Mathias Énard’s books crackle with the heat of international conflagrations. In his seminal 2008 novel,"Zone," Énard – a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona – tells the story of a former intelligence officer who travels by train across Italy with a valise full of valuable papers, documents pertaining to atrocities sown throughout the 20th century. "Zone" (which holds the record for containing the single longest sentence of any published Western-language novel) was a marvel of historical reflection and literary ambition. There is a momentum to its narrative that’s every bit as impatient as Céline’s twitchy sentences in "Journey to the End of the Night". I doubt I could dredge up more than a few novels published in the last decade that have handled the sanguinary shades of history with such force.
Énard has something of the quality one finds in writers as widely separated by time and milieu as Émile Zola and Don DeLillo – the ability to map the edges of broad social issues through the eyes and pores of his characters. In his new novel, Street of Thieves, Énard recounts the misadventures of Lakhdar, a young man born in Tangier whose life intersects with the Arab Spring and the European financial crisis. Catnip for anyone fascinated with the recent history of the Middle East and Europe.
Énard pulls off the tricky feat of writing about the lives of disenfranchised individuals without sentimentalizing their predicament or overlooking the serendipitous occurrences that drip into any ordinary human life. Though "Street of Thieves" frequently dramatizes the tensions between religion and secularism, Énard’s characters can slough off or put on whatever ideological garments they wear depending on the situation. For while it’s true that – as Aristotle observed – man is a political animal given to establishing and enforcing moral codes, his ability to modulate his prejudices is perhaps more revealing about how he functions in the world.
The area in which human beings are most readily prone to evasion, duplicity, and moral lapse is sex. And it’s in this area, where personal inclinations and community standards intertwine and abrade, that Énard, like others before him, locates one of the main social fault lines running through Muslim countries.
Sex is the catalyst for Lakhdar’s troubles. After he is discovered with his first cousin in flagrante delicto, his father beats him viciously. Nursing a mixture of anger and shame, he flees his parental home and lives a frayed, shoestring life in Casablanca and elsewhere. Eventually, perdition prompts his return to Tangier. Of those wayward days he says:
"You become the human equivalent of a pigeon or a seagull. People see us without seeing us, sometimes they give us a few kicks so we’ll disappear, and few, very few, imagine on what railing, on what balcony we sleep at night.... But then, after ten months of being on the run, three hundred days of shame, I couldn’t bear any more. I had paid my dues, maybe. And no poems came to me, no philosophical considerations about existence, no sincere repentance, just a mute hatred and a deeper mistrust of all that was human."
Wary of returning to his parents, he goes to see his friend Bassam, who treats him with what hospitality he can. Barely able to keep his excitement in check, Bassam tells Lakhdar that he’s found him a place to crash: a mosque, he says beatifically, that is “not a place like the others.”
On the ground floor of an apartment building, Lakhdar makes the acquaintance of the dapper men that lead the Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought. After a short interview with the group’s leader, the self-styled Sheikh Nureddin, who asks to hear Lakhdar’s story, Lakhdar is hired to be the organization’s bookseller. Though not before he is told, “You haven’t sinned, my young friend. You let yourself get caught in that girl’s trap. She is the one responsible, and your father was not fair.... Your father is the guilty one, he should have better supervised the women of his family, should have enjoined decency on them.”
Life for the bookishly inclined Lakhdar is agreeable enough, for an interval. He is a given a small room and is treated well. He enjoys reading through the available books in his keep – delving into the beauties of classical Arabic and fathoming the nuances of theological commentary – along with the cheap detective thrillers that he buys from another local bookseller whose stock ranges far from the confines of religious thought. Of those Lakhdar peddles, the bestseller is "Sexuality in Islam," which, despite its title, is not the least bit erotic – though its buyers (almost all men) imagine otherwise.
After the February 20, 2011 protests sweep through Morocco, the Group huddles around the hopes of spurring on a political change through the region. One night, the leadership decides to undertake a “neighborhood cleanup.” Although Lakhdar is loath to join in this expedition, he feels the tug of social pressure from Sheikh Nureddin.
Meekly, he accepts the club that is given him and hides it beneath clothes like others. To his dismay, he learns that the target of the Group’s opprobrium is the local bookseller – a Playboy-reading, wine-drinking guy – whose wares are near and dear to him. Unable to lift a hand against the shop’s proprietor, he is revolted as he watches his friend, Bassam, give the man a thrashing.
From that moment on, Lakhdar grows disillusioned with the Group. But with little else to fall back on he still tries to make the best of his situation. Thus it is that one day, he lures Bassam out into the streets with the lie that he recently made the acquaintance of two Spanish girls who are looking for a good time. Skeptical as he is, the thought is too enticing for Bassam to ignore. So he relinquishes his thoughts of preparing for a grand action that will help shove the West into a confrontation with Islamists and allows himself to be led about.
Miraculously, the two actually do meet two young Spanish students on holiday. But while Lakhdar engages with them civilly, Bassam is garishly awkward during their time together, ogling them in an unsubtle fashion. The only topics of conversation he essays to introduce relate to Islam. Yet, after the girls take their leave, he is elated. Despite all evidence to the contrary Bassam believes that he has endeared himself.
One of the students, Judit, takes a shine to Lakhdar, and the two begin a long-distance relationship. After Lakhdar is forced to leave his temporary sanctuary and find work elsewhere, he is eventually able to rendezvous with Judit in Tunis, where they spend a few halcyon days tumbling in and out of bed and studying classic Arabic texts together.
Frustrated with his job back home, Lakhdar welcomes the help of his boss, who secures him a position aboard a commercial sea vessel. Unfortunately, the company that owns the ship is in dire financial straits, and the boat is seized by the Spanish court in the port of Algeciras for neglecting to pay its harbor fees. After more twists of fate, Lakhdar makes his way to Barcelona – Judit’s hometown – where he takes up residence in an impoverished quarter on a street known as Carter Robadors, or Street of Thieves.
Although money troubles dog Lakhdar throughout his journey, he finds solace in the company of books, which “gave [him] a painful superiority over [his] companions in misfortune.” Ultimately, it is Lakhdar’s intellectual curiosity that distinguishes him from his best friend, whose path toward jihad is linked with his inability to navigate a world outside of men who share his cultural markings:
"I thought of Bassam, lost somewhere in his own personal Jihad ... sometimes explaining serves no purpose; there’s nothing to understand in violence, the violence of animals, mad from fear, from hatred, from blind stupidity that motivates a guy my age to coolly place the barrel of a gun to the temple of a little eight-year-old girl in a school, to change his weapons when the first one jams, with the calm that implies determination, and to fire in order to win the respect of some rats in Afghan caves. I remembered the words of Sheikh Nureddin, provoking clashes, setting off revenges that would fan the fires of the world, would launch dogs against each other, journalists and writers at the lead, who hurried to understand and explain as if there were something truly interesting in the paranoid ravings from the brain of a bastard so frazzled that even Al Qaida didn’t want him."
As "Street of Thieves" concludes, Lakhdar affirms that his identity exceeds that of his nationality, his religion, and his ethnicity. As I hovered over the last page, I rapped my hand against a table like one cheering on a brother at the end of a race. For this novel’s war against parochialism is as necessary as it is just.