-hidden by the haze of sand which their feet created.3

(D 7, my emphasis)

The novel closes in a similar way. The final sentence of Nour is also the final sentence of Désert:

They were leaving, as in a dream, vanishing.

(D 411, my emphasis)

The dual architecture of Désert enhances the issue of exile dealt with in both of its narratives. The novel raises several questions linked to this issue, the answers of which are to be found in the structural writing of silence.

Étoile errante presents some similarities to the previous novel. Likewise a story of exile, it is also made up of two narratives, built around the central characters Hélène and Nejma. Hélène is a young Jewish girl who is forced to flee the village that sheltered her family during the First World War. She embarks with her mother on a journey to Jerusalem, a precarious, hellish journey which eventually reaches the Holy Land. Hélène is then seen growing up in a kibbutz, falling in love, getting pregnant, going to study in Canada. She finally returns to the Italian village of her youth to scatter the ashes of her dead mother. Nejma is a young Arab girl, a prisoner in a camp in Israel, waiting to be deported at any time to Irak. She finds solace in writing down the events of her life in a diary.

The novel is divided into five parts, each given a title, and all but the third relate one step in the evolution of the Bildungsroman of the life of Hélène. The structure is as follows: Part 1: Hélène—122 pp.; Part 2: Esther—74 pp.; Part 3: Nejma—67 pp.; Part 4: L'Enfant du Soleil—29 pp.; Part 5: Elizabeth—21 pp.

Youth is dealt with in all five parts, but it increasingly evades the narrative, as the number of pages shows. ‘Hélène’ describes the life of the young girl in the village, ‘Esther’ her exodus, ‘L'enfant du Soleil’ (‘The Sun-child’) her life in the kibbutz, while in ‘Elizabeth’ a flash forward enables the reader to see her returning to Europe to the deathbed of Elizabeth her mother. The time of the story and the time of the telling of the narrative are at odds, one coming closer and closer to the reading time, the other ruthlessly returning to the past of the final coda. This antithetical movement reinforces the metaphorical network of exile which underlies the novel and is rooted in its core, the third part ‘Nejma.’

Whereas the two narratives of Désert never met, the two Étoile errante stories are connected. Hélène, arriving in Jerusalem, will meet Nejma, on her way to Irak, who gives her her diary so that the young Jewish girl can inscribe her name on it. The story of the novel becomes the story of a book exchanged. Part 3, ‘Nejma,’ separates youth from adulthood through exile: the young girls are never to meet again.

Exile is thus at the core of everything, at the root of all life. It must be related to the issue of childhood inasmuch as it will only be through exile that childhood will acquire a meaning. Childhood is a constant exile, be it only due to its very evolutive nature. But it also is a constant motion away from an origin.

The exile of childhood starts with birth. Three similar births punctuate the novels (D 391, E 260, E 315). Each birth entails a seascape, a seascape of water in motion. Describing a birth in terms of water is not new in itself. Femininity and humidity are commonly associated with life-giving forces. What matters in the three birth passages is the quasi-animistic tie to nature which the birth/water metaphoric movement triggers off.

One of the main traits of animism is that souls are almost physical and can exist outside of the body, that they can be transferred from one body to another and persist after the death of the body. The body can fully apprehend the quintessence of the soul through a merging with nature. This merging is often carried out by a water element of some sort. The mothers-to-be become one with nature, hanging from branches to help pushing, grasping rocks to ease the contractions. This movement is announced early on in the labour (D 188); the three mothers become lands, and the three lands become floods which bring to life a new being.

But if exile entails movement, it is a movement away from something. The three births occur away from the tribe or the family, or in a remote corner of the camp. To some extent, the three girls are somewhat reluctant to be fully part of the civilisation they aim to belong to.

This ironical status quo accounts for the fact that the movement of exile is soon to become a quest, a quest of a youth embarked on the journey of life. If at a mytho-poetical level the two novels attempt to describe youth at odds with itself and the surrounding world, Le Clézio's personal myth is that of the writing of the universal quest which is the life force of any human being.

In both novels several elements help to build up a metaphoric network of quest which sustains the works. The star theme is the most obvious, announced by the title of the 1992 novel, Étoile errante (Wandering Star), and reintroduced in its epigraph. Hélène's father nicknames her Estrellita, diminutive for Estrella, from Esther, and meaning ‘little star,’ as does Nejma. The meeting of the two young girls becomes a meeting of wandering stars out of which must arise an unforeseen situation.

The star, source of light, is often the symbol of the Spirit. It becomes the centre of infinitude around which everything rotates, expressing an idea of constant formation of the world and of the self. The two young girls become objective correlatives of a quest of its own making, a quest which takes the form of a voyage, as the many boat images show. Boats stand for safety, they are a world in themselves and thus carry their own meanings. The movement towards a meaning is led by the many shepherds—standing for the beholders of knowledge—of both novels. Lalla befriends a young shepherd, Le Hartani; Nejma flees with Le Baddawi, a former shepherd, while Esther falls in love with Jacques Berger (= ‘shepherd’).

The representation of childhood as a constant escape, as an indomitable motion, is based on the thematic network of quest. But the reader embarked on this quest will soon realise that it is never to end. Indeed, could this quest be doomed to failure? In the broadest acceptance of the term, a quest is a movement of a subject to obtain an object, this action being more often than not identified as an ordeal. Our two novels tackle both issues of the ambiguous collective quest—with its underlying sense of belonging to a group—and of the quest for a fulfilled self. But will Jerusalem ever be reached? Can fulfilment ever be attained? Should they be attained?

Cities play an important part in both novels. Most characters will at some point in their fictional lives shift from the status of exile to the status of pilgrim, wandering from one city to another. Cities as archetypes will be established at the centre of the world, reflecting its celestial order and receiving its influence. In Nour, the tribe arrives first at the gates of Taroudant, the Holy City. This first vision will be echoed in all the other hierophanies the several characters will live:

Unreal, as though hanging in the sunlight, the city seemed to be waiting for the men from the desert, to offer them shelter. Never had Nour seen such a beautiful city.

(D 235, my emphasis)

This tallies with the medieval idea of man as a pilgrim between two cities: life being a passage from the Lower City to the Higher City. Discovering the city is approaching the core of the quest. It happens in a silence which enables the witness to reach out to a higher level of spirituality. That explains why cities are so much dreamed of, talked about (D 154). Cities are so much dreamed of that characters do not seem to realise that they can avail of them at their own wish, maintaining them as fiction. Thus, even apartments and places of shelter have to be protected from any impinging reality. The image of the city and the image of the mother merge. Neither should be violated. No one is to approach Lalla's shelters, which are endowed with a religious aura.

