That’s The Way Fire Is

When J.M.G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008, I’m sad to have to admit that I was one of those who wondered, “Who the hell is he?”

I read a good deal of international literature, and so I was surprised his name had never crossed my path. Well, my fault, my shame, not his! His novel Desert, which I’ve just finished reading, won the Grand Prix Paul Morand by the Académie Française in 1980 and was an international bestseller. Set mainly in the Sahara, it’s an extraordinary novel, one that is written in such a way as to evoke a different culture’s sense of time, of history, of a particular way of looking at the world. It’s a book that asks a reader, with gentle authority, to slow down and pay a different sort of attention.

One of my favorite moments is when the main character, a young girl named Lalla, watches an old man nurse a fire to life:

“Then he lights the fire with his tinderbox, being very careful to place the flame on the side where there is no wind. Naman is very good at building fires, and Lalla watches his every move closely, to learn. He knows how to find just the right place, neither too exposed, nor too sheltered, in the hollow of the dunes.

“The fire starts up and then goes out two or three times, but Naman doesn’t really seem to notice. Every time the flame dies, he roots around in the twigs with his hand, without being afraid of getting burned. That’s the way fire is; it likes people who aren’t afraid of it. So then the flame leaps up again, not very strong at first; you can barely see the tip of it glowing between the branches, then suddenly it blazes up around the whole base of the bonfire, throwing out a bright light and crackling abundantly.”

That’s the way fire is; it likes people who aren’t afraid of it.

This, I think, is the central moment in the novel. Lalla is watching to learn how to start a fire, but what she’s really learning is not to be afraid of its danger and, expanding this lesson, not to be afraid of danger in general. It’s a lesson learned that enables Lalla to survive the future twists and turns of her life.

That’s the way fire is; it likes people who aren’t afraid of it.

This sentence and in fact the entire passage can also be read as a fairly straightforward metaphoric description of the process of writing: the quiet struggle one goes through to bring the work alive, the patience required, but most of all the strength one needs to face a story’s secret dangers, its as yet unrealized revelations. Root around in what can’t be seen, suppress your fear of failure, then fan those invisible fires that, with a little luck, will further fuel your imagination.

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