Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book 71, Mauritius: "The Prospector" by JMG Le Clézio

Yep, yet another Nobel Laureate! Mind you, Le Clézio was born and bred in France, but his dad's from Mauritius and he holds dual French-Mauritian citizenship and he occasionally lives on the island too. So, yeah, he counts. (Still feel guilty I'm not doing Joseph Tsang Mang Kin's The Hakka Epic, though.

As for the book, which is Le Clézio's "crowning achievement" - well, I honestly spent most of it being puzzled over why he won that Nobel. Not because it's badly written - far from it! - but the fact is that the content is far from revolutionary. It's basically a historical novel, telling the story of a poor white colonial kid named Alexis L'Étang living from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. All the necessary exotica's thrown in there: shipwrecks, jungles, plantation life, hurricanes, a sexy and mysteriously wise island girl, worker revolts and a stint in the trenches of World War One.

True, it's written quite beautifully: lush but distanced descriptions of nature and remembered folklore. But the modernist project here is quite subtle: no breaking the form as Orhan Pamuk or Luis Rafael Sánchez do. And remember, the Nobel Committee usually selects someone who's either a political or a poetic revolutionary. Where's the beef?

I only started to get a sense of transcendence when Alexis returns from the war and returns to his obsessive project of attempting to excavate the treasure of the Unknown Corsair, so he can buy back the land his uncle stole from his father: the unforgotten Eden in Boucan Valley, where the tree of knowledge was planted, where he swam with his black companion Denis in the sea. The grand, relentless, desperate search for gold, guided by ancient maps and symbols, seemed to be an allegory for the the writer's craft in uncovering literature from his soul.

And yet the story ends with Alexis accepting the futility of it all. So either Le Clézio's an extreme pessimist or my exegesis fails.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
In the evenings, while the twilight deepens, I sit in the sand on the dunes and dream of Ouma and her metal-coloured body. I make a drawing of her with a sharp piece of flint on a basalt block near where the reeds start. But when I want to write the date I realize that I don't know what day or month it is. For a moment I think of running to the telegraph office as I did before, to ask: What day is it? But then I realize that it wouldn't mean anything to me, that the date is of no importance.

Next book: James Mancham's Seychelles Global Citizen, from the Seychelles (duh).

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