But cities become so important, places of shelter have to be taken care of to such an extent, that their worshippers will tend to close in on themselves, out of awe. They will become lonely, they will ironically strive not to be trapped by the society which they aimed to belong to, so that they can keep worshipping it. Escaping becomes almost as important as searching. The characters will then hide themselves. Cloaks, coats and blankets will cover bodies. In Désert, Lalla's grey coat enables her to spend her days in the street unnoticed, using what seems to be an inheritance from the medieval coat of invisibility. In Étoile errante, a lot of old women can be seen disappearing under colourless coats, while Nejma hides under a blanket so as to avoid being raped.

This quest for fulfilment now seems aimed at setting limits to the object of the search, insofar as the characters realise the generative notion that the line marking the end of the familiar, of reality, is the same as that marking the beginning of the unknown, of their dreams, the line that limits being the line that dares. So children will constantly transcend these limits, exiles will never stop, cities will always fail to shelter: the quest is never to end.

As soon as Lalla and Esther reach what seems to be the be-all and the end-all of their lives, it is only to start all over again. Discovering the city is a source of disappointment (D 244). Furthermore, in Étoile errante, the city becomes a lethal Moloch which is ready to annihilate whoever approaches:

The thundering was quite close, each blast shook the ground, the glow of flames could be seen. In front of Esther and Elizabeth stood the city walls, the hills covered with houses and their narrow windows, and maybe the magical shapes of the mosques and temples. From the centre a huge tower of black smoke was rising into the coppery sky, growing bigger and bigger, turning into a menacing cloud from which the night would be born.

(E 213, my emphasis)

This frightening vision echoes all the protagonists' bitter sense of fear. Fear becomes one of the main feelings of the characters: fear of stopping their search, fear of finding out what they are looking for, fear of suffering for having found what they were seeking, but most especially the ultimate fear of the main characters, that of putting an end to their quest, and then of not being any longer. This will explain the characters' tendency to self-delusion. So as not to stop their quest, they will forge betraying paradises of transience, where they will recreate an Adam and Eve situation. Going back to their origins will enable them not to stop moving towards their future.

If at the core of the quest is the refusal to allow their journey to end, the ultimate question raised by both novels is how to reconcile the idea of a never-ending quest, an everlasting exile, with the final feeling of fulfilment which the characters enjoy. The answer to this ironical problem seems to lie in the redemptive nature of language and the act of writing.

Writing and reading are steps towards redemption in both novels. All the characters seem to depend on a language the meaning of which is contained in its very essence. Signifier and signified often merge into each other to become words of exile. Not only do they point outwards to a reality, they are meanings in themselves: ‘Lalla’ in Arab dialect means ‘Miss’; if used before a noun, it will mean ‘the holy woman.’ ‘Nour’ means ‘the light of religion’; ‘Aama’ is a derivation from the word for ‘mother’; ‘Roumiya’ signifies ‘the European one,’ and ‘Es Ser’ ‘The Secret.’ So characters have to feed from these words to be redeemed, without realising that their very language provides them with the answers to the questions they are afraid to ask. Furthermore, words are needed so that exile does not end. As in the Scheherazade tale, the characters are condemned to create fictions to escape from reality. Stories are created, words will fully partake of the pilgrimage. Esther's father was a professeur d'histoire(s), a history/story teacher; Esther's teacher recites a poem of exile to the community about to depart (E 88). Esther and Elizabeth have to gather the bare minimum to take along with them. The daughter chooses a book, Les Voyages de Mr. Pickwick,4 her mother another one: The Book of Commencement. Words will always be exile and new beginning. They will become prayers, mantras to a past or to a reality one attempts to reach, as both examples show:

Lord, O Lord, bless all the chiefs, companions, followers, the army which will bring you victory, Ahou Ibrahim Tounsi, Sidi Bel Abbas Sebti, Sidi Ahmed el Haristi, Sidi Jakir, Abou Zaki Yahia an Nawhani, Sidi Mohamed Ben Hisa, Sidi Ahmed eer Rifaî, Mohamed Ben Sliman al Jasouli […].

(D 62)

A similar illustration of the use of language as a means of attaining one's goal can be found in Étoile errante:

Now, she has learned all the streets' names, through listening to people. The names are strange, so strange that she sometimes repeats them again and again, half-loud, while wandering between the buildings:

‘La Major

La Tourette

Place de Lenche

Rue du Petit Puits

Place Vivaux

Place Sadi Carnot

La Tarasque

Impasse des Muettes

Rue du Cheval

Cours Belunce.’

(D 251)

Words take man to their own limits, which is silence—a silence announcing a revelation. How to name the unnameable, how to attain the core of the self, of childhood, which is made up of nothing, but through silence? Le Clézio had expressed this earlier in his career.5 He shows this in Désert, and says it in Étoile errante. Since not using language entails not writing, the narrator consciously flaws his own medium. A language which unsays, appears. Speech is the purest symbol of the manifestation of Being: it is ubiquitous but anamorphic. Signs appear, such as [AWK], which is used twice, with two different meanings:

There was also a large black panel above the door, with two crescent-shaped letters, like this: [AWK]

(D 305)

Since Hawa cannot write, she only draws the tribe's emblem, the one branded on the hide of camels and goats which looks a bit like a heart: [AWK]

(D 332)

The shape of the sign represents the maimed totality, the open circle, the flaw of language. Indeed, any language betrays, and many languages are alien to the two girls. Lalla is often lost in a Babel-like jail, Esther does not understand the language of the music sheets (E 22). All the characters realise that language is the sacred vehicle of a hidden meaning, as La Cathédrale Engloutie, (The Sunken Cathedral) the title of Mrs O'Rourke's piano piece, shows. But this meaning is never to be unfolded, since for Le Clézio meaning is destruction.6

Esther will never know the content of Nejma's diary, Lalla will never know how to write, and both of these novels have attempted to present the reader with an exile into language of the transient state of childhood. But the very nature of language is such that it can never be expressed, only shown, through silence.


