Alfred Kazin once said of Hemingway that he “brought a major art to a minor vision of life.” To judge from the novel The Prospector, the same could be said of its author, the 2008 Nobel laureate J.M.G Le Clézio.
The beauty of Le Clézio’s language is undeniable. His novel, set mostly on the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, captures the beauty and sensuality of the tropics as few have done. The thoughts of the narrator, a young man named Alexis L’Etang (though his name is rarely mentioned) are rendered with sensitivity. Yet because this sophisticated veneer is applied to what is essential a boys’ adventure story, the effect is peculiar — as if The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were rewritten by Proust.
Alexis grows up with his parents and his sister Laure in an idyllic setting whose significance is underscored by the big chalta tree (sometimes called an elephant apple) that Laure refers to as the tree of good and evil.
Alexis’s father is an educated man and a bit of a dreamer. His project to bring electricity to the island is ruined by a violent storm, and bankrupts the family. The L’Etangs are expelled from their paradise to a damp homestead elsewhere on the island.
Alexis’s father dies, and Alexis takes up one of his projects that is even less practical than the electrification scheme: he will seek out the fortune buried by the legendary Unknown Corsair, whom his father devoted many hours to researching. In short, he will go look for pirate treasure.
Alexis sails away and spends the next several years drawing maps and digging holes in the back country of Rodrigues, while his mother and sister struggle with poverty. Though the novel is translated as The Prospector, Alexis is in fact much more a treasure hunter than a prospector. The original title is Le chercheur d’or, and in fact The Seeker of Gold would do a better job of capturing its spirit of romance and impracticality.
A young native woman named Ouma saves him from exposure one day, and he soon falls in love with this child of nature who spends her days roaming the coastline and harpooning fish. To stay with Ouma would be reasonable, though selfish, but what he does now makes even less sense. On a visit to Mauritius he learns that the Great War has broken out, and sees some local men being drafted into the army, which they accept as a great adventure. Alexis knows that they are heading off toward likely death — yet he steps up to volunteer.
What can you say about a character like this? And what can you say about this stew of Treasure Island, the Book of Genesis, and The Blue Lagoon that has not already been said in Edward Said’s Orientalism? (The Washington Post Book World — which liked the book — found elements of Paul et Virginie, Robinson Crusoe, and Indiana Jones.)
But despite all this, The Prospector is worth reading for passages like this one:
When the tide was very low, as it was early in the morning, the black rocks became visible. There were great dark pools, too, and others so clear you could almost believe that light came from them. At the bottom the sea urchins were violet spheres, anemones opened their blood-red corollas, and jellyfish slowly waved their long, hairy arms. I stared into the depths of the pools while the distance Denis prodded for octopus with the point of his stick.