LIKE THIEVES IN BROAD DAYLIGHT: Mathias Enard’s ‘Street of Thieves’, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Mathias Enard, Street of Thieves, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015)
by Andrew Rubens
Charlie Hebdo recently published another cartoon that roused anger throughout the political sphere. Aylan Kurdi, Europe’s emblem of pity and shame, is seen lying drowned face down before a McDonald’s billboard advertising children’s meals, with the caption “so close”. The tastelessness and insensitivity of the image brought down the fury of critics (and thanks to social media, the bitter saying “everyone is a critic” is now literally true) who condemned the exploitation of human tragedy in the service of a crude and cheap joke.
While artistic uses of personal suffering must rightly come under scrutiny, the context of such an image deserves to be analysed beyond the knee-jerk condemnation prompted by feelings in the gut on initial viewing. The tastelessness of a specific satire, wersh though it be, cannot be automatically considered to discredit its aims. In fact, tastelessness is one of the key tools of satire, if not its hallmark. Swift’s Modest Proposal, one of the most famous examples of the genre, an uncompromising intervention by its post-Classical master, can hardly be considered a tasteful or ennobling response to the overwhelming crisis of the starving in eighteenth-century Ireland. Its aim is not so much to draw attention to the catastrophe but to puncture hypocritical and obfuscating presumptions of dignity in those complicit in it. Satire is often aimed as much at those at one remove from suffering – spectators, indirect beneficiaries, those made callous by comfort and distance – as at the direct perpetrators.
This reasoning, of course, would be small comfort to Swift’s dying contemporaries or their families or to the migrants who struggle and die to cross the Mediterranean now and all year round, year on year, from Syria, from North Africa, from south of the Sahara. But in itself that should not discredit the aims of the satire or make its interpretation irrelevant. There is a place, beyond instinctive emotional response, for more considered analysis, which is why we do not let the family members of victims sit on juries. The Charlie Hebdo cartoon critiques the values of a society that is complicit in the hardships, and sufferings of those who are the losers in the global race for consumer satisfaction. It is an indictment of the direct link between the lifestyles we pursue and the lives of those excluded from them, and an attack on the mental gymnastics we perform to deny the connections.
The Aylan Kurdi news images focused and dramatized the debate around the “refugee crisis”, but they also arguably depoliticised it, reducing the complexities of global migration – from climate change-induced drought in Syria to the neo-colonialism of “multinational” corporations and punitive national debt policies – to a straightforward narrative of human tragedy, in a similar fashion to photographs of beautiful starving children used in charity brochures. They cause outcry and tug at heart and purse strings, but do not encourage systematic reflection and engagement. Much political satire instead aims to alienate the spectator in the manner favoured by Bertolt Brecht, provoking awareness not simply of tragedy but of the artificial nature of social mechanisms, which had been ignored or unthinkingly accepted as natural. As Charles Smith writes in Toward a Participatory Rhetoric: Teaching Swift’s Modest Proposal, Swift “alienate[s] the reader from a narrator who can view with ‘melancholy’ detachment a subject that Swift has directed us, rhetorically, to see in a much less detached way.”
To put Europe’s migration issues into perspective, let us consider that Lebanon, a country half the size of Wales, has already taken in around two million Syrian people fleeing their home country. Chad, a country of twelve million people, is home to five hundred thousand people who have fled conflict in neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, the EU pays countries such as Morocco millions of euros to prevent anyone without the necessary documents – be they poor North Africans or sub-Saharan Africans fleeing conflict – from trying to cross the Mediterranean. The money is handed over, no questions asked, and razor-wire fences, police beatings, prison camps and extra-judicial murders are the result. The “lucky” ones who do make it end up in places like Calais, living rough: the UK government has a policy of deliberately forcing asylum seekers into destitution in the hope that they will accept being sent back to war zones rather than starving in the street. Or locked up and abused in detention centres, despite having committed no crime, often to be removed back to their country of origin or supposed country of origin at the whim of a bureaucrat. David Cameron promises a “warm welcome” to the Syrians who will be allowed into Britain while his government cuts legal aid for asylum seekers and introduces financial requirements for settling in Britain.
