An orchestration of voices, musical rhythms and poetry, Le Clézio’s polyphonic novel The Quarantine fascinates with its autobiographical resonances, the complexity of its narrative and the richness of its intertextual weaving. Published after Le Chercheur d'or* (1985) and Voyage à Rodrigues* (1986), before Révolutions* (2003) and Ritournelle de la Faim (2003), this text, published by Gallimard in 1995, forms part of what critics refer to as the “Mauritian cycle” which gives an autobiographical inflection to Le Clézio’s work.


Traces and Blurring of Autobiographical References


This novel is set against the backdrop of the writer’s family history and Mauritian origins: François-Alexis, the founding ancestor, made his home on Isle de France in 1794; his son Jules-Eugène Alexis purchased the Euréka home in 1856; ​​ J.M.G. Le Clézio’s grandfather Eugene’s side of the family lost their share of the family estate in 1920. This uprooting haunts his thinking and spirals through Le Clézio’s oeuvre: it is evident in his recreation of the family’s mythical house under different names in his various texts: Le Boucan (CO), Anna (Q), Rozilis (R), XAPI ∑MA (M), Alma (RF). A “diptych” effect (Bernabé-Gil, 2006, 88-98) is created between The Prospector, which depicts paternal grandfather Léon’s quest for the treasure, and The Quarantine which recounts maternal grand-father Alexis’s disembarkment at Île Plate* [literally, Flat Island] in 1891. Le Clézio thus blurs the autobiographical traces in these two texts by reversing the first names: Léon Le Clézio serves as a model for Alexis Létang in The Prospector, Alexis* becomes Jacques in The Quarantine, and it is his brother who bears the grand-father’s first name.


The Quarantine is predicated on the 1891 return journey of two brothers, Jacques and Léon Archambau, who had been exiled in France, to the family property (Anna) in Mauritius* where Jacques spent his childhood, and which Leon has not yet visited. However, an epidemic of smallpox leads to the quarantine of the boat’s passengers on Île Plate* and the travel narrative is transformed into a dramatic sequestration, with no exit possible, that depicts the anguished wait of these "prisoners", dissention amongst communities, the ravages of illness, deaths... As it pertains to reality, the novel intersects with two factual historical events: the first, in 1856, relates to the quarantine on Île Plate of passengers from the Hydaree who brought coolie laborers from India (it was on this ship that Ananta and Giribala arrived, fleeing the revolt of the Sepoys*); the second event was the great smallpox epidemic of 1891 during which Île Plate was also a center of quarantine. In The Quarantine the "family novel" fades away to be taken up again in Ritournelle de la faim. The two brothers' return to the island of their ancestors will in fact not take place and Leon, the narrator and protagonist of the central narrative, dissociates himself from the values ​​and the colonial power embodied by his family. He leaves with Suryavati*, the young untouchable (Dalit) who introduces him to Hindu mythology, allowing him to find his true identity.


An opposition is therefore established within the text and plays an eminently ideological role. On the one hand, History is represented by Jacques' happy childhood during the colonial era, and by Alexandre Archambau, the Patriarch, responsible for family’s ruin, who personifies order and Authority in the peculiar and unjust political system of Mauritius - the Synarchy. History also plays out in the tragedy of Indian immigrants abandoned on Île Plate by the Mauritian authorities. On the other hand, the personal story of Leon, who rebels against the separation between Westerners and Indians by crossing the imaginary border established by figures of Authority (such as the laughable Véran de Véreux), penetrates the world of Suryavati and thus highlights ​​the marginal domain of pariahs, the lowest of the Hindu castes.


A polyphonic novel


The Quarantine presents a narrative framework made complex by the interweaving of narrative voices. The first and fourth chapters – “The Eternal Traveler” and “Anna” - compose the frame story which opens and closes the novel and relates the journey to Mauritius by the narrator Leon “the descendant”. Following the path of his ancestors, Leon’s journey signifies a return to one’s origins. In the first chapter, Leon walks the streets of Paris, reflecting on his ancestry, how his grandfather Jacques met the "eternal traveler", poet Rimbaud. In the fourth chapter, he narrates his stay in Mauritius, his interviews with his aunt Anna, linked by her name to the mythical home, and his journey in search of lost time. The end of the journey, and of the diary which constitutes the narrative frame, recounts Leon's pilgrimage to Marseilles sites that Rimbaud used to haunt before his death, and where Léon evokes the disappearance of his ancestors. The two cities, Paris, Marseilles, serve as a backdrop for the interweaving of personal memories and the figure of the poet.


