The Wandering Star (1992) is the expression of two poetic and ethical principles that Le Clézio would later clarify in his Nobel Speech. On one hand, Le Clézio sees himself as a witness in the tradition of the Sartrean intellectual. On the other, he seeks to transcend socio-historical divisions and to present, however loosely, images of mythic proportions, those of utopia itself. Indeed, the author comes close to the figure of the romantic magus as witnessed in his continual fascination for the ‘Mircea Eliade the initiator’, and for what he described in 1979 as his ‘cosmological universe’.
The novel is devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the testimony that is at the heart of Le Clézio’s project. The central section, entitled “Nejma”, describes the Palestinian exodus in the post-war period (1948), at the end of the British presence in Palestine and the proclamation of the State of Israel by Ben Gourion. Nejma is a young Palestinian who leaves the city of Akka and the coastal area where she lived to join the Nour Chams Camp and from there she goes to Jordan. At the request of Mahmoud Darwich, Le Clézio published in 1988 the first part of this story, up to the Nejma’s departure from Nour Chams, in the Revue d’études palestiniennes under the title “The Nour Chams Camp, summer 1948”. This publication, which addresses an issue already discussed in “Hanné” (1987), has given rise to what Jérome Garcin has termed a “cabal” or a conspiracy. Bernard-Henri Lévy read it as an extreme anti-Zionist statement whereas Tahar Ben Jelloun saw it as a very apt response to the “sobriety” and the “justice” of Le Clézio’s account.
Moreover, in several interviews, Le Clézio has drawn attention to his use of historical sources, in particular, of “the newspapers of the period” and of the “dossiers of the United Nations” (“Le Clézio’s Inner Scars” and “J.M.G. Le Clézio, Palestine and Israel”).
Le Clézio’s novel contributes a second thread to this story, describing the narrative trajectory of Hélène/Esther Grève. In 1943, this young Jewish girl was the victim of Nazi persecution in the countryside just inland from Nice (Saint-Martin-Vésubie) before emigrating with her mother to Israel in 1948 and moving into the Ramat Yohannan kibbutz. At the beginning of the 1950s, she is in Montreal pursuing her studies, she then returns to Israel at the end of the 1960s and in 1973 settles in Tel Aviv as a paediatrician. Le Clézio has explained that the earlier part of this story (the oldest part) was based on the memories of his mother that resurfaced in 1982, when the heavy bombardments of Beirut coincided with the spatial fires on the hills above Nice (“The inner scars of Le Clézio”). The novel was completed in 1987, but Le Clézio claims to have delayed publication in order to avoid the direct link with contemporary events, notably with “the rebellion of stones” (“Le Clézio, victim of a conspiracy”).
Le Clézio endeavours to harmonize these two radically different life stories, both marked by violence: “At the time when I was writing The Wandering Star, I thought that, sooner or later, there would be a political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians” (“J.M.G. Le Clézio, Palestine and Israel”). It is particularly revealing that references here to Islam and to Judaism, although clearly present, are often direct rather low-key. It was not until quite late that Esther was introduced to Judaism, initially in a synagogue at Saint-Martin and then, with more impact, on board the Sette fratelli, the boat that will take her to Israel and where Reb Joel will recite the Livre du Commencement whereas her father, a communist and “teacher of history and geography” would prefer to read her “the novels of Dickens” (EE, 185). It will be the songs of Billie Holiday (EE, 196, 338) that Esther remembers from the crossing rather than the religious incantatory songs. In the same way, it was Nejma’s father who taught his daughter the language so that she could learn the “suras of the Book” as well as how to solve problems of geometry (EE, 228).
