J. M. G. Le Clézio
(Curbstone Press)When we first meet Esther, she is but a child, living in a mountain area on the French-Italian border. It's 1944. Italy has surrendered, and the Germans are moving in. She and her mother and all the Jews in the village must cross over into Italy to avoid the SS.After the war, she and her mother begin their long journey to France, to the sailing ship Sette Fratelli which will take them to Israel. All of their wanderings are to avoid the forces of the state: the Italian soldiers, the German soldiers, the French soldiers --- and, finally, the English patrolling the Mediterranean and blocking the entries into Israel.Thus Esther and her mother as refugees are the prototypes of the Wandering Jew --- moving, moving constantly to avoid the hate and violence directed towards them and their people.Despite the implicit violence, Wandering Star has a gentleness to it: the religious services --- held on the run, as it were --- with "deep voiced chanting of aïe, aïe, aïe." The valleys and mountains and rivers that Esther and her mother pass through in their endless journeys:
Never had Esther seen such a lovely place. Between the rounded masses of the rocks, moss spread making a carpet, and a little higher up on the left there was a little sandy beach where the waves of the torrent plashed gentles ... the place looked to Esther like the image of paradise.
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This would be just another book of the terror and sufferings of the diaspora if it weren't for an astonishing chapter, perhaps the most tragic in the book, entitled "Nejma."
When Esther finally arrives in Jerusalem, she briefly meets and exchanges names with Nejma, a Palestinian, another wanderer, one who ends up, in the summer of 1948, in the Nour Chams Refugee Camp.
If the journeys and losses of Esther have been harsh and dispiriting, life in Nour Chams is one of bitter deprivation. Thousands of Palestinians are held behind barbed wire, dependent on the United Nations truck to bring what the children call "Flour!... Flour!... Milk!... Flour!" each week.
But then the truck stops coming, the wells dry up, and Nejma wonders if they are all to die:
The Nour Chams Camp is undoubtedly the very end of the world because it seems to me that beyond this point there can be nothing else, there is no hope left. The days begin adding up. They are just like the fine dust that comes from nowhere, invisible and intangible, that covers everything, your clothing, the roofs of the tents, your hair and even your skin. I can feel the weight of that dust, it mingles with the water drink. I can taste it in my food and on my tongue when I wake in the morning.
Le Clézio is a subtle writer, a gentle reporter on one of the most underreported seismic events of the 20th Century --- the immense number of refugees that have been and are crowding camps in all parts of the world: people without a state, without a home, without a hope --- living in treeless, waterless, makeshift camps with the most minimal resources, often in near-starvation.
When the adults stop building fires, the children stop playing and the dogs start dying, you are sure that you have reached the end of the world, the end of any hope.
If Le Clézio had written solely of the Palestinian or Jewish refugees, this would be an affecting novel. By taking no sides, by showing the agony of all --- he has produced a near masterpiece.--- Ignacio Schwartz