Those who have been following my ‘work’ with the IFFP Shadow Panel will have noticed my affection for Mathias Énard’s Zone (a book I’ll be revisiting on the blog in a couple of days’ time…). It’ll come as no surprise, then, that I was interested in trying more of the French author’s work, and that’s where the kind people at Open Letter come in. Having published the American version of Zone a few years back, last year they released his second book in English, one which was recently longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Get your passports ready – this time we’re heading north, not south, and our starting point is Africa…
Street of Thieves (translated by Charlotte Mandell, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) begins in Tangier, where a Moroccan youth by the name of Lakhdar is attempting to balance his religious upbringing with impure thoughts for his cousin. When caught in flagrante, he is forced to leave his home and spends the best part of a year roaming the country, surviving through his native cunning and the kindness of strangers.
Once he returns to Tangier, his friend Bassam introduces him to the Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought, an organisation with seemingly benign intentions. However, the more Lakhdar learns about the group, the more he suspects that they have a hidden agenda, and he watches with concern as Bassam is increasingly drawn into these secret activities. An encounter with a pair of young Spanish tourists only accelerates the plan Lakhdar has had for a while – it’s time to leave Tangier behind and head over to Europe. But if only it were that easy…
Street of Thieves is another excellent novel, once again superbly translated by Mandell. While the style isn’t as unique as that employed in Zone, the writing is still powerful, with glimpses of the rolling sentences typical of the earlier book. This is the story of a young man born on the wrong side of the Mediterranean and his struggle to make it over a stretch of water that looks much narrower from Europe than it does from Africa, a portrait of Énard’s zone from the other side of the divide.
The story is written in three parts, with the first set mainly in Tangier. Lakhdar’s home town is a city with two faces, one for the locals, one for the tourists, and he and Bassam spend their days walking through the foreign half, dreaming of seeing the real thing (Europe) one day:
“We would exchange our castles in the sky, trade Meryem’s breasts for emigration; we would meditate this way for hours, facing the Strait, and then we’d go home, on foot, him to evening prayers, me to try and catch one more glimpse of my cousin. We were seventeen, but more like twelve in our heads. We weren’t very clever.”
p.12 (Open Letter Books, 2014)
The two friends each have their own way of dealing with their frustration, one with girls and French noir novels, the other with religion. It remains to be seen which will bring greater happiness.
The second part of the book describes Lakhdar’s journey to Europe, a short trip on the map, but one of light years for an unwanted incomer. Though he’ll get there eventually, life on the other continent isn’t all he dreamed it would be. When he finally arrives at his ‘destination’, he’ll discover that the Street of Thieves, his new home, can be every bit as much of a prison as Tangier was.
While much of the focus is on one young man’s experiences, the background action looks at the wider context, with much of the story happening against the backdrop of the Arab spring. Many of the more explosive events happen elsewhere in North Africa, but Morocco is not immune to the feelings of unrest. Lakhdar soon suspects that the true purpose of the group he’s working for might not be limited to using prayer and literature to spread their cause, leading him to worry about what Bassam is getting up to. In this tense atmosphere, you never know what might happen next, or who’s watching you from the shadows (it’s tempting to imagine Francis Mirkovic, the hero of Zone, somewhere in the corner of a café, taking notes for his bosses…).
Much as Lakhdar attempts to avoid the darker side of the group he finds himself working for, one of the positive influences he finds there comes from the books he is asked to sell. A keen reader and a budding linguist, he discovers the joy of Arabic, even if he doesn’t always practice what is being preached:
“When I got tired of the porn on the web (a little sin never did anyone any harm) I would spend hours reading, comfortably stretched out on the rug: little by little I got used to Classical Arabic, which is a sublime, powerful, captivating language of extraordinary richness. I would spend hours discovering the beauties of the Koran through the great commentators; the simple complexity of the text astounded me. It was an ocean. An ocean of lights. I liked to picture the Prophet in his cave, wrapped in his coat, or surrounded by his companions, on his way to battle.” (p.23)
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, a conflict probably repeated daily across the Islamic world, where young men juggle with the demands of faith and the temptations of the secular world. Lakhdar comes to focus on the medium, rather than the message, and it is here that Énard’s background comes to the fore, with his love of Arabic evident in every description of the language.
It’s not just Classical Arabic that Lakhdar is able to escape into, though, as he’s just as likely to be found with his nose in something a little more down-market. His penchant for French pulp noir novels serves as a welcome escape from the trials of everyday life. Ironically, the French he’s learned from his harmless hobby is to lead him back into more serious territory. Finding a job transcribing old French documents, he spends his days copying the death files of North African soldiers killed during the wars – again, very Zone-esque…
Street of Thieves often flows like a standard narrative, but occasional comments from the narrator remind us that the book is being told from a future perspective, with our young friend looking back at the past. Ever so gradually, the reader senses that it’s all going to end badly – we’re just not sure how, exactly. Énard plays with the reader, leaving tantalising hints of what’s to come, but despite these scattered clues, the ending still comes as a shock (well, it did to me, at least…).
In the end, it’s both a story of a region and of one man’s struggle to avoid his fate, a tale of a turbulent time:
“You never remember entirely, never really; you reconstruct, with time, the memories in your mind. I am so far, now, from the person I was at the time that it is impossible for me to once again exactly locate the power of sensations, the violence of emotions; today, it seems to me I would not be able to withstand such blows, that I would shatter into a thousand pieces. No one would survive such powerful shocks.” (p.93)
Lakhdar’s story is complex and difficult to explain to an outsider, but Énard attempts to paint a picture of the man and the society – and succeeds. It’s a great story which ends on a sombre note, a reminder that not every escape has a happy ending. However, while the final scenes may be bleak, the book itself is a success. Let’s hope that there’s more from Énard appearing in English very soon 🙂
UPDATE (21/5/15) – As mentioned in a comment below, the UK version of Street of Thieves (with the same translation) will be out from Fitzcarraldo Editions in August this year 🙂