‘Enard gives a voice to a generation of young Arabs whose views are not heard in mainstream discussions’ – Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard

sotmeOpening in the religious and political turmoil of Morocco during the Arab Spring before plunging deep into the European economic crisis, Street of Thieves is a thrilling and immersive novel which examines the political developments of the early Twenty-First century through the eyes of a young man living in the centre of a period of dramatic social and political change.

Enard’s debut novel Zone was a Modernist masterpiece, a stream of consciousness novel which charted the interlinked conflicts which had spread across Europe throughout the twentieth century. Street of Thieves, by contrast, has a relatively conventional narrative structure. The novel is a bildungsroman, in which the main character’s emotional development takes place against the backdrop of the Arab Spring.

The narrator, Lakhdar, is a young boy from Tangiers who is ostracised by his family after being caught in flagrante with his cousin Meryam. After a period of itinerant wandering, he returns to the city, where his friend Bassam finds him a place with a collective called the Muslim Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought. In return for lodging and a small wage he works as a bookseller, running a stall outside the local mosque. Although he does not realise it at first, he is living alongside a group of people determined to accelerate the progress of Morocco’s constitutional reform movement by spectacular means. The atmosphere in the streets of Tangiers becomes increasingly violent, culminating in a bombing and a sword attack on tourist locations (events which Lakhdar suspects the Group of having been behind), but Lakhdar finds that he cannot fully support the uprising which is consuming the city.

Through Lakhdar, Enard gives a voice to a generation of young Arabs whose views are not heard in mainstream discussions about the Arab Spring. The Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought see the uprisings as an opportunity to ‘win as many free, democratic elections as possible in order to take power, and then, from within, by the conjoined forces of legislature and the street, to Islamize the constitution and the laws,’ but Lakhdar’s vision for a free Morocco is quite different: ‘All I want is to be free to travel, go earn money, to walk around with my girlfriend, to fuck 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.’  His interests chiefly involve pursuing a relationship with Judit, a Spanish student who he meets in a Tangiers café. This is his own revolution: as he says, there are ‘those who get bullets and beatings in Tahir Square and those who dare french kiss a Spanish student in the street’.

Lakhdar is a displaced person in his own city: the structures which link him to his childhood have all been lost; already rejected by his family, his friends disappear following the bomb attack, and his possessions are lost in an arson attack on the Group’s headquarters. He increasingly feels that his own voice is being drowned out as the protests are co-opted by organised groups: ‘All young people are like me. The Islamists are old conservatives who steal our religion from us when it should be for 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?’

Following Bassam’s disappearance and the burning down of the Group’s headquarters, Lakhdar finds a job digitising an archive of French Army reports from World War I for a local publishing company. This work helps him to empathise with the young Arab men who had travelled to Europe to fight and die in the conflict. Enard repeatedly refers to the First World War throughout Street of Thieves. This serves a dual purpose: firstly, as a point of comparison for the Arab Spring, as an event which will reverberate throughout the Twenty-First century as the First World War set the tone for the Twentieth, and secondly to foreshadow the fate of Lakhdar and many other young men who travel to Europe in the hope of finding a more liberated existence.

Lakhdar is eventually able to make the journey across to Spain through a convoluted sequence of events which begins when he finds work as a dogsbody on a tourist ferry. After a period of being confined to dock when the shipping company goes bust, leaving the crew stranded in a Spanish port without visas to go beyond customs, he is able to secure a passage to Barcelona, where he comes to live on the titular Carrer Robadores, ‘street of whores, of drug addicts, of dropouts of all kinds who spent their days in this narrow citadel that smelled of urine, stale beer, tagine and samosas’. He discovers that he has exchanged the political turmoil of the Arab world for the economic turmoil of Southern Europe. He is able to be closer to Judit, but she is becoming depressed and lifeless, worn down by the pressures of resisting the Spanish government’s austerity measures. Coming full circle, Lakhdar is visited in Barcelona by Bassam, setting in motion the final stages of the novel as the Group attempt to bring their struggle to Europe.

Although Street of Thieves has a fairly straightforward structure, Enard’s prose is still remarkable for its morbid lyricism, showing the influence of Baudelaire. Lakhdar’s dreams are rendered in feverish, gothic style which is worth quoting at length (‘I had been sleeping with a dead girl: with Meryem who was disappearing in the flesh-eating coffin while I was seeing her alive and well, as the seasons passed; she was accompanying me when she was no more and that was so mysterious, so incomprehensible in my still-young heart that I saw a disgusting betrayal in it, a piece of filth even greater than my responsibility for her death’), while there are memorably grotesque cameos, such as the undertaker who spends his days watching atrocity videos online, his face illuminated by ‘the bluish light of tortures on Youtube’. His depiction of the urban underclass who inhabit the Street of Thieves, and the alternate economies they devise, is richly drawn, filled with energy and yet never romanticised.

In his recent novel Submission, Michel Houellebecq observed that ‘it may well be impossible for people who have lived and prospered under a given social system to imagine the point of view of those who feel it offers them nothing, and who can contemplate its destruction without any particular dismay.’ Enard’s work brings us close to characters who are alienated by the socio-economic structures of Western Europe, who suffer most as a result of economic upheavals and whose voices are not heard in the narrow margins of the political consensus. Street of Thieves is a novel which examines the effects of this period of economic and political upheaval on a generation of disenfranchised young people across Europe and North Africa, whilst never losing touch of the humanity of its characters.

Any Cop?: While it doesn’t have the pyrotechnic brilliance of Zone, Street of Thieves is still a remarkable and important novel. I can’t think of any better contemporary writers than Enard.

Thom Cuell

Thom Cuell


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