From hyp­notic heaven to hell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Spec­ta­tor

It is not easy to avoid cliches when writ­ing about JMG Le Clezio. Born in Nice in 1940, the re­cip­i­ent of the 2008 No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture is known in the an­glo­phone world as an ex-ex­per­i­men­tal novelist. His early work, exploring lan­guage and in­san­ity, was praised by Michel Fou­cault. But since the 1970s his style has be­come more main­stream and his sub­jects — child­hood, travel and land­scape — more lyri­cal.

Le chercheur d’or ( The Prospec­tor), pub­lished in 1985, was trans­lated into English by Carol Marks in 1993, and has now been re­trans­lated by C. Dick­son. Set­ting aside the ques­tion as to which of these com­pe­tent and el­e­gant trans­la­tions is marginally bet­ter, it seems more in­ter­est­ing to con­sider why, more than three decades af­ter it first ap­peared in France, The Prospec­tor is a promis­ing por­tal to the imag­i­na­tion of Le Clezio.

He claims he wrote his first book aged seven, about the sea. He has also writ­ten a chil­dren’s story called Celui qui n’avait ja­mais vu la mer ( The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea), pub­lished in France in 1978 and in The New Yorker the year of his No­bel win. The Prospec­tor opens with a homage to the sea: wreck. He is in­tu­itively aware that his fa­ther’s for­tunes are fail­ing, even be­fore the dream of build­ing an elec­tri­cal power plant on the is­land ends in bankruptcy and ruin.

Then comes the year of the cy­clone, which de­stroys ev­ery­thing Alexis has ever known: “The swollen sea in­vad­ing the river in­lets, drown­ing peo­ple in their cab­ins. Above all the wind that tossed ev­ery­thing up­side down, that tore the roofs off houses, that snapped the smoke­stacks of su­gar mills and de­mol­ished the hangars and de­stroyed half of Port Louis.’’

Af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion, Alexis be­comes ob­sessed with his fa­ther’s sto­ries of the mys­te­ri­ous cor­sair who al­legedly buried treasure on nearby Ro­drigues is­land. As an adult, Alexis jour­neys back from France to Mau­ri­tius in search of the apoc­ryphal treasure. The cap­tain of the ship on which he is a pay­ing pas­sen­ger is scep­ti­cal: “I don’t be­lieve that in this part of the world,’’ he des­ig­nates the hori­zon with a wide sweep of his arm, ‘‘there has been any other treasure than that which man has torn from the land and the sea at the cost of the lives of his fel­low hu­man be­ings.’’

In­stead of treasure or gold, Alexis finds an al­lur­ingly in­de­pen­dent fe­male com­pan­ion who teaches him to hunt for oc­to­pus and lies naked on the beach with him: “Then we are in­side one an­other. I’m not sure how. Her face is tilted back­wards, I can hear her breath­ing, I can feel the beat­ing of her heart and her warmth is within me, vast, more pow­er­ful than all of the burn­ing days spent out at sea and in the val­ley.’’

He does not want to leave her, but does, for the trenches of the Somme in 1916. Le Clezio evokes scenes of hor­ror as bril­liantly as scenes of beauty: “War doesn’t have any­thing to do with women, on the con­trary, it’s the most ster­ile gath­er­ing of men that could ex­ist … Ev­ery hour of ev­ery day the sounds of the dead filled our ears, the dull thud of shells ex­plod­ing in the earth, the spurts of machine-gun fire and the strange ru­mour that im­me­di­ately fol­lowed. Voice, the sound of men run­ning in the mud, or­ders shouted by of­fi­cers, the rout be­fore the counter-at­tack.’’

Whether he is de­scrib­ing heaven or hell, Le Clezio lulls the reader into a hyp­notic state, and the power of his ex­quis­ite prose re­li­ably sur­vives trans­la­tion.

His char­ac­ters, lightly, al­most myth­i­cally, sketched, of­ten lie awake at night ‘‘eyes wide, lis­ten­ing to the rustling of the rain’’, and so do his en­thralled read­ers.

JMG Le Clezio

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