Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard

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An immense net stretches between Mathias Énard novels, pulling the reader from Paris to Rome, Rome to Istanbul, Tangiers to Barcelona. Each work reaches from its hub outward, exposing binding ties in the lives of its characters and the histories they encounter. His characters encounter the past on a personal and structural level as they ride trains and cross the water. His characters live in the midst of a historical progression Énard describes as “diversity – expulsion – relocation.” Énard refuses to let the reader ignore the movement of bodies and ideas.

Street of Thieves takes these narrative and thematic entanglements and grafts them onto a twenty-something kid from Tangiers with a voracious appetite for books. The novel contains its own miniature library—a catalog of material read in multiple languages connecting characters stretched between different cities. Before we know his name, we know what the protagonist reads: Jean-Claude Izzo, Casanova, Ibn Battuta, the Koran. The protagonist, Lakhdar, is a bit of all his books. Eager to travel and be unfettered, he wants the impossible: to live each of these stories at once; to have faith and love affairs, a bit of mystery and the liberty to move as he pleases through the world. He finds energy and curiosity in books and language, methods of transportation and education with moveable boundaries. His volumes burn or get left behind, but he carries the stories and the languages with him.

Lakhdar spends much of the novel vacillating between two losses. His cousin and first love dies in a botched abortion, which Lakhdar learns of long after the fact. She was the first object of his desire and his first experience with fragility. The expectations of comportment set forth by religion come into conflict with his own complex desire, to tragic end. A couple years later, he loses Bassam, his childhood best friend when he joins the Group for the Diffusion of Koranic thought. Bassam gets absorbed in the Group’s projects. Lakhdar never learns the full extent of its activities, but understands Bassam is involved in terrorist attacks. He sees both losses as the inevitable product of a society formed around the expectations of single text.

Lakhdar continues to devour all kinds of books. He meets Judit in a café in Tangiers. She studies Arabic literature and language in Barcelona; they start dating. His desire for her pushes him to read in his own language, to discover the Arabic texts she studies. As he moves between Tangiers and Barcelona, he confronts the impossibility of a single-text identity. Lakhdar contains more multiples than anywhere will allow him. He will not choose between the trashy detective novels or the Koran. Yet, he cannot spend his life tumbling between the coasts of the Mediterranean, following volition as Ibn Battuta did centuries before, traveling without passport or papers, threatened by vagabonds instead of visas. The only freedom of movement Lakhdar finds is through reading. There, between the pages of books he can be in perpetual motion without an identity tied to single place, language or text.

In Barcelona, he lives in a warm and welcoming international population of workers pushed to the margins of society: drug dealers, prostitutes, thieves. A few steps from the tourist heart of Barcelona, they speak “a new language, born in the bars of Barcelona slums.” Their patois pools disparate identities into linguistic invention. Likewise, Lakhdar and Judit speak a mix of Spanish, Classical Arabic and French that is natural to neither of them but of both of them. It is through the mixture of languages, the breakdown of their boundaries that Lakhdar attempts to find an identity for himself. In his world of letters, languages and histories collide and intersect into a complex image, fixed to no specific time or place.

Central to this novel is memory and the search for self. Lakhdar moves from place to place, bogged down by foggy memory and sharp nightmares. Precise recollection is impossible. He struggles to differentiate the past from his memory of it, in a search for lost time: “One never quite remembers, not truly; we rebuild our remembrance as time passes and call it memory; and I am so far removed from who I was at that time that I can no longer reconstitute precisely.” Lakhdar’s memories slip away, difficult to render clear and exact. Énard keeps Lakhdar’s character unclear. He cannot be named as this or that. The past and present are both in constant flux and conversation with one another, much like Lakhdar’s books and languages. His person is not fixed to any time or place, but rather an assemblage of multiples, best articulated through what he has read. He only finds a reflection of his self in all its complexity in books, in his miniature library.

His inability, and abject refusal, to adhere to one single identity is unfamiliar and unusual. A novel centered on a destabilized protagonist risks losing its reader in his wanderings. But Énard keeps the reader on a close rein. He writes with a captivating rhythm. Extended cadences through memory and desire conclude with terse, sharp turns of phrase. The text wavers between the ramblings of a lost writer and the rapid conclusions of frustrated adolescent. The immediate events of the story address a particular political and social moment, but the novel treats tension between boundaries and desire across time and place.

Throughout Street of Thieves, the history of Andalusia, of the Berber conquest of Spain followed by the Inquisition, simmers below the surface. In his travels to Spain from Morocco, Lakhdar gets stuck on a ferry held up at customs in Algeciras. He gets off the boat, but remains suspended between Spain and Morocco regardless of physical location. He reflects, “I am what I have read, I am what I have seen, I have within me as much Arabic as Spanish and French, I have multiplied myself in these mirrors to the point of losing myself or constructing myself, a fragile image, an image in movement.” Nothing in the novel is static, no matter how stable the foundation may appear. This is what Énard’s writing does–breaks down the walls built around cities, countries, languages and years. He reaches into the past to confront the muddy territory of memory and remembrance, and pushes the reader to get comfortable in complexity without clear progression or boundaries.

Nina Sparling is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. More from this author →