a) I loved this, and b) what I’ve immediately done when sitting down to write a blog post on Mathias Enard’s 2012 corker Rue des voleurs (translated by Charlotte Mandell as Street of Thieves for publication in 2015 by Fitzcarraldo Editions) is look up if anything else he has written is being translated into English and YES YES YES there is a new one coming in November and it sounds FUCKING INCREDIBLE.
I read Zone a few years ago and it turned my mind apart, it revolutionised to me what an intelligent novel could be. Wide-ranging and wide-reaching and full of knowledge and insight and power, it nevertheless managed to be moving, funny, exciting and taut. Inventive and real, complex and readable – it reminded me that it isn’t the narratives of spy thrillers that make them unliterary, but rather their execution. More recently, I read Enard’s most recent novel (also in translation), Compass, which has been critically lauded all over the world, and rightly so. It is a gorgeous piece about music and romance and travel and death. It’s masterful, it’s glorious, it’s oof oof oof, it’s great.
Street of Thieves is similarly great. Structurally, it is much less complex than the other two books of Enard’s that I have read (via Mandell’s translations), but in terms of its evocation of place, of life and of a specific cultural time, it is equally as successful. The narrator here is Lakhdar, a young Moroccan man who is caught having sex with his cousin and expelled from his family home. Poor and alone in Tangier, he travels the country, homeless, for a while, surviving on charity and some vaguely described sex work, before being taken in by the mosque that his seemingly radicalised childhood best friend, Bassam, now attends. What follows is a taut and maturely constructed novel about the growth of paranoia, and the uncertainty that arises from witnessing other people’s certainty in faith. Lakhdar, through luck, fate, whatever, ends up working as a typist for a French publishing company, he ends up having a little fling with a Spanish tourist (Judit), he gets a job on the Tangier-Algericas ferry, and after several more adventures he ends up living in Barcelona, constructing a life that, though it may not be the one he dreamed of when hooking up with a Spanish lady in his hometown, is tolerable, is stable, and is fine.
Enard’s narrator expounds on the joys of language and trashy literature – Lakhdar is a bibliophile and an autodidact, learning foreign languages by immersing himself in detective fiction. He is in his late teens and early 20s when the action of the novel takes place, with the Arab Spring, the Spanish Occupy movement, Catalan independence proceedings, rising tourism, etc, all providing a backdrop, as too does the – more significant – fear of radicalisation.
The reader is led to believe that Bassam is involved in a bombing early in the novel, and a stabbing a bit later on, but Lakhdar never sees anything directly to prove this, there is just rumour, circumstantial evidence, and his growing paranoia. The Western European reader comes to this text with the inevitable prejudices of a decade-plus of “The War on Terror”, and this is what Enard plays with. A novel that is written by a 40ish year old Frenchman from the perspective of a Moroccan youth has the potential to be criticised for its “cultural appropriation”, for stereotyping, or ignorance of source material. Enard, however, is a scholar of Arabic, and the Arab world, and there is unpatronising, nuanced, affection for Tangier – and Barcelona – here. Lakhdar is almost a mirror image of Enard, young and literary and intrigued by the world that stretches northwards from him – where he studies the literature of France and then Spain, Enard studied writings from south, and east, of the country of his birth.
Because of our Western prejudices, we are inclined to side with the voice that is liberal, that is tolerant, that is interested in European culture and scornful of radical religion. We are likely, as metropolitan Western Europeans, to empathise with Lakhdar’s interest in sex and (crucially) romance, with his enjoyment of intoxication and literature, and we are meant to be suspicious of his friend who, though more liberal when younger, begins to shun earthly pleasures, and perhaps recedes into cultishness. Lakhdar is reflecting on his life from a future point that becomes less and less blurred as the book progresses, but the inevitability of the particular violence that makes up the novel’s denouement does not become clear until moments before it, and with this comes an awareness of the skewed, unreliable narrator, the unknowing bias that Enard knowingly slides the reader into. Yes, it is better to be a waster petty thief than a mass murdering terrorist, but we never know that Bassam is a murderer, we merely believe it because Lakhdar’s suspicions match with our prejudices, our presumptions.
If Enard had written a novel narrated by a young man who is radicalised by Islamists and who does perform acts of terror, that would be less easy to justify – for me – ethically. But because the voice we have here is the voice of a sceptic, a voice of someone who is an outsider to strict Muslim society for reasons of both his ideology and his actions, it feels like a more appropriate, a fairer narrative for a foreigner to tell. Street of Thieves is as much about the prejudices of the reader as it is about the central character – we are on his side because we understand, we share, the ideology of Lakhdar, we do not share the ideology of the fundamentalist Bassam.
In the hands of a less skilled, and less playful, writer, this could have ended up as poor taste and inappropriate, but Street of Thieves centres on the idealisation of “the West” as us Westerners think of it – Paris, Barcelona, New York, Marseille, London, Berlin: these places are inherently good, and we understand why smart, savvy, young Africans want to get here, and we, as the kinda liberals who read these kinda books – really wanna see them getting away from the grasp of evil ISIS.
Enard’s book is about youth and sex and drugs and booze, but it’s also about the problems of repressive societies and the rapidity with which we – who live in less repressive societies – judge them. This is nuanced, gorgeous, engaging, prose, another stellar translation from Mandell and another total fucking A grade book from the team at Fitzcarraldo.
Inspired by Lakhdar, I’m off to explore some bits of Barcelona I haven’t seen yet. Nice!
Oh, also Enard writes here about the use of the internet in a very good (i.e. realistic) way, which is rare and always a pleasure.
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