Wandering Star by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
It feels like now, in the aftermath of Israel/Hamas war, might be the saddest of times to be reading J.M.G. Le Clézio's Wandering Star. Yet I couldn’t help feeling, too, that this novel was confirming, affirming. The simple fable-like quality of the prose offered up a place where I found shelter from all the shouts -- the noisy rhetoric and rigid absolutes which seem to be filling up the media pages about Israel and the Arab World. Le Clézio has achieved a revisiting of modernist sensibilities which serve to place the subjective "I" into the center of our reader’s mind. This voice is a singular, isolated voice who is more witness than victim, and more reliable as the teller of historical truths than all the objective reportage we have come to rely on and believe in. Paradoxically, then, a literature based on subjective sensibilities serves to become one of our most objective looks into the Israel/Palestine conflict. Unlike the many "embedded journalists" (a term I always found sort of funny, imagining these Western newspaper guys stuck in sand dunes or ensconced inside rocky limestone caverns) this fiction reaffirms and redefines the possibility of the novel. Again, the novel can exist as a history-bearing fruit, immerse us inside a forgotten and buried world history. When the very writing of a novel asks the question: "can a novel be useful?" then, for me, the novel is once again operating at the top of one of its most exciting peaks.
These questions were of course asked back when Sartre wrote his essay What is Literature? in Paris in the late 1940s, exploring, among other themes, the relationship between fiction and the writer's moral responsibility write truths important to social life and history. Sartre wrote:
The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom.
Perhaps Le Clézio, because of his simple prose style and his child-like writer's eye, is more linguistically and formally subtle than other contemporary writers in bringing us into exigency, in asking questions about the possibility of personal freedom from within these crises, but he is no less gifted for being modest in his presentation. Le Clézio's work reminds me that the conditions for the performance of a "modernist" novel to be meaningful needn’t always be only formalistic if the novel is drawn from a soulful center. The very fact that it draws from subjectivity, allowing one personal consciousness to be the reliable teller of fact and situation can be as rich and wide a sweep as any other novel's framework and process.
Where humanity continues to fester on a steady diet of its own wounds, the Middle East is caught in a kind of religious auto-immune disease which continues to inflame its divisive and turbulent regions. Abandoned to post-colonial chaos by 1947, it was forced to turn upon itself. The "Holy Land" has since acquired a lethal habit of perceiving each part of itself as an attacking bacteria, threatening its whole. Utter dissolution and annihilation is suffered at its own hands, and it has become increasingly confused, split into ethnic and religious corners all warring for a a defining center which they all shared in profound ways before colonialism and historical fates divided it.
As a title, Wandering Star is a beautiful and simple floating lyric, capturing the nomadic journey of the Jew and refugee Arab Palestinian alike. It is a complex job to bring together the commonality of each ethnic/religious entity banished and exiled from the rest of the world and here, again, the imagistic tools of the poet and novelist are precious and rare in the light of the politics. Branded with the mark of the outcast and unwanted, the story of these parallel unassimilated groups searching for a home where they hope that "assimilation" in itself will become a meaningless term is graceful and made all the more heart-wrenching in its brutal futility. The existence and survival of the Arab Palestinians and Jews asks to be rooted in the spiritually sanctioned rights centuries have removed from them. Each believes unquestionably that some vibrant kind of stellar, supreme light from high above will shine on them, lighting their way. Though from very different places and cultures, and for very different reasons-the two opposing forces equally share in the shocks of this homelessness and in the tragedy of its irresolution, escaping into feverish, often intoxicating dreams -- ideal and romanticized as salvation and freedom -- which could be the stuff of one dreamer. Involving, engaging us in a primal personal sojourn where the reader feels the displacement of both peoples in balanced measures becomes the nightmare, the human tragedy often missed in the media, and in the myriad of lectures, conferences, and speeches of those so fortunate to not be experiencing the Middle East war as members of the families it irrevocably harms in violence and detached certainty about which side is "right" or "wrong". What this novelist will not give is readers the comfort of detachment, nor the luxury of abstract thinking. The prose creates an immediate, subjective, and personal reality told through third and person narratives, an experience of being from which there is no easy, abstract, political polemic treatise to exit on the wings on from here: a trapped place of profound hardship and horror.
As I have mentioned, the two narratives in Wandering Star serve as point and counterpoint to one another. The first narrative is told through the eyes and of a young woman named Esther living in the South of France during the Nazi Occupation. Esther escapes with her mother over the blood-soaked mountains towards a dreamt destination called "Eretz Israel." The other narrative tells a story of a young Arab refugee, Njema, who is expelled from her home by the sea in southern Palestine. She is taken into a refugee camp in what will later become a hopelessly embattled and divided "Eretz Israel".
The intoxicating winds of storms with the dark clouds; the caves where these fugitives hid during the nights, lighting candles and chanting, "the slow rocking of bodies while they chanted, and the whole cave vibrating and swaying like ship..." These are the images, the evocations of feverish dreams and idealizations coming from two bereaved girls, child-women perhaps.
The Jewish girl, Esther, wandering in the first pages of this novel, has already lost her father. She doesn't know where he has gone or if he lived through the escape into the mountains at all. "They will wait," Esther tells us, "for a big motorized sailboat that would take all the fugitives on board and save them. The boat would cross the sea and take the Jews to Jerusalem..." Later in the same passage she tells us: "They talked of the city of light, gleaming with its domes and minarets in the land where the Jewish people originated. Maybe they dreamt that they’d already arrived and that the domes and towers of Valdieri were at the gates of Jerusalem."
