My name is John Shakespear. I'm a Cambridge boy, a compa-rative literature student, and – you guessed it – one of the summer interns at Godine. When we were recently moving shop to our new office at 15 Court Square, my fellow intern Ellie and I packed up the reference library and occasionally a book would catch our eye. I noticed the name J.M.G. Le Clézio, and I wound up picking up his book Desert.
I was drawn in by Desert's opening pages, which depict the dreamlike descent of a tribe to a long-awaited oasis, and I took the book with me and resolved to find out more about Le Clézio. I learned that J.M.G. stood for Jean-Marie Gustave, that he won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, and that he spoke at the 2011 Seoul International Forum for Literature in May. In the days leading up to that event, Le Clézio gave a very interesting interview with Lee Sun-Min of the Korea JoongAng Daily in which he talked about the role of literature in our modern, globalizing world. Here's what he had to say:
“The subject the forum is going to talk about – the globalizing world and the human community – has been talked about frequently at many other forums as well worldwide. However, it is still important, it is discussed over and over again, since literature is something that travels across national borders. Of course, there is a limit, since the original words of literature are written in a (native) language. But as long as they deal with factors and ideas that all human beings can sympathize with, they will carry their power.
I heard this story, if you take a picture of all the human races and show 20 pictures every second, people cannot tell who’s Asian and who’s African and who’s European. Eventually, all the faces appearing look the same. This shows that there is something universally inherent in humans. What literature needs to do is find that inherent universal thing in humankind and let more people know about it.”
Le Clézio’s faith in the power of literature to tap into universal, borderless human experiences and sentiments is at the heart of his 1980 novel Desert, which was first published in English translation by Godine in 2008 and has now become an eBook. The sprawling, beautiful narrative crosses national borders and the first half of the 20th century as it tells the parallel tales of one son and one daughter of a nomadic Saharan tribe called the Blue Men. What really struck me about Desert was Le Clézio’s ability to use language to pull me off of my couch, out of my air-conditioned apartment – in short, out of my comfortable life – and into a world governed by very elemental and immediate human needs. Thirst, hunger, spiritual nourishment, staying warm – these are all essential aspects of what it means and has always meant to be human, but they can lose their immediacy for those who, like me, are lucky enough to live fairly comfortably. It was refreshing to read Le Clézio’s elemental, sensory prose, which draws out the natural danger and beauty inherent in those basic realities.
The rest of the interview can be found here. The eBook edition of Desert is now available at the Google eBookstore.