Book review: JMG Le Clezio's The Prospector sings

In 2008, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to JMG Le Clézio, whom the Swedish Academy declared an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilisation”. It is a neat description but also a reductive one, as it narrows Le Clézio’s broad artistic […]

In 2008, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to JMG Le Clézio, whom the Swedish Academy declared an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilisation”. It is a neat description but also a reductive one, as it narrows Le Clézio’s broad artistic perspective and generalises his thematically and stylistically varied body of work.

That said, it accurately sums up the Le Clézio who wrote The Prospector, a rich and intoxicating tale of voyage and discovery which transports the reader to a distant era and an exotic, far-flung world.

Originally published in Le Clézio’s native France in 1985, the book has now been masterfully translated into English by C Dickson. Its narrator is Alexis L’Etang, whom we first meet in 1892 on Mauritius, where he lives with his parents and older sister Laure.

During the day his mother home-schools him, while at night his father teaches him to stargaze. The rest of the time he spends swimming, daydreaming about the mysterious Corsair’s buried gold, or making illicit excursions, either with his friend Denis in his pirogue out to sea or alone to off-limits sugarcane fields.

But storm clouds soon loom over Alexis’s sunny childhood. There is danger as he witnesses a violent uprising in the plantations, disaster when his mother falls ill and his father faces financial ruin, and destruction by way of a hurricane which transforms the family home into a “shipwrecked vessel”. As Alexis gravitates towards college then full-time work, the novel assumes a classic Bildungsroman structure.

But Alexis ends up abandoning both and hitching a ride on a schooner captained by an old Royal Navy seadog. He disembarks on Rodrigues Island whereupon Le Clézio changes tack and turns his novel into a treasure hunt, with Alexis scrabbling to unearth a pirate’s hidden riches and restore his family’s fortunes.

The Prospector starts out as a littoral tale with hints of Robinson Crusoe (one character even nicknames Denis “Friday”); then as Alexis sets sail and travels the Indian Ocean with a colourful crew it becomes a nautical adventure redolent of Joseph Conrad.

Just when we think the Rodrigues section will pay homage to Treasure Island, Le Clézio surprises us by having Alexis meet, or rather be rescued by, a wild, beautiful island girl called Ouma, and then start a passionate relationship with her.

Le Clézio topples our expectations again when war breaks out in 1914: Alexis hears the call to arms and embarks on another journey, this time a longer one that takes him first to Ypres and then to endure further horror on the Somme.

Le Clézio takes a gamble here with his abrupt change of scene but also tone. Alexis goes from swimming in tranquil seas to crawling through trenches and marching through forests.

As devastating as the hurricane was in the opening section, it is nothing compared to the carnage on the Western Front. Death is everywhere: “it drowns men in the bogs, in the muddy pools at the bottom of ravines, it smothers them in the earth, it spreads its icy fingers into the bodies of those who are lying in lazarettos, under torn tents, those with livid faces and emaciated chests, wasted from dysentery, from pneumonia, from typhus”.

Miraculously, Alexis survives the war and heads back to find out if what he was looking for was real treasure or fool’s gold, and to see if Laure and Ouma are still waiting for him. He also returns to his other love, the sea.

Le Clézio filled his 1980 novel Désert with fine-grained descriptions and sweeping vistas of the arid Moroccan landscape; here we get the tang, the spray, the textures and the vastness of the sea, along with the many sounds and cadences that comprise “sea music”.

In addition to the sea, Le Clézio, who divides his time between France and Mauritius, vividly conveys the beauty of the tropical island.

However, his emphasis on lyrical detail and atmospherics over plot and characterisation will not be to every reader’s taste. For those who can forego fast-paced drama, Le Clézio lulls and entrances with his scenes of serenity; paints a grimly realistic picture of harsh privation; and raises pertinent questions about the twin follies of colonialism and war.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh and a regular contributor to The Review.

Source: art & life

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