Free spir­its find world of won­der

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jac­que­line Dut­ton

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

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