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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Prospector

J.M.G. Le Clézio

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To purchase The Prospector

Title: The Prospector
Author: J.M.G. Le Clézio
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 338 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Prospector - US
The Prospector - UK
The Prospector - Canada
Le chercheur d'or - Canada
The Prospector - India
Le chercheur d'or - France
Der Goldsucher - Deutschland
Il cercatore d'oro - Italia
El buscador de oro - España
  • French title: Le chercheur d'or
  • Translated by Carol Marks
  • Now also available in a translation by C.Dickson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : evocative novel of lost personal paradise

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 22/11/1993 Michael Harris
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/1994 Susan Ireland
The Spectator* . 4/6/2016 Ruth Scurr
TLS . 4/10/1985 David Gascoyne
The Washington Post . 2/1/1994 Dominic Di Bernardi

(* refers to review of a different translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Le Clezio has written it in a lyrical, leisurely style, full of foreshadowings and echoes, that is fiction's equivalent to a film director's use of soft focus. (...) The Prospector is a slow read, unlikely to appear any time soon at a drugstore near you. But it has beauty and power, and an ending that surprises and haunts us with its desolation." - Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times

  • "With its echoes of other famous quests, Alexis's search takes on mythical proportions and brings him face-to-face with the elemental forces of nature. The lyrical descriptions of the land and seascapes powerfully convey the entrancing rhythm of the waves that carry him on his journey and make The Prospector a novel of intense beauty." - Susan Ireland, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Setting aside the question as to which of these competent and elegant translations is marginally better, it seems more interesting to consider why, more than three decades after it first appeared in France, The Prospector is a promising portal to the imagination of Le Clézio. (...) Dickson’s translation captures the hypnotic ebb and flow of Le Clézio’s prose. (...) Le Clézio lulls the reader into a hypnotic state, and the power of his prose reliably survives translation. His characters, lightly, almost mythically, sketched, often lie awake at night ‘eyes wide, listening to the rustling of the rain’, and so do his enthralled readers." - Ruth Scurr, The Spectator

  • "It may well be supposed that Le Clézio's readers find his work attractive because, while scarcely distinguished by concern with the invention of individual "characters" in the conventional sense, it expresses an unusual sensibility towards a dimension wherein human beings can breathe naturally in response to the seasonal rhythms of the planet, and thereby recover some hope of achieving ultimate wholeness and serenity." - David Gascoyne, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Prospector offers a wonderful one-volume compendium of all the grand myths rooted in the European colonial experience, combining elements from Paul et Virginie, Robinson Crusoe, and Indiana Jones. (...) Yet despite his lyricism, Le Clezio is decidedly anti-romantic. (...) Le Clezio has perfected a swift-moving, plain-speaking style, well served in this English translation. At times his overriding ambition to achieve the transparency of myth leads him to the sort of overstatement which flattens the emotional impact of his prose. But such missteps are few. This old-fashioned adventure tale ultimately leaves a postmodern aftertaste." - Dominic Di Bernardi, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Prospector is narrated by Alexis L'Etang, and begins with a description of his boyhood in late nineteenth-century Mauritius. With an unsuccessful father who tries to get the family out of their desperate financial straits but only winds up making things even worse, his childhood, shared with his beloved sister, in the isolated Boucan valley, home-schooled by their mother, is nevertheless idyllic:

     We never saw anyone during the time at Boucan, and Laure and I became utter savages.
       He always revels in nature -- and the sea --, but nature also turns on them with a vengeance, as a cyclone rips through the country and devastates all in its path, literally dashing their father's last hopes. They settle in Forest Side, but: "At Forest Side, so far away from the sea, there was no real life", and here and at school Alexis retreats into a fantasy world of 'the Unknown Corsair', this privateer's lost treasure becoming Alexis' holy grail. It is something to cling to, just as his sister Laure holds fast to his promise to take her to Mananava -- "the dark valley where the rain was born and where we had never dared go" --, an escape from this awful everyday world. Even when they are still young:
for Laure and me the best was when we spoke of the day -- far away, of course -- when we would return home, to Mauritius, like old adventurers trying to recapture their childhood.
       And it is this nostalgia for their primal childhood world that accompanies Alexis everywhere, and drives him.
       He makes good his escape from a dreary job and goes treasure-hunting; the riches tempt, but it is the memory of childhood and his father that move him -- and the opportunity to be at one, first with the sea and then with nature, that make the quest a satisfying one. "I am as adrift in this lonely valley as I was on the vast ocean", he observes after he has lost track of how long he has been there ("How many days, or months ?"), but it is hardly a complaint. He is certain of his quest, as he was certain before he came that: "Something or someone awaits me."
       It is someone that he finds: Ouma, the ideal of the reborn savage -- not a savage who has been 'civilised', but rather someone who has returned to a more basic way of life after civilisation turned its back on her:
It was difficult in the beginning for me to live here because I didn't know anything about the Manaf way of life. I didn't know how to do anything. I couldn't run or fish or make a fire. I didn't even know how to swim. And I couldn't speak because no one spoke French, even my mother only spoke Bhojpuri and creole. It was terrible. I was fourteen years old yet I was like a little child.
Then I began to learn all that I didn't know. I learned to run barefoot on the rocks, to catch a kid while it was running, to make a fire, and to swim and dive for fish. I learned how to be a Manaf, to live like the maroons by hiding in the mountains. But I also liked being here with them because they never lie and they never hurt anyone.
       Despite the happiness Alexis finds with Ouma he enlists to fight in World War I -- even as he feels: "like running away, going back to my valley where no one will be able to find me, disappearing without a trace into Ouma's world among the reeds and dunes." To Le Clézio's credit, he never makes it easy for Alexis, torn between duties even as his fantasy seems almost within reach. Alexis survives the European battlefields, and returns -- "Freedom at last: the sea" is the first great sigh of relief after the horror is over. Eventually he's back on track again, now his search for the treasure coupled with his search for Ouma -- though it's only when he takes up a job as a plantation foreman that their paths finally cross again -- and, for a time, he finds happiness in Mananava, "the most mysterious place in the world":
Our life on Mananava, far from other people, is like an exquisite dream. We live like primitives, concerned only with the trees, coves, grass, and water flowing from the springs in the red cliffs.
       Ah, yes: "Nothing is complicated here." But outside forces do make for complications, leaving Alexis once again to set out on a quest .....
       Le Clézio romanticizes and glorifies the primitive, and he does so fairly obviously. To shed civilisation and run barefoot is wonderful, while the colonial masters and those working within the system are destructive elements, the bane of humanity. Yet his paean to nature and the return to the primal and paradisiacal (yes, it is: "the tree of good and evil that stands at the entrance to Mananava") is tempered by a realism that makes the story one that is considerably deeper than the typical abandon-civilisation/retreat-into-the-jungle story. The lush, often dreamy descriptions are certainly appealing, but Le Clézio does not get carried away (solely) by them; Alexis and his fate (which feels very much like a fate) are convincing.
       The Prospector is a mix of adventure story, social critique, battlefield memoir, love story, family tale, and somehow the stew works. It moves unexpectedly, advancing in spurts past recurring periods where all sense of time is lost. In a way, Le Clézio is so obvious in his message -- his embrace of the 'savage' life, and a love of nature and the sea -- that he transcends it: he's not trying to convince anyone, because to him it is such a given -- and that makes it much easier to take than works where authors try to demonstrate the superiority of a more basic way of life.
       A fine, almost too rich read.

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The Prospector: Reviews (* refers to review of a different translation): Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio: Other books by J.M.G. Le Clézio under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born in 1940. He was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature.

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