Free spirits find world of wonder
RE-READING a much-loved book can be a dangerous game. In some cases, the thrill of first contact will be matched by a deeper understanding of subtle threads of narrative or greater appreciation of the rhythmic unfolding of the syntax. In others, the glow fades as the plot comes rushing back and it’s all just deja vu. Then there are those books that speak powerfully to us at a certain time in our lives and may never again have the same pivotal impact. But perhaps the most confusing challenge to a perfect biblio-memory is to read a favourite text in translation.
I first picked up the 1978 collection of short stories Mondo et Autres Histoires in French during the early years of my French studies, and they inspired a journey that led to a PHD, a book and various other writings on J. M. G. Le Clezio’s work.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, these stories not only marked a dramatic shift in Le Clezio’s style, a break from the desperate need to critique Western society and the dabbling in Mexican mind-altering substances, but also provided a first glimpse of several tropes that reappear in earlier and later novels, essays and stories. This book was also to establish Le Clezio as the ‘‘ author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy’’, cited by the Swedish Academy as a reason for naming him 2008 Nobel laureate in literature.
Eight beautiful stories of unequal length, set in a variety of multicultural and indigenous contexts, are bound together by the adolescent protagonists who risk everything to live their lives with integrity and fulfil their dreams. Like many of Le Clezio’s characters, they are looking for a different way of being in the world. Orphaned or estranged from their families, these teens strive to retain their freedom by immersing themselves in the natural elements — sun, sea, rock, desert, wind, sky and stars — that give them the strength to renegotiate their relationship with oncoming adulthood.
The narratives are simple yet surprisingly captivating. Most follow a similar trajectory of flight from an everyday existence that compromises dreams and ideals. The protagonists in Lullaby and Daniel Who Had Never Seen the Sea walk away from school at the break of day to reintegrate their desire for liberation in the sea. In the Mountain of the Living God, Jon ascends Mount Reydarbarmur on midsummer’s night in Iceland, and meets an enlightened child resembling the central child-god character in The Stranger on Earth, a philosophical essay Le Clezio wrote at the same time as these stories.
The blind girl in People of the Sky, Little Cross, may not physically move but as she communes with the deserted country that surrounds her in New Mexico, she is transported by the vibrations of the universe. The Waterwheel, Hazaran and The Shepherds develop more complex visions of a utopian land of salvation.
In the first, the young Algerian fellah, Juba, rediscovers the grandeur of the ancient realm of Yol in Mauritania through his ancestral memories. Hazaran is the dreamy destination in the stories told by a Jesus-like figure, Martin, who leads the children and their families away from the condemned shantytown across the river to liberation from the government relocation agencies. Gaspar joins a group of strange Indian children — the shepherds — who take him to the fertile Valley of Genna, the Eden of nomads. While the common escape thematic persists across this collection, the