  1. J. M. G. Le Clézio, Étoile errante, Paris: Gallimard, 1992 ( = E).

  2. J. M. G. Le Clézio, Désert, Paris: Gallimard, 1980 ( = D).

  3. All translations are my own.

  4. The title of the French translation of Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.

  5. ‘If it is true to say that the ultimate goal of language is non-language silence, this goal is never to be realised; it can only be attained through the destruction of language, i.e. through the destruction of man himself. In other words, language is a self-destructive process,’ J. M. G. Le Clézio, L'Extase matérielle, Paris: Gallimard, coll. Idées, 1967, 203 ( = EM).

  6. ‘Destruction not as failure, but simply as the perfect fulfilment of communication. Any form of art which does not of necessity aim beyond its own message, i.e. at its death, is of no use’ (EM 204).

Karen D. Levy (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Levy, Karen D. “Intersected Pasts and Problematic Futures: Oedipal Conflicts and Legendary Catastrophe in J. M. G. Le Clézio's Onitsha and Étoile errante.International Fiction Review 25, nos. 1–2 (1998): 36–49.

[In the following essay, Levy uses psychoanalysis and feminist theory to explore the protagonists's “fascination with the past” in Onitsha and Étoile errante.]

Since the publication of his first novel, Le Procès-verbal (The Interrogation, 1963), in which the protagonist Adam Pollo finds refuge from the aggressions of modern life in an asylum, J. M. G. Le Clézio has been exploring the wounds of the human condition, caused, in his eyes, by expulsion from the liquid paradise of the womb and the fall into time. His characters are caught in various ways between the desire to lose themselves in the simultaneously comforting yet potentially fatal embrace of the maternal and the challenge of being able to mourn their loss and to acknowledge the void of the past in order to accept the risks of an imperfect future. None of Le Clézio's texts inscribes this drama as intensely or as seductively as his recent diptych: Onitsha and Étoile errante (Wandering Star).1 In this study I will analyze the various manifestations the fascination with the past assumes in these novels and address the question as to whether and how Le Clézio's male and female protagonists learn to construct new configurations of relationships with individuals, with a wider ranging collectivity, and, equally importantly, with the geographic spaces that so fascinate them. By exploring these issues from a broadly psychoanalytic and feminist perspective, we will be able to understand more specifically the network of tensions dividing Le Clézio's protagonists and to discern more clearly the relationships among the different kinds of discourses inscribed in his narratives.

In the 1980s, Le Clézio began to probe the conflicts of his own family's past, lured by the possibility of a secret to be revealed. Le Chercheur d'or (The Prospector, 1985) and Voyage à Rodrigues (t 1986) chart his grandfather's quest for an elusive treasure and his own efforts to establish contact with his phantom ancestor. The effort becomes much more intense and much more overtly erotic as we move forward in generations with Onitsha. As Nicole Casanova notes in a review of this novel, the link between Le Clézio as fiction writer and his family past becomes “as intensely embraced and as passionate as possible,” for the text is “the true story of Le Clézio in his distant childhood.”2 The novel transposes a journey Le Clézio made with his mother to join his father in Africa: “The voyage lasted a month, but it was infinite. … I never stopped thinking about it.”3 In simplest terms the text recounts the voyage aboard the Surabaya which the twelve-year-old Fintan, Le Clézio's literary counterpart, and his Italian-born mother, Maria Luisa, take to join the English father, Geoffroy Allen, whom Fintan has never known, in the Nigerian river town of Onitsha. It depicts the conflicts that occur when these three individuals come into contact with one another and with the British colonial administration. It traces the indelible marks which their sojourn in Africa engraves on their psyches and reveals the consequences of this experience when they are forced to return to Europe. The work has been greatly praised for its classically balanced construction, for the beauty of its language, and for its cathartic quality as “nostalgia writing.”4 But the apparent transparency of its structure and the poignancy of its style as evocation must not blind us to the significance of the Oedipal drama depicted, nor lead us to dismiss the profound contradictions in the protagonists' positions, which reveal the extent to which they appropriate a largely imagined past as alibi for inactivity in the present.

For the first twelve years of his life, Fintan enjoyed the exclusivity of his mother's attention, unmarred by any paternal interference. Maria Luisa, whom Fintan at age ten chose to call Maou, the name he had used when first entering the symbolic, is at once the boy's care-giver, sister, and would-be lover, whose sleeping body he gazes on with the classic Freudian blend of castration anxiety and fascination (O 13). The threat to this erotically charged intimacy which the voyage to Onitsha and the meeting with his unknown father poses is experienced simultaneously as separation, “the wrenching away, the hole left in memory” (O 16) and rebirth in “the belly of the Surabaya” (O 15). The problem with this departure is that it is precisely a re-birth which fatalistically reproduces the existing situation. It reinstates the original couple relationship and privileges the voyeurism of Fintan's gaze with even greater intensity. Fintan will never forget the beautiful and tormenting vision of Maou bathing (O 34), and the blatantly sexual sight and taste of the forbidden fruit, seemingly an avocado, “pale green, cut in half around its swollen, obscene pit” (O 53), which Maou repeatedly encourages him to try. The juxtaposed images of the mother's exposed body and the avocado set up the visual frame for the way in which Fintan will continue to respond to Maou as well as to other females he will encounter, staring rapturously and fetishizing the ovoid form of the womb itself in order to preserve his vision of maternal plenitude. He will remain locked in this stage of the Oedipal process, simultaneously possessing the female body through his gaze and suppressing his anxiety over the threat of castration by valorizing the figure represented, particularly the smooth rounded shape of the impregnated uterus.5

With the arrival of the Surabaya in Africa, the intimacy Fintan and Maou shared on the ship is transferred to the silent emptiness of Geoffroy Allen's hilltop residence, Ibusun. During the year spent in Onitsha, mother and son are accepted by the Africans who live in and around the town. It is important to note that Maou's closest relationships are with Marima, the young wife of the servant Elijah, and Oya, a wandering deaf adolescent. The text presents these young women as animal-like and childlike and thus emphasizes the traditional colonialist vision which sees Africa in stereotyped terms as the impenetrable and primitive other. Maou's reaction reveals that she shares this vision. On the one hand, her relationships with Marima and Oya are established along the lines of mother-child bonds which reflect, but do not threaten, the intimacy Maou and Fintan share. On the other hand, the text also emphasizes the sensuality of these two young women, particularly Oya, whose caress makes Maou remember the pleasure experienced with her childhood girlfriend (O 152). The erotic overtones of these descriptions are heightened as Oya guides Maou's hand down her opened dress to let her feel the fetus growing inside her (O 152). This scene recalls the image of the exposed fruit Maou offered Fintan aboard the Surabaya, revealing her own fascination and suggesting that, in order to be able to preserve her own privileged status, her body too will have to be filled. It further extends the net of erotic tensions centered around the phantasm of the mother's plenitude and serves as a prelude for the seduction Fintan will experience during the months spent in Onitsha.

