Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio
Atlantic Books, $38.99
You find yourself disoriented in a vast, sprawling, parched expanse, lacking in points of reference, devoid of features beyond gentle, softly defined undulations - and that's only the first 150 pages.
That's how long it takes for anything of significance to happen in this novel by Nobel Prize-winning French writer, J.M.G. Le Clezio. Given the subject matter, it's appropriately slow, meditative and heavily descriptive. It makes few concessions to anyone who craves a fast pace or anything resembling narrative drive.
First published in 1980, it was selected for translation into English in 2009 in the wake of Le Clezio's award in 2008. It's as timeless, monumental and forbidding as the Sahara itself.
Two stories are interwoven. It's 1909. Nour is a boy whose family and wider kin group is trekking through the desert, away (as it seems) from some unnamed catastrophe, toward some uncertain sanctuary.
Life is precarious in this environment: each day's march is a desperate, do-or-die quest to reach the next source of water, and each success is achieved only at great cost.
The journey ends with the group reaching their destination, the city of Smara where the various tribes of nomadic warriors have gathered to the call of their tribal sheik, Ma al'Ainain, who is awaiting the dawning of some purpose.
Lalla is an adolescent girl who is living, a couple of generations later, in a housing estate on the Moroccan coast.
She inhabits a still point between opposing forces, of which she is dimly aware, in the form of an old fisherman who brings her stories of the outside world, particularly the towns and cities across the water in Europe, and of "the Blue Man", a fierce-eyed warrior, an imaginary presence who materialises from the desert on the outskirts of town whenever Lalla needs to commune with her ancestry.
Eventually, when an arranged marriage to a cold-eyed stranger is threatened, Lalla runs away into the desert with a mute shepherd with whom she is friends, eventually finding her way to Marseille, where she begins to make a new life for herself as an immigrant worker.
It's not until the final pages that the connection between Lalla and Nour is made explicit, and the cause-and-effect relationship between the brutal suppression of al'Ainain's Moroccan nationalist movement in 1912 by French colonial forces and the abject underclass of North African migrants in contemporary France is drawn.
In the end, though, the characters and their fates are almost incidental to the setting. The sense of place, the desert, is powerfully realised. Morocco is never named: only places within it, so the reader knows it as the nomads knew it - a hostile void in which only a smattering of waypoints glimmer with the promise of water, shelter and sustenance. And that's not a bad description of the book - beautiful, aloof and only traversed with difficulty.
John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.