On Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard

Arianne Zwartjes

Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2014. 265 pages. $15.95.

Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves reads like a gray, thundercloud-filled afternoon with a charged, energized, and pensive dark. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell and published in November 2014 by Open Letter—a press that continually offers access to the larger world of international literature with their high-caliber translations—Street of Thieves is Énard’s third novel, following his prize-winning Zone which consists of a single, book-length sentence. Énard, a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona, studied Persian and Arabic and has spent substantial time in the Middle East.

The narrative in Street of Thieves, which tracks from Tangier to Tunis to Algeciras to Barcelona, has as its backdrop the turbulence of the Arab Spring and, later, the riots in Catalonia, as it follows the personal upheavals of Lakhdar, a young man seeking to understand the place his life occupies in the restrictive geography of his youth. As Lakhdar tells it, “Sometimes I got caught up in imagining myself in Paris, or Venice; if I’d had a passport in order I’d have liked to go there: Paris to buy some thrillers, see the Seine; Venice to visit Casanova’s city. . . . It was distressing to think that today, if you were a murderer, a thief, or even just an Arab, you couldn’t so easily visit La Serenissima or the City of Light” (227).

Street of Thieves is a tumbling, stream-of-consciousness narrative with long breathless sentences which Mandell has captured beautifully in her translation. It is a narrative with the sort of absence of agency on the part of its protagonist—or at least absence of a self-aware empowerment—that in some stories can feel suffocatingly passive. Here, instead, it feels like realism: we are watching a life being driven by the unpredictable and insurmountable turns of circumstance. There are such huge, monumental forces acting on Lakhdar’s life—forces he often doesn’t understand and sometimes can’t even see—that though he is trying hard to succeed, things often just don’t turn out. The novel offers a picture of the turmoil and random happenstance that can sabotage one’s coming-of-age, a reality for so many individuals who—far from being asked what they “want to become” when they grow up—find themselves fighting to carve out a place in a frequently incomprehensible and often fickle world.

Behind Énard’s story always, as it unfolds, is the looming chaos of storm cloud over Europe, over northern Africa, over Syria and Lebanon—a chaos that still darkens the skies. Énard constructs this mounting tension quietly, slowly, behind the layers of a story that is already complex, until suddenly you find yourself caught in it, in a fraught moment of protest in Barcelona:

[Y]ou felt it was all at a tipping point, that it wouldn’t take much for the whole country to fall into violence and hatred as well, that France would follow, then Germany, and all of Europe would catch fire like the Arab world; . . . one quarter of Catalonia was out of work, the papers overflowed with terrifying stories about the crisis, about . . . suicides, sacrifices, discouragement: you could feel the pressure mounting, violence mounting, even on the Street of Thieves among the poorest of the poor, even in Grácia among the sons of the middle class, you could feel the city ready for anything, for resignation as well as for insurrection. (204)

The mounting pressure of the threats, the humiliation-turned-anger, the fear, the instability that not only backgrounds this novel but shapes the entire trajectory of the protagonist’s life, is one we have all witnessed, close and pressing, during this past year—in the news of refugees seeking asylum, boats overturning in stormy seas between Turkey and Greece, bombings in Paris and Brussels, and the ongoing devastation and cruelty in Syria. At one point in the book, Lakhdar works in a sort of morgue of the dispossessed, cataloguing and praying final rites for the bodies of young men, often Moroccan like him, who are pulled from the sea, drowned in their attempts at passage. Though the original French edition was published in 2012, the novel was prescient in its exploration of topics whose prominence and immediacy have only grown in subsequent years.

Despite the tumultuousness of the backdrop, the unfolding of the story in this novel is often understated: we are witness to the tyranny of circumstance but also the mundanity of circumstance. There are moments where there is an extended pause, where we feel the narrator is waiting, hanging, suspended—“I wasn’t that badly off—I just felt I was on a stopover; real life still hadn’t begun, it was endlessly postponed” (228)—but the events transpiring around him, and eventually buffeting him, are so monumental that the understatement of the presentation creates a tension, an energy that keeps the story moving.

And, in fact, eventually, we come to see that this sense of suspension is the story, or an integral part of it anyway—it is the state of being of this narrator (and also now of the millions of Syrians and Afghanis and Iraqis and others who find themselves in the same state), waiting for his life to begin, by which we might read: waiting for a world in which his own agency and self-determination can find more grab, more traction on the ground of his life.

“A sky of infinite blackness,” the narrator reflects, “I watch the series of cataclysms like one who, in a supposedly safe shelter, feels the floor vibrating, the walls trembling, and wonders how much longer he’ll be able to preserve his life” (206). Though it is often dark, we find in this book not a flattening, depressing narrative from the disenchanted aftermath of the Arab Spring, but rather a reflection of the chaos of life’s events: the tenuous way in which one small thing seems to tip something else into action, a chain of causality that is difficult to predict and often changes scale in totally uncontrollable ways. We all live in this world of complexity and causality, and watching Lakhdar attempt to negotiate it—in sometimes humorous and sometimes devastating ways—humanizes the quest of those whose agency, like this narrator’s, is limited by region and economics and the times they find themselves born into.

Life, and living, in this telling of it, constitutes a sort of vacuum: voracious, devouring, pulling us inexorably along into the nimbus cloud of fate with its static charge, its blinding fogs and assaults of hail, until the moment we are, perhaps, able to pull ourselves free—though for what, is always itself another question, and one Énard’s novel leaves us to find our own answer to. “Maybe our lives are valid for a single instant, a single lucid moment, a single second of courage,” concludes Lakhdar after the book’s unexpected moment of final action, “I scrutinize myself in silence and have no certainty, none. . . . Life consumes everything” (265).

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