Fintan is initiated into African village life through his friend Bony, the son of a local fisherman who leads him to observe Oya, on whom his vision of maternal possession/plenitude converges. Fintan's fascination with Oya's naked body proceeds in four different stages, which develop the details of his obsession and reveal how the process of convergence operates. First Fintan is aroused by the sight of Oya bathing alone (O 94). The pleasure is heightened and complicated when he comes upon Bony, who is trying to rape her (O 94–95), and is then further reinforced when he watches Oya and a local domestic servant, Okawho, writhing together on a bathroom floor like two sacred warriors. Fintan associates Oya with the river and with “the princess from the ancient realm whose name Geoffroy Allen was seeking” (O 133). The scene dehumanizes and objectifies both her and Okawho, turns them into emblems of an imagined past, and emphasizes Fintan's combined terror and fascination as he visually participates in the coupling. The final state in the elaboration of Fintan's phantasm occurs as he watches Oya give birth. He and Bony stand by speechlessly as Oya struggles in labor (O 199). And when Bony leaves, Fintan—a passive observer, transfixed by the spectacle he is witnessing—remains alone with Oya (O 200).

The description of the birth experience seeks to capture the effort and the physical anguish involved in the process. It does, however, immobilize the birth scene at the level of erotic spectacle for Fintan's awestruck gaze (O 222), as much as it confines Oya, whose physical isolation is emphasized by her deafness, to the stereotyped role of river goddess, fatalistically linked to the sinking wreck of the George Shotton, the ship on which the entire scene takes place. The seductive quality of Oya's pregnancy is further extended by the subsequent descriptions of Marima and Maou exchanging the secret of their own privileged status as newly expectant mothers, in scenes reminiscent of those between Oya and Maou earlier in the work (O 225–26). The three women in the novel who are of child-bearing age are thus valorized in as much as they cherish the function to which “nature” has assigned them and maintain the traditional, narrowly defined value system of a patriarchal society.

The blessing of Maou's pregnancy offers the hope of a future and suggests the beginning of new relationships. But the exclusive maternal-filial bond that develops and which gains even greater prestige during the year-long stay in Onitsha will, in fact, never be opened to others. The next twenty years Fintan will spend in a state of psychological latency, waiting for the moment when he and Maou will be able to enjoy once again the exclusivity of their childhood relationship while, in the meantime, he records his passion for the dream of Onitsha in texts which are simultaneously letters, testament, and confession. The few pages of these documents—placed in a stylistically highlighted section of the novel—clearly reveal the dichotomy between Fintan's filtered vision of the past and the destruction of the present, that is, the year 1968, when the Biafran civil war is raging (O 240–41). These pages communicate the melancholic pleasure Fintan feels as he insists on the irremediableness of the catastrophe and the forlornness of the situation. Most importantly, Fintan's personal documents expose the gap between the strength of his fascination and the weakness of his resolve. He acknowledges that, at the outbreak of the Biafran war, he wanted to join Bony and the other Ibos in their struggle against the Federalist forces of General Adekunle (O 234), but he also admits his own passivity: “Perhaps I didn't have the courage. Perhaps I didn't know how to act, and anyway it was too late” (O 242–43). It is much more fascinating to dream in private of the past than to attempt to act in the present.6

In the final chapter Fintan's dream comes full circle. In the spring of 1969, when Geoffroy Allen is at the point of death, Fintan leaves Jenny in Bristol and returns to the sepulchral tranquillity of Maou's home in the hilltop village of Opio, near Grasse. In the calm of the bedroom where Allen lies lifeless, having disappeared into his own dream, Fintan and Maou reaffirm their fidelity: “Fintan sits down beside Maou. … Together they listen to the insects' cries which resound joyously” (O 251). The fact that Allen dies in spring and that insects sing joyously would suggest the possibility of a new beginning in the cyclical framework Le Clézio values so highly,7 if only the last two paragraphs did not return to the political situation in Biafra and point out that “everything is finished” (O 251). The end of the novel also stresses the definitiveness of Fintan's departure from the boy's school where he had been teaching, thus calling into question the possibility of any kind of legitimate renewal.

To understand more fully the transcultural role played by the obsession with the past and the fetishization of the maternal body in Onitsha, we must turn our attention to the text's other male protagonist, Geoffroy Allen, the British loner who leaves his bride behind to “go as far as Meroë, to follow this trace … of the last realm of the Nile, of the black queen who crossed the desert to the heart of Africa” (O 84). It is important to note that when he and Maou meet in Nice in 1935, Allen's gaze is already turned to the distant past (O 84). During the twelve years Allen spends in Africa before his family join him, the traces of this vision, like the sacred itsi marks on the faces of the Umundri tribespeople, are etched deeper and deeper into his being, just as the voyage aboard the Surabaya reaffirms Maou and Fintan's original intimacy. Throughout his years alone, Allen studies both the history and the legends associated with Egypt and Meroë and its queens. He appropriates this material and develops an elaborate personal system of transcultural encounters and intersections, which he then uses to confirm and sanctify his obsession. Like Fintan's phantasms, they converge derisively on the fetishized image of Oya and, paradoxically, reveal the unacknowledged intensity of the bond uniting father and son.

The process of convergence, much more intricate with Allen than with Fintan because of the layering of discourses involved, begins with the sketchy history of Meroë and its queens, who, in addition to their sovereign title “qore” (ruler), bore the title “Kandake” (Candace, queen mother).8 “Meroë” was the ancient state once centered around the city and the “island” of Meroë, today called the Butana. Meroë extended from slightly north of the point where the Atbara River and the Nile meet above modern-day Khartoum to one hundred twenty miles southward, and functioned as a politically independent entity from Egypt from around 900 B.C. to A.D. 350.9 Two moments in Meroë's history interest Allen, and both surround a military defeat, one of which involves a queen. The first event is the defeat which the Meroites suffered under the rule of Queen Amanirenas when they attacked the Egyptian towns of Philae, Aswan, and Elephantine in 24 B.C.10 The second is the defeat they suffered around A.D. 350 at the hands of Aezanas, king of Axum in northern Abyssinia, an event generally taken to mark the end of the Meroitic kingdom,11 although it was already in decline, greatly threatened by the influx of the Noba people living to the west of the Nile, by the time Aezanas invaded.12 Allen condenses these two historical events by joining the image of Amanirenas attacking the Egyptians to both the destruction of Meroë as “the last realm of the Nile” (O 97) and the imagined founding of a new Meroitic kingdom on the Niger, “as if the river which flowed past Onitsha represented the path to the other side of the world” (O 118).

