Europe is in the midst of a battle over its heart concerning immigrants. Despite most nations on the continent considering themselves homes to liberal, tolerant, and welcoming democracies, many of the parties gaining traction across the continent have done so by promoting far-right anti-immigration reforms. Golden Dawn in Greece, National Front in France, UKIP in the UK, Pegida in Germany: each party has a slightly different focus, but they all agree the problems of Europe come down to the immigrants.
Europe’s hesitation between indifference and outright distaste has led to some nasty results. Not only is hate crime up in many places, immigrants (or, more kindly, refugees) are finding little sympathy for their desperate and dangerous attempts to reach the security of European shores. Attempts to float over on rafts have been coming to disastrous ends for years, and that is partly due to the lack of funds from EU nations to prevent such tragedies.
Not that this is all outlandish cruelty on the part of Europeans. It’s easy to demonize immigrants in hard economic times. They are the most obvious target to mark as “other,” especially in old and formerly homogenous cultures. Those sympathetic to the rise of anti-immigration parties will remind their countrymen how many immigrants go on benefits, how much crime and poverty they bring with them, how different and sometimes intolerant the beliefs are they bring with them. And how tired everyone is of hearing the guilt they should bear for the deeds of their ancestors.
In such a climate, art has an important place in pushing against these easy arguments. JMG Le Clezio’s 1980 novel Desert does an amazing job of fighting back today.
The novel follows two narratives on opposite ends of the 20th century. The first takes place in the early years of the last century. A boy named Nour follows his family on a religious crusade against the “Christians:” the invading French military as they cross perilous desert to the face an inevitable, crushing defeat.
The other narrative lacks a definite date but is certainly in the postwar period, perhaps the ‘60s or ‘70s. Here, we meet a girl named Lalla: a descendent of the great mystics and warriors of Nour’s time. She travels from a shacktown outside an unnamed Moroccan city to the streets of Marseille where she observes the struggles of displaced people from all over the world.
The cost of colonialism is always on the fringes of both stories, ignorable for most of it if you don’t want to see it but constantly devastating to the people we encounter. Nour is on the march towards a war against little more than the euphemism “Christian,” but the broken and traumatized people he meets tell us how calamitous the French campaign has been. Lalla grows up surrounded by the shiftless and impoverished who are only in this position because no opportunities exist in the Project. The two stories are united by a sense of unquenchable thirst and hunger: a need that goes far deeper than physical wanting.
Throughout the story, both characters seek a true home. Lalla gazes out over the sea towards Europe and over the desert towards the Sahara her people once claimed as their own. Neither place quite belongs to her, both reject her in different ways. That she is caught between worlds at all is the result of Nour’s tale: the failure to keep the desert for the people it belonged to.
No one in the story ever finds the home they seek. The characters are always marching and searching, never quite comfortable in their settings. They are always telling tales of a time before or after, looking for a place in memory or fable: a place in the past or in the future where they belong. When they collide with their true position, they lose the last energy that they held within themselves. The broken soldiers and dying families that Nour watches in the desert stare out with hopeless eyes, moving forward because there is nothing else to do, certain only that they have no destination to go to.
Because, where are such people to go? Many around Lalla build up a romance about Europe. A single lyric is on Lalla’s lips throughout the story — Mediterrane-e-e. But once she crosses that sea, the dreams she heard as a child don’t match up to the tough and unloving city on the other side. The people are hard and indifferent. Immigrants of every stripe find there is no place for them in the city except in the poorest areas and amongst themselves.
And the spiritual strength that has always supported Lalla begins to fade just as it did from the warriors around Nour. Once the dream begins to die, she can do nothing but flee.
Le Clezio is expert at depicting the impossible life the peoples of former colonies are left to live. Their traditions and lands are gone, converted into something unrecognizable. They are poor and purposeless, alien in their own homes and filled with unexplainable longing. The logical choice is to go where life is said to be good. What they find when they arrive is they are no more welcome and of no more use on these new shores.
But Le Clezio is not interested in blame. The citizens of Marseille are simply busy and unaccustomed to helping the poor around them. When Lalla falls, many sympathetic eyes go out to her, though few stop to actually do anything. Still, there are moments of compassion from the pedestrians that are priceless to her. Not even the French military is depicted hatefully. From their perspective, they are chasing down men who have killed their governors and their soldiers. They see Nour’s people as barbarians known for their cruelty.
Desert seeks to avoid the simplicity of blame. It tries to explain how things are, not who should feel bad for them. Le Clezio gives Nour, Lalla, and their people dignity, originality, and humanity that can get lost in the complications of history. For the people caught between worlds today and in the past, we are left with some much needed compassion.