As Esther’s sojourn becomes perilous, Le Clézio writes:
It was frightening but it was so beautiful that Esther wanted to go higher, closer to the clouds... They were floating between the heavens and earth and for the first time Esther could imagine how birds must feel... But they were in a world inhabited only by clouds, the trails of clouds, and lightning...
Indeed, already it feels that Esther has comprehended the "magical name that she knew without understanding, the city of light, of fountains, the place where all the world paths meet, ERETZRAEL, ERETZRAEL."
At a resting-stop in her journey there, upon realizing she has passed through and she cannot go back across the mountain to her life before. Esther becomes mysteriously stuck. "Everything had changed," Le Clézio writes through Esther's voice, "now that which existed on the other side of the mountains had become impossible. It dug out a hole deep inside of her, a window through which the emptiness crept in... an unreal window in which the sun was shining...but maybe it was only a dream she'd had just before the clouds closed around her."
The story of Njema, a Palestinian Arab exiled to Nour Chams Camp during the summer of 1948 soon follows. As all the Jewish escapees embrace the future dream of freedom, of an "Eretz Israel," the same sounds of hope pound in the hearts of their now dislocated Arab Palestinians, expelled from their homes by the ensuing battles between Arab and Jewish forces which explode around them. Njema's story is one of many forced to leave their homes behind, load their furniture and belongings onto U.N. trucks and get transported to refugee camps scattered across the land.
First came in United Nations tarpaulined trucks," Njema tell us,"we didn’t know this place would be our new home. We all thought that it was for a day or two before taking to the road again. Just until the bombing and fighting in the cities ended, and then the foreigners gave us each of a plot of land, a vegetable garden to cultivate, a house where we could start living as we had before. They left everything behind, the livestock, the tools, and even their reserves of food and water. The women left their cooking utensils, their linens because they thought too they were only leaving for a day or two, just long enough for things to calm down.
Later, she learns that the United Nations will be deserting them to these camps, and that the UN will stop giving them food and medicines, and "They would all die... They would become like the dry bush in the desert, the standing spindly against the winds, they would all all die... That's what the foreigners decided," she tells us, "And so we will disappear from the earth forever." She keeps asking rhetorically: "Why will the sun not shine for us?"
In these passages, Le Clézio has, for me, captured a tragedy and made all the more powerful by simple, evocative and imagistic prose, a writing which is tender and purposely naïve -- it is as if two children, equally imprisoned somewhere in history, manufactured into enemies by foreign forces were separately told the same fairy tale and went out to search for it, unaware that each was going for the same stretch of magical spaces and land, a stretch impossible for them to inhabit together. In the end, the fever dream of the promised "Eretz Israel" was a cruel fatalism for each, Arab and Jew alike.
There is so much to write about that arises from reading Le Clézio -- it's hard to say it all here. But this was a really important book for me to find. I'll be reading it again and again, and want to read more of his work. I can't help referring back to Sartre's question on whether or not "literature can be useful?" And reflect on something Camus said at the time in defense of criticism that Sartre's dark reasoning about what does exist for moral choices is at once brutal and enlightening all at the same time. As in Sartre, this tale of those lost in the quake of fever dreams seems to tell us about a state of human affairs sometimes too horribly painful and futile to bear. But, as Camus said of Sartre's work: "A great writer always brings his own world and its message. M. Sartre's brings us nothingness, but also to lucidity. And the image he perpetuates through his characters, of a man seated amid the ruins of his life, is a good illustration of the greatness and truth of this work."
The questions that arise from Le Clézio's work become elegantly simple, too. As the novel is there to ask the questions, I believe, the nomadic cousins, Jews and Arabs, lost in this infinite desert become one mass of cries, all too humanly recognizable as a desire for unconditional grace and home, an existence in some primal womb-sphere, a birth for a people, instead of their death and end. Le Clézio has pitched their tent straight into our hearts and awareness, and done this masterfully in Wandering Star. He ends his novel with a final nod to the universal messiah myth. Le Clézio has one of characters yearn for what may be impossible, a "Child of the sun" who will be born to usher in a new world.
"He would be the child of the sun," Le Clézio writes from within the voice of one of his characters, "he would be part of me forever, made up of my flesh and blood, my land, my sky. He would be carried by the waves of the ocean all the way to the sandy beach where we landed, where we were born. His bones would be the white stone of Mount Carmel and the boulders of Gelas and his flesh the red earth of the hills of Galilee, his blood would be the spring-water, the water in the torrent of Saint-Martin, the muddy water of the Stura and the water in Jesus’ well. In his body the force and agility of the shepherds, in his eyes would shine the light of Jerusalem. When I wandered in the hills in Ramat Yohanan over the dusty groves of the avocado groves, I had felt it already, the presence, the power. How could the others understand? They had a family, a place of birth, they had memories, I had nothing but that ball in my womb that would appear... a hole that opened onto another world, onto a dream..."
How could others understand? might be the most salient of all the questions Le Clézio is asking. Sometimes it the work of the novel and the novelist to give us the tools of empathy and the insights of universality to be able to answer.