SURESH RAMPHUL

10-year-old Mondo is on his own. Where he comes from or why he has come to the town, none knows. He’s illiterate. No one knows anything about his family. To people he meets, he asks if they want to adopt him. He’s lively and sensitive to the beauty of the sea. He feels free. He values his freedom. He comes across a number of people from whom he has something or other to learn. Mondo is a character in Mondo et autres histoires by J.M.G. Le Clézio (Collection Folio, Gallimard, 1978).

Lullaby is the story of a girl who bunks her classes on a particular day to enjoy the pleasures of the sea. At school, they don’t talk about green grass, flowers, birds and rivers. « Les filles sont bêtes à pleurer! Les garçons sont niais! Ils n’aiment que leurs motos et leurs blousons! » (page 91). She spends her time at the beach. The next time she goes to school, the Director wants to know if she had been out with a boyfriend. « J’étais caché dans les rochers et je regardais la mer », she replies (p 118).

Celui qui n’avait jamais vu la mer charts the experiences of Daniel. He finds a lot of things quite annoying, including school life. He’s a mediocre student. He’s poor. He has no friends. One day he disappears. Just like that. He’s attracted to the sea. « Sa grotte était une petite anfractuosité dans les rochers noirs ». It’s here that he lives « sans jamais quitter la mer des yeux » (p 177).    

Les bergers recounts the unique experiences of Gaspar who arrives in a desert, a place he’s not used to. He meets four children, including a little girl named Khaf. Gaspar integrates the group and he has much to learn about a culture alien to him.

Pattern

Certain elements come up again and again, like a leitmotif, in the stories. Gazing at the sea, for instance. Mondo « s’asseyait sur la plage, les bras autour de ses genoux, et il regardait le soleil se lever » (p 31). Lullaby rests for a long while against the column of a house « à regarder la mer » (p 95). Lullaby « se retourna pour regarder la mer » (p 106), « elle regarda encore la mer » (p 107). Daniel « s’assit sur le sable mouillé, et il regarda la mer monter » (p 173). Gaspar and his friends « regardaient sans bouger la plaine lointaine et ils sentaient comme une sorte de bonheur dans leurs corps » (p 260). Mondo sits for interminable minutes on the breakwater « à regarder les étincelles de la mer » (p 18); « De temps en temps, Mondo s’arrêtait pour regarder la côte » (p 17). The « regard » of these children underlines the fascination that the ocean or the desert exerts on them. In Le Chercheur d’Or (a novel), (Folio, Gallimard, 1985), the narrator, admiring the landscape, confesses, « Je crois que je pourrais rester en haut de cette meule pendant des heures, des jours, sans rien faire d’autre que regarder » (p 14). The writings become interesting when we ask ourselves what could be on the children’s mind on watching the sea so intently.

Mondo is attracted by a beautiful ancient house while Lullaby is « emerveillée » by a house facing the sea. Mondo could have arrived after a long travel « dans la soute d’un cargo, ou dans le dernier wagon d’un train de marchandises qui avait roulé lentement à travers le pays, jour après jour, nuit après nuit » (p 12). Daniel, too, could have arrived « à bord d’un long train de marchandises qui avait roulé jour et nuit pendant longtemps » (p 170).

A mysterious air surrounds the adolescents. Mondo comes from nowhere. Lullaby goes to the seaside all alone. Daniel vanishes from school. Lullaby likes loitering with the wind whistling in her hair « sans savoir où elle allait » (p 85). Mondo loves « se promener sans but » (p 14). Daniel, on leaving school, « ne savait pas où il allait » (p 171).

Daniel looks at the sea avidly « comme s’il voulait savoir en un instant tout ce que la mer pouvait lui montrer » (p 175). Lullaby is eager to see the sea : « elle ne pensait à rien, elle ne voulait rien d’autre » (p 99). The seawater comes to touch the naked feet of Daniel (p 174); Lullaby sits so close to the water that « les vagues venaient lécher ses pieds » (p 101).

Daniel has the same desire to be possessive as Lullaby and Gaspar. « C’était bien la mer, sa mer, pour lui seul » (p 174).

The children may be separate in time and space yet what we understand is that their communion with the sea has much in common. The pattern serves as a link between the stories though some readers may find that the author tends to overdo it at times.

Discovery

There are things to learn from nature and from those around you. Le Clézio writes in Les bergers that you don’t learn them « avec les paroles, comme dans les écoles des villes ; on ne les apprenait pas de force, en lisant des livres » but you pick them up « sans s’en apercevoir » (p 290). How exactly it works remains vague, but « il suffit de les voir, de les entendre » (290-291). Gaspar learns to relate to strangers in the desert. He opens himself up to their culture and learns about their lifestyle  –  how to hunt or build an « igloo en terre » in the traditional fashion or how to avert the dangers of an unknown place. He learns to be happy with what he has. He learns about the value of human warmth. The children do not speak the same language yet there’s a remarkable chemistry between them. There’s understanding. At night, the little girl dances to the sounds of a flute made from reeds. Gaspar « n’avait jamais entendu une musique comme celle-là » (p 289).

