Mathias Enard's adventure and bildungsroman takes place around the Mediterranean Sea and addresses the current crises in Islamic societies - A review by Nevfel Cumart
When it comes to literary prizes and awards, the Frenchman Mathias Énard has a lot to show for it. For his brilliant novel "Zone" (2008) alone he received the "Prix Décembre" and the "Prix du Livre Inter" in France and the "Candide Prize 2008" in Germany. This almost 600-page book was unusual in any case: in 21 chapters, Enard offers an endlessly long stream of thoughts that manages without a single point and pulls the reader along like a suction. Enard dissects life and death around the Mediterranean from antiquity to the present day. Even reserved critics spoke of a "literary miracle" and unanimously praised the book in the highest tones. The expectations of Énard's new novel "Street of Thieves" were correspondingly high. To say it in advance: the new novel cannot reach the mammoth work "Zone". But that would be another miracle. And certainly not necessary for the enjoyment of reading.
Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thoughts
Born in 1971, Mathias Énard studied Arabic and Persian and spent many years in various countries in the Middle East. He has been teaching Arabic at the University of Barcelona for three years. With this biography he certainly found the material for his new novel. He presents the story of the young Moroccan Lakhdar against the current background of the revolution in Egypt and the civil war in Syria and chooses Barcelona in crisis-ridden Spain as the second setting.
Énard's protagonist comes from the outskirts of Tangier and, despite the poverty, doesn't worry too much about his future as long as he can "squint at tourists at the Grand Socco" with his best friend Abbas. The intoxication of youth turns to despair when one day his father surprises him while secretly making love with his cousin and he is rejected by the family in disgrace.
Lakhdar lives on the streets for two years, begging, working as a prostitute, ending up at the bottom and at some point, through his childhood friend Bassam, gets to the “Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thoughts”, which gives him support and shelter. At what price this help will be given to him, he perhaps cannot or does not want to guess. He oversees the library full of devotional Islamic literature, reads crime novels by Western authors at night and does not interfere in the violent actions of the group led by the fanatical preacher Cheikh Nouredine. Instead, he falls in love with the Spanish student Judit.
"Street of Thieves" is still a well-constructed mixture
When the group's house is set on fire after a terrorist attack, life on the streets and the journey into the unknown begins anew for Lakhdar. With the help of an old sailor, he finally reached the European mainland on more or less adventurous paths and set off for Barcelona. He knows life underground. What is new is that he leads an illegal existence in one of the most run-down areas of the city. However, on the notorious Street of Thieves, Lakhdar not only has to fear the police, but also the former members of the "Group for the Propagation of Qur'anic Thoughts". Because one day his childhood friend Bassam, who has been living underground for the past few months, shows up. When shortly afterwards Cheikh Nouredine is also on site, there are many indications that a major assassination attempt is planned. Although Lakhdar is weak and unhappy because his girlfriend Judit has a tumour, he stands up to the Islamists in his own way. And draws the far-reaching consequences from it.
Énard has - it seems after reading it - a bit overdone in the attempt to deliver an educational and adventure novel at the same time, while also illuminating the current crises in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria in a roundabout way and examining the effects of the European economic crisis in an exemplary manner to show his protagonist. And occasionally you can't shake the feeling that too much burden is being placed on the character of Lakhdar. So it might be! That's just a small flaw. "Street of Thieves" is still a well-constructed mixture of road movie and thriller about the Mediterranean and definitely worth reading.
Mathias Enard: Street of Thieves. Novel. Hanser Verlag, Berlin, 2013. 345 p. 19.90 euros.
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