Many things are contained within others, and not only in names; in the north there is also a south and a west. The Badrain Jaran desert is indeed to be found within the Gobi desert. But it too contains within it the Takla Makan. And within that again, somewhere there, even if not precisely there and now, lies the untouched centre of the earth, the Desert of Lop.
What is the meaning of home? Is it a place, a person, a state of mind? Some know without question. For others it is an idea that is impossible to hold on to—like a handful of sand, it slips through your fingers. That is the essential spirit that comes through in Raoul Schrott’s delicate, spare novella, The Desert of Lop. Over the course of 101 very short chapters, almost prose poems but not quite, it traces one man’s relationships with three women, the places those relationships take him and the way they became undone. Detail is scant, connections are sketched and filled in with images of sand—dunes, storms, waves of shifting sand.
Schrott, an Austrian poet raised in Tunis, has an interesting background. He studied philology, had a strong interest in Dada and surrealism, has translated and adapted Homer and Gilgamesh in German and speaks a number of languages including Breton, Basque, Corsican and Gaelic. I first encountered him through his extraordinary, sensual unclassifiable work The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven, a collaboration with Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O which was published by Seagull Books in 2018. Loving it, I immediately sought out any other available works in English. The Desert of Lop, written in the same general time as Sex of the Angels, but published in 2004 (and likewise translated by Karen Leeder), was all I could find and, even then, it took some time to track down a copy.
In simple terms is about a man named Raoul Louper who is living in a village near Alexandria in a simply furnished room. The only described decorations are three objects in the window—a pine cone, a gree-gree (an African charm) and a stone—mementos of three women he once loved. Francesca, Arlette and Elif. Each week he takes the bus to Cairo. He meets with Török, a Hungarian professor with whom he visits geological formations in the area. They share an obsession with sand. Sometimes he joins the professor and the Egyptian woman he lives with for supper. As his story unfolds, they offer a solid counterpoint to Raoul’s restlessness. They have created a home, the very ideal Raoul seems to long for and yet cannot realize. They listen to him, challenge him, and all though his wandering carry him around the globe, it is in their kitchen that his life seems to have any tangible form at all.
His first wife he met near Grosseto on the Mediterranean. Francesca, is a free spirit when he they meet; he is equally ungrounded. Once he has made enough money he leaves for Japan—images from the country punctuate the text but his stay is not described—and when he returns he and Francesca make an effort to make a life together. Without success.
His second wife, Arlette, he meets in a bar in Quimper, a city in Brittany in northwest France. He finds work on a trawler out of the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, across the Atlantic. With his pay he drives across the US to see the western edge of the Pacific and slowly makes his way back to Quimper where, before long, the walls close in on his relationship with Arlette.
In Raoul Louper’s love for Arlette there was always something that was still waiting to change shape. It was like one of the drawings of a Necker cube that one finds in magazines sometimes; its upper edges can only be held in the foreground if one concentrates hard.
He sometimes looked at Arlette absent-mindedly. She did not know what to make of it; she thought when he looked at her it was always with questions.
Raoul avoided giving an answer; there are some things one does not say to a woman if one wants to love her.
The third woman, Elif, comes in to Raoul’s life in Iquito, Peru. Twice abandoned by love, he has accepted a job offer from a man who, having won the lottery, left Naples to set up a hotel in South America. Elif is working as a guide in the National Park, but it turns out that she grew up in Toulon, Raoul’s birthplace, and that they share a birthday. Despite being very different, these unlikely similarities lead, in time, to love. This, is the relationship that will cover the most mileage, first back to France when Elif’s job ends and eventually on a journey into the desertified heart of China where too much togetherness threatens to push them apart.
Like Sex of the Angels, this is a very sensual work, not just in the remembered intimacies of love, but in the description of sand, deserts and the dunes that rise and fall across the landscape. Scientific descriptions are woven into the overall narrative, at times directly, at other times in the observations of Török or others, but always with such a light, poetic touch, that it never feels contrived. Sand, sculpted by wind and time, is an essential element of this tale, a story that builds layer by layer, but retains a haunting sense of instability and incompleteness.
Is a sand dune ever a finished object?
A dried-up riverbed, or the arms of a delta, drought; a bush, some pebble or other, even a termite mound, sometimes: it’s all the wind needs.
In the wind cornices line up and grow into dunes; they form chains and banks, they take on the shape of an egg, a heart or a star.
The suspended load of the wind; it blows each grain of sand from the windward, hardly higher than a foot or two off the ground, until they are pressed together on the crest, only to slip down the steep face in its lee; it is just the same as with waves.
The Desert of Lop maintains its inherent spaciousness through its narrative voice. The elusive narrator speaks of Raoul in third person, telling his story for him from an uncertain vantage point—sometimes slipping into a scene or adding a comment in first person, as if a companion on some outing or otherwise present—but the exact connection is unknown. Yet the haziness of the boundary is acknowledged: “It is no longer me telling this story. It has long since grown beyond the evenings in Cairo, the table with its chessboard pattern of tiles.”
As spare as it may be, especially for readers unaccustomed to checking a map or slipping down rabbit holes, this is not a directionless narrative. China is on the horizon throughout. Elif and Raoul embark on a journey to Dun Huang, the ancient city on the edge of the Gobi desert with its Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. With their guides they travel through distant provinces—Kamul, Tangut—in the footsteps of Marco Polo, following after Genghis Kahn, moving inexorably toward the extinguishing of anything that might hold them together against the shifting sands of time. Along the way: Lop Desert. Barren. Flat. Once the likely location of a lake, and of life more plentiful and diverse than that which remains, it became, as many other desolate locations have, ideal testing grounds for nuclear weapons. For we allow imitations of our destructive potential to proceed in the natural spaces we consider empty enough to bear the weight of our sins. As the desert will test Elif and Raoul. And his longing for some vestige of home.
The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Picador.