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Monday, 15 June 2015

Street of Thieves - Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

In February I reviewed Mathias Enard’s “Zone” (translated by Charlotte Mandell), a work longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award, a work published in Great Britain in 2014 and therefore eligible for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, a work the Shadow Jury of that award rated highly and shortlisted, a work lauded by critics and one used to push along the sales of “Street of Thieves”. The covers quotes ‘Bomb’, “Enard’s Zone is an epic of modern literature”, the back cover says “Zone, which Christophe Claro boldly declared to be ‘the novel of the decade, of not the century.’” A hard act to follow? Let’s see.

Our story (again translated by Mandell) is a first person narrative with Lakhdar our narrator, he “has no moral strength whatsoever” and early in the work he falls for his next door neighbour, his cousin, is caught in flagrante by his father and leaves home. His fate is sealed as we follow him though living on the Moroccan street, selling his body, until finally a childhood friend, Bassam, gets him a job as a bookseller at the Propogation of Koranic Thought. Although a practicing Muslim, Lakhdar reads French thrillers, drinks an occasional beer, smokes spliffs every now and again and as a young man enjoys ogling the bodies of the female tourist. He is still a child wandering, looking for a destination.

Sheikh Nureddin invited us to lunch at a little neighbourhood restaurant, like every Friday, with the rest of the “active members” of the Group; I listened to them talk politics, Arab Revolutions, etc. It was amusing to see these bearded conspirators licking their fingers; the Sheikh had spread his napkin over his chest, one corner tucked into his shirt collar, so as not to get stains on himself – saffron sauce doesn’t come out easily. Another man held his spoon with his fist like a cudgel and shovelled food in a few inches away from his plate, to have the least distance possible to travel: he stuffed semolina into his wide open mouth like gravel into a cement mixer. Bassam had already finished, his cheeks streaked with yellow, and was now passionately sucking a last chicken bone. The beards of these prophets glistened with semolina grains, were spotted with a shower of garden snow, and they needed to be brushed off like rugs.

The colour, the atmosphere, and the smells of Moroccan life are constantly brought to life through Enard’s expressive language. This is a world where Lakhdar wants escape, we many meetings with Bassam on the shore, watching the ferries leaving to Spain, a world where life could surely not be as bad as living in Tangier.

Our narrator meets a young Spanish tourist, Judit, falls in love and sees a way out of the endless monotony of selling cheap books. Judit gives him, as a gift, a copy of Choukri’s “For Bread Alone” and I thought we would have a parallel story opening up. “For Bread Alone” is Choukri’s autobiographical novel describing drought and starvation as a youngster in Rif (the village where Lakhdar’s cousin retreats to), a further travel to Tangier (where Lakhdar now lives), tales of homelessness, begging, petty theft, prostitution, drugs, alcohol. And although our work is littered with these tales too Lakhdar is also self educated, learning French from reading cheap thrillers, using the internet to be an expert in Arabic to impress the girlfriend, however, I feel the connection to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is more apt. More on that later...

We follow Lakhdar as he moves from dead end job to dead end job:

I also took advantage of my boss’s absence to sketch out a plan. I knew he kept – at least when he was there – a certain sum of money in a little safe, so he could pay people without a middleman, that this safe had a key, and that he kept it on his key ring.
The idea of stealing it came to me from the thriller I was reading, from all the thrillers I had read; after all, wasn’t I locked up in a novel, a very noir one? It was only logical that it was these books that suggested a way out.

On the surface this work could be compared to last year’s Best Translated Book Award shortlisted “Horses of God” by Mahi Binebine(translated by Lulu Norman), a novel revisiting the lives of twelve suicide bombers who died in Casablanca in May 2003, along with thirty civilians. That tale following Yachine from the after-life as he reflects on his journey from the slums to suicide bomber. However this book implies complicity in the activities of the Arab Spring and the riots in Barcelona, and is more the journey of Lakhdar from troubled youth to troubled adult in Barcelona, living with the drug addicts and prostitutes on the Street of Thieves.

I left Algeciras with the sensation that the world was empty, peopled exclusively by phantoms that appeared at night to die or kill, to leave or take, without ever seeing each other or communicating with each other, and in the long night of the bus that brought me to Barcelona, city of Fate and Death, I had the terrible impression of crossing into the Land of Darkness, the real darkness, our own, and the further the bus advanced into obscurity on the highway in the middle of the desert, between Almeria and Murcia, the deeper the horror I had just witnessed seeped into me;”

This work opens with an epigraph from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (‘But when one is young, one must see things, gather experience, ideas; enlarge the mind.’ ‘Here!’ I interrupted. ‘You can never tell! Here I met Mr. Kurtz.’) and I feel the references are quite dominant throughout. “The Horror”, a character Cruz, who is a peddler of death, locking Lakhdar in his quarters, obsessed with macabre endings of human life – surely a thinly veiled reference to Kurtz?

We also have the theme of failing to understand the machinations and motivations of others, a mind in darkness, as well as the slow journey towards understanding oneself. We have the boats travelling (Conrad in reverse) to the perceived freedom of Spain, and instead of the Congo River leading to the heart we have the Mediterranean leading to freedom.

Cities can be tamed, or rather they tame us; they teach us how 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”

Whilst no “Zone” with the spiralling journey into a man’s mind over 600 kilometres without stopping, this is still an enjoyable book. With references to numerous other books throughout, it is also a journey the reader could explore further. With an anti-hero narrator, a “thriller” style tension, and references to the economic collapse of Europe, a yearning for a “home”, Islamist thought, it can be slightly scattered at times. There are “Zone” like ramblings which do feel out of place in a simple tale, however personally I found this an enjoyable work, a worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, but if the judges felt “Zone” wasn’t worthy of the shortlist then I can fully understand why this didn’t make the final ten.

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