A text of the in-between, Pawana has unique features in relation to Le Clézio's work while at the same time touching on many of the author's recurring preoccupations, such as the sacred, the desacralization of the natural world, and the oppression of indigenous peoples by a violent modernity. For Bruno Thibault, Pawana is an "apocalyptic tale" that, far from celebrating "the age of great discoveries" evokes instead "the systematic destruction of America's natural resources" (1997, 723). It is a text that is a bit long for a short story, a bit short for a novel, conceived first for the theater (Moser, 2007, 129; Bedrane, Douzou, 2010), rather daring for a children's book, rather bare for a book intended for adults. The story is built around the discovery by the whaler Leonore, in 1856, of a bay on the California coast, unknown until then, where hundreds of gray whales came to give birth to their young. The discovery initiated an unprecedented period of hunting that would push this species to the brink of extinction.


Narrative structure and problems of narration


The two narrators are John of Nantucket and Charles Melville Scammon. Scammon was the captain of the Leonore in 1856 during the discovery of Grey Whale Bay. His crew killed a dozen whales, but the discovery signaled the beginning of a systematic massacre on a large scale: the "place once so beautiful, so pure, such as the world must have been at its beginning, before the creation of man, had become the place of carnage" (41).


As a young ship's boy aboard the Leonore, John also bears witness to this disastrous moment when the secret is revealed. The day before the discovery, Scammon notices the young man beside him, scanning the horizon as he does. The captain asked him a few questions about his origins and finally said, "'Do you know that if we find the grey refuge, we will become immensely rich?' The child's eyes glowed strangely. But I was mistaken about what it expressed" (28). It is difficult to know when and by what means Scammon learned his mistake. He wrote this in 1911, fifty-five years after the discovery of the secret of the grays, but John claims that after the voyage of the Leonore he never saw Captain Scammon again (40). What did that bright look say?


John's account begins with his childhood in Nantucket and his recollection of the legends that inspired his desire to join Scammon's expedition: "Ever since I was a child, I have dreamed of going there, to that place where everything began, where everything ended. They spoke of it, as of a hiding place, as of a treasure" (7). Despite its inescapable power in the boy's life, this dream is from the beginning more nuanced and conflicted than the one that drove the captain. For one thing, John's uncle "worked in the cutting business," so the boy is exposed from the age of 8 to the huge "rotting carcasses" and "the frightening smell of blood and guts" while imagining their "living bodies, leaping through the waves" (9-10). In addition, he knew John Nattick, an old Nattick man, a rare survivor of the genocide of his people, who had been a whale watchman and who showed John and his friends how he shouted in his language "Awaité pawana" to signal the presence of whales to their killers. Finally, John from Nantucket had met Araceli, the young slave of a group of prostitutes, the oppressed of the oppressed, a Seri captive who had tried several times to escape from her master Emilio until he finally killed her. John, who had once been her lover, will be the only witness of her unworthy burial, the only one to remember where her body lies.


Wonder and questioning


Thus, John's gaze, which Scammon will take a lifetime to decipher, reflects a double wonderment. He is amazed by the immense and burning desire of men, but he is equally amazed by the infinitely empty desert that this desire leaves in its wake. Not only is every desired being dead, but so are those who have succumbed to a dream of blood: "Blood no longer blackens the sea, the harbor basins are empty, the great lagoon shivers in the wind as if none of this had ever existed, and the hunters’ ships were dead along with their prey" (11). What begins as a tale of adventure becomes a tale of dismay and questioning in which both narrators remember and try in vain to understand, "How can we forget, so that the world can begin again?" (49), says John, of Nantucket. On the eve of his death, Scammon will remember the young sailor of the Leonore, with a look that asked questions he himself should have asked before irrevocably exposing the secret refuge of the gray whales: “how can one kill what one loves?” (51)


The sacred, desacralization and sacrifice


At the bottom of this questioning, we can see in the discovery of the sacred an inescapable logic of desacralization. The first time he describes entering the sacred bay, Scammon says, "it seemed to me as if I had suddenly broken into a lost world, separated from ours by countless centuries" (36). His use of the term "breaking and entering" suggests the illegitimate, scandalous character of this penetration. John notes, upon his return three years later to the site of the massacre, "Now there was no secret" (42). Secrecy is sacred and the sacred must remain secret. The disappearance of the two was not, however, the result of an unforeseeable accident, but rather a work of destruction conducted with frenzy, passion, and precision. The second time Scammon speaks of it, he adds: "our boat was splitting the pale water in silence, and it was death that we were bringing" (50).


One wonders why Le Clézio associates the destruction of the gray whales with the genocidal disappearance of an indigenous ethnic group (the Nattick) and the murder of an indigenous woman. The apparent juxtaposition of these events suggests a much more complex relationship. The choice of a Nattick word as the title of the story and as the name of the whales implies that the Nattick people are more than any other victims of the destructive machine of modernity. Along with Araceli, whom no one understands because she speaks only her native language, the Nattick are part of what Bruno Thibault calls "the third voice of this narrative" (1997, 723). Sacrificed and yet almost silenced, this voice alone is able to complete what John and Scammon, despite being accomplices in the disaster, could not say. On the other hand, Araceli (like Laïla in Poisson d’or) had been stolen from her people. Similarly, the Nattick watchmen lent their voices and tongues (shouting "Awaité pawana") to the hunt because they knew and respected the sacred and the secret. This does not suggest any passivity on their part (Araceli, for example, never resigned herself to her captivity), but implies that without them, the Pawana narrative could not have led to that final question shared by both narrators, “How can one dare to love what one has killed?”



Robert Miller

Translated by Thierry Léger





BEDRANE, Sabrinelle, DOUZOU, Catherine « Le partage de la parole : Pawana : Le Clézio/ Lavaudant », in LÉGER, Thierry, ROUSSEL-GILLET, Isabelle, SALLES, Marina (dirs.), Le Clézio, passeur des arts et des cultures, Rennes PUR, 2010, p. 245-257 ; GILLET, Isabelle, « The story of a secret : Le Clézio from inheritance to origin : a look at two novels : Le Procès-verbal and Pawana », Revue Analecta Husserliana, M. Kronegger and A.T. Tymieniecka, tome LVII Life, Kluwer, academic publishers in the Netherlands, 1999, p. 383- 392 ; LE CLÉZIO, J.-M.G. Pawana, Paris, Gallimard, 1992 ; Poisson d’or, Paris, Gallimard, 1997 ; MILLER, Robert, « Le Malaise du sacré dans Onitsha et Pawana », Nouvelles Études Francophones, 20, 2 (2005) p. 31-42 ; MOSER, Keith, The Complex Ambivalence of “Privileged Moments” in the Works of J.M.G. Le Clézio Their Force, Their Limitations, and Their Relationship to Alterity, diss. Université de Tennessee, 2007 ; THIBAULT, Bruno, «‘Awaité Pawana’ » : J. M. G. Le Clézio’s Vision of the Sacred », World Literature Today, 71, 4,1997, p. 723-729.