Desert was published with Gallimard in 1980. On the occasion of the release of the novel, the author was awarded, by the French Academy, the Paul Morand Grand Prize for Literature, for his work as a whole. Jean-Louis Ezine notes in Le Nouvel Observateur in May 1992: “He had kind of disappeared between Fever and Desert.” The Clézio regains the fame earned by The Interrogation.
Desert occupies a particular place in Le Clézio’s work. It inaugurates a new style. The categories of the novel – characters, space, time – the functions: author, narrator, somewhat abused in previous works, become identifiable. The novel reconnects, to a certain extent, with the novelistic tradition – condemned by the Nouveau Roman, with which J.M.G. Le Clézio is associated in 1973 by nouveau roman theorist Jean Ricardou.
But Desert is unique in its very structure. It is composed of two alternating narratives, clearly distinct from each other by their arrangement on the page: a narrow narrative with a large margin, a second narrative with the conventional layout.
The main character of the narrow story, Nour, belongs to the nomadic civilization of the Blue Men who flee from the French troops from 1910 to 1912 across Western Sahara to southern Morocco. This flight, which continues with Nour as guide, establishes, with the victory of the French, the process of colonization that will mark the lives of those to come, including Lalla.
Lalla, in second narrative of the same novel, no longer lives as a nomad. First she lives in a shanty town that we suppose is in Morocco, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Then she lives in exile in Marseille, in the contemporary era, as evidenced by cars and supermarkets. The second story represents a temporal and spatial break from the first. Lalla could not have known the flight of the Blue Men, since she was separated from them shortly after her birth.
Above all, there is an axiological break between the two stories. The story of Lalla can be considered in the novelistic tradition, since it traces the struggle of the “problematic individual”, according to a formula of Lukács, against engulfment by society. She fled Morocco and her chleuh (Berber) shepherd, Le Hartani, to escape forced marriage to a rich man. She leaves Marseille to avoid being swallowed up by consumerism and exploitation as a vulnerable young woman. The recurrence of images of anthropophagy and suction into an abyss hypostasize the city, which becomes an ogre. As she strolls through Marseille, ”Lalla feels the constant vertigo of emptiness that enters her as if the wind that was passing through the alley was that of a long gyratory movement” (D, 295). The guilty ones are "the immobile giants, with bloody eyes, cruel eyes, the devouring giants of men and women”. (D, 296) The little emigrant, poorly dressed, badly fed, exploited to perform repugnant tasks, becomes supermodel. She experiences the best of what this society has to offer: celebrity and fortune.
But Lalla returns to the desert and the slum to bring into the world the child she made with Le Hartani and to rediscover the ineffable brilliance of a certain way of looking.
Although related to the « History » segment, the part called “The Time of Nour” has an epic quality to it in the way it breaks with an objective description of time. Not only is time assimilated to space, being invariable and fixed, but it represents an acme: “It was a country out of time, far from the history of men perhaps, a country where nothing else could appear or die, as if it were already separated from other countries, at the peak of earthly existence” (D, 11). Beings are not distinct from each other. In his role as guide, Nour follows in the footsteps of his father, the man with the rifle. They are not separated from the animals, because they have the same needs - rest, hunger, thirst – nor are they separated from the elements, reduced to a minimum: sand, wind, sky. God and the saints are consulted and answer. Ma el Aïnine is endowed with an undeniable moral authority because he is believed to be of a divine origin. As archetypes, they belong to a ‘geste,’ an epic poem written in an incantatory style. This narrative contrasts with the novelistic part of the work in which the individual characters stand out and do not fit in with the rest of society.