Gaspar becomes a part of the group. His “voyage” is physical and internal. Discovering new friends and a new environment is a wonderful experience for him. He enriches his life emotionally and also in knowledge. Daniel « grelottait de froid et de fatigue, mais il n’avait jamais connu un tel bonheur » (p 186). In these coming-of-age stories, the adolescents experience ecstasy, rapture and a sense of freedom. Mondo discovers what it means to caress an old person’s doves on the heads. He finds them marvellous. Gaspar digs a hole to trap a fox. They get a small one. The little girl gives it milk in the hollow of her hand. A friendship develops between the girl and the animal. Gaspar, we guess, learns about the necessity of living in harmony with animals.

Daniel befriends an octopus and names it Wiatt. He plunges his feet in the sea and « il sentit les tentacules qui touchaient légèrement sa peau, qui s’enroulaient autour de ses chevilles. Le poulpe le caressait… » (p 180). He wants to ask it how life is at the bottom of the sea. His moments at the sea can be said to be meaningful. He’s learning about life through discovery. Mondo will discover that people are kind to him. An old man will read to him from a magazine, an old Vietnamese woman, Thi Chin, will offer him shelter and affection.

Colour and Imagery

The children in Les bergers have faces « couleur de cuivre », their hair is « cuivre rose » (p 255). In the heat their cheeks are « rouge sombre », « d’une couleur qui ressemblait ò la terre » (p 257). They climb a hill to find « de gros blocs de rochers sombres et des monticules de sable rouge et jaune » ; the plain is dominated by « une falaise blanche qui étendait son ombre noire » (p 260). A desert hare is « couleur de sable » (p 264). « Les dunes de sable étaient couleur d’or et de cuivre » (p 265). The little girl’s happy eyes resemble the colour of grass and water. In the morning, the hills have « la couleur de cuivre » (p 268). The lake’s water is the colour of metal. Gaspar finds a white bird in the grey water of the marsh. In Mondo, the boy sees an elderly with a rake on the beach; his body is the colour of « pain brûlé » (p 59).

Another feature of the stories that enchants is imagery. Coldness comes out from the earth « comme le souffle d’une cave » (p 262). The moon is like « un phare au-dessus de l’horizon » (p 264) ; the full moon « éclairait comme une lampe » (p 262). We see the children walking and « les lames d’herbe lacéraient leurs visages comme des fouets » (p 266). (In the opening paragraphs of the novel Ėtoile Errante (Folio, Gallimard, 1992), Le Clézio describes a 13-year-old girl called Esther walking by a grassy field « juste assez pour sentir la fraîcheur de la terre, les lames coupantes contre ses lèvres »). Gaspar and his friends crawl in the grasses like serpents while hunting. Mondo watches « l’arroseur public » and the « tuyau qui tressautait comme un serpent » (13). In the story Celui qui n’avait pas vu la mer, Daniel has hair falling over his eyes « comme des algues » ; « les algues mortes fouettaient ses jambes… Daniel les arrachait comme des serpents » (p 176). The grey tentacles of an octopus « jaillissaient comme des fouets » (p 181). Salt inside him « rongeait et crissait comme une poussière de verre » (p 183). In the story La rose d’or, « la brume entra les rives, ò la vitesse d’un radeau (p 150); « la terre rouge est cassée comme les vieux pots » (p 150).

Such images contribute towards the prose-cum-poetic style of the writer. They appeal to our emotion and make reading a delightful and memorable experience. Imagery and colour (as well as sunlight, clouds and darkness) make the stories amazingly atmospheric. Images stick to the mind like seashells to rocks. However, when the same words or images keep occurring in different stories and novels, one tends to get tired.

Concerns          

Metaphorically, the sea or the desert may here be standing for a return to nature. We don’t see the adolescents struggling with conflicts or facing upsetting situations. They relate well to others and take pleasure in the simplest things of life. They are interested in the here and now. Their world is one of innocence  –  a world where every moment is a gift. They experience nature in all its glory. Their idyllic world is depicted in poetic language. One could interpret the children’s experiences as rites of passage.

Le Clézio’s stories are heart-warming. They speak of kindness, compassion, purity of the heart and  mind, friendship, survival instinct, and love. In Stray Birds Rabindranath Tagore writes, “We live in this world when we love it.” If people had loved this world, there wouldn’t have been so many massacres as a result of wars, and so much damage done to the environment. Adults have much to learn from children.

The stories bear a fairy-like quality; they explore the imaginary yet they are very much grounded in reality. They are rich visually as well as in sounds.