BOOK REVIEW: Painting, poetry and song combine for breathtaking read


Wandering Star

Translated by C. Dickson

Curbstone Press, 2008, 360 pp.
If a Romare Bearden painting, a Pablo Neruda poem and a Billie Holiday blues song were by means of an arcane alchemy combined to form some rare and breathtaking thing, it might be called “Wandering Star,” a stunning novel by the 2008 Noble Prize-winning French author J. M.G. Le Clezio, reprinted for the second time in English last year by Curbstone Press.

A sometimes odd patchwork of lyrical prose, experimental structure, novel juxtaposition of time along with a starkly devastating study of the nature of being, “Wandering Star” tells the story of Jewish daughter and mother fleeing the Nazis in France and Spain at the end of World War II and a chance encounter with a young Palestinian woman amidst the fire, smoke and famine that accompanied the founding of Israel.

In this rite of passage tale of things lost and found, Le Clezio traces the journey of Esther toward womanhood, spiritual kinship and human identity amidst exodus, ethnic cleansing and the now almost casual irony of genocide precipitating still other genocides. Death lingers long and hard in the southern hills and valleys painted by this French master, first as shadow and premonition and soon becoming palpable, industrial, driven on by a crazed capital fueled by a technology of hate. And yet Le Clezio manages to give the Grim Reaper air and light if not grace, as it emerges if not naturally then almost effortlessly from the pastoral landscape of war-torn France.

It enshrouds and educates Esther, daughter of a communist partisan fighting a mountain war forcing itself upon her first as presentiment and then when her farther disappears and mother and daughter flee, as shadow, just over there, lingering in the smiles, flowers and wind blowing through the mountain passes, combining giving rise first to fear, then flight, and finally into the arms of an almost certain fate.

The mountains are the occasion for Esther’s first blush with spirit felt but not understood in hymns and prayers of the Jewish refugees. Neither encouraged nor forbade by her atheist father and mother, religion, begins as curiosity for the young exile and then an almost physical need as she becomes drawn over and over to its call. And yet it is not a religion of tomes and dogma, for Esther cannot understand the language of the prayers but one of rhythm, heart and desire, a search and a yearning. Le Clezio returns to it over and again, sometimes numbingly so, as the mother and daughter pair arrive first in Italy, then France and then across an ocean and into a Zion torn from the flesh of long suffering people.

It is there that a chance encounter on a dusty road with another refugee, Nejma, a Palestinian girl, leaves a mark on Esther that will last her a lifetime. Nejma become a major if almost completely separate character in this unusual novel.

She too undergoes a rite of passage and travail as the war follows God’s chosen. Like Esther, she too falls from the grace of paternal embrace as tactics learned in the forests and ghettos of the European theater are now visited upon God’s country. Fleeing plague, wild dogs and wilder men she too sets out on journey that seems without end, literally for she is left by Le Clezio wandering in the desert, hanging like the reader, on what appear to be the author’s loose ends.

Experimental, beautiful, terrifying, sad, numbing, revealing, curious, and with a few loose threads, “Wandering Star” is a story whose end all must strive to tell.

Joe Sims ( is publisher of Political Affairs.