Book Review: Wandering Star by J. M. G. Le Clézio

What to do with the weight of expectations? The French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio is not well known in the English-speaking world, and many of us might never have heard of him had he not been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Now we have had the pleasure of that introduction, but because of the prize, we also feel the burden of expecting greatness.

Greatness probably can't be ascribed to any author based on the reading of one fairly short book. Nonetheless, Le Clézio's 2004 novel Wandering Star is unquestionably a work of power and beauty even in this suboptimal translation.

It tells the story of Esther/Hélène, a girl from a secular Jewish family forced by the Nazi invasion to flee their home in Nice. In the countryside, in a small village, under the dubious protection of the less-murderous Italian military, she comes of age.

Eventually Esther reaches Israel, where she encounters Nejma, a Palestinian refugee her own age. We read Nejma's story in a separate section, but the contrast between the trajectories of the two lives is clear, and crushing.

Having borne many trials but escaped the full horror of the Final Solution, Esther has arrived at her promised land. Israel's War for Independence is raging, and it seems life for her is an endless whirl of destruction, yet she is a survivor. But in order for the Jewish refugees to establish their homeland, another people – Nejma's – is uprooted and transformed into refugees themselves, persecuted in their turn not by murderous armies bent on genocide – though plenty die in battle – but by starvation and disease. Though the two girls meet but once, their dual stories comprise a singular tale of the nightmare of war, and the promise – and tragedy – of human migrations.

The translation has problems. Not having the original French in front of me, I don't know to what extent the translator, C. Dickson, has adhered to Le Clézio's French sentence constructions. But whether from too-literal rendering, or carelessness, or some other reason, too many sentences must be read twice. The reason is nonstandard punctuation, primarily the use of commas to create run-on sentences, and other careless constructions: "Elizabeth had followed her into the bushes, she caught up with her on the bank of the river, breathless, her legs scratched from the brambles."

The poetry of the writing blasts through nonetheless, even in passages such as the above. It burns down like the desert heat beating down on Nejma as she passes her days in a refugee camp at what feels like the end of the world. In the following passage, Nejma, who has grown up by the sea but now languishes in the dry, dusty camp, has just witnessed a young pregnant woman being bathed, her "long braids twirled around on her back like wet snakes."

Outside the sun was still dazzling. The camp was heavy with dust, with silence. Before nightfall, I was up on top of the hill, my ears filled with the sounds of water and the droning voice of the old woman. Perhaps I had stopped seeing the camp through the same eyes. It was as if everything had changed, as if I had just arrived, as if I were unfamiliar with the stones, the dark houses, the horizon obstructed by the hills, the dried-up valley scattered with scorched trees where the sea never comes.

Through Esther's life story and Nejma's, Le Clézio bathes even the muddy or humdrum moments in muted light like this. Yet the girls' suffering is almost palpable, both Nejma's physical destitution and Esther's literal and psychological displacement. Esther lives on, a survivor; Nejma's fate remains cloudy. But having read their stories, so different and so similar, we are left with one rock-solid truth: there is no simple right or wrong.

And there is a second truth, this one buried in the author's way of telling itself.  It's Keats's youthful truth, that beauty is truth and truth beauty. This truth, carried to us on the wings of great art and literature, can survive the worst of times – however unexpectedly.