The choice of J M G Le Clézio as the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature proved to be surprisingly controversial among French intellectuals in Paris. Why? Surely a writer who has written over forty volumes, including novels, tales, essays and stories, and received many major French literary prizes, would be acclaimed for his achievement? Le Clézio won the Prix Renaudot for his debut novel Le Procès-verbal (1963), and for Desert (1980), now published in English for the first time, he was honoured with the Grand Prix de littérature Paul-Morand, awarded by the Académie française. The sniping and whispers are, if the blogs are to be believed, political in origin. Le Clézio is not read as an ‘écrivain engagé’, a writer committed to contemporary politics on the page and in the flesh. He is neither Camus nor Sartre. Instead, he is an ‘écrivain-voyageur’, a writer whose journeys to the far corners of the earth – Mexico, Korea, Africa, the Sahara desert – are his subject and his inspiration; a writer whose texts bear witness to his fascination with the myths, rites and spiritual mysteries of cultures far removed from his own.
Desert is structured around two characters and two psychologically linked narratives. Nour, a desert boy and follower of the great sheik Ma al-Aïnine, witnesses the last journey of the desert tribes and their destruction at the hands of the French-led colonial powers at the Battle of Agadir in