In the second chapter, The Poisoner, devoted to the beginning of his grandparents’ journey, Leon, the narrator, fades away, but the recurrent expressions "I think" or "I imagine" implicitly suggest his presence and mark the journal’s transition to the novelistic fiction of the third chapter. The writer here creates a peculiar travelogue, because if the form "logbook" implies a chronological order and spatial locations, we are in fact in the presence of imprecise notations which hide a temporal disorder, illustrated by various flashbacks. This temporal play reveals the symbolic and mythical dimension of the novel, announced by the epigraph taken from the Baghavat Purana.


The third chapter, specifically titled “The Quarantine”, represents a novel within the novel, a "metalepsis" (Dällenbach, 121), which can be taken as an autonomous narrative. A mise-en-abyme oriented towards the diegetic past, this internally duplicated narrative equates to the first narrator’s "dream" (438): to identify with "[...] the other Leon, the one who disappeared" (20). The stories of the two "Leons" establish an intertextual dialogue between the different parts of the text. Other voices are heard in this novel punctuated with excerpts from the journal of botanist John Metcalfe, whose scientific voice speaks concrete and constructive words in this world of violence and irrationality which exacerbates tensions and segregation among all the communities on the island. The Yamuna, another story-within-a-story, about the life and mysterious origins of the girl Leon calls Suryavati (Sun’s Power), opens up a temporal perspective through polyphony. The girl's mother and grandmother cross the sacred river of India, an adventure laden with initiation trials and rituals that lead them to the "miracle island" (331). The story of this epic adopts a different typography, as does the "gesture" of the blue men in Desert or the quest for Geoffroy in Onitsha, a process which can signal "the presence of some aspects of otherness" (Jarlsbo, 12). To the voice of Jacques evoking his mythical youth in Mauritius, is added that of Suzanne reciting the poems of Baudelaire, Longfellow* and especially Rimbaud, tutelary figure of the novel.


The novel, under the aegis of Rimbaud, the “cursed” and marginal poet, identified here with the departed ancestor, and with the narrator, this other "eternal traveler" who, when he walks in the footsteps of the one, finds images of the other. Jacques' first meeting with Rimbaud recurs obsessively. The enigmatic incipit of the novel presents the image of the poet on the threshold of the restaurant, an image - transmitted by Jacques – kept in Leon’s photographic memory. The second meeting with Rimbaud occurs during the stopover in Aden; Rimbaud is then the dying "poisoner" of scrawny dogs that roam the city. This episode is echoed at the end of the novel, as Aunt Anna also poisons abandoned dogs.


After this second meeting, Rimbaud disappears as actor, but he is present in the quotations from the “Drunken Boat” recited by Léon and Suzanne. The lines of this poem of revolt, the quest for adventure and the absolute, and disillusionment as well, make Leon, the missing man, a reflection of the mythical referent, the cursed poet in search of his identity. Leon’s quest is carried out by the sea voyage on the banks of the Ava, evocative of Rimbaud’s own voyage. But the recurrent image of the "drunken boat" gradually becomes diluted in the degraded figure of the drifting "raft" (471) until its complete disappearance, like the characters: "It seems to me that even the Aden's violent words disappeared in the sky, they were blown away and lost in the sea" (409).


Poetry thus represents one of the essential threads to interpret of the text. The poet becomes a myth or a "counter-myth" to which the legendary ancestor is merged through his rebellious and marginal character. The Rimbaldian motif associates the novel with travel, absolute revolt and poetry. It symbolically introduces a sign of the myth’s degradation that in some ways contaminates the entire novel. This myth is already present in the two contrasting images of the young, violent, demanding Rimbaud: that of Poetry, of “The Drunken Boat”, and that of the man from Aden, embittered and sick.  ​​ ​​​​ 


Maria Luisa Bernabé

Translated by Mary Vogl





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