By Dominic Di Bernardi
Sunday, January 2, 1994
By J.M.G. Le Clezio
Translated from the French By Carol Marks | Godine. 338 pp. $22.95
THE MEXICAN DREAM, Or the Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilization
By J.M.G. Le Clezio
Translated from the French By Teresa Lavender Fagan | University of Chicago. 232 pp. $22.50
BEFORE there was multiculturalism, there was the work of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. His 20 volumes of novels, short stories and essays are remarkable in their recurrent portrayals of native peoples and spiritual systems devastated by colonialism. This year marks the end of the third decade since Le Clezio first made his prize-winning entrance onto the French literary scene with Le Proces-verbal (translated as The Interrogation). How welcome and fitting that one of his best recent novels, The Prospector, has been chosen to inaugurate Godine's new Verba Mundi series. For indeed in this tale of a young colonial's quest for a buried pirate treasure, Le Clezio spins words which span the entire globe.
The Prospector offers a wonderful one-volume compendium of all the grand myths rooted in the European colonial experience, combining elements from Paul et Virginie, Robinson Crusoe, and Indiana Jones. Alexis, known as Ali, and his beloved sister, Laure, live in an Eden nestled on the island of Mauritius. A child drawn to nature, he is nevertheless most enthralled by his father's dreams of a privateer's treasure. Yet this same father's vision of bringing electricity to the island leads to the family's ruin (thanks to a ferocious hurricane, brilliantly described). To recover his family's paradise lost, the adult Ali embarks upon a hunt for the pirate's gold. "I left to put an end to the dream, in order that my life might begin. I am going to take this journey to its conclusion. I know that I will find something."
His voyage to the island of Rodrigues is replete with the splendors and miseries of sea travel, ranging from star-studded nights to the unbearable heat and swarming insects below deck. Ali's prospecting on the island is the emotional core of the novel. Constantly frustrated in his treasure-hunting attempts, he discovers a far more valuable bounty in the person of Ouma, a native woman who becomes his lover. Le Clezio evokes their fragile romance with the sweet melancholy and sensuality which have become his trademark.
Yet despite his lyricism, Le Clezio is decidedly anti-romantic. The idyll is shattered by World War I. The curtains of poisonous gas creeping above desolate battlefields are implicitly linked to the merciless suppression of native revolts back home. The unstoppable march of imperialism will prove to be Ali's most devious enemy.
Le Clezio has perfected a swift-moving, plain-speaking style, well served in this English translation. At times his overriding ambition to achieve the transparency of myth leads him to the sort of overstatement which flattens the emotional impact of his prose. But such missteps are few. This old-fashioned adventure tale ultimately leaves a postmodern aftertaste. Not only do the secret pirate papers, land and star maps, suggest the code-like quandaries recent philosophers have situated in human language itself, but Ali's enterprise also contains the seeds for the transformation of colonial consciousness. Beginning his quest in his boyhood dreams upon the constellation Ship Argo, he fulfills his goal by setting sail on the Zeta.
Traveling from A to Z, he learns that "there is no way to get to buried treasure; it is impossible to find. It's 'fool's gold.' " The Prospector is a key text for any reader who wishes to mine the rich lode mapped out by Edward Said in his own recent prospecting adventure, Culture and Imperialism.
"Gold was already the 'currency' of the dream," Le Clezio states in his compelling overview of Amerindian cosmology and religion, The Mexican Dream. The dream of gold culminated in the devastation of Aztec civilization, which ended in an "immense, terrifying" silence. "It is a double tragedy, for in destroying Amerindian cultures, the Conqueror also destroyed a part of himself, a part he will undoubtedly never find again."
Le Clezio prospects the long textual tradition, ranging from the early soldier-chronicler, Bernal Diaz, to his fellow Frenchman, Antonin Artaud, in order to chart the rich territories of "Mesoamerican classicism." The very qualities of the author's lucidly informative account may also be a source of regret for those readers hoping for a more personal touch. Yet Le Clezio does provide a chance for us to rediscover "the respect for natural forces, the search for equilibrium between man and the world" contained in the indigenous thought-systems of the Americas. He evokes, but understandably downplays the roles of ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice in Aztec society, just as an apologist for Western Christendom might choose not to linger on the Inquisition and pogroms. Le Clezio asks us to imagine how an uninterrupted evolution of Mesoamerican thought might have "changed the European concepts of spirituality, the idea of man, morality, politics." Such change is already evidenced in Le Clezio's own fictional universe, the fruit of "a different truth, a different reality."
Dominic Di Bernardi regularly translates contemporary French fiction.