Street Of Thieves/Zone

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Lakhdar, the 20-year-old, Moroccan hero of Mathias Enard’s 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. Lakhdar’s 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 book’s 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 Enard’s earlier novels, ZONE, an epic journey into mankind’s 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 Yugoslavia’s 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 man’s 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)