Home > 1990, French Literature, Highly Recommended, Le Clézio J-M G, Novel, TBR20, WWII > Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clézio

Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clézio

December 16, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Wandering Star by J.M.G Le Clézio (1992) Original French title: Etoile errante.

LeClézio_Etoile_erranteWandering Star is part of my #TBR20 project because it had been sitting on the shelf for a while and because I always need a little kick to start books about war and their consequences.

Wandering Star starts in 1943. Esther is 13. She’s Jewish and living as a refugee in a little village in the mountains near Nice, France. The Italians have the power on this territory and a whole Jewish community is settled in this village. Esther is in hiding and calls herself Hélène. Her father is with the Resistance and men pass through their house. The Germans arrive and the Jews flee to Italy through the mountains. Esther’s father disappears. After the war, Esther and her mother take the boat to settle in a newly founded country, Israel.

During her first months in Israel in 1948, Esther briefly sees Nejma, a Palestinian on her way to the Nur Shams refugee camp. Then, Le Clézio switches of point of view and Nejma tells us her story.

Wandering Star is the story of two young women, one uprooted by the Holocaust and the other by the foundation of the state of Israel.

The first part is rather bucolic –a little too much for my taste. Despite the war lurking above Esther’s life, she’s still a teenager, running around with other adolescents, experiencing her first attraction to boys. Being in this village is the first time she is uprooted. They used to live in Nice, by the sea and now they’re in the mountains. Esther will never stop being uprooted as her life takes her from France to Italy, to France and Israel. Her whole life will be influenced by war, in Europe first and in Israel later.

Esther’s journey to Israel and her first months there are full of dangers and uncertainty. Nejma’s circumstances are not better as Le Clézio depicts her life in Nur Shams. Life is dreadful there. People starve, die from various diseases in total indifference. I didn’t know this camp still existed. It was created in the 1930s by the British as a detention camp. According to Wikipedia, in 2007, 6479 people lived in Nur Sham. That’s the size of a small town. Some people have probably spent their whole life in what should be a transitory place. How do you grow up, live your life, feel grounded when you live in a place designed as a place of transit?

The reader switches from Esther to Nejma, follows their destiny. Le Clézio isn’t judging anything or anyone. This is not a political novel in the strict sense. He’s not picking a side, just showing the results of political choices and ideologies on the life of common people. There’s no gradation in misery; he’s not trying to say that Esther’s misfortunes are sadder or worse than Nejma’s or the other way round. He remains factual but not clinical. His writing has a lyrical side that emphasizes the horror of the situations he describes. It’s like a beautiful soundtrack on war images. It’s at odds with the hardship he’s showing us with his pen.

As in LullabyLe Clézio has a real sense of place and describes marvelously the nature of the Mediterranean region. The sun, the light, the sea, the wind. The characters make one with nature, they are influenced by the elements. The sun is either a caress or a burn. The wind whips them or tempers the heat of the sun. Nature has a permanence which is in contradiction with the uprooted lives of his characters.

I finished Wandering Star with a knot in my stomach because it puts the life and the feelings of refugees at human size. And when this come down from the generalities shown on TV to a more personal encounter, be it with a fictional character, it’s always a punch in the face. Granted, this is not fun to read but it’s Worth it. For the Nejmas who still suffer in Nur Shams, for the memory of the Jews who lost their country and their families in the Holocaust and for Le Clézio’s luminous prose.

  1. December 16, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    I thought this was a wonderful book, went on to read Desert on the strength of it and am always on the lookout for more by Le Clézio available in translation. I reviewed it here if you are interested: http://anzlitlovers.com/2011/07/10/wandering-star-by-j-m-g-le-clezio-translated-by-c-dickson/


    • December 17, 2015 at 10:59 pm

      Thanks for the link Lisa, I forgot about your review. It’s excellent and gives a good overview of the story, the issues and Le Clézio’s style.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 17, 2015 at 8:26 am

    I went through a Le Clezio ‘phase’ when he won the Nobel but I haven’t read this one …sounds v thought provoking and I will look out for it . I find his prose quite difficult at times ( with my inadequate French ) but he’s always worth the effort !


    • December 17, 2015 at 10:47 pm

      He’s difficult to read, so congratulations for reading him in French. This explains why there aren’t any quotes in my post: I can’t translate him, it’s too difficult for me.


      • December 18, 2015 at 12:14 pm

        That’s a relief for me to hear …..I thought it was me !!!!


        • December 19, 2015 at 10:32 am

          Definitely not you. 😉


  3. December 17, 2015 at 10:23 am

    I know what you mean about needing a little kick to start reading something like this. It’s all too easy to opt for something else even when the book is sitting there on the shelf…

    I’m not at all familiar with this author, but I see he’s won the Nobel Prize – that’s interesting to note. The novel does sound very powerful. Your final comments on the personalisation of these issues reminded me of Spas Sleeps from the Vienna Tales collection. Dinev does something similar there in focusing on the experiences of one or two individual migrants.


    • December 17, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      I tend to procrastinate the reading of books that I know are going to be painful. So this one remained a few years on the shelf.

      Le Clézio is an excellent writer and I think the Nobel is deserved.

      I agree with your comparison with Spa Sleeps. It’s the same phenomenon: suddenly news have a face and humanity.


  4. December 17, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    As you describe it, The technique of highlighting the two opposite but similar girls sounds very effective. I can understand why a book like this would be disturbing. I think that I would feel like you did.

    Great commentary as always Emma.


    • December 17, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      For me, the most difficult par to read was Nejma’s story. I have read books about the Holocaust, so you know what to expect for Esther. In my head, I was prepared to read that. For Nejma, I wasn’t prepared. The desolation of the camp, the abandonment from Western countries, how we let these people die, all this took me by surprise and it was difficult to read.


  5. davidsimmons6
    December 17, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks. I have Le Désert on my shelf, but needed a jump start.


    • December 17, 2015 at 10:40 pm

      You’re welcome. Let me know how you enjoyed Désert.


  6. December 19, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Among all the hundreds and thousands of novels dealing with the Holocaust, I can’t at the moment think of one that deals with Jewish refugees moving into the new state of Israel. I’ve read a couple of works by Le Clézio and agree that he can create a remarkable sense of place. I haven’t read this one, but will put it on my shopping list for the bookshops in Paris.


    • December 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

      Hi Scott, you seem to be in my time zone. Happy holidays in France.

      Wandering Star is very moving and the Nejma side of the story was something I’d never read about. From a pure literary point of view, I’m ambivalent about Le Clézio’s style. On the one hand I find him a bit stuffy and too lyrical and on the other hand, he really moved me, so he must be doing something right. 🙂

      This novel is an example of the butterfly effect: try to right a wrong and you create a new wrong.


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