Terra Amata (Clezio)

Before you decide whether to read Clezio or not, you should ask yourself this question: are you a fan of Flaubert or Camus or Joyce or Nabokov or Amis or Updike? If you are interested in one of these writers, then Clezio will definitely satisfy your literary appetite. Ever since Flaubert published Madame Bovary, fiction has been turned into a work of art for its own sake. At the hands of Henry James, fiction became exclusive; a break away from the social milieu of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Style or ‘art’ became the driving force for these writers and the generation after them. Clezio’s Terra Amata is the continuation of the post-Flaubertian tradition.

Terra Amata is all about style. The story itself is very thin: we follow the life of Chancelade from his early boyhood, to marriage, death, and after death. Clezio presents to us with abundant of details in every stage of Chancelade’s life; you get to see everything as time move very slowly. Chancelade is continuously self-aware of his existence and the world around him. Clezio makes him an avid observer like Flaubert’s Frederic in Sentimental Education. Through out the novel, he likes to walk and observe and reflect on what he sees; another typical post-Flaubertian device:

"Chancelade jumped from rock to rock till he reached a path running along the headland, and followed it away from the beach. Above him were private houses and gardens with lots trees and plants; but there were no people to be seen. The heat was overpowering here because the sun continuously reflected from the sea. Big canna and aloe leaves hung down everywhere over the path and had to be pushed aside. There was that smell again too – the smell of cinnamon, beer, urine and iodine that lay heavy on the lungs and made you pant. From the cracks of crumbling walls big grey lizard stared at you fearlessly out of motionless eyes. Wasps buzzed about, and thin flies alighted on your legs to drink the sweat and sea-water."

Here, Chancelade is at the beach taking a swim; a similar scene in Albert Camus’ The Outsider where the beach is also hot and became the catalyst for Meursault’s murder. Camus, however, wasn’t a literary stylist and his novels were driven by philosophical and political motives. Chancelade is more Flaubertian, but unlike Frederic, he is self-conscious of his actions. Clezio, being an admirer of James Joyce, has also inserted a poetical gift into his character. They are a few chapters in the novel where Clezio employs extreme word play and sentence construction. There is one chapter where Chancelade is standing on a hill and he speaks silently using a Morse code. In another chapter, two characters are talking using only hand gestures and you have to figure out from these hand gestures what they are actually saying.

This novel’s sometimes lyrical and sometimes realism and sometimes phantasmagoric universe give it the feel of authenticity even as it slips out of the mainstream of the conventional novel form. It is not a novel for everyone, but is a novel for those who are interested on how art can illuminate our perception of the world.


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