Still, it is not all black and white. The epic of the Blue Men that frames the story of Lalla is not neatly resolved: neither peace nor revelation, much less the end of the quest, but defeat and doubt, the search for a way out, as if the epic, which closes the “novel”, opens onto the novel’s territory, that of the struggle of “the problematic individual”. “Even the warriors of the desert, the invincible blue men of Ma el Aïnine were tired, and their eyes were filled with shame, like men who no longer believe.” (D, 222)
Conversely, the novel is penetrated by the epic, if only by the appearance to Lalla of Es Ser which seems the reincarnation of the spiritual master Al Azraq, and more strongly by the tale that Amma tells of her origins. She is thought to be from the lineage of Al Azraq. On the other hand, the Hartani, the initiator, through the accumulation of his gifts and his extraordinary powers, also seems to come from the epic, to be fleeing the real. With him, the world becomes flesh, begins to throb. This intensity of being, this renewal of life that is accorded things through sight, hearing, smell and touch, give the hero an increased, even paroxysmal awareness of his existence and the universe. Lalla looks at the gnats Le Hartani shows her: “These things were more beautiful when he looked at them, newer, as if no one had looked at them before him, as at the beginning of the world” (D, 121). The description is not there for its picturesque value nor for placing the circumstances of the action. The earth is scrutinized, questioned, summoned to answer. “Lalla continues to walk, very slowly, looking at the gray sand with so much attention that her eyes hurt a little. She is watching what lies on the ground [...]” (D, 72). We witness the disappearance of the separation between nature and culture peculiar to the West which, according to Le Clézio, makes humans eternal exiles from themselves.
Le Clézio has been reproached for his taste for archaic or developing societies. For him, overproduction is at the root of all exploitation, all abuse. The episode in Marseille is titled “Life among the Slaves” - while the march of the Blue Men is along the fields cultivated by harratin slaves (D, 15). The Berber shepherd Le Hartani probably comes from a people of slaves (D, 104). Slavery comes up well before the Marseille episode in Desert. This makes Le Clézio seem biased. However, what is highlighted in particular through the opposition of desert and city is the self-exile imposed on the city dweller and the role of the gaze which scrutinizes and reveals, as does writing. Le Clézio’s “Interrogation is a vigil”, according to Foucault. Desert, like the majority of Le Clézio’s works, meets this definition. The fact that the work is of particular interest to ecocritics, who study the relationship between literature and the natural environment, is not surprising: “Leclézian descriptions of Nature range from absolute magnitude (the infinite view of the dunes in the desert) to an attention to the most infintesimal (drops of water). “ (Sueza, 2009) But it is risky to think of literature as a simple defense of nature and to forget the constant quest for Being in the novel. The desert can serve as a “parable”, as Jean Michel Maulpoix points out.
BORGOMANO, Madeleine, Désert J.M.G. Le Clézio, Paris, Éditions Bertrand Lacoste, Parcours de lecture,1992 ; BOUVET, Rachel, Essai sur l’imaginaire du désert, Montréal, XYZ Éditeurs, coll. Documents, 2006 ; DOMANGE, Simone, Le Clézio ou la quête du désert, Paris, Imago, 1993 ; LE CLÉZIO, Jean-Marie Gustave, Désert, Gallimard, Le Chemin, 1980 ; FOUCAULT, Michel, « Le Langage de l’espace », Critique n° 203, avril 1964, p. 379 ; LABBÉ, Michelle, Le Clézio, l’écart romanesque, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1999 ; LUKÁCS, Georg, Théorie du roman, Gallimard, Tel, 1968, p. 73 ; MAULPOIX, Jean-Michel, « Désert de J.M.G. Le Clézio », La Quinzaine Littéraire n° 326, 1980 ; RICARDOU, Jean, Le Nouveau Roman, Le Seuil, Écrivains de toujours, 1978, p. 10 ; SALLES, Marina, Le Clézio, Désert, Paris, Ellipses, col. Résonances, 1999 ; SUEZA ESPEJO, Maria José, « Désert de Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, analyse d’éléments descriptifs et interprétation écocritique », April 2009. http://webpages.ull.es/users/cedille/cinco/sueza.pdf, consulted December 8, 2015.