Cover image for Somewhere in a desert
Somewhere in a desert
Sigaud, Dominique, 1959-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Hypothèse du désert. English
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Arcade Pub. : Distributed by Time Warner Trade Pub., [1998]

Physical Description:
124 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"Operation Desert Storm has ended. A body lies in no-man's land in the desert, across the Iraqi border between the Allied front and a small Saudi village."--BOOK JACKET. "The man is John Miller, an American soldier who has gone missing in action. While his wife, Mary, waits at home in the States for news of her husband, John has disappeared and died an absurd death. Like Michael Ondaatje and Erich Maria Remarque, Dominique Sigaud has made her subject "war - and the pity of war." In prose of extraordinary clarity and power, she tells John's story and those of the people who encounter him in his last hours of life and in the days that follow his death: soldiers and civilians, men and women, American, French, Saudi, and Iraqi. The mystery and horror of war are revealed through the eyes and the death of this Unknown Soldier."--BOOK JACKET.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In a tale set during the Gulf War, French author Sigaud recounts the tale of a corpse found in the desert near an Iraqi village. This dead American soldier astounds the people of the nearby, war-ravaged village and touches them in remarkable ways. He is found several days after the war has ended, and his identity is unknown. Somehow the villagers are moved to daily pilgrimages to this body--the men during the day, and the women, in secret, during the night. Meanwhile, the dead soldier's wife waits at home, ever hopeful, watching the husbands of her friends return without any knowledge of the whereabouts of her own husband. Together with a French official in charge of investigating missing soldiers, she tracks down her husband's body. Nothing new is said in this poignant and fantastic tale about the tragedies of war, but Sigaud achieves an utterly human perspective. Her fable evokes an incredible pathos in a story that reflects how modern-day war affects the emotions of everyone involved. --Michael Spinella

Publisher's Weekly Review

"The war was over. In the middle of the desert a man lay dead." This is the haunting image reverberating throughout French journalist Sigaud's fervent, and somewhat overwrought, first novel. Set along the border of Iraq and Saudi Arabia at the end of the Gulf War, the story is related in the lyric cadences of a fable. American soldier John Paul Miller knows the war is over, but disoriented and possibly delirious, he drifts off aimlessly from his command post. Wandering past a village, Miller is shot by a blind man's son and dies. Villager Ali ben Fakr and wife Nour al-Koutoubi transcend enmity and tend to Miller's body. His African-American wife, Mary, receiving reports that her husband is missing in action, travels to the desert and, teaming with French minesweeper Robert Natua, discovers the site of her husband's burial in the desert and chooses to leave him where he fell. In Sigaud's circular plot, questions about the details of Miller's death are answered, but the meaning of his death remains elusive. Mary's grieving, vivid memories of her husband suffuse the story with her loss, driving home the point that his death was senseless and suggesting the same of other casualties of national conflicts. (Sigaud emphasizes that Miller was Jewish, Mary is black, the villagers are Muslim.) A terse meditation on war, the book begins with a quotation from French writer J.M.G. Le Cl‚zio. "War has begun. No one knows where or how, but it has begun. Mouth open, it stands behind you, whispering. When it is over, no one will remain standing. No one will be spared." The original French title, L'HypothŠse du d‚sert (The Hypothesis of the Desert) better captures the tone of this dark, searching story: a poetic interrogation of the machine of war from the perspectives of those annihilated and those mourning. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This first novel about the Gulf War won six awards in France and is likely to be acclaimed in the United States. It tells the story of a man who went to war but lost his taste for it and then, just before the war ended, wandered off into the desert, where he was killed. The people from the nearby village are all greatly moved by the peace they see in his eyes and find themselves reviewing their lives. Woven into the tale is an account of the great love this white man has for his African American wife. The simple beauty of the prose, set against the callousness of those untouched by the war, renders this a powerful, haunting piece. Recommended for all public libraries as well as high school and college libraries.ÄAnn Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., Silver Spring, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One the defeated (i) They sit in the shadows of their burned-out tanks, others stand or lie on the sand. They stare into the sun, they look at nothing else, or at nothing at all.     Their hair is white now. They don't speak to one another. They think about going home; all through the war they have thought of nothing else.     The young pace up and down, expressionless; they cannot bring themselves to look at the old soldiers, at these men who could be their fathers, for fear of the resignation, of the disgust they may find in their eyes.     