Books entered my life at a later period. When my father’s inheritance was divided, at the time of his expulsion from the family home in Moka, in Mauritius, he managed to put together several libraries consisting of the books that remained. It was then that I understood a truth not immediately apparent to children, that books are a treasure more precious than any real property or bank account. It was in those volumes—most of them ancient, bound tomes—that I discovered the great works of world literature: Don Quijote,illustrated by Tony Johannot; La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes; the Ingoldsby Legends; Gulliver’s Travels; Victor Hugo’s great, inspired novels Quatre-vingt-treize, Les Travailleurs de la Mer, and L’Homme qui rit. Balzac’s Les Contes drôlatiques, as well. But the books which had the greatest impact on me were the anthologies of travellers’ tales, most of them devoted to India, Africa, and the Mascarene islands, or the great histories of exploration by Dumont d’Urville or the Abbé Rochon, as well as Bougainville, Cook, and of course The Travels of Marco Polo. In the mediocre life of a little provincial town dozing in the sun, after those years of freedom in Africa, those books gave me a taste for adventure, gave me a sense of the vastness of the real world, a means to explore it through instinct and the senses rather than through knowledge. In a way, too, those books gave me, from very early on, an awareness of the contradictory nature of a child’s existence: a child will cling to a sanctuary, a place to forget violence and competitiveness, and also take pleasure in looking through the windowpane to watch the outside world go by.
In Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico, or the South Sea Islands, books remain an inaccessible luxury. And yet remedies to this situation do exist. Joint publication with the developing countries, the establishment of funds for lending libraries and bookmobiles, and, overall, greater attention to requests from and works in so-called minority languages—which are often clearly in the majority—would enable literature to continue to be this wonderful tool for self-knowledge, for the discovery of others, and for listening to the concert of humankind, in all the rich variety of its themes and modulations.