Some books are meant to be devoured like a delicious home cooked meal. And then there are books which have to be savoured like a painstakingly created dinner.
Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio is like that dinner which has to be savoured; its every sentence is crafted to such perfection. Its lyrical, poetic prose brings the desert alive. I could feel every grain of sand, each ray of the scorching sun. The heat & dryness made me thirst for water, I felt my throat parch with every word and I was transported to the desert in all its glory and stark reality.
I took my time reading this book. I carried it around with me everywhere I went. The minute I would open it, no matter where I was, I would be back in that desert. Back in the two interwoven stories – the time around 1910 which follows Nour during the desert tribes’ uprisings against the French and an indefinite time set in a shanty desert town where Lalla; who is probably a descendant of one of those desert tribes; lives with her aunt and cousins.
Both these stories are about searching; searching for freedom, for a place to belong; searching for a home; when the one you’ve always known is made uninhabitable. Nour and his tribe along with the entire clan wander the desert to find a promised land away from the invaders whereas Lalla who is forced to marry, chooses to elope with the Hartani – her closest friend. Nour, Lalla & the Hartani are all searching for a way of life that may be lost forever.
There is a subliminal cry throughout the book to preserve the arid lands of the African desert. Every sentence in the book screamed at me to recognize the beauty and magic in that life – that life of running barefoot across the sands, that life of listening to stories by the fire, that life of having a secret hiding place amongst the rocks where you feel safe from everything, that life where you feel connected to the birds & the wind, the waves & the clouds and every grain of sand & falling leaf. The power of this simple life is evident in Lalla’s unhappiness & horror in the city. Compared to the mystical desert, the city seems robotic & mundane, almost like a prison.
In addition to being an ode in praise of everything nature has to offer and a simple way of life, there are many other themes explored in the book. To me this book also advocates the sanctity of a person’s right to live the way they choose. For Nour and his tribe, this choice is destroyed by the power that money is able to exert, but there is hope for Lalla as she is able to return to the life she loves. Another theme is the insidious power of money that destroys our ability to see that which is truly important; this is visible everywhere in the city that Lalla elopes to and also in the greed of the chieftains which ruins every chance of the desert tribes to keep their land safe.
In conclusion, this book is for the thrill seeker of a different kind. If you go weak in knees at breath-taking descriptions and sentences formed choosing just the right words, like a jeweller would choose diamonds for a necklace fit for the queen, then this is a must read for you. If not, feel free to skip it for the next murder mystery.