They are nowhere. Here, they know no one can see; no one gives them a second thought. Here, they have ceased to exist, except perhaps in the memories of their families and their neighbours. No one gave them a second thought before the war, but back then, in their homes, roaming their streets, no more happy, no more afraid than the next man, it didn't matter. Only the hope that somewhere, strangers are thinking of them, might save them, but they know hope is futile. This is one of the things that war has taught them. Some of them believe it will kill them.     They think of the miles they would have to retrace. The sun again, and the dust, and the tiredness. The nights cold and too short, and the orders. Some are parched with thirst, but they have little water or food.     Night falls, and they think of those who deserted when the planes first showered them with leaflets telling them to surrender. They don't know where these men are now. The leaflets said they had nothing to fear. Some say that once captured, the men were tortured, but no one knows for certain.     They didn't want to die any more, they said, and they deserted; thousands of them with a single thought. The older men counted the sons they had lost in the last war and wondered why their deaths should be added to those of their children. Others wondered why they should die when their deaths would mean nothing? All they had were the days they had left until the end came. It would be enough to watch the vines creep round their houses and to wait for death when it would come.     They know that even if their lives are worthless it would be dishonourable to surrender. But they say this is a war without honour, a war of lies. They have been offered up. They have been chosen to die, that was why they were here: thousands of them already rotting in the sand. When the war started they were given orders to advance into the desert. Within shelling distance of the border they stopped, dug their trenches and waited. Days on end.     After a while, they had to ration food; they would sit or stand motionless for hours, moving about only at night. There were too many nights, too much waiting; they began to think about the vines creeping round the houses, of the smell of sweet onions; they became bored and frightened. Only the thought of victory kept them strong, but it became impossible to imagine and the fear grew.     They watched the sky overhead. Somehow, it seemed to darken with each day, and since sleep would not come they began to speak in low voices.     They started to talk about their streets, about their children, about the peace there had been before; later they talked of fear and death. Their talk galvanised them, and one by one they resolved that they would not die here. It was then, finally, that the attack came. They were defeated, decimated. Chapter Two somewhere in a desert (i) The war was over. In the middle of the desert a man lay dead.     On the other side of the border were the defeated, their bodies torn apart, or strangely untouched, eyes closed, or open staring into the infinite, stiff hands gripping the earth. There were no women among them, the women had died elsewhere -- in the villages or nearby; there were no children. Nothing but the bodies of soldiers -- some young, barely in their teens, others older -- and the acrid stench of rotting flesh. The dead seemed to stretch like a carpet over the sand.     The sun had begun to work on their skin, bloating, burning, twisting it, as the flesh flushed livid purple, then seemed to melt. The heavy cloth of their uniforms was more resistant. One day, the only sign of where they had fallen would be strips of material fluttering like bandages and scraps of flesh among the white young bones.     No camera crew came to film the bodies; it was as though they had never existed. Their killers were the first to forget them. Maybe at dusk some young soldier's memory would trick him and he would recollect the long, humid nights, waiting for war, and the others -- less than a dozen -- while it raged.     Only their families remembered; waited for them to come home and thought of them long afterwards, engulfed in a tomb of sand. But no one came to film them either.     Arms outstretched, the body of the man was turned towards the sun. He seemed more asleep than dead: his lips fixed in a half-smile, his eyes sometimes glittering in the sun and seeming to bring his face to life, though he had been lying here for days.     The border was on the far side of the dunes, several kilometres away. Where his body lay, the foreign troops had barely rumbled past. He himself was a foreigner. A soldier.     Nothing surrounded the body, nothing but the sand stretching to the north and south, sparse tuffs of yellowed grass and the sun, red on the sands like an open wound. It was a desolate place, empty and slow, that could crush any living thing. But this man was dead now and at peace.     It was Ali ben Fakr who found him by accident, four days after the war ended. For the first time since war broke out, since peace returned, he had woken that morning to find the sky brighter; and so he didn't go to open his shop -- a haberdashery, chemist and drapers on the main street of the village -- instead he headed towards the stone bridge which marked the end of the village and, from there, took the path across the dunes. The path led nowhere, it simply linked a scattering of oil wells and some illegal trading posts which traded car tyres, jerry-cans, tools and, recently, helmets and military jackets.     This was the first time in months Ali ben Fakr had set foot into the desert. Though war had been fought on the other side of the border, off to the east, while foreign troops drove their armoured cars near the village or through the streets, he stayed at home.     