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More Than That: Contemporary Complexity in Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves

By Lee Klein.

Mathias Énard, Street of Thieves (Open Letter Press, November 2014),
translated by Charlotte Mandell

Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves, in Charlotte Mandell’s fluid translation from the French, relates a straightforward, socio-politically aware, coming-of-age story set two years ago in Tangier, Algeciras, and Barcelona. It’s a peripheral story, backgrounded by recent headline news. For such a tight, timely novel, it must have been composed, edited, and published in French, and then translated and published in English in record time. Yet it doesn’t seem rushed. Compared to other popular language-distribution platforms, novels are generally considered more meaningful or at least less ephemeral/disposable than the ever-updating, über-timely Twitter. Street of Thieves might possibly have risked seeming dated tomorrow in exchange for timeliness today except it’s the sort of novel that endures—effortless animation of a memorable narrator (twenty-year-old Lakhdar from Tangier); precise, forward-flowing descriptions of contemporary reality; and fluent dramatization of the complexity of existence tend to age well.

Énard, a fortyish professor from France who teaches Arabic at the University of Barcelona, is the author of Zone, an ambitious, audacious twentieth-century atrocity exhibition in which an ex-spy on a train from Milan to Rome randomly accesses an encyclopedic memory of the secret history of peri-Mediterranean war crimes. The bodies pile up for every tie his train rolls over, all of it sprinkled with talk of Genet, Burroughs, Joyce, and Pound, rendered in a single discontinuous sentence (discontinuous because the 500+ page sentence is interrupted by chapter breaks and a self-contained, many-sentenced story inserted at some point). Readers expecting Zone Part Deux, encountering a comparatively conventional novel, won’t be disappointed. It’s clearly the same intelligence and sensibility rendered this time in traditional sentences, paragraphs, short chapters, and sections, complete with action, conflict, rising drama, and resolution, but not in a way that feels common.

Formal conventionality makes sense considering Lakhdar’s desire for conventional European opportunity, but also considering his love of cheap thrillers. Lakhdar doesn’t mention Genet, Burroughs, Joyce, or Pound; instead he’s a fan of French thrillers he explicitly uses to escape from a succession of cages. Reading (“the ivory tower of books, which is the only place on earth where life is good”) brings Lakhdar respite from the truth he offers up on the first page: “we are all caged animals who live for pleasure, in obscurity.” All he wants, Lakhdar says midway through the novel, 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.” He continues: “All young people are like me . . . The Islamists are old conservatives who steal our religion from us when it should belong to everyone. All they offer are prohibitions and repression. The Arab Left are old union members who are always too late for a strike. Who’s going to represent me?”

Ultimately, Lakhdar’s advocate is the author who runs him through a novel-length wringer: “This whole series of coincidences, chances, I don’t know how to interpret them; call them God, Allah, Fate, predestination, karma, life, good luck, bad luck, whatever you want.” The pace of movement across situations and scenes seems almost picaresque, albeit with a narrator who’s a few years older than Lazarillo de Tormes. First, he’s forced from home after his father catches him in flagrante delicto with a comely cousin. He lives on the street for a while and begs (it’s suggested he sells himself, too). He and his best friend Bassam lust after young ladies and long to cross the strait of Gibraltar to Spain and beyond. Bassam introduces Lakhdar to the charismatic and protective Sheik Nureddin and his Group for the Propagation of Islamic Thought. Sheik Nureddin entrusts literate Lakhdar with running their bookstore, selling books and pamphlets (Sexuality in Islam; Heroines of Islam; Islam Against the Zionist Plot). He and Bassam meet attractive students visiting from Spain. Bassam can’t keep his eyes off Elena’s chest and he speaks louder when she doesn’t understand his Arabic, but the smoother Lakhdar speaks some French with Judit, they fall in love, and he begins planning his escape across the strait to reunite with her. Lakhdar then falls out with his Islamist friends when they turn their cudgels on his favorite French bookseller and he suspects Bassam in particular of significant terrorist activity. Lakhdar quickly finds another job transcribing profiles of the “one million three hundred fucking thousand dead” Frenchmen killed in action during World War I. This leads to work on a ferry between Tangier and Algeciras that shuts down thanks to the economic crisis. He winds up working in Spain for a morbid outfit that claims drowned corpses from the sea. Finally, after a riveting, intensely described scene that ends the mortuary episode, he makes it to Barcelona to visit Judit, who’s distant, depressed, and ultimately seriously ill. In the end, Lakhdar finds a shared apartment on the Street of Thieves (Caller Robadors in Catalan) in a district populated by junkies and prostitutes; violent demonstrations enflame Barcelona’s streets; and he eventually reunites with his friend Bassam and Sheik Nureddin, who Lakhdar suspects may be in town to wage some jihad.

