This week’s read is a work in translation: Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves (Rue des voleurs in the original French). As a former student of languages, I have a somewhat conflicted view on reading works in translation. Part of me has always been a bit of a purist on the subject: if you can read a book in the language in which the author intended it to be read, why not do so? There are so many details and nuances that can be lost in the tricky process of translation – the author’s voice, for one. However, what you read impacts on what you write, and since I write predominantly in English, it always made far more sense to me to read works intended to be read in English, with the effect that I eschewed works in translation altogether. I grew up with English, therefore I must write in English. That at least was the argument I cleaved to for most of my time at university. A colleague once said to me he could destroy that argument in three words: Waiting for Godot. Unfortunately, uncultured pleb as I am, Samuel Beckett has yet to feature on my reading list – nor will he for some time, theatrical scripts not being my preferred reading material of an evening. However, I concede it a point well made, and in the years since I have relaxed my approach a little and tried dipping my toes in the water.
Street of Thieves tells the tale of Lakhdar, a young, idealistic Moroccan whose boyish desire to seek his fortune across the Strait is realised after a series of stark, harrowing underworld adventures that make Enard’s text a bildungsroman of the darker variety. There is enough of the everyman in Lakhdar to make him an instantly sympathetic protagonist, and no matter how you look at it, the sequence of events that set his journey in motion would humble even the strongest of wills.
The greatest strength of Street of Thieves is in its flawless realism. Every single event is wholly and utterly believable; some magic in Enard’s emplotment almost strips the story of its “story”, as though you are watching Lakhdar’s life in real time. Tragic events happen and caricatures come and go, but they are so very real, so human, they might as well be people picked off the street at random and given parts to play. Where there is grief, there is no melodrama; where there is rage, there are no histrionics; just the restless drone of everyday life, weaved seamlessly into the fabric of fiction.
The book’s title refers to a street in Barcelona’s Raval district, one of the seedier quarters of the coastal metropolis. Enard lived in Barcelona for a time and his knowledge of the comings and goings within the depths of the city paint a convincing picture, though even if he had no experience of his own, he could hardly have chosen a more fitting counterweight to the city in which Lakhdar’s story begins: Tangier, by many accounts one of Morocco’s seedier locales. There is a magic to both cities that draws tourists in every year – the ever lucrative vein of “pink gold” Enard so evocatively describes – but we don’t see much of it from Lakhdar’s perspective. Everything is huge, dark and dirty, as though we are seeing both cities through the eyes of a cockroach, scuttling from corner to darker corner. It is certainly an easier book to write about than it was to read.
I may not have read Waiting for Godot, but I have had the good fortune to explore both Barcelona and Tangier. I went to Barcelona earlier this year in the hope of finding material for my own writing. It was a wistful fantasy, to which I am often prone; I found little of any real value in my wanderings around the city, my interests being so far removed from the modern metropolis – say, by about four hundred years. I wandered around the Raval district a lot, carrying with me only my notebook and the card key to my hostel room, and found the place shadowy, dusty and surprisingly Arabic-speaking, but not as menacing as I had heard tell. Then again, I limited my explorations to the daylight hours: I believe Raval puts on a very different mask by night, if the stories are to be believed. All I really remember about Raval was a chance encounter at the end of a street with a flock of monk parakeets drinking from a puddle in the road, illegal immigrants of a different colour, but illegal immigrants all the same.
Having traveled a good deal in Morocco previously, I found in Tangier a curious melange of the other cities I had seen, as though it were a human imitation of the work of Gods elsewhere. Here were echoes of Fes’ labyrinthine medina, without the medieval charm; echoes too of Marrakesh’s charming cafes, without the charm, Taroudant’s city walls, without the beauty of the desert, and the blinding white of Casablanca, stained brown and grey with age. All the same, Tangier had a far greater effect on me than Casablanca or Marrakesh, knocking both cities down in strength of character, showing that hybrid vigour that sometimes allows a mongrel dog to triumph over a prize-fighter.
I met a Lakhdar, once. Not in name, but almost identical in nature. He was friendly and sincere, with that almost too sincere character common to the folk of many African countries that puts a lot of Europeans on their guard. Had I been traveling alone, I would have undoubtedly abandoned my plans and gone with him to meet his family at his invitation. As it was, I did not, and I have never felt entirely happy with myself for how the ensuing drama played out. Lakhdar, too, is frustrated by visiting Europeans who, one way or another, lead him on only to let him down, concerned or agitated by his desire for friendship. That the story takes place in the turbulent months of the Arab spring gives more than a little credence to their caution, and yet… if you were in Lakhdar’s shoes, would you see things so clearly? The gulf between Africa and Europe is only nine miles wide at its narrowest point, and yet it yawns like Mariana.
Tough call. Street of Thieves is not a book of standout scenes so much as it is an exploration of the difficulties experienced by a young Moroccan crossing over. Maybe his lengthy descriptions of the sordid Raval district? Enard painted the side of Raval I wanted to see but was too cautious to venture out at night in search of – the Raval one sees through the slits in the blinds. A quarter inhabited by fleshy prostitutes, circling drug addicts and lecherous men who ogle the women one day and turn a blind eye the next on their way to Friday prayers. Like Goya, the Romantics and all the Victorians before me, I am drawn to the dark, if only to better understand the light.
Another coin toss, though this time, it’s between two men: Sheikh Nureddin and Marcelo Cruz. The coin analogy is not a bad way to start, for in a way they are two sides of the same coin, just as Tangier and Raval mirror each other. Sheikh Nureddin is the more sinister of the two: calm and comforting, fatherly and always dressed to the nines, he exudes moral strength and commands confidence, and yet all the while he drives honest men to commit brutal acts in his name. Scarier still, even after the illusion flickers and you see the demon beneath the dress-suit, Enard has you seeing his humanity when he walks back into Lakhdar’s life, like Lucifer with his wings restored. Marcelo Cruz, by contrast, is a grotesque caricature of corruption. A twenty-first century undertaker who races to be the first on the scene whenever the bodies of the unfortunate wash up on the shores of the Spanish Mediterranean, Cruz takes an almost inhuman delight in his profession. Death has lost its meaning to him; he has become corrupted by the stink of corruption, and only the endless spiral of ever-darkening videos on the internet keep him entertained as he waits for the bloody tide. Both men are avatars of fear; one wields it, one is possessed by it, and it is hard to say which is the more fearful of the two. The devil you know, and the devil you worship. It is a wonder that Lakhdar is as sane as he is at the end of the narrative – though perhaps you might come to your own conclusions.
He spread a terrible sadness; the rotten smell of a lonely soul.
Cities can be tamed, or rather they tame us; they teach us how to behave, they make us lose, little by little, our foreign surface; they tear our outer shells from us, melt us into themselves, shape us in their image – very quickly, we abandon our way of walking; we stop looking at buildings, we no longer hesitate when we enter a metro station, we have the right rhythm, we move around at the right pace; and wherever you come from, in the end they train you like dogs.
You try acting funny or charming in literary Arabic, it’s no piece of cake, believe me; people will always think you’re about to announce another catastrophe in Palestine or comment on a verse of the Koran.