The sections relating the imagined journey of the Meroites across the central African desert toward the west are set apart typographically and thus disrupt the linear narration of the novel in the same way as Fintan's writings. This highlighting process encourages us to read the text in different ways. The structurally privileged chapters tell a story which does not coincide with the nobility of the vision to which Allen clings so desperately. The description of the Meroites' flight is not only one of extreme physical hardship, but also, and even more importantly, one of decadence and sabotage from within. It reveals the ever widening gap between the queen whom Allen wishes to see and the one the text actually presents, namely a woman who, at the time of the exodus, was already “emaciated … in the midst of a famished horde” (O 125). The queen and her subjects pursue her vision of a new land (O 128) until her strength gives out, and she must entrust her dream to her young daughter Arsinoë. Soon after Arsinoë assumes her position as queen, the travelers arrive at the fertile shores of an inviting river, and it appears as if her mother's dream might be realized. But satisfaction must be deferred because Gerberatu, Arsinoë's advisor, “does not yet see the end of the journey” (166). It is important to note that Gerberatu is neither a true high priest, nor a Meroite by birth, but rather a “soothsayer” (O 167), and “a Nouba from Alwa” (O 164), in other words, a member of the group which, as historical sources suggest, infiltrated and undermined the Meroitic civilization from within. In Allen's vision he does precisely this. Gerberatu cleverly takes advantage of the political void and the naïveté of the queen to usurp the position of spiritual advisor and consort: “the young queen is now in his power … he even reigns over her body” (O 166). Gerberatu marks the firstborn children's faces with the sacred signs that would so captivate Geoffroy Allen, and he insists that they continue their journey. When the Meroites arrive at what Gerberatu considers to be the appropriate river island, “there is no more strength, no more hope, nothing but immense fatigue” (O 167). Significantly it is also Gerberatu's daughter, a Nouba and hence not a “true” Meroite, who in Allen's dream becomes the first queen of the new river” (O 168) and whose descendant he imagines to be Oya (O 168).13

Allen fixes his gaze on Oya as river goddess and incorporates her liquid essence: “It is the river which descends slowly in Geoffrey's body while he sleeps” (O 166). However, by internalizing Oya's body, which “shines in the night mingled with the river” (O 169), he sinks into the lethal embrace of the archaic mother, the sacred mbiam water (O 160). He descends physically as he searches with Okawho for the remains of the Aro Chuku oracle along the nearby Cross River on the outskirts of Iboland, which the British destroyed in a punitive expedition from November 1901 to March 1902.14 The existence of the fetish “The Big Juju,” dedicated to the supreme Ibo deity Chuku,15 is for Geoffroy Allen yet further evidence of Meroë's continued presence in the region: “Aro Chuku is the truth and the heart which has not stopped beating” (O 178; 191–92), but ironically, Allen, as he struggles to keep up with Okawho, cannot even remember why he undertook this adventure (O 193). When they arrive at the sacred pool, “there is no sign of life, neither in the water, nor in the forest” (O 194). At this point the text distinguishes carefully between that which Okawho says and that which Geoffroy Allen perceives, for the text reveals the nature of his convictions and calls into question the holy properties believed to lie in the pool before them. The opaque water in which Allen bathes and of which he “drinks deeply” (O 194) brings not the expected purification and renewal, but illness and the threat of death: soon after, Allen begins to shiver with the chills of blackwater fever.

Geoffroy Allen's immersion in the lifeless pond mirrors Fintan's earlier initiatory experience with Bony, who guides Fintan through the vividly described genital organs of the forest to wash in another sacred pool (O 161). When Fintan enters the water, he experiences a serenity which affects his feelings for his father. For the first time he feels a closeness to Geoffroy Allen, thinking that this secluded maternal basin could perhaps accommodate them both. Fintan's experience differs from his father's in the level of intimacy attained. Whereas Fintan, following the traditional baptismal pattern, only bathes in the water, Allen both bathes and drinks, encountering in the process the full force of female ambivalence inscribed in the text.

The onset of Geoffroy Allen's illness gives rise to the only other situation in which Fintan feels any affection for him. Weakened after many days of delirium, Allen no longer appears as a menacing rival to the boy. And Allen, for the first and only time, offers to share his quest with Fintan. While the surge of reciprocal affection is only momentary, they continue to share the same dream, the only remains of which are the sacred marks on the broken monoliths around Aro Chuku and on the black, statue-like faces of Okawho and Oya, in whose child they see “the last message of the oracle” (O 215).

Ironically, however, the birth of Oya's baby is not the promise of a future race, but rather the confirmation of its demise. Since the child is a male, the matrilineal tie which Geoffroy Allen and Fintan imagine with the queens of Meroë is automatically broken. It is true that Oya's departure with Okawho is a flight from the certitude of domestic exploitation in Onitsha, but they are merely exchanging one context of colonial abuse for another. The text leaves us with the fetishistic image of a naked Oya holding her son, as Okawho paddles in the rain toward the derisive beacons of the oil refineries on the island of Bonny in the Niger delta. The color of the water, which shines dully like “rusted metal” (O 211), further underscores the bleakness of the scene.

Unfortunately this image continues to haunt Geoffroy Allen until he is finally absorbed into the illusory brilliance of his vision. Meroë and Onitsha, Amanirenas, Arsinoë, and Oya all converge in a final paroxysm at the moment of his death. In a sense both male protagonists remain on the threshold of adolescence: “It is one of the most mysterious moments … because it is often the moment when everything is decided … a moment when everything is lived with intensity, which lasts only a few months.”16 Le Clézio sees this fleeting time as a passage and fiction as the medium to record movement and change. Paradoxically, however, for Fintan and for Geoffroy Allen, who was firmly settled in his obsession when Maou met him as a young man, this passage is fixated. The sense of fatality both males feel, the fact that it is always “too late” (O 167, 179, 269), prevent them from ever doing anything except to evoke the past without acknowledging their complicity in the very destruction they lament. Although poignant, nostalgic melancholy alone is very limited. As Patrick Murphy emphasizes, “nostalgia is another dimension of the absolutist tendencies of dogmas, which reinforces static idealizations.”17 Both Geoffroy Allen and his son believe that the idealized images of Meroë/Onitsha and its sovereigns contain the secret, the absolute Truth (O 27) that will justify and consecrate their existence. They are both incapable of recognizing their roles in constructing the myth that obsesses them and of moving beyond the stasis their positions exemplify.

