As promised, some time ago I dug up a copy of the 2008 Nobel prize for literature winner J. - M. G. Le Clézio's Desert and read it (in translation). Time for a belated review.
First of all, let's note with a snobbish hrrmph that the Swedish Academy, which hands out the prizes, apparently hasn't read the book very thoroughly. The Nobel Committee's bio of Le Clézio states that
His definitive breakthrough as a novelist came with Désert (1980), for which he received a prize from the French Academy. This work contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert, contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants. The main character, the Algerian guest worker Lalla, is a utopian antithesis to the ugliness and brutality of European society.Fair enough as a three-sentence review, but Lalla -- one of the two protagonists -- is not Algerian. If they paid attention, they would have realized that she is living in southern Morocco (not Western Sahara), while her family came from a zwaya tribe in the deep deserts of today's Mauritania -- or maybe Mali, maybe Algeria, but that's less likely. She is, therefore, of Moorish or Sahrawi heritage, but now in any event a Moroccan citizen. While the story is therefore set in the areas in and surrounding Western Sahara, it makes no reference at all to the modern conflict about the territory, but digs deep into the precolonial and colonial history of the region.
Lalla, sometime presumably in the 1970s, lives a poor orphan's life in her village in southwestern Morocco, eventually migrating to France. Her story is intertwined with a parallel storyline about her ancestor, Nouri, which recapitulates his march as a young boy with the nomad following of Sheikh Ma el-Ainin in the early 1900s. The details are well researched, and real names of obscure places, tribes, Sufi brotherhoods and events will crop up throughout the novel. Occasionally, a reference will seem out of place, such as talk of the Mauritanian border (with Algeria or Mali) in the story of Nouri -- that border was not even marked on maps at the time, if I recall correctly, and much less a landmark for local nomads. But this is rare.
Sheikh Ma el-Ainin's revolt against France is a historical event here depicted in literary form. The arduous journey of the nomad tribes following the sheikh, including Nouri and his family, goes from Smara in Western Sahara towards southern Morocco, in an attempt to seize the Moroccan throne from Sultan Moulay Hafiz, who had cut off support to Ma el-Ainin and was about to hand the country to the French. For this final Jihad against the invaders, nomads had gathered from all corners of the western Sahara Desert, whether Arab Moors escaping the simultaneously approaching French forces in southern Maruitania, or Berbers coming down from the Atlas Mountains to join the passing Muslim army. The final battle was short and bloody, crushing all pretensions of Ma el-Ainin and his sons, although the latter would continue to launch sporadic uprisings for years after (they are today coveted as nationalist symbols by both Polisario and Morocco, uncomfortably squeezed into two equally nuanceless and ahistorical official narratives).
The story of Nouri captures the desperate, existential push of a culture threatened on all flanks by incomprehensible and unsurmountable foreign forces -- a suicidal last grand stand, perhaps the Wounded Knee of Moorish tribal history. Ma el-Ainin's character as religious leader and living saint is beautifully portrayed, with hypnotizing passages depicting his dhikr sessions. The disastrous nature of an absolute faith (his own, or only that of others?) in his magical abilities, such as the promise of divine victory and green pastures in the north for his people, gradually unfolds to the reader. Even so, the exact nature of the Sheikh's abilities is left for the reader to determine, and the mythologies and folk magic of Moorish Sufi Islam are described not as reality nor as fraud, but as an uncertain, but lived and recognized reality -- as they would be seen from the believer's viewpoint. Nouri's final chapters in Desert convey a gripping sense of finality: after the slaughter of their army at the hands of the French, the nomads disperse and filter back into the deserts, nameless men of the wastelands once again, their place in history lost for now, perhaps for ever.
Lalla's story deals with what comes after, the story of a culture crushed but not vanished, and of how memories of the past keep informing the present. She grows up a dreamer and loner, in poverty and isolation, in a small village or city on the coast of southwest Morocco. There she experiences the pull of, on the one hand, the desert, where her ancestors came from, and on the other hand, Europe and the stories she has heard of fantastic wealth and amazing cities. After emigrating, she finds France a strange and fascinating, but ultimately cruel, cold and inhospitable place, where her previous rootless poverty is simply replaced by a new and more violent kind of deprivation, in the slum life of African migrants.
Some sections of Desert can at times seem tediously reptetitive, especially the descriptions of natural scenery. On the other hand, this also adds some flavor of the desert itself, a main subject. It is pictured in terms of wind, light, heat and precisely endlessness -- and some of these scenes are high points of the novel. Ultimately, the novel portrays not events, but feelings, moods and tries to evoke a sense of the grinding clash of colonialism and native culture as a force shaping both history and individual destinies. The story sides uncompromisingly with native culture, at times leaving the reader with a taste of polemics, from subject and structure. But that is perhaps the point: it is an attempt att telling the other side of the story, from within a conquered culture; to give a brief taste of what was lost as Western Modernity rolled over the northwest corner of the Maghreb, guns rattling.
And: do not miss Ibn Kafka's massive post on Le Clézio (in French).