REVIEW by Willard Manus
the 20-year-old, Moroccan hero of Mathias Enards new novel, STREET
OF THIEVES, is a brilliantly-conceived character whose struggle to make
sense of the contradictory forces of his life makes for compulsive reading.
Lakhdar grows up in Tangier, a city he both loves and loathes. The eldest
son of a lower-middle-class family, he chafes under the provincial restraints
of Tangier, even as he takes pleasure in its physical charms, seaside
promenade, nightly dance of lights, communal plazas and cafes. Lakhdars
father is a pious Muslim who has read only one book in his life, the Koran.
Lakhdar finds wisdom and poetry in that holy book, but he takes even more
pleasure in reading such literature as For Bread Alone and
The Time of Errors by Choukri, plus the novels of Naguib Mahfouz.
Above all, he loves American and French detective novels, because there
was sex, often, blondes, cars, whiskey and cops, all things that we lacked
except in dreams.
Unable to repress his sensual side, he takes his beautiful young cousin
Meryem to bed, a transgression that leads to a beating by his enraged
father-God protect us from evil, God help us-and
to his running away from home. What follows is a series of picaresque
adventures in which this penniless but sensitivet young man tries to find
his way in the world, a world seething with exploitation, prejudice, violence
and madness. To be fair, he also experiences moments of pleasure and love,
mostly with his putative girlfriend Judit, a Spanish student of Arabic
literature whom he met in Tangier.
Lakhdar is also befriended along the way by Sheikh Nureddin, head of the
Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought. The Sheikh,
whose polished, well-spoken and benign appearance masks his venomous hatred
of the West, gives Lakhdar a job and a place to stay. Ultimately, though,
Lakhdar must decide which side of the religious divide he is on: with
militant Islam or the secular West. His choice is further complicated
by his disgusted reaction to life in Barcelona (where he has managed to
emigrate). Living here as a dark-skinned (but well-read) outcast, has
taught him a bitter lesson: that the only thing that still made
the city a city and not an ensemble of bloodthirsty ghettos, was the tourists.
Lakhdar cannot help but become bloodthirsty himself. As he comments in
the books final pages, men are dogs with empty gazes, they
circle in the twilight, chase a ball, fight over a female, over a corner
of the kennel, stay stretched out for hours, tongues lolling, waiting
to be done in, in a final caress.
(Open Letter, $15.95, translated by Charlotte Mandell)
After reading STREET OF THIEVES, I sought out one of Enards earlier
novels, ZONE, an epic journey into mankinds heart of darkness. As
translated once again by Charlotte Mandel, the novel centers on Francis
Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat with a blood-stained past: soldier
in Yugoslavias civil war, secret agent for the French intelligence
service. We meet him as he rides a train from Milan to Rome carrying a
suitcase packed with information that he plans to sell to the Vatican.
The information, slipped to him over the years by various fellow spooks,
amounts to a secret history of the atrocities-both collective and
individual--that have been committed in our time. Mirkovic has been shaken
by the savagery of these crimes, which have been committed not just in
the zone-the countries of the Mediterranean (Spain, Greece,
Algeria, Italy, Lebanon, etc.)-but in supposedly more enlightened
and civilized countries such as Germany, Russia and the USA (think Auschwitz,
Siberia and Abu Ghraib). The list is a long one, but in each place violence
and torture were the norm; blood was spilled as easily as water.
Written in a single sentence that runs on for 502 pages, ZONE is a powerful
and original work of art, a poetic and profound meditation on mans
inhumanity to man. Enard also paints an unforgettable portrait of a man
spinning in circles among corpses, a man struggling, as all
of us are, to escape the darkness that surrounds us, threatens to swallow
us up whole.
(Open Letter, $16.95 ppbk)