Inspired by the adventure of the author’s paternal grandfather Léon Le Clézio, The Prospector is set on the islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues. Driven from their estate, Le Boucan, by bankruptcy and a cyclone, the narrator Alexis L'Étang and his family take refuge in the town of Forest Side. After the death of Mr. L'Étang, Alexis has only one desire: to realize his father’s dream of finding the corsair’s treasure hidden on Rodrigues Island. He undertakes this journey and carries out grueling excavations, in vain. In love with Ouma, a young manaf (descendant of the rebellious slaves of Mauritius), he leaves her to enlist during World War I. After a four-year stay at Anse aux Anglais on Rodrigues Island, Alexis understands the meaning of his quest and returns to Mauritius. His mother, seriously ill, dies and his sister joins the Loreto nuns. Ouma appears to him among the cane cutters before disappearing forever. He finds himself alone and, strengthened by his spiritual journey, dreams of a new beginning as he listens to the sea.
From beginning to end, the novel presents a unified structure and relies on symmetrical effects. Of rather traditional composition, centered on a main character, overall it follows a chronological order and highlights a single narrative voice.
The Bildungsroman or Coming-of-Age Novel The Prospector is an adventure and coming-of-age novel that resembles Stevenson's Treasure Island, where Jim, the hero, sets out to discover a hidden treasure on an island. The initiation begins by a break with the world of childhood: "Those who have chosen the quest [...] must abandon any kind of family and social situation" (Éliade, 1965, 156). Alexis’ departure is brutal. His initiation takes place at the cost of great physical and moral trials: at Anse aux Anglais where he undertakes his quest for gold, Alexis suffers from fever, hunger, thirst and cold (204-205). On the other hand, exploring the island is an arduous task that testifies to his heroic determination: Alexis probes and digs tirelessly. Neither empty hiding spots nor a wound from basaltic rocks (251) divert him from his quest. In addition to solitude, his exile underscores his moral suffering and causes him to lose his identity (184-185).
Excavations and intelligent decoding of maps prove ineffective. At the end of the war, he returns to Rodrigues Island and discovers that Anse aux Anglais is a sacred space. In reality, the purifying trials, and especially the experience of the war, have sharpened his senses, allowing him to apprehend, without trying to comprehend, the sacred and the irrational. "[The initiated] attains spiritual maturation and "ends up obtaining a flash of lightning - or enlightenment - [...]", and this mystical experience [...] reveals his aptitude for extra-sensory perception" (Eliade, 1957, 106). Through an "epiphany", Alexis understands that the signs on the Corsair’s stele represent an axis mundi and thus he is initiated into the mystery of the cosmos: “The configuration of Anse aux Anglais is that of the universe” (334). He then grasps the meaning of the Privateer's coded message, a message that his father had conveyed to him in Allée des étoiles (335) during an initiation trance. By abandoning the quest for treasure and calculations, Alexis discovers, together with the secret of Corsair’s plan, his primordial being. More importantly, he regains communion with nature (333).
In Rodrigues, Alexis falls in love with a young Manaf named Ouma who introduces him to simple happiness in harmony with the elements. Her teachings elicit the protagonist’s return to a pre-social world. Indeed, she holds both the secrets of the Rodrigues valley and those of the universe which she reveals progressively to Alexis, whose thoughts and heart she can penetrate. On this paradise island of initiation, through a bathing ritual, Alexis is restored to the simplicity and innocence of the original world. Then, the sensual young woman awakens desire in him (222-223). Physical contact frees him from anxiety while endowing him with a new force, and their carnal union ends in a kind of mystical ecstasy (234). The motive for Alexis' quest changes and it is no longer the attraction of gold that interests adventurers. Rather, his journey leads him to another treasure: Ouma’s love. Thanks to Ouma, Alexis is able to discover the real gold he carries inside (336). Thus it is with his beloved, who has become his alter ego, that the hero comes to self-actualization. "[...] I shout her name: 'Ou-ma-ah!' [...]. It seems to me that it is my own name that I cry, to awaken, in this desert landscape, the echo of my life that I lost during all these years of destruction" (328). He thus finds the feminine part of his identity in counterpoint to the values of virility, brutally expressed in his roles as a soldier and treasure seeker.
In this autobiographical novel, the individual quest - of treasure and identity - turns into a search for origins.