One of the most effective responses to twenty-first century migration issues was a public art piece by Christoph Schlingensief in 2000. The Foreigners Out – Please Love Austria project erected a makeshift prison in a square in Vienna with actual asylum seekers as (voluntary) inmates, voted out (of the country) Big Brother-style by the public. Many who encountered the work were furious and disgusted, with the idea and with the artist, and political debate around xenophobia and migration in Austria was electrified (800 000 people participated in the online voting). Alongside right-wing xenophobes whose ire was drawn out, many people of liberal and left-wing persuasions were horrified by the “tasteless” work. Yet they had not been roused to such sentiment and action by the presence of an actual detention centre on the outskirts of Vienna, which had already been locking up and summarily removing asylum seekers for years. Sometimes the very tastelessness of a satire makes explicit the artificial and complicit nature of a situation which people had otherwise been content to leave just outside the bounds of their critical enquiry, despite the very concrete presence of the paraphernalia of oppression.
A common creative alternative to satire is tackling a social situation head-on through the naturalist or neo-naturalist novel, which, over a hundred years after Hardy and Zola, remains a dominant mode in fiction. The genre has generally overcome its own need to defend against accusations of tastelessness and is widely considered an appropriate form for treating “issues”. Mathias Enard’s 2012 novel Rue des Voleurs, newly available as Street of Thieves in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell, confronts the literally spiky issue of Europe’s borders in an approach which attempts to simultaneously “humanise” migration with an individual perspective and expose the wider systemic interconnections which draw migrant and consumer, policeman and politician, tourist and terrorist into an economic and political web.
The story follows Lakhdar, one of Morocco’s countless prospectless youths, whose traumatic encounters with poverty, sexuality, street life, religious fundamentalism, racism, unemployment, economic exploitation and half-hearted migration to Spain are expertly plotted by Enard and richly rendered by Mandell. Enard’s skill lies in turning the tedium of oppression and misfortune into a captivating narrative. He creates a character with a vivid inner life and nuanced engagement with the world, belying the notion of straightforward “economic migration” as he negotiates various cultural and personal ties. Enard is convincing in his portrayal of one event slipping into the next as his character struggles to make sense of the present, so the plot’s escalation seems at once naturalistic and inexorable, with the courage of free will skilfully upheld in an excellent reverse-whodunit finale.
Such an ending is not incidental. The novel explicitly acknowledges the influence of the French roman policier, notably the superlative Marseille trilogy of Jean-Claude Izzo, which deserves far greater recognition in the Anglophone world (this may be a problem of translation – I am unacquainted with the version by Howard Curtis but would recommend steering clear of the Arcadia Press edition due to its unfortunate mangling of slang). Like Izzo, Enard suffuses his narrative with a variety of vibrant voices. Mandell does a fine job of negotiating the difficult straits not only of conversational and street French but also of its Moroccan Arabic and Spanish counterparts . The multiplicity of voices allows Enard to directly draw the reader’s attention to perspectives outwith the discourse of mainstream media, but also more generally gives the lie to the tendency to symbolic “flattening” within that discourse, which reduces individual lives to vague components of an “othered” mass – Syrians, Arabs, asylum seekers, migrants, “swarms”. A couple of years ago in Morocco I met a university teacher who was incensed by the labelling of the uprisings in North Africa as the Arab Spring, a label that erases the Berber identity that played a central role. Sitting with assorted North Africans brought together by circumstance in a bar in Barcelona as an indignados riot brews, Lakhdar reflects:
it did good to forget the daily petty thefts, the dishwashing in restaurants, the bags of cement, or simply exile. The unity of the Arab world existed only in Europe.
