On reading as true travel

Translated from the French By Julia Abramson, U. of Oklahoma. Updated by Pavel Kantor into American English, plus correcting some grammatical errors, 10/2016.


It is in reading that I first found evidence of alterity. First, it was in my childhood reading of the collected issues of the Journal des Voyages from the years 185-70, a present from a friend of my grandfather who bore the astounding name of Claudius-Veran.

I read the journals as if they were about the current news; they presented the world as a mystery to which the key must be found: unreal, ghostly Africa, where the other - the African - always wears a mask, stripped of humanity, belonging to the animal kingdom. 

I had known Africa, at the age of eight, during a trip to the Ibo country, where I met my father for the first time, doubtless the only traveling I had ever done. Fortunately, the imperialist fantasy of the Journal was exorcised by the reserve of emotions, intuitions, recollections that the real Africa had given me the smell of the earth after tropical rains, the vault of the forests on the road to Abakaliki, the mountain where gorillas lived near Obudu, the steppe scattered with giant termitaries around Ogoja, on the bank of the Cross River. 

Those were the last days of colonial society, its terror, and banality. Day after day, the voice of the BBC spread news of the extortion of the leopard-men in the Congo and the Kikuyu in Kenya. Soon rebellion would come to Morocco, war to Indochina and Algeria. 

Very early on, I got the feeling that the principal function of books was not to distract but instead to take the measure of things. Doubtless, I will never be able to locate precisely the memory of reading Don Quixote, Treasure Island, or Lazarillo de Tormes knowing nothing of literature; the books spoke inside me then, in my language, as if they were my memory. I paid more attention then to the woodblock prints illustrating the old editions, to the drawings by Tony Johannot or Gustave Dore, to the engravings in the Hetzel edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. 

The world's mystery cannot be found through exploration; magic resides preferably in the world's possible power.

During the time I am remembering, there still appeared in the Atlases (The Advanced Atlas of Modern Geography by Bartholomew) immense "frozen regions" and rivers such as the upper Xingu that disappeared into stippling toward the source.

Jack London, Jean Malaurie, P.E. Victor, Colonel Fawcett were the last explorers: those who brought the stuff of dreams back for children, growing close to and distantly witnessing their savage beginnings. 

On the eve of an era of exploitation, on the morrow of one of the greatest crimes organized by modern society, must we not believe in savage man, in the wolf-child, in the lost world of some valley in New Guinea, so that we may exorcise fear, racial hatred, the sterilization of the police city? 

The Infinite Library. Later, when my father returned from Africa, I discovered a universe of reading in books which had returned to us through the play of inheritances, having belonged to my great-grandfather Sir Eugene, a judge on the Supreme Court of Mauritius. They were the only treasure I will ever find. 

All of those books were fabulous, bearing my ancestor's spindly signature on the first page. They were bound in leather, decoratively stamped in gold, at once dreadful and attractive in their Second Empire cases. It was those books which gave me a feeling for the strangeness and natural force emanating from printed volumes. Once opened, the books offered up their nourishment, and even as a child (I was between ten and fourteen years of age) I could partake of it. 

Aside from the great classics - Horace, Lucretius, Rabelais, Goethe - and the romantics - Hugo, Heredia, Vigny, Longfellow, it was the extraordinary travel narratives which influenced me more than anything else I read or experienced. 

I will cite a few of the titles, not in the order in which I read them, but according to their arrangement on the bookshelves devoted to them and reverently inventoried by my mother. 

Shelf 1: Souvenirs de la Reunion (1853); Bory de Saint-Vincent, Voyage dans les quatre ties de la mer d'Afrique (1804); Tombe, Voyage aux Indes Orientales (1810); Marchand, Voyage autour du monde (Year VI of the Republic); Cook, Voyage aux Mers du Sud; Duchesne, Atlas des plantes utiles et veneneuses; the Voyage by Francois Leguat (1708); and a little book which immediately set me dreaming, Projet de republique a l'Ile d'Eden by Marquis Henri du Quesne, published by Sauzier in 1887. 

Shelf 2: Abbe de Caille, Voyage au Cap de Bonne Esperance (1763); La Bourdonnais, Memoires (1752); Souchu de Rennefort, Histoire des Indes Orientales (1668); Luillier, Voyage aux Indes (1762); Dubois, Voyage aux iles dauphines (1674). 

Shelf 3: Le Gentil, Voyage dans I'Inde (1777); De Laval, Voyage de Pirard (1679); De Flacourt, Histoire de Madagascar (1661); Relations veritables & curieuses de Madagascar & Bresil (1651); Drury's Madagascar (1807); Lacombe, Voyage a Madagascar (1840); Abbe Rochon, Voyage a Madagascar (1802); Voyage de Benyoski (1761); Le Vaillant, Voyage a l'intdrieur de l'Afrique (1750); Haussman, Voyage en Chine (1847); Dumont d'Urville, Voyage au Pole sud (1842); Marco Pollo, Le Livre des merveilles (1865), Billard, Voyage aux colonies orientales (1825); Voyage age a l'Arabie heureuse (1716); Prince Roland Bonaparte, Voyage en Insulinde (1884); Regnon, Madagascar et le Roi Radama (1865). 

Shelf 4: Albert Pitot, Ile Maurice (18m); Charles Grant, History of Mauritius (1802); Milbert, Voyage a l'Ile de France (1901); Adrien d'Epinay, a manuscript titled L'Ile de France (1901), Bojer, Hortus Mauritianus (1857); D'Unienville, Ile Maurice (1885); Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage a l'Ile Maurice (1773); Pierre Poivre, Voyage d'un philosophe (1794); Charles Baissac, Etude du patois creole (1888); Matou, Les Guepes mauriciennes (1862); Pajot, Simples renseignements sur Bourbon (1878). 