Thus, while Onitsha may leave the reader seduced by the lyrical intensity of its images and dazzled by the complex intersections of its historical, cultural, and mythological references, it also leaves us frustrated by the phallocentric circularity of its vision, as closed as the “O” in the title and in the would-be river goddess's name. The issues raised in the novel assume different configurations in the second part of the diptych, Étoile errante. Like Onitsha, Étoile errante is a tale of personal loss, Oedipal tension, racial prejudice, and political violence, set in the context of the Holocaust and the turmoil surrounding the creation of the state of Israel. On the one hand, the overall structure of the work is simpler because the frame of historical, cultural, and geographical references is more limited and the points of intersection between different kinds of past experience and the present are more direct. On the other hand, the novel is more complex because of the interplay between third-person narration and the sections in which the two principle characters, both of whom are female, become speaking subjects and, for the first time in Le Clézio novels, write their own stories. Similar to Onitsha, this text too focuses on youthful protagonists who are on the threshold of adolescence. But in contrast to Onitsha, Étoile errante depicts authentic passages, “something is happening and taking shape.”18 Both Esther and the Palestinian refugee Nejma, whose vastly divergent paths cross only fleetingly, encounter exile, abandonment, death, and—albeit differently—the experience of maternity. The ways in which they react to the traumatic events that befall them reveal new dimensions in the dual process of remembering and forgetting that figures so significantly in Le Clézio's fictional undertaking. The novel raises new questions concerning cultural identity and sociopolitical responsibility.

For the purposes of this study, I will concentrate on Esther's story because she is more explicitly Fintan's counterpoint and refer to Nejma's experience only in so far as it relates to Esther's situation. Her tale, which spans a forty-year time frame, opens in the summer of 1943, when Esther Grève and her Jewish parents are already exiles, having fled their native city of Nice at the beginning of World War II to the more secure village of Saint-Martin Vésubie in the Italian zone where her father is engaged in resistance and rescue efforts. The first section of the novel, narrated from a third-person position, describes the last weeks of relative security before Mussolini's fall from power and total takeover of the region by the Germans, which triggers a frantic exodus across the mountains to Italy. Most importantly, it charts the young protagonist's transformation from a naïve, sheltered child to a culturally committed adolescent, signaled by her name change from the secular Hélène to the Biblical queen Esther. It is important to note at the outset that neither of her parents observes Jewish ritual and that Esther has never visited a synagogue. Although Jewish and therefore threatened, she is not really part of her religious community. During the summer months she begins to understand the relation between the Nazi menace and the importance of fully assuming her Jewish heritage. Her growing awareness reveals itself through her reaction to the Shabbat service she attends on her own and through her decision to adopt her Hebrew name, which was the one her father, Michel, had always used when addressing her (cf. EE 16; 155–56).

The family situation seems emotionally stable, and the affection shared by all three is genuine. Nevertheless, through numerous descriptions of intimate father-daughter outings and other shared experiences, the text privileges Esther's Oedipal attachment to her father's influence—his encompassing shadow, which is at once protective and disquieting—and the authority of his name choice. At the same time, it charts the day-to-day tensions of Esther's working relationship with Elizabeth, who is simultaneously mother, rival, sister, child. The text subtly plays on the sense of foreboding surrounding Michel Grève's resistance activities in the mountains and on the ambiguity inscribed in the word “to disappear,” exploring the relationship between the void felt by those left behind and the double-sided experience of remembering and forgetting. The first section of Étoile errante describes Esther, who repeatedly imagines “her father who walked in the spacious fields of grass … who disappeared” (EE 41) and, at the same time, insists upon the erotically charged sensation associated with the experience: “Esther … believed herself lost as in dreams when her father disappeared. … It wasn't really terrifying, the impression of being lost in the gorge” (EE 62). The pleasure of losing herself in the mountains her father traverses and the uncertainty of his fate after he disappears with the first group of refugees reinforce the erotic tension of Esther's situation. During the trek she and her mother make across the Alps and the months spent in the village of Festiona, Esther relives the days of paternal intimacy in Saint-Martin and still hopes for her father's return (EE 135). But she also senses the irreversibility of time and the finality of the loss that has fragmented her psyche: “What was on the other side of the mountain has become impossible … it created a huge hole in the center of her being” (EE 134). She is, in a sense, both suspended in and penetrated by the void whose psychological significance she cannot yet confront.

As the seventeen-year-old Esther takes up her own story, she returns again to the days in Saint-Martin and to her years of traumatic isolation afterward. Although Esther returns to the past, she does not remain fixated there as does her counterpart Fintan. The situations Esther describes reveal her efforts to acknowledge the finality of her father's disappearance and to verbalize the psychological ambivalence implied in the event. This makes it possible for her to begin to mourn the specificity of his loss and to emerge, at least hesitantly, from the nostalgic melancholy that paralyzes Fintan and Geoffroy Allen in Onitsha. Esther recalls, for example, the outing with her father when she was ten years old to watch the harvesters at work, noting the sensuality of his exposed torso and their shared realization that “this was going to end … my father had to go away forever” (EE 146–47). She likewise reconstructs her expedition with Elizabeth to meet her father in one of his hiding places in a scene which captures the erotic tensions in the family relationship. Once Esther's father greets her, he turns his attention to Elizabeth. As Esther plays nearby, she admits: “I understood that my father was going to die. … I couldn't stop myself from thinking that he was going to die, that he had to die” (EE 148). These scenes underscore the nature and the intensity of Esther's attachment to her father and her sense of rejection. The text offers here a variation of the classic Oedipal situation in that Esther's negativity is directed more specifically toward her father, rather than to her female rival.19

Esther's vision of her father's death clearly combines her feeling of exclusion and the moment of epiphany when disappearing becomes dying. Esther returns to this scene later in the text, again emphasizing the image of her father and her position as outsider. Finally, she notes the urgency with which her mother, in a double-sided gesture of protection and flight, drags her down the mountain before nightfall, an escape which distances the women from Michel Grève's presence and signals the ambivalence of the relationship the two will share over the next forty years.

