As JMG Le Clezio's "Onitsha" appears in an Indian edition, ANJANA RAJAN speaks to the celebrated French author
His serene expression combines well with his white hair and his wise eyes. It is a pleasure to chat with Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio, the celebrated French author, in town for the launch of his novel "Onitsha", translated into English by Alison Anderson and brought out as a paperback by Rupa France recently. He certainly seems a mellowed version of the writer whose early novel "La Guerre" (War, published in 1970) spoke of "the war of crimes and insults, the fury of glances, the explosion of thoughts" (La guerre des crimes et des insultes, la furie des regards, l'explosion de la pensee des cerveaux.) Le Clezio feels, "At the time I was writing that novel, for me there was evidence of this materialistic society taking over the traditional way of life. Where we have seen the old shops replaced by the supermarkets."He was also interested in the theory of colours and their potential to manipulate people's actions. "To me it was more and more evident we were living in a very dry society, and the merchants were taking for themselves the use of the senses (through advertising), but it was not a source of joy. For me, these were elements of the war. They were tricks."
The commercialisation of India, with the "malling" of its landscape, comes to mind, but Le Clezio is now a calmer man. "It was a rather naïve approach to the supermarket society. I was very young and the society was very young."Were his misgivings proved wrong then? Not entirely, but the supermarket and the smaller shops can live side by side, feels the author who still writes his manuscripts by hand on paper. Aggression, of course, exists everywhere, yet there is a worse violence, he feels. "Now with the development of world terrorism... it is something I would not have expected. The development of ideology is more dangerous."As for India, though here for the first time (unless you count a transit stop 30 years ago), he seems perfectly at home in this country of crowds and contrasts, multiple languages and a burgeoning urban presence. These concepts have always been important to him. Moreover, he points out, "I am half Mauritian, and when you say Mauritian it's a great part Indian." It is not just that he has grown up eating Indian foods, but that "mentally" there is a great deal of India in the country's sensibilities. "Most Mauritian people are accepting this now," he adds.He hopes to be able to make a longer visit to India next time. Thanks to his daughter, who is learning Hindi, he has even been introduced to some Bollywood films. "Some are very good, like Lagaan," he comments, adding with a faint twinkle, "and some are just... musical."In Le Clezio's writing, even in translation, all the senses are at work. "Onitsha" has autobiographical undertones of his own boyhood voyage - literally and metaphorically - of discovery. Not surprisingly, two of his works were made into films, but they were "total failures." One remained in the cans and the other failed to draw the public. But beyond vivid description, a film needs a strong storyline. He explains, "I'm not interested in a plot, and writing a secret at the end. For a movie that is very necessary."After 10 years of teaching at a U.S. university, he has quit and plans to spend his time writing. He can afford to do so, he says, since his children are grown up and with age, his needs have diminished. It is not so easy though. "Sometimes I look at my bank balance and it makes me anxious, but being anxious keeps me young."No two opinions there.