A novel grounded in myths
Abolishing the boundaries that separate dream and reality, myths form the protagonist and change his vision of the world. Hence the importance of mythical substance "more apt to express a universal human truth" (Salles, 1999, 85). The novel combines a variety of collective and personal myths. The biblical myths of Genesis and The Fall are associated with Alexis's trials. In seeking his origins, Alexis connects to the myth of Creation. At Le Boucan, the biblical Eden is symbolized by the garden with its luxuriant vegetation and the elephant apple tree is likened to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (30). Alexis and Laure could be Adam and Eve: Laure transgresses by eating the forbidden fruit. For Alexis, an imaginative and sensitive child, the cyclone ravaging Mauritius is undoubtedly the biblical Flood, a punishment from heaven: "There is no longer heaven or earth, only this liquid mass" (80). But unlike Genesis where Noah and his kin are saved, the innocent are not spared by the flood. The rainbow paradoxically announces the fall of the "half-collapsed" wreck-house (89) which is far from being compared to the ark of salvation. The scorching heat on Le Boucan is interpreted in light of the biblical text as "the rain of fire that God sent to the cursed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah" (60). The two children plunge into a sacred place-time continuum as they scan the sky. Although they deny their fear momentarily, the cataclysm of the cyclone annihilates their earthly paradise which becomes "soiled land" (89). Alexis and Laure are driven from their Eden. Doomed to die, they embark on "a journey of no return" (99).
To relate his character’s adventures of and portray his emotional evolution, the author summons several literary myths, including that of Paul and Virginie, heroes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's eponymous novel. The idyll of both couples is set in Mauritius. Alexis carries Laure on his shoulders, just as Paul carried Virginie. The whiteness of the women’s dress connotes the purity and virginity they both embody, and the wooded setting suggests the women are at ease in their natural surroundings. Both couples are separated by the quest for money (or gold). Alexis discovers moreover the legend of Rider Haggart "Nada the Lily", Nada foreshadowing Ouma, the beloved woman with "curly hair" and "copper" skin (211). The protagonist’s transition from a brotherly love for Laure to a manly love for Ouma signals his increasing emotional maturity. The development of his physical and intellectual faculties is suggested by a strong intertextual link with Daniel Defoe's novel: the Leclézian hero identifies himself with Robinson Crusoe. After the departure of Denis, his only friend, Alexis finds himself "alone like Robinson on his island" (71). Likewise, in Rodrigues, his outward appearance equates him with Defoe’s protagonist (365), whom he imitates by creating a calendar (245). Differences appear, however. Alexis, hostile to colonialism, is neither an "inventor" nor a planter like Robinson who colonizes his island. And while Friday, the savage, becomes the disciple of Robinson the civilized, Alexis is the disciple of Denis, his initiator to "wild life" (Onimus, 1994, 130). Finally, unlike Robinson's adventure, the search for treasure ends in the gold digger’s failure.
Le Clézio also transposes the Greek myth of Jason. Aboard the Zeta, Alexis imagines himself on the Argo (181). Like Jason, he courageously faces the obstacles that put his quest in jeopardy. Admittedly, he finds only an empty cache, while Jason returns to Greece with the Golden Fleece; nevertheless, beyond gold, the two travelers pursue the same goal: the quest for self and eternity (172).
To these written sources which give this individual story a universal resonance, Le Clézio adds the heritage of Mauritian oral culture. The story evokes the legendary figure of Sacalavou, leader of a slave revolt against the whites (257) who became famous for his exceptional courage. His suicide is considered an empowering act of emancipation: "He threw himself off the cliff rather than being captured" (41). So his presence, felt during stormy days, is likened to the cry of conscience - "a groan", "an eternal complaint" (109) - or rather to a premonitory sign: having chosen to live in Mananava, Ouma and Alexis must suffer the persecution of whites just like this slave did. Finally, the mythical status of the mysterious Corsair somehow determines Alexis’ life, dictates his actions and his steps until he "destroys what he had created" by burning the treasure papers (373) and freeing himself from his model and a fantasized past.
Other mythical figures, implicitly present, complete the development of Alexis’ own myth. The image of the gold digger doing the same sterile work of deciphering plans and undertaking useless excavations every day is reminiscent of Sisyphus. Like Icarus, he travels to escape fatality not by attaching wings of wax, but by "gliding in the middle of the sky" on the Zeta (142). "The symbolism of the Fall is still relevant for Alexis until the return from the war," notes Isabelle Roussel-Gillet (2001, 39). But, unlike Icarus, after his symbolic death during World War I Alexis is reborn like the Phoenix, despite the destruction of Le Boucan and the disappearance of Ouma.
How are we to read the end of The Prospector? Is it a happy ending? The ambiguity of the ending, a frequent phenomenon in Le Clézio’s work, casts doubt on the initiation of Alexis, who does not integrate himself in his island’s society or participate in its collective destiny. But his apparent material and social failure nonetheless offers him a privileged access to spiritual truth, serenity, and an appreciation of the world’s beauty, a harmony conveyed by Le Clézio’s poetic writing: "It is night now, I hear deep inside me the living sound of the sea that is coming' (375).
Translated by Mary Vogl
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