This knot of tension and the hole it opens haunt Esther in Festiona and then in Paris, where she regresses to a state of pre-Oedipal dependency (EE 152) and where the memory of the mountain winds “further open the void” (EE 152). She must in some way unravel this tangle of conflict and, in a sense, leave it behind her. The mutual support Esther and Elizabeth offer one another during the desperate years in Festiona and Paris enable both women to confront the finality of Michel Grève's disappearance and to verbalize the fact that he was murdered in circumstances which involved neither of them. Through dialogue, Esther begins to mourn the reality, not the phantasm of her loss. She is able to affirm that “I was cured of the void, I was no longer afraid of the truth” (EE 153) and to turn her gaze, albeit tentatively, to the future. Neither the memories nor the anguish of the past are in any way erased, but they are beginning to be reassembled in a process that will span four decades. The transfixing power of the void is hesitantly displaced onto the ship, “this void in the form of a ship” (EE 163), which transports Esther and Elizabeth to Israel, where they will have the opportunity to construct new relationships and to participate in the organization of a community.

In a number of ways, Esther's psychological development continues to follow a classic Freudian path, in which her lover functions as a protective shepherd/father and her male child as the desired penis substitute. The text emphasizes the points of contact between Esther's fiancé, Jacques Berger, and her father, superimposing Jacques's shadow on that of Michel Grève on the morning when Esther realizes she is pregnant and roams the hills above the kibbutz of Ramat Yohanon with the same mixture of intoxication and foreboding that haunted the summer days in Saint-Martin. Father and fiancé coincide in the image of the fetus inside her, and both disappear in the same void: “It was as in the past … when she felt death poised over her father and the void opened before her” (EE 301). To finalize Jacques's disappearance, Esther visits the border site where he was killed and recalls once again the times she stood guard in the alpine meadows near Festiona, vainly awaiting her father's return. To reinforce the privileged character of the paternal-filial bond, Esther also jealously guards the knowledge of her pregnancy from Elizabeth. She will both fulfill her fiancé's dream by emigrating to Canada and studying medicine and consecrate her father's revered authority by naming her son after him.

In a sense, Esther also assumes Elizabeth's position as she narrates her mother's tale in the final section of the text. She continues the love story the dying Elizabeth no longer has the energy to tell. Esther listens to the memories Elizabeth recalls from her hospital bed in Nice and appropriates them. Esther's situation changes from that of casual observer to that of intimate witness to their lovemaking. In the context of the Oedipal struggle the text inscribes, Esther assumes her mother's place as her father's lover. As Jacques's shadow was super-imposed on that of Michel Grève, so too does Esther's coincide fleetingly, but definitively, with that of Elizabeth in a movement which suggests reconciliation, separation, and also victory. As she sits steadfastly by her mother's side, capturing the sound of Elizabeth's last breaths, Esther notes “I was waiting, I was breathing, I was alive” (EE 324; my emphasis).

With “Elizabeth's disappearance in the crematorium” (EE 326), Esther embarks on what could be termed the final stage in the forty-year-long mourning process referred to earlier, her effort to understand the relationship between her father's shadow and the shadows of those whom the Nazis deported to the crematoria of the extermination camps. She must locate the site of the horror, of the wound—both personal and communal—in order to, as she insists, “understand what has escaped me … to begin my life anew with Michel and Philip, the two men whom I love … to live in the present” (EE 326). What is important here is Esther's eagerness to confront the truth. She refuses to sink into the nostalgia that paralyzed Fintan, for whom it was always too late to act. When Esther discovers the Ermitage palace where the Gestapo officers tortured their captives and visits the plateau where her father and the refugees were killed, she retraces in a simultaneous movement her journey to the Israeli border where Jacques was killed, her mother's return to France, and the desperate wanderings of all the refugees with whom she traveled in the past. Esther walks determinedly in the fields above Saint-Martin Vésubie, as she had in Israel, and disperses Elizabeth's ashes over the sea on Nice's shore as a way of mediating between the past and the future and of affirming the strength of her own ego. She is able to turn away from the sinister attraction of the Ermitage and to descend from the mountain field into the valley where now “the shadows are warm” (EE 335). Like Le Clézio himself, who began to explore the tangled knot of his ancestral past out of what he terms “the desire to attain an equilibrium,”20 Esther has sought to “understand better her feeling of being rooted in the world,”21 in order to be able to live with greater lucidity and perhaps greater generosity. As she indicates in the final paragraphs of her narration, Esther recognizes her privileged status as one who has a family, a profession, and a country (EE 335). She likewise acknowledges her responsibility to the Palestinians like Nejma, the text's other “wandering star,” for whom “the road has no end” (EE 284, 335), repeating a phrase which echoes in an all too painful contemporary context Geoffroy Allen's romanticized vision of Meroë's rulers.

The fleeting encounter between Nejma and Esther on the road outside Jerusalem in the summer of 1948 reveals the intensity of the Jews' hostility toward the Palestinians and the kind of effort that must be made for any dialogue to be able to occur between immigrants and exiles. The description of their meeting pinpoints the dichotomies between their respective sociopolitical positions and the gulf of silence, linguistic and cultural, separating them. On the one hand, the text underlines the Jewish settlers' exhilaration, albeit guarded, over the creation of the state of Israel. On the other, it emphasizes the extreme physical poverty and the psychological disorientation of the Arab women and children plodding in the dust. More importantly, it contrasts Esther's efforts to understand with the close-mindedness of those with her who are unwilling to acknowledge the humanity of the refugees and to recognize what had until recently been their own plight.

Although the movement of the two adolescents toward one another is mutual and, for all practical purposes, simultaneous, it is Nejma, in this instance the displaced person, who initiates an exchange, an act which performs what the other Jewish immigrants refuse to accept. It is important to note that Nejma's action is neither a request nor a plea, but rather an affirmation of her own dignity and identity and an offer that Esther share her own. Nejma writes her name on the cover of the notebook in which she will later record the tale of her exile in the Palestinian camp of Nour Chams. She gives it to Esther so that she might do the same. Nejma writes her name not only in Latin letters so Esther, who does not understand Arabic, can read the word, but also “in capital letters” (EE 212), thereby intensifying the authority of her signature and the solemnity of the event.

When Nejma and Esther assume their own positions as speaking subjects, each insists on the kind of bond acknowledged during their encounter and its significance for the future. For Esther, it is the memory of Nejma, of her insistent gaze and deliberate signing, that inspire her to become the writer of her own story, which is at once exorcism and affirmation. Nejma likewise influences Esther's decision to return to Israel. The image of a solitary and still wandering Nejma haunts Esther during her student years in Montreal but helps her recognize her responsibility to alleviate some of the suffering in Israel, the country which welcomes her, while it continues to treat Nejma and her people as outcasts. Esther's project to help those suffering from disease and discrimination is described in general terms only. Nevertheless, although it is true that this effort, like the road back to a mythical Meroë, has no end, it is at least attempting to go somewhere.

