Pierre Benoit is well known for his L’Atlantide, a lost world story that couples the classic venues of pulp adventure with the mood of post-war (First World War, that is) disillusionment.
L’Atlantide is probably the most literary descendants of H. Rider-Haggard‘s She.
The Gobi Desert was published twenty-two years after L’Atlantide, in 1941, and in part it follows the same basic plot.
Two men in the desert, looking from some elusive treasure, while competing for the attentions of a ravishingly beautiful woman.
In L’Atlantide the prized possession is Atlantis itself and the femme fatale is the Queen of Atlantis, in The Goby Desert it is a white tiger, the mythical felis alba, and the object of desire is Alzire, an exotic dancer1.
As the title suggests, the main action takes place in the Goby Desert, in the 1940s still a place of mystery.
The two main characters are Michel Rodzyanko, a White Russian that pretends to be a member of the Tsarist aristocracy, and acts as narrator, and the Australian big game hunter Jack Sanders.
They meet in Fusan, Korea – Rodzyanko and Alzire are looking for a quick ticket out of town, Sanders is the answer to their need.
But as the party gets on the road, the situation gets complicated.
My main problems with The Gobi Desert – as far as I’m concerned – is the characters, that are both cliché, shallow and cartoon-ish.
Rodzyanko is irritating as a narrative voice.
Sanders is a horrid caricature of a stock character.
The reader witnesses their first meeting and the birth of their friendship with a sense of boredom and unease.
It’s the mysterious Alzire that caused me to go on reading – in the hopes of meeting a fascinating, seductive female character. But once again, once met on the page Alzire is a classic, if exasperated, femme fatale, cynical, calculating and self-serving, while aggressively beautiful.
Their love triangle gets stale fast, and all that remains is the Gobi desert, described as a chilling place of horror and nothingness, haunted by the ghostly white tiger, nicknamed Kublai.
In the landscape descriptions Benoir truly shines, in his ability to evoke the sense of loss and disorientation of the Western mind when it is confronted with absolutes.
Because of this strong sense of place, The Gobi Desert remains an interesting reading as an example of the use (and abuse) of adventure narrative tropes in a highly literate and literary work.
But it can test the patience of an occasional reader.
- like all Benoit heroines, her name begins with an A. ↩