The weather was pleasant: bright, not too hot, nor too cold, not a shadow crossed the sky. Now and then he stopped to feel the sun on his skin and felt himself come alive here in this place that he loved more than anything. His lungs swelled. Here, he found peace. Things were as they should be; war was no more than a distant memory -- it might never have happened at all.     He left the path and cut quickly across the dunes; his feet were familiar with every hill and hollow. He knew the way the wind shifted them in the night. At this rate he would be at Faycal Mahdi's house in less than an hour. As he walked, he rehearsed his lines. He wouldn't say anything at first. Let Faycal go on and on about his new toys: the women, the jewels, the horses; then they would go to the stables. They would talk about the races, admire the mares, stroke their hindquarters and their hocks like thoroughbred breeders, then walk back to the fortress Mahdi was building in the desert. Ali ben Fakr would wait until they got to the door, then say, `I want to buy Djamel.' Faycal would look at him and laugh, but before he had time to say, `You're crazy! Do you know how much she's worth?' Ali would take out his money. He wanted the thoroughbred bay. It would cost him everything he had, everything he had saved over twenty years, but what matter? It was what he wanted.     The village had long since disappeared behind him; the dead soldier lay only yards ahead, but Ali ben Fakr passed close by without seeing him. He was half-way up the next dune when he stopped and turned, even then barely a shrug, thinking he had seen a dead dog or maybe a horse. To catch Faycal Mahdi he would have to get there before eleven; if he hurried he could be there early. Faycal Mahdi liked people to be early. `The old bastard,' he muttered, thinking of his friend's stubby fingers glittering with signet rings -- he was rich now they had found oil on his land -- his permanently half-closed eyes. If he didn't want this horse, didn't need it like a baby needs the breast, he would keep him waiting all day. `Old bastard,' he muttered again, not knowing why. He stopped, thinking about the body he had just passed, and turned. He could barely make it out. He walked back a few steps and stopped: it was not a dog, but a man, lying here in the middle of nowhere. The dead man, his body turned towards the sun.     Ali ben Fakr was reluctant to go to him. He thought about the thoroughbred in his stable, about the desert, calm and peaceful around him, the wad of crumpled notes in his pocket. He had only a couple of miles to go to Faycal Mahdi's place. But the man might still be alive; so he took a few steps towards the body, stopping dead when he recognised the man's fatigues and army boots.     Sweat trickled on his forehead. The war -- a brief parenthesis -- was over. Why should this soldier be his concern; why, when there was no one around to see? He took a step forward, then back, walked away and stopped, cursed, his hands sweaty, his forehead slick. Then he made his decision: alive, I take care of him; dead, I leave him and he walked towards the body again. The man's eyes were wide, stared fixedly at the sky, his limp body lay on the sand and Ali ben Fakr looked away. He shook his sandals, careful not to look down at the corpse. He shrugged off any nagging qualm of conscience and turned to leave. He had wasted enough time; in any case, there was nothing he could do for this man. He was probably a foreign soldier who had got lost.     He started on, feeling hot now, thinking about the horse, but at the top of the dune, inexplicably, he turned back. The corpse lay below, bathed in the sunlight, `lost to everyone,' Ali ben Fakr thought. He kept walking, but more slowly now. The sun pounded his temples and suddenly, for no reason, he felt weak. Perhaps he was just tired and hot, maybe he had set out too early. Possibly it was the body, lying on its back like some shop-window dummy sunbathing. But there was nothing he could do. It was bad enough that this man had come here, he and thousands like him, slashing through the silence. The sand would take his body, closing over him, and the wound in the desert would heal without a scar, all would be as it should be.     Ali ben Fakr could feel his pulse beat irregularly and couldn't stop himself from turning again towards the silhouette, supine, far below. He looked at this piece of human meat and felt his heart squeezed by a fist. For a moment he thought, `I could be lying there in his place.' He took his bag, set it in the sand and sat down; he couldn't know that he was doing precisely what the man had done in that very spot, some days before, caught by the same sudden flush of tiredness.     The shadow of the soldier shivered in the heat haze, his palms turned upward towards the sky. Ali ben Fakr looked at his own hands, feeling more alone than he had ever been; he brought his hands to his face, turned to the man and stared at him. It was then, without knowing why, that he rose to cross the short distance that separated them.     When he got to the soldier, Ali ben Fakr bowed mechanically and prayed to God; the man was smiling. A moment ago he might have been laughing. There was a peaceful glimmer in his eyes and, strangely, not a mark on his body. Ali ben Fakr crouched beside this man who had been lying dead for days, or perhaps for only an hour, and smiling still as though in an instant he would get up. For a moment he felt at peace.     