In conclusion, Le Clézio's haunting diptych exposes the impasse posed by evocation of the past as nostalgic lamentation alone. His counterpointed novels reveal the urgent need to reconcile the past with the present in order to provide for the possibility of a future. They likewise begin to emphasize the dramatic differences between the positions taken and the texts written by male versus female protagonists. These phenomena pose new challenges for us as readers and encourage us to hope that Le Clézio will continue to open his works to new speaking subjects who will acknowledge alterity as they continue to strive for greater understanding.


  1. J. M. G. Le Clézio, Onitsha (Paris: Gallimard, 1991) and Étoile errante (Paris: Gallimard, 1992). All subsequent references are to these editions and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviations O and EE. All translations are mine. Cf. Nadine Dormoy, “Entretien avec Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio,” À Chacun sa France, ed. Nadine Dormoy and Lilian Lazar (Bern: Lang, 1991) 129.

  2. Nicole Casanova, “Le Clézio en rendez-vous avec lui-même,” Quinzaine littéraire 16 April 1991: 14.

  3. J. M. G. Le Clézio, Ailleurs (Paris: Arléa, 1995) 122.

  4. Madeleine Borgomano, “Onitsha de J. M. G. Le Clézio, ou l'Afrique perdue,” Carrefour de culture: Mélanges offerts à Jacqueline Leiner, ed. Régis Antoine (Tübigen: Narr, 1993) 243.

  5. The nausea Fintan felt at the sight of the bisected fruit corresponds to the classic Freudian description of aversion to the female genitals, which arises when the male child realizes that his mother does not have a penis. The child substitutes another object for the missing phallus, transforming the maternal figure into a fetish so that it no longer appears incomplete. This transformation calms the child's fear of loss while preserving his erotic fascination. See Sigmund Freud, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Macmillan, 1963) 215–16.

  6. The text reveals that Fintan is ignorant of the political situation in the country that so fascinates him: he places Bony among the soldiers of Adekunle, against whom one would expect him, a local resident, to be fighting (O 235).

  7. See, for example, Les prophéties du Chilam Balam (1976) 7–31; Relation de Michoacan (1984) 11–43; Le Réve Mexicain ou la pensée interrompue (1988) 228–48; and Ailleurs (1995) 83–103.

  8. Karl-Heinz Priese, “The Napatan Period,” Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, 2 vols., ed. Sylvia Hochfield and Elizabeth Riefstahl (Brooklyn: Publications and Marketing Services, The Brooklyn Museum, 1978) 98.

  9. Peter L. Shinnie, Meroe, A Civilization of the Sudan (New York: Praeger, 1967) 29–61; see also Priese, in Hochfield 75.

  10. William Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977) 340–41; see also Shinnie 42–50.

  11. Bruce G. Trigger, “The Ballana Culture and the Coming of Christianity,” in Hochfield 107.

  12. Adams 387; see also Trigger 107.

  13. See also J. O. Lucas, Religions in West Africa and Ancient Egypt (Lagos: Nigerian National Press, 1970) 145.

  14. Elizabeth Isichei, The Ibo People and the Europeans: The Genesis of a Relationship—to 1906 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973) 34–36, 124–35.

  15. Lucas 70–72.

  16. Dormoy 125.

  17. Patrick Murphy, Literature, Nature and Other: Ecofeminist Critiques (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995) 16.

  18. Dormoy 125.

  19. Freud 176–211.

  20. Cavallero 174.

  21. Cavallero 174.

Further Reading

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Bre, Germaine. “The Fabulous World of J. M. G. Le Clézio.” In From Dante to García Márquez: Studies in Romance Literatures and Linguistics, edited by Gene H. Bell-Villada, Antonio Giménez, and George Pistorius, pp. 349–59. Massachusetts: Williams College, 1987.

Bre discusses how Le Clézio and his novels fit into contemporary French literature.

Cagnon, Maurice. “J. M. G. Le Clézio: The Genesis of Writing.” Language & Style 5, no. 3 (summer 1972): 221–27.

Cagnon utilizes Le Livre des fuites: Roman d'adventures to demonstrate how different Le Clézio's writing process is from Le Clézio's own description of the process in his article “Comment j'écris.”

Cagnon, Maurice, and Stephen Smith. “Le Clézio's Taoist Vision.” French Review 47, no. 6 (spring 1974): 245–52.

Cagnon and Smith explore the Yin-Yang relationship in the works of Le Clézio.

Di Bernardi, Dominic. “Fruits of Paradise.” Washington Post Book World 24 (2 January 1994): 9.

Di Bernardi examines how Le Clézio treats the theme of colonialism in The Prospector and The Mexican Dream.

Jollin, Sophie. “From the Renaudot Prize to the Puterbaugh Conference: The Reception of J. M. G. Le Clézio.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 735–40.

Jollin uses reception theory to analyze the critical and public response to Le Clézio's works.

Kronegger, Marlies. “From Profane Space to the Sacred Place or Center in Désert by Le Clézio.” In The Elemental Passion for Place in the Ontopoiesis of Life, pp. 121–33. Dordrecht: Kluwar Academic, 1995.

Kronegger analyzes Le Clézio's preoccupation with the differences between the concepts of “space” and “place” in his fiction.

McGonigle, Thomas. “Essays and a Novel from French Storyteller J. M. G. Le Clézio.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 November 1993): 5.

McGonigle lauds the style and content of The Prospector, but criticizes the essays in The Mexican Dream.

Ridon, Jean-Xavier. “Between Here and There: A Displacement in Memory.” World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 717–22.

Ridon explores the “problems of identity” and origin in the works of Le Clézio.

Ruoff, Cynthia Osowiec. “Le Clézio's L'Inconnu sur la terre: Man, Nature, Creativity, and Cosmology.” In Life: The Human Quest for an Ideal, pp. 133–45. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1996.

Ruoff analyzes Le Clézio's writing process and how his protagonists often attempt to transcend the material world.

Additional coverage of Le Clézio's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 116, 128; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 83; Guide to French Literature: 1798 to the Present; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to Short Fiction.

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Le Clézio, J(ean) M(arie) G(ustave)