However, Nejma’s writing is very much focused on ordinary everyday life: she signs her name “in Roman characters” (EE, 307) on the black notebook that she offers to Esther on the Siloe road (EE, 212), so that she can add her own. Later, at the request of her companion, le Baddawi, she will record the story of her life in the notebook (EE, 228). In the novel, Le Clézio adds a paragraph to the text of the Revue d’études palestiniennes in which Nejma insists on a gift, that is an exchange with Esther of “the notebooks of their memories”: “She came that day and I read my fate on her face. For a brief moment, we were reunited as if we had always been meant to meet each other” (EE, 228). The black notebook, where originally there were only the two names of the women, becomes an open book where Nejma writes her life story for Esther. Esther buys a similar notebook and records her own life story which she dreams of exchanging with Nejma as the sign of a “mysterious alliance”: “We will exchange our notebooks to abolish time, to end the suffering and the burning pain of the dead” (EE, 308). The black notebook has fragile roots as is frequently the case with Le Clézio: Tanguy Dohllau has recognized this in his beautiful watercolour “Letter to the wind”. These roots tend to replace official accounts or established readings of history. Le Clézio rather skillfully removes any traces of his characters’ relationship to the vertical plane or global events, focusing instead on the horizontal axe, that is, on individual life stories or “accounts of ordinary experiences” (Michel de Certeau, Daniel Fabre).
This movement from the vertical to the horizontal can also be detected in the symbolism of the text, and it is on this level that the book should be interpreted: “my text is anything but political. It is a symbolic attack against war in general” (“Le Clézio, victim of a conspiracy”). The star is a key symbol, both in Jewish culture and the history of Israel and in Palestinian culture and history. The text refers to the stars on the candles in the religious service at the synagogue (EE, 81), to the Festival of Lights when the hannoukas are lit (EE, 297) and to the star of David (EE, 207). In Palestinian culture and history, Nejma’s story mentions the “green star” of her father’s small boat (EE, 267). But, most importantly, the star in Le Clézio’s text is the name of the two protagonists: Nejma means “star” in Arabic and Esther is called “estrellita” (little star) by her parents (EE, 92, 165). The wandering star does indeed convey the erratic journey of these two: according to the back cover, “Esther and Nejma remain wandering stars”, but there is also the possibility of paths’ crossing, to cite Jacques Lacarrière’s beautiful expression. It is in this context that the “Peruvian song”, cited as an epigraph, can be interpreted: it would seem to be a response to the dedication (“To Captured Children”) exhorting the children to continue their journey: “Estrella errante/Amor pasajero/Sigue tu camino […]”.
Moreover, the figure of the shepherd, traditionally associated with the star, is somewhat blurred in this story. Mario, who was a shepherd before the war (EE, 56) and who possesses a sheepskin (EE, 84), dies in an attack of the maquis (EE, 66); Jacques Berger, whom Esther meets on the crossing and who will become the father of her child, has only the name and the appearance of a shepherd (EE,143) and dies in battle near the lake of Tibériade (EE, 302); Yohannan, the shepherd of the kibbutz where Esther lives, is assassinated the same day (EE, 302). When Esther returns to Saint-Martin in 1982, just after the death of her mother, she revisits the places where her father was assassinated by the Gestapo while he was accompanying fleeing Jewish families and notes that it is in the shepherd’s hut that the crime took place (EE, 334). Nelma’s companion, le Baddawi, has in all probably lost his flock (EE, 247, 281), and the goat and its kid, whom he found on the escape route, die (EE, 283). The figure of the shepherd, whose aura is eroded to the point that, by the end of the story, he becomes “an old deaf man who speaks by whistling to his dog” (EE, 335), is replaced by that of the fisherman. Le Clézio resumes the game of doubles that he had already introduced in Désert where Naaman, the fisherman (and storyteller) substitutes with the figures of the shepherd (Ma el Ainine and le Hartani). The fishermen of The Wandering Star find themselves on the shoals of Nice where they switch on their radios. The music that reminds Esther of what she heard on the boat or in the kibbutz in the company of Jacques Berger suffers interference from “spluttering sounds” (EE, 337) and becomes “tinny” and crackling (EE, 338). The radio here symbolizes the world’s multiple voices, a myriad of fables that Le Clézio strives to embrace in an essentially open manner: “It is an enormous task of craftsmanship, of patchwork” (“Le Clézio’s Inner Scars”).
Translated by Bronwen Martin
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