Schlingensief chose to leave the asylum seekers participating in his public performance without a voice. I believe this was intentional – he wished to avoid too much focus on one particular tragedy at the expense of a more generalised awareness of the political climate that continuously silences and dehumanises migrants. He staged a spectacle that mirrored the media spectacle that contributes to this process. The anonymity of the participants, in this instance, sought to bring home the way this dehumanisation leads to drownings and detention centres, and severs the connection between concerns over migration and the wider perspective. As a friend of mine recently put it:
you think your home’s changed because there’s an Asian food store and you sometimes hear bhangra on the radio? Ask someone from Homs or Raqqa what it means to see your home change beyond recognition.
Though his own work is very much in the first person, Enard, like many before him, seeks to create an engaging personal tale that avoids the trap of becoming a fuzzy sob story by employing prose fiction’s ability to stage different voices and attach one person’s experience to overarching concerns. There is one section, at once ghoulish and horribly mundane, in which Lakhdar works unofficially in Spain, helping a man who recovers the bodies of drowned migrants and makes a profit returning them to relatives in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Lakhdar, his complex relationship with faith notwithstanding, helps the local Imam perform the Muslim rites on the dead. Here, Enard cleverly balances the normal, “everyman” character of these nameless drowned people, who are at once ordinary and outcast, with the assertion of individual dignity.
Enard is a scholar of Arabic and Persian and has spent long periods in the Arab world and Iran. Both the broad and fine details of his narrative are meticulously and convincingly portrayed. Street of Thieves is in large part driven by a sense of common humanity across borders and an angry desire to tell the stories of those who have little chance to be heard. However, in the second aspect at least, this project is problematic. Since their inception, postcolonial literary studies – and the story of Arab and African migration to Europe is very much a postcolonial one – have centred on the marginalisation of non-white, non-Eurocentric voices. The attempt to “speak for”, however noble its intentions, does nothing to counteract the lack of space for these voices, and may even exacerbate the problem. Enard’s background gives him access to platforms which are unavailable to the Moroccan successors of Mohammed Choukri, whose incendiary autobiographical work Le pain nu (For Bread Alone, available in a translation by Paul Bowles published by Telegram) is also acknowledged in Street of Thieves and was perhaps the primary inspiration for Lakhdar.
Enard’s other main influence, Jean-Claude Izzo, arguably dealt with this difficulty more successfully in his manipulations of the noir genre. Izzo’s protagonist Fabio Montale is, like himself, a middle-aged marseillais of Italian descent, and the street voices of Marseille’s multicultural underclass are filtered through his investigations. The disaffected detective allows Izzo to draw the reader’s attention to marginalised positions without claiming to authoritatively represent them. He also exploits the noir detective’s traditional role as mediator between “respectable” and disreputable worlds, laying bare the arbitrary and shifting nature of racism through Inspector Montale’s impoverished Italian background. Like Robert Douglas’ classic Glasgow memoir Night Song of the Last Tram, Izzo uses the example of Italian migration to remind us that “white” is a shifting boundary marker and that racism is always underpinned by economics. Jews would be another example, and the discourse on Syrian refugees in the current British Government and media has definite parallels with Britain’s at times ambivalent attitude towards Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s.
It must be pointed out that Enard himself has attacked the under-representation of non-European and American voices head on, translating works from Persian and Arabic into French (novels by Mirzâ Habib Esfahâni and Youssef Bazzi, respectively). The English-reading world lags behind the French and indeed possibly all others. We are in the midst of a crisis in translation. Only around 4% of all published works in the UK are originally written in a language other than English. Small presses like Fitzcarraldo are to be commended for their willingness to engage with foreign literatures. More translation is a cultural and political necessity, from French and Spanish but also from other languages, including “minority” and non-European ones. With the number of, say, Punjabi and Polish-speaking households currently existing in Britain, it is a terrible waste that these languages are not more widely taught in schools to easily facilitate this process.
