Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell
Like most people who read it I was hugely impressed by Mathias Enard’s Zone. It was well written, structurally clever and fascinating in its exploration of some of the darker aspects of European history.
However, let’s be frank. Zone was also fairly dense going. Street of Thieves positively zips along. Zone may be the better book, but Street is more fun.
Lakhdar is a young man living in Tangiers. He spends his days hanging out with his friend Bassam while hoping to get somewhere with his cousin Meryem. He has a passion for French policiers and he and Bassam share dreams of meeting foreign girls and of one day escaping to Barcelona. He suffers deeply from “the incurable melancholy of hormones.”
It’s a pretty typical teenage life but it’s not to last. Lakhdar and Meryem end up in bed together but they’re caught in the act. She’s sent to the countryside in disgrace and he’s thrown out by his family for shaming them.
Lakhdar spends the best part of a year living rough outside Tangiers and barely surviving. This part of the book is plainly inspired by Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone (which Lakhdar later reads) and there’s a parallel between Lakhdar and Choukri’s experiences and destitution. The difference is that here this is only a small part of the book and before too long (in pages at least) Lakhdar is back in Tangiers and finding his feet again.
He’s helped by his old friend Bassam, who during Lakhdar’s absence has joined Propagation of Koranic Thought – a small Islamist group headed by the charismatic Sheikh Nureddin. They give Lakhdar a room to sleep in and a job selling Islamic pamphlets. It’s a pretty good gig as they don’t ask too much of his time, they have a small classical Arabic library which they’re happy to let him read and they don’t mind him reading his (distinctly unislamic) policiers or browsing on the group’s one laptop.
Enard is excellent at realising the small details of Lakhdar’s life and the two Tangiers he becomes increasingly aware of. Early on he realises that for foreigners Tangiers is associated:
with a permissiveness that it never had for us, but which is offered to the tourist in return for hard cash in the purse of misery. In our neighbourhood, nobody ever came, not a single tourist.
There’s the locals’ city and the international city, and there’s nothing easy in moving from one to the other. Lakhdar is becoming restless, and troublingly Sheikh Nureddin’s group is beginning to seem a bit less innocent to him. The Sheikh’s followers spend their evenings arguing angrily about injustices and start going out at night with clubs to attack businesses they consider unislamic.
Lakhdar only takes part in the group’s violence once and quickly finds that he has no stomach for it. He and Bassam begin to drift apart – Bassam is a believer while Lakhdar is only there for lack of somewhere better to be.
Then, unexpectedly, Lakhdar and Bassam finally do meet two of those fabled foreign girls, a pair of Arabic language students from Barcelona. It couldn’t be more perfect. What follows is a marvellous mixture of comedy in the mismatched dates and an exploration of the sheer excitement of being young.
The girls agree to hang out with the local boys because one of them, Judit, likes Lakhdar. He’s interesting, exotic (to her as she is to him), and he speaks some limited French which when put with her limited Arabic allows them to actually have a conversation. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
Judit’s friend is less taken by her date. Bassam only speaks Arabic and she’s not got as far in her studies as Judit has. Where Lakhdar is interested in the wider world Bassam interprets it only through the lens of Islamic politics. He decides to win his date over by explaining the finer points of Islam to her in ever louder Arabic on the basis that if he keeps shouting she’ll eventually understand him.
Lakhdar and Judit make a connection, walking through the streets with Bassam behind them bellowing at Judit’s unfortunate friend:
Judit was observant and attentive; we had spoken of Revolution, of the Arab Spring, of hope and democracy, and also of the crisis in Spain, where everything can’t all be sweetness and light – no work, no money, beatings for anyone who had the gall to be ‘Indignant’. Indignation (which I had read vaguely about online) seemed a sentiment that wasn’t very revolutionary, the sentiment of a proper old lady and one that was sure to get you beat, a little as if someone like Gandhi without plans or determination had sat down one fine day on the pavement because he was indignant about the British occupation, outraged. That would no doubt have made the English chuckle softly. The Tunisians had set themselves on fire, the Egyptians had gotten themselves shot at on Tahrir Square, and even if there were real chances of it ending up in the arms of Sheikh Nureddin and his friends, it still made you dream a little. I forget if we had mentioned, a few weeks later, the evacuation of the indignados who had occupied Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, chased away like a flight of pigeons by a few vans of cops and their truncheons, supposedly to make room to celebrate Barça’s championship win: that’s what was outrageous, that football would take precedence over politics, but apparently no one really protested, the population realizing, deep down inside, that the success of its team was, in itself, a beautiful celebration of democracy and of Catalonia, a Great Night that reduced Indignation to a negligible quantity.
Street of Thieves isn’t a long book, just 209 pages, but it is packed. It explores the Arab Spring and the European protest movements as it follows Judit and Lakhdar’s burgeoning relationship. There is a sense of possibility as their relationship gently moves forward, even if it is sometimes rather hampered by the fact their best common language is classical Arabic:
You try acting funny and charming in literary Arabic, it’s no piece of cake, believe me; people will always think you’re about to announce another catastrophe in Palestine or comment on a verse of the Koran.
Things grow more strained when the rest of Propagation mysteriously disappear shortly before a terrorist attack in Marrakech. Judit was travelling in the city at the time and saw Bassam there. She and Lakhdar fear what that might mean.
