There is a long tradition of immigration literature written in French. Some stories detail the lives of immigrants from former colonies, others, the hardships their children face as non-white members of French society. The latter novel even has a name: le roman beur. Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves transcends such categorization. While it engages some of the same themes, it is not a fictionalized account of the author’s personal experiences of exile and racism, and it does not take place primarily in Europe. Instead, it’s a novel by a white Frenchman, a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona, who takes on the voice of a lost twenty-year-old Moroccan—and nails it.
Lakhdar is seventeen, and life is simple until he’s caught naked with his cousin Meryam and disowned by his family. He goes from leisurely reading his favorite French crime novels on the coast to scrounging for his survival until, eventually, he is taken in by the fatherly but suspicious Sheikh Nureddin and his Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought. He’s working as their bookseller when he meets Judit, a Spanish student from Barcelona, and falls in love. From that moment forward, everything he does is an attempt to join her in Spain. He works transcribing French literature in Tangier’s Free Zone, and then as a lackey on a ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Through a series of increasingly noir-like events, the third part of the book finds him in hiding in a grimy apartment on Barcelona’s Carrer Robadors, or Street of Thieves. He has no papers, but at least for a moment he has hope. All he wants, he says, is freedom—to love, to read, to earn a living—and while he has less mobility than ever, he has books, and Judit is nearby.
Unlike the traditional immigration novel, Street of Thieves doesn’t seem to have an agenda. The novel takes place in 2011, an eventful year in Europe and North Africa. But it’s not a book about the Arab Spring, and it’s not about the collapse of Europe’s economy. It’s a book about one man, and the way these things shape him. We experience the fallout of the 2011 bombing in Marrakech’s Jmaa el-Fnaa, and Lakhdar philosophizes about the Spanish government’s choices, but Énard’s goal isn’t to rehash the events or to point fingers—not at the Islamists, nor at politicians in Spain. The book’s opening line says it all: “Men are dogs, they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it, lick their fur and their genitals all day long, lying in the dust, ready to do anything for the scrap of meat or the rotten bone they want someone to throw them…” This is a book not about events but about men—who are the same in Europe as they are in North Africa.
Charlotte Mandell, the virtuoso translator who also translated Énard’s Zone (a book with almost no periods), works her magic again in Street of Thieves. She takes Énard’s winding, stream-of-consciousness prose and succeeds in creating an English that sounds like the voiceover of a film noir, the counterpart to Lakhdar’s beloved crime novels. Mandell masterfully retains the multilingual aspect of the original text, as well. Classical and Moroccan Arabic, French, and Spanish are four of the languages that intertwine to make up Morocco’s cultural identity, and their presence in this translation is a deft touch: they are keys to Lakhdar’s identity, as well.
Street of Thieves
By Mathias Énard
Translation by Charlotte Mandell
$15.95 265 pages