Writers such as Chinua Achebe and Tahar Ben Jelloun have done much to bring extra-Western voices into the mainstream by writing in European languages, but the step in the other direction by translators is equally important. There are some encouraging signs – the insurrections in Arab (and Berber) countries have led to new translations (notably by publishers such as Darf, whose translators include TM Apun and André Naffis-Sahely) and the reprinting of works by key authors such as Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi (whose books are principally translated by her ex-husband, Sherif Hatata). Yet it is also worth remembering that in general books by non-Western writers face greater challenges to dissemination. A Tunisian friend recently got in touch with me to see if I could help track down a copy of a novel by the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah. Despite being written in English by the recipient of just about every international literary award under the sun, many of Farah’s works are elusive.
Let us leave broader questions of voice and representation aside for the moment. Enard’s story provides a genuinely Mediterranean perspective on migration, a word which is mostly used in conjunction with the word “crisis” in the modern press but which has shaped Europe, the Mediterranean and the world since before the Odyssey, and continues to do so today. The idea of a European Fortress is a dismal social failure for those on both sides of the razor fences, and is in any case more or less an impossibility. People being forced from their homes by climate change and by proxy conflicts conducted by the world’s military powers is one part of the story. The economic system, which creates dependent states through a toxic mixture of debt, conditional foreign aid (Morocco is home to three US air bases) and tourism-based economies, is the other. Restrictions on freedom of movement while capital is allowed to move freely across borders will continue to force the hand of people like Lakhdar.
Enard’s artistic aims are laudable and Street of Thieves achieves its narrative and textural aims. Thanks to Mandell’s translation, which ably orchestrates the multitude of characters and voices encountered by Lakhdar while maintaining clarity in the plot, I have no qualms recommending it as a compelling story and an accomplished example of socially engaged realism . However, this genre itself, despite or even because of its familiarity and pantheon of great works, should not be left unquestioned. What is the function of such works? Do they actually lead to engagement and change, and if so, of what kind? Realism can create awareness of “an issue”, but can it “alienate” the reader and provoke them into questioning their own complicity in a situation, the way that much satire seeks to do?
The other week I saw Cavalo Dinheiro (Horse Money) at Glasgow’s venerable Film Theatre. Directed by Portugal’s Pedro Costa, who won the Best Director award at Locarno with the film, it is an uncomfortable and haunting portrayal of lives ruined by the perils of migration, racism and state brutality. The viewer is absorbed into the traumatised, incoherent recollections of several Cape Verdean immigrants to Portugal who have been broken down by their experiences under the fascist dictatorship (1926-1974) and during the subsequent revolution. Eschewing realism for a drawn-out collection of fragments, the film both works the trauma of its protagonists under the viewer’s skin and ensures it is left mostly beyond our understanding. Like Maurice Blanchot’s Writing of Disaster, the work is uncomfortable with the reductive and eliminative effects of projecting a narrative onto a crisis.
Yet this is not simply a negative gesture. It is also an artistic stance, which perhaps disrupts and disturbs more than any straightforward storytelling ever can. Realist narratives tend to lead us to reassuring judgements of good and bad. Costa’s film prevents this, and the horrors of persecution and detention under Salazar are simply hinted at, allowing them to stand for a generalised paradigm of such experiences, including those perpetrated against migrants in and at the whim of our liberal democracies. One character, Vitalina, sits reading aloud documents such as a letter from the immigration authorities, her dead husband’s hospital admission form and even her marriage certificate, attempting in anguish to establish reality in a world where bureaucracy is its only legislator, unable to trust her own senses and memory any longer. This sequence powerfully alerts the viewer to the dehumanising effects of living in a world where not only desperate migrants but all of us are beholden to the power of the passport.
Migration is our past and our future, and like Islamic extremism, another major focus of Enard’s novel, it is not external to us but in direct relationship with our choices and those of our governments. Current artistic engagements with it, be they satirical, realist or experimental, are worth paying attention to, and you could do worse than start with Street of Thieves. Mandell’s translation was deservedly longlisted for the American Literary Translators Association’s National Translation Award, while William Hutchins’ translation of Ibrahim al-Koni’s Libyan Arabic New Wave, Saharan Oasis has made the shortlist, as one of two translations from non-European languages. As the crossing of borders grows ever more strained for human beings, it becomes more crucial that words do so.
 See for example Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).