Alexis L’Etang grows up in a tropical paradise—the remote island of Mauritius—at the turn of the century. The son of a sugarcane planter, he spends long hours exploring the island’s jungle and dreaming of the vast ocean surrounding it. When his black friend Denis takes him to sea for the first time, he is mesmerized by the experience: “I wanted it to go on forever.”
As Alexis learns, however, nothing goes on forever. A devastating hurricane destroys his family’s plantation, his father’s business ventures fail, and the old man himself dies, despondent and in debt. The boy’s only legacy is a dream of treasure hidden by an “Unknown Corsair” on distant Rodrigues Island.
Then one day Alexis escapes his humdrum job in an export office and actually sails aboard a trading ship to Rodrigues. What he finds there is a different kind of treasure—a beautiful young woman named Ouma.
Yet THE PROSPECTOR is far from being mere escapist literature. Alexis witnesses the miseries of colonial repression and forced labor. He fights in the trenches of World War I. He loses and wins and loses Ouma once again, but manages to survive, thanks in large part to the lessons she teaches him. Le Clezio’s novel is more a paean to lost youth, a haunting evocation of the sights and sounds and smells that possess Alexis as a child and that never let him go. Some readers may find its prose too rich and its geography elusive. (A map would have been a welcome addition.) Others may sense that the experiences Le Clezio describes are their own.