The desert stretched out around them, infinite, with not a shadow nor a sound; the sand showed no signs of the foreign troops that had passed through, nothing but the body of this soldier. This man that he had never seen before, buttoned up tight in his army fatigues, arms thrown out on the sand, dead and at peace, so Ali ben Fakr stretched out his hand to close the man's eyes. It was a reflex, the gesture of the living to the dead, a sign to send the man into eternity; a way of drawing a line between the war and the peace. But his hand stopped before he could do it. He knew nothing of this man, of the bodies which had given life to him or those which had held him, caressed him, hurt him. He did not know why the man was lying here, smiling, when the war was over. Closing the man's eyes would cut him off for ever from the world where he still lay, peacefully; it would be like killing him. All the same, he should do it; he couldn't leave the body staring distractedly out into the world. It had to be done, the difference between them had to be marked.     Ali ben Fakr tried a second time and failed. Later, he thought, he would do it later, when he had spent some time with this man, time enough to cut him off from everything without regret. Then he thought that he would have to bury the man, too. It was, he knew, his responsibility, not only for the soldier's sake, to set him at rest in the quiet earth, but for himself, so that everything was in order again. But if he did this, he would be the last one to bend over this man, the last person in his life, his final witness. He knew that if he buried this man the memory would be with him always, and he wondered whether he was prepared to have the chalkmark of this life on his own. If he were thirty, perhaps, like the soldier, he might have thought that he was simply burying a dead soldier. But at his age, how could he bury this man without feeling that he was being buried alongside him? In putting him in the ground, this man he did not know -- this stranger who meant nothing to him, to whom he meant nothing -- making him vanish from the world, he felt that he too would somehow disappear. It was then he realised he would not do it.     Ali ben Fakr covered his face with his hands. It looked as though he was crying, but he did not cry. Sweat began to trickle again on his forehead; he drank some water but his throat dried at once. He felt his head spin and he fell, unconscious, by the soldier's body.     Nothing moved except the sun, arcing across the two men. No one could tell what thoughts fermented behind the closed eyes of the one, nor the wide stare of the other, but from time to time Ali ben Fakr's face twitched involuntarily as tension seeped from his muscles, as tiredness ebbed.     He was woken a little later by the shadow of a vulture, high in the sky. The sun beat down on him, directly above, he felt his heart beat erratically. He looked at the man beside him, the smooth, childish face, the mouth a bitter crease, and for a moment he couldn't tell if he had ever seen him before, if he had known him all his life, or if this face, still unmarked by death, was a reflection of his own. For a second he forgot the war was over and thought he must be dying here, bleeding into the sand. Perhaps he had killed this man, unless the man had killed him. He felt a scream rise in him, then he saw the dunes and remembered where he was and why.     He looked at his watch and realised it was too late now to go to Faycal Mahdi. His legs felt heavy. He pushed himself off the sand and stood, once again face to face with the dead man. He wanted to shout at him to wake up. He put his ear to the man's lips but they were cold, the mouth open on nothingness, no whisper of breath. Ali ben Fakr got up and suddenly he could see himself here on the dune, alone and growing old; his penis hung lifeless between his fat, heavy thighs, his fingers were as short and stubby as Faycal Mahdi's, his belly folded over itself and spilled on to his groin. He saw all this in a moment and he let his eyes fall. Death seemed closer to him than to this young soldier and he felt fear tighten round him suddenly, a fear so vast that it would have swallowed him whole if the image of the thoroughbred bay had not flickered, like a dream, through his mind. The animal moving over the sand like a leopard hunting, racing against his peers. Brushing against the leaders to put them off, pulling back only when it could feel the tension and then, in the final lengths, alone and proud, his mane up, the sand whipping around him as though nothing and no one could ever stop him. For this horse Ali ben Fakr had counted five hundred notes into his bag each of a thousand. Over and over he counted them, counting all his days and rolling them into this fat wad held fast by a worn elastic band. He wore it close to him, next to his skin. The money was twenty years of his life. Twenty years for a thoroughbred he couldn't even ride. Beside him on the sand the corpse seemed to laugh -- in his place, Ali would have done the same.     The palms of the body were turned upwards towards heaven, as though reaching out or holding on, but there was nothing around him. And his smile ... why did he not scream; dying out here like a mongrel? What had happened to shut off his life like this? What were his last words, his last thoughts? Why would a soldier, in civilian dress, lie down to die here, unarmed, in the shadow of the dune. Did he know that had he walked another hour he would have been in Rijna?     Ali ben Fakr's throat tightened again; he stood and looked up at the sky. He had to go, he had to leave now before it drove him mad.     Half-way up the dune he turned one last time; the man lay in the hollow, bathed in sunlight, he could hardly tear his eyes away. * * * When he got back to Rijna, Ali ben Fakr went directly to the market square. It was a little before one o'clock. As on every Tuesday and Thursday, the market was bustling. Men were testing the soft flesh of the fat, juicy melons laid out on blankets spread on the sand or in the shadow of the arches, but Ali ben Fakr went straight to the men sitting in the café.     