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Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clézio

December 16, 2015 14 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.

Lullaby by J-M. G. Le Clézio

January 15, 2012 14 comments

Lullaby by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. 1978. Lullaby is a short-story (novella?) included in Mondo and Other Stories.

Reading this was a mother-daughter readalong. My daughter had a school assignment; she had to choose a book, read it and fill in a reading form about it. I don’t know how it is in other countries but in France, teachers are sort of fans of reading forms. Lullaby was on the children book shelves at home, among my children books and books I buy for them from time to time. I try to select literary ones from well-knows writers.

Lullaby is a girl who decides she won’t go to high school again. She lives by the sea and she’s uprooted in this town, but we don’t know why. School is a prison except for physics classes. When she ditches school, she starts taking walks on the smugglers path along the sea. The sea here is probably the Mediterranean, according to the description of the landscape and the wildlife.

Lullaby has a secret, her father is away or gone but we don’t know why. She writes him letters, read his letters, let their words fly into the sky. She seeks for freedom by the sea and a connection with her beloved father too. She melts into the natural elements, the sea, the wind, the scents penetrate her being through all her pores and senses.

Lullaby était pareille à un nuage, à un gaz, elle se mélangeait à ce qui l’entourait. Elle était pareille à l’odeur des pins chauffés par le soleil, sur les collines, pareille à l’odeur de l’herbe qui sent le miel. Elle était l’embrun des vagues où brille l’arc-en-ciel rapide. Elle était le vent, le souffle froid qui vient de la mer, le souffle chaud comme une haleine qui vient de la terre fermentée au pied des buissons. Elle était le sel, le sel qui brille comme le givre sur les vieux rochers, ou bien le sel de la mer, le sel lourd et âcre des ravins sous-marins. Lullaby was like a cloud, a gas, she melted in what surrounded her. She was like the scent of the pine trees heated by the sun on the hills, like the scent of the grass with the honey smell. She was the spume of the waves where the quick rainbow shines. She was the wind, the cold blow coming from the sea, the warm blow like a breath coming up from the fermented earth at the bushes feet. She was the salt, the salt that glitters like frost on the old rocks; or the sea salt, the heavy and acrid salt from the undersea ravines.

As always, Le Clézio’s prose is full of poetry. He was born in Nice and although the coast he describes here has white rocks and Greek houses, I couldn’t help thinking about the Estérel coast between Nice and Cannes. I’ve been there many times and Lullaby’s errands on that smugglers path reminded me of mine on the customs officer path along the sea. I know how she finds her way among the rocks, looking for the best passage, climbing under the sun on the heated rocks. I know the scent of the sun on the pine trees mixed with the salty breath of the nearby sea. I was there with her.

Lullaby is a tribute to the sea whose vastness makes us feel Lilliputian. With her overwhelming presence, the sea shrinks our earthly worries to a speck of dust.  

Lullaby ne pensait même plus à l’école. La mer est comme cela : elle efface les choses de la terre parce qu’elle est ce qu’il y a de plus important au monde. Le bleu, la lumière étaient immenses, le vent, les bruits violents et doux des vagues, et la mer ressemblait à un grand animal en train de remuer sa tête et de fouetter l’air avec sa queue. Lullaby didn’t think about school anymore. The sea is like this: it erases the earthly things because she is the most important thing in the world. The blue, the light were immense, the wind, the violent and smooth noises of the waves. And the sea looked like an animal moving its head and wagging the air with its tail.

I’ve spent hours sitting on these rocks, reading in the sun, watching the turquoise water move back and forth, feeling the wind in my hair. I understand Lullaby’s fascination. My daughter knows that path too, she’s been there several times and she has a lot of fun climbing the rocks, reaching a small beach or going by the sea. She also pictured that place when she read Lullaby and she enjoyed the novella because it brought back vivid images of her holidays. She understood that it’s a story about loneliness and travelling in one’s mind.

Such readalongs are tricky for me. On the one hand, I enjoy reading her books and discussing them with her. It’s an opportunity to share and nourish the pleasure of reading in her. On the other hand, I feel like an intruder. Reading is something personal and you shouldn’t be obliged to talk about what you’ve read if you don’t feel like to. So I’m not asking too many questions, I don’t push too far; I leave to the teacher the disagreeable role of pulling out emotions and analysis from her.

 

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