On the Island as Myth

In principle, to grow up in a culture is to accept all of its limitations. It is possible that literature exists uniquely to force us to transgress such limits. If French literature is a territoriality, how can one conceive of Rimbaud alongside Racine, Peguy next to Radiguet, Saint-Exupery with Nelligan? Can all of Proust be summed up as the pure exploration of a zone in Greater Paris, of membership in a particular community? If I thrill at hearing the sound of the bell which sets off memory's movement at the moment Swann pushes open the garden door, is it not because there exists another territory, drawn in language? 

Literature brought me liberty

Was it indeed inconceivable to be French, raised in the almost military discipline of a provincial lycee during a postwar period hesitating between civic republicanism and monarchic Catholicism, and at the same time troubled, haunted as if by a dream of an island so distant (in an era in which chartered flights did not exist, and an airmail letter took a week to reach us from Mauritius via London and Paris) that it seemed stricken, not with unreality, but with unknowability and immoderation?

An island to which we did not go. An island on which nobody imagined taking a vacation, damned as it was by memories of slavery, malaria, and cyclones. An island like the moon, an island like Eden, an island from which we had been irreparably and definitively excluded, and which persisted all the same as a hidden motive, nostalgia, reference, memory. 

Reading, instead of the Figaro or the Times, the Mauricien-Cerneen (a paper founded, it was said, by the one whose signature had been scratched on the first page of the books I read), and evoking, at every turn, like a vain litany, names familiar and strange: Eureka, Moka, Curepipe, Vacoas, Mon Desert-Alma, Pamplemousses, la Montagne Ory, Le Pouce, le Pieter Both, Le Morne Brabant.

Names I could not share with anybody else in Nice, just as I could not share this useless knowledge of the Creole names for things and people; the soft speech of the islands with its singsong accent must be hidden on pain of being a white Negro in a land of exile. 

An island where, in the end, people tread as on an open book. 

That Exoticism Is Imposture. Conrad, Kipling, Haggard, Loti, Segalen searched less to express disorientation than wandering, the impossibility of being entirely oneself (unique, logical). Through writing they lived what the adventuress Isabelle Eberhart had experienced in her life, had wanted, she said, to possess Africa, and having been possessed by Africa. Likewise, Delacroix, Gauguin, or the photographer Curtis, fixing on his plates the last free moments of the North American Indians. 

Exoticism is a contemporary plague. It is ballast - "margaritas" - the smooth glass pearls that the conqueror Cortes solemnly exchanged for the gold necklace decorated with fish and shellfish offered by Moctezuma's ambassadors as a gesture of welcome, or the trinkets that the Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant gave to buy the island of Manhattan from the Indians. What territory would we exchange for our illusions? The plague is always the same, the conviction that the world may be sold and consumed, that it is but the object of our leisure, desire, desecration. The appetite of the affluent has surely never been greater. Swelling, it needs ever more salt, pepper, sex, and blood. Thus it conceals its impotence, its failings in imagining the other. 

But the world cannot be bought. It evades those who want to possess it. Humanity's great innovators were nomadic, living not off accidents but rather in relation, and they trespassed at every turn on territoriality's bounds. Turner, Van Gogh, Matisse, De Stall did not explore strange foreign lands, only captured elements of them: light, fleeting sensation; they were possessed by these. 

Anywhere Out of This World. The other, the here-beyond, is not at the antipodes, not overseas, not in the past. It is next door, in the eye of the octopus, in the dog's nose, in the tree's fluid skin, in the sandy desert, the ocean's movement, the slight trembling of a dreaming cat. 

What differentiates an Embera Indian from the Panamanian forest ("An Indian, just a man," said Michaux) from an inhabitant of the modern metropolis's glacial solitude is not intrinsic value. There are as many assassins and rapists, like many villains and hypocrites, in the one place as in the other. What differentiates them is not clothing or custom, is not dietetic or cosmetic, is not prettiness or ritual. It is more than the one has kept, the other lost. Bare feet on our earth-mother, lying down in warm cinders among our grandparents' bones, we unite dreams with myths, we eat and drink of history and anoint our skins with memory. 

Modernity's paradox is to give us the world and at the same time to exile us from it. Knowledge, television reports, sociological investigations should have freed us from all certainties. Instead, we have become impervious to intelligence, incapable of mysticism or trance. More than anything we dread suffering and death, and we close our eyes before the greatest crimes perpetrated against children in Africa, Latin America, the East, the Near East. We hate blood, and difference--be it only vestimentary--frightens us. In the name of rationality, we have closed ourselves behind our borders, and we have invented new demons possessing the face of the other. We have become dogmatic even in our tolerance. We are ready to go to war against those who do not think, do not pray, do not judge as we do, but we say nothing of the slavery to which poor countries have been reduced, nothing of border closings, nothing of abandoning the elderly and dissembling death. 

At times something stirs. The conformism and tactical forgetfulness encysting us ruptures sometimes, cedes before the pressure of the real. Something reaches us through foreign words, Ainu songs, ancient Tahitian myths, Sufi tears. Something continues to be born, in Quevedo's poetry or Rimbaud's, in Swift's tales, in Kabyle songs, or vibrates in our very core in the magical voices of Nat King Cole or Mahalia Jackson. We hear lessons taught by travelers and children. Light shines, we perceive the world is cracking and, beyond, true silence. 

J.M.G. LE CLEZIO (b. 1940 in Mauritius) is the prizewinning author of a dozen novels (from Le process-verbal of 1963 to Poisson d'Or of 1997), seven collections of short fiction, and numerous essays published both individually and in collected editions since 1966. His previous contributions to WLT were three short essays in the Autumn 1997 issue, a special number honoring him as the University of Oklahoma's 1997 Puterbaugh Fellow.

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