Bassam has given himself over to Sheik Nureddin, but God is silent for Lakhdar, and he equates this silence with “the absence of a master that drives dogs crazy.” The masters he finds to replace his family are imperfect, offering temporary protection but also most likely seeking to exploit him. Literature (in the form of Arabic poetry and detective novels) and languages (Arabic, French, Spanish) are his refuge, the keys to the incursions of fate that push his life (and the novel) forward. Otherwise, in the absence of a higher power, Lakhdar wants to take responsibility for himself, and he does on the novel’s last pages when he testifies in court that he is an irreducible human being: “I am not a Moroccan, I am not a Frenchman, I’m not a Spaniard, I’m more than that . . . I am not a Muslim, I am more than that.”

Dramatizing the complexity of humanity beyond oversimplifications of race, religion, region, even a list of one’s sins, is literature’s core competency. If novels have value beyond slow, silent, textual entertainment, it’s this sort of enlightenment. A human being isn’t reducible to a type, a demographic, a number tattooed on the forearm, details about a soldier KIA long ago, or even a profile on a social media site. All Moslems aren’t alike for Christ’s sake. There’s more to the huddled masses than a dream of donning the executioner’s hood, hoping to spill bourgeois blood. Sheik Nureddin, for example, surely a major player in a violent Islamist organization, is described by Lakhdar like this:

 . . . he was good to me and I knew (or liked to believe) that he had taken me in without ulterior motives; he had given me lessons on morality, true, but no more than a father or a big brother. He would often repeat, laughing, that my detective novels were rotting my mind, that they were diabolical books that were driving me to perdition, but he never did anything to stop me from reading them, for example, and if I hadn’t seen him with my own eyes leading the group of fighters at night I would have been incapable of imagining for a single second that he could be connected, closely or remotely, with a violent action.

Street of Thieves is a feat of the imagination propelled by deep cultural familiarity and experience, an extraordinary animation of another person—a particular fictional human being who longs for old-fashioned liberty—superficially unlike the author but surely resembling most readers on a fundamental, intrinsic level. Reading this, I imagined the author inspired to tell the story of someone on the peripheries of the Arab Spring, not caught on camera and distributed around the world, someone longing for what’s so often taken for granted, the freedom to do what we’d like, to cross borders and walk hand in hand with a loved one, to read detective novels or even contemporary Euro Lit in translation.

Other than Ben Lerner’s recent 10:04, which ends with Superstorm Sandy circa Halloween 2012, I can’t think of a novel that relies so thoroughly on recent events (A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers mentions the BP spill but it’s only a line). Novels involving 9/11 took at least three or four years to come out, right? In the final third of Énard’s Street of Thieves, the 2012 demonstrations in Barcelona take center stage. Helicopters churn overhead, rubber bullets fly, protestors smash bank windows, and streets in flames are cordoned off by cops in riot gear:

Subversion was everywhere, you could feel the violence and hatred of the boys in blue rising: they were rushing around, restlessly brandishing their long clubs, their rifles, their shields – opposite them, the young people lowered their pants to show their asses, called the cops assholes and sons of whores; a little group dismantled some metal trashcans to throw at them, others, oddly, attacked a tree, maybe to turn it into a giant spear. The confrontation was unequal and reminded me of a battle of conquistadors, with armor and harquebuses, against of troop of Mayan or Aztec civilians I had seen an engraving of in a history book. Conquest was on the march.

There’s a mention of the Spanish king’s hunting trip to Africa, and a quick Google search reveals that it occurred in mid-April 2012. Inclusion of contemporary events, in part, makes this an urgent read. Pound’s famous dictum is “literature is news that stays news.” Énard’s use of the news as larger societal parallel of the narrator’s troubles comes off more natural than opportunistic or forced.

This sense of the story organically unfolding—despite what could have seemed like pedantic appropriation of news and narrator—owes a lot to the author’s genuine talent and skill. “You can’t teach height,” basketball commentators always say. Something similar applies to Énard’s sensibility and instincts:

Cities can be tamed, or rather, they tame us: they us know to behave, they make us lose, little by little, our foreign surface; they tear our outer yokel shell away from us, melt us into themselves, shape us in their image — very quickly, we abandon our way of walking, we stop looking in the air, we no longer hesitate when we enter a subway station, we have the right rhythm, we advance at the right pace, and whether you’re Moroccan, Pakistani, English, German, French, Andalusian, Catalan, or Philippine, in the end Barcelona, London, or Paris train us like dogs. We surprise ourselves one day, waiting at the pedestrian crossing for the signal to walk; we learn the language, the words of the city, its smells, its clamor . . .

Lakhadar testifies that he’s more than a Moroccan, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Muslim. Énard, similarly, is more than a French male writer teaching Arabic in Spain. He’s a writer whose literary identity and spirit seem unbounded. Deep knowledge of the past and presentiments of the future inform his perspectives and insights into the present. With Street of Thieves, he’s written an accessible novel of ideas and politics, propelled by longing for love and freedom. Taken together with Zone, it’s clear I’ll read everything Énard writes from now on: his language jumps across and down the page, he doesn’t fear engaging with complicated ideas, and he manages to animate living, breathing characters who savor the complexities and ambiguities, the beauties and horrors, of life.


Lee Klein has two books out this year, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox and The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 8th, 2014.