Lakhdar loses his home and job with the departure of Propagation, but soon bounces back. He gets hired to help digitise old French manuscripts (he’s cheap outsourced labour). He reads the whole of Casanova; types up ancient records of North African soldiers slain fighting for the French in World War I. Judit’s studies carry her away from Tangiers and their relationship struggles with distance. It’s life. Elsewhere the Arab Spring is in full swing, the Indignados are protesting, Occupy is occupying. For Lakhdar though “The revolution wasn’t happening anytime soon.”
I don’t want to talk too much more about the story. I’ve not yet described that much of it and there’s lots more with Lakhdar eventually finding his way out of Tangiers and later into Europe itself. The gap between West and East is one of many themes here. It’s a gulf of dreams and understanding: Europe and the Arab world; Judit and Lakhdar. Lakhdar reflects:
My country was Tangier, at least that’s what I thought; but in truth, I had realized that afternoon, Judit’s Tangier did not coincide with mine. She saw the international city, Spanish, French, American; she knew Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, and William Burroughs, so many authors whose remote names vaguely reminded me of something, but about whom I knew nothing. Even Mohamed Choukri, icon of Tangier, I knew who he was, but of course I had never read a word by him.
Here those viewpoints are switched. Instead of American or European authors dreaming of a Tangiers which is as much romantic fiction as reality here it’s Lakhdar that’s dreaming; it’s Europe that’s exotic. Take this passage, from shortly after Lakhdar’s arrival in Barcelona as he sees the city he’s so long dreamed of:
The bus went down Avinguda Diagonal, palm trees caressed the banks, the noble buildings of past centuries were reflected in the glass and steel of modern skyscrapers, the yellow and black taxis were countless wasps scattering at the sound of the bus’s horn; elegant and disciplined pedestrians waited patiently at the crossroads, without using their superiority in numbers to invade the road; the cars themselves respected the zebra crossings and, stopping carefully at a blinking yellow light, let those travelling on foot cross when their turn came.
It’s a vision as romantic as anything found in Burroughs’ own Interzone. And yet, like Interzone, it is also at least partly true. Burroughs’ Interzone is populaced by Western expat criminals and chancers who drive the action. In surely intentional parallel Lakhdar finds himself in the Street of Thieves – a Barcelona alley filled with illegal immigrants, prostitutes and dealers:
It was Saturday, streetwalking activity was at its height at the crossroads; two or three dealers were pacing in the night; a junkie in need of his fix vomited a stream of bile onto the base of a lamppost, splattering two cockroaches fat as frogs emerging lazily from the restaurant next door.
Which, come to think of it, sounds like somewhere that Burroughs would have felt quite at home in. It’s what Lakhdar’s long been travelling towards, but reality never quite matches dreams. Europe is still reeling from the aftermath of the financial crisis. As an outsider it seems to him that Spain’s progress is a mirage bought on dangerously overextended credit. Its prosperity is precarious, maintained in part by sheer complacency. Here he considers an all-day mass strike carried out to protest austerity:
On TV, they said the same thing over and over again. The unions were delighted with the strike’s great success. The government was delighted to be able, starting tomorrow, to resume its indispensable economic reforms. In the distance, the helicopter continued to circle.
There are hints throughout that Lakhdar’s story won’t end well. It’s told in past tense and Lakhdar occasionally drops vague hints suggesting that the outcome isn’t what we might hope for him. Still, at least he’s there to narrate the story so it can’t be all bad. Besides, there’s a sense too that our common story might not end so well either. Across the Arab world, across Europe and the US and the wider world people are organising, protesting, fighting for something better. There’s little sign that any of them are going to get it.
Lakhdar’s goals are smaller than those of the Arab Spring or the Indignados. He’s not political, he’s not a revolutionary, he’s not looking for a new Tangiers.
All I want is to be free to travel, to earn money, to walk around quietly with my girlfriend, to fuck if I want to, to pray if I want to, to sin if I want to, and to read detective novels if I feel like it without anyone finding anything to object to aside from God Himself.
Which as manifestos go sounds pretty good to me.
Enard’s reading recommendations
As with Zone, Enard peppers Street of Thieves with various pretty explicit literary references and recommendations. Lakhdar loves Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos and fantasises that his Tangiers is Izzo’s Marseilles. He approvingly mentions Manchette’s The Prone Gunman and comments in passing on Pronzini (new to me) and McBain. He refers to the poetry of Abu Nuwas and “the great novels of Naguib Mahfouz or Tayeb Salih”. As ever Enard is a fine literary guide, though it’s noticeable that over two novels so far he’s yet to recommend a single female writer.
There are loads, but mystifyingly I didn’t keep links to many of them. One which particularly influenced me to read this was Stu’s at Winston’sDad’sBlog here. Stu says among other things that “I actually loved this more than the zone this book is one of those that captured the Zeitgeist the way it was to be in the North African Arab world as the Arab spring broke” and I know what he means. As I said at the outset, Zone is the better book (technically anyway and in terms of ambition) but I think I enjoyed Street more and it’s hardly as if it lacks ambition itself. I also liked this review from Tony of Tony’s Reading List here.
As ever, please let me know of reviews I’ve missed in the comments.