He was sweating and one of the men laughed and asked him what was wrong. Someone shouted: `Wife got you running round after her again?' But he simply mumbled something like you won't believe this and, without waiting to draw breath, told them of what he had found in the desert and the men -- usually so talkative -- fell silent as mouthing carp.     They had never seen Ali ben Fakr in such a state. They knew he was a genius for spinning stories, he could sell you the wind. There wasn't one of them who hadn't bought enough pots and pans and fake gold pens from him to last them for three generations. They had never heard him speak like this. His eyes cast down, no wild gesticulations, even in his voice there seemed to be something missing. They didn't dare look at him. They didn't even think to ask what the man looked like, what uniform he was wearing, whether he was dark-haired or blond, whether he had a moustache, whether he was armed.     The fresh memories of war sprang up; the howling of planes hunting at night high above them, and further off, in the dunes, the deadened thump of heavy artillery. They remembered their sour dreams, the wondering in the night if this was the end. Remembered staring at their hands as though even their own movements eluded them. And then the foreign troops marching through the village, the soldiers too blond, their voices too loud and nasal. The way they spoke to the villagers without ever looking at them and drank from their flasks though there was plenty of water in the village. Hardly had they got out of their jeeps when they were demanding telephones. It was the only time they ever spoke. Some offered cigarettes or chewing gum, as though they thought the villagers had never seen cigarettes or chewing gum before. It made the children laugh, and they would say `thank you, thank you' in English and the soldiers would take photos of them. Then they got back in their trucks and were never seen again. In the beginning, they thought it was funny. Some of them said, `How would they like it if we went driving through their towns saying "Stand back, stand back" and talking about bringing order and peace and never drank a drop of their water?' But even they stopped talking and acted as though the war had never happened. Only during their games of dominos were they more silent. Without noticing, they began to go home early, to let their conversations trail off. In the end, some of them said the armies of infidels had desecrated the land of their fathers, but they knew it was just words, it didn't mean anything.     It was the war they thought about, as they listened to Ali ben Fakr talking about the soldier in fatigues laid out on the sand, a war they hadn't started, which they could feel again, a heavy weight on each of them, and so they fell silent. In the market-place the men were closing up. They drifted towards the café and, finding their friends there, mute as headstones, asked them what was wrong.     Ali Ben Fakr told his story again, then once more to those who came later. Soon there were thirty of them around the table. News scurried around the market square and into the side streets. Some older men who had stayed silent began to ask questions. Where was this man? Another asked who he was, a third what he was wearing and a fourth the colour of his hair. Suddenly there were a score of voices together and Ali Ben Fakr let them talk, then he shouted at them to shut up and asked them if they were sure that none of them had seen anything unusual in the dunes recently. Could each of them swear they hadn't seen a body, maybe far off?. The men rifled through their memories. They couldn't really remember. Maybe, now he mentioned it, they had seen something. Maybe they'd even stopped for a minute without really knowing why. But not one of them went near; they walked away.     `What's happened to us?' enquired Ali ben Fakr then and they said nothing; `what sort of men have we become?' he asked again, but no one answered. Only the blind man's son spoke up and said that they should bury the man before the dogs ate him, but Ali ben Fakr didn't want to go back to the dunes so soon. Later, he suggested, when it was cooler -- and he went home.     As soon as he got in, Nour wanted to know where he had been. Why had he been up so early? Had he gone to see Faycal Mahdi about the horse. She knew all about his plans, he had talked about them often enough. `You went to see him,' she said, `and he wouldn't sell you the horse? He wouldn't sell, would he?' but he didn't answer. He got up from the table and went to his room, and when she came in he turned towards the wall and pretended to sleep.     He couldn't get the image of the dead soldier out of his mind. He wondered if someone had left the body there deliberately, thinking no one would find it, or maybe because they knew that one day it would be found. But who? and why? Why else would this man be lying there alone in such a place?     He closed his eyes and thought about the dunes, and the silhouette of the lifeless body below, and his fear. The man was still there, arms flung wide in the sun's glare. He had run away. How could he have run away from the unmarked body of this young soldier? As he fell asleep he felt the urge to go back there. In his dreams he saw a face turned into the shadows and heard a river of words coming from the man, but he couldn't understand them and it was this which woke him. The bed beside him was empty. He got up, then, and went out. (Continues...) Copyright © 1996 Editions Gallimard. All rights reserved.