On STREET OF THIEVES by Mathias Énard

Igreja Matriz do Vimieiro. Arraiolos. Photo by Mario Novais. Courtesy of BIBLIOTECA DE ARTE DA FUNDAÇÃO CALOUSTE GULBENKIAN

Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2014. 265 pages. $15.95.

Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves reads like a gray, thundercloud-filled afternoon with a charged, energized, and pensive dark. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell and published in November 2014 by Open Letter — a press that continually offers access to the larger world of international literature with their high-caliber translations — Street of Thieves is Énard’s third novel, following his prize-winning Zone which consists of a single, book-length sentence. Énard, a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona, studied Persian and Arabic and has spent substantial time in the Middle East.

The narrative in Street of Thieves, which tracks from Tangier to Tunis to Algeciras to Barcelona, has as its backdrop the turbulence of the Arab Spring and, later, the riots in Catalonia, as it follows the personal upheavals of Lakhdar, a young man seeking to understand the place his life occupies in the restrictive geography of his youth. As Lakhdar tells it, “Sometimes I got caught up in imagining myself in Paris, or Venice; if I’d had a passport in order I’d have liked to go there: Paris to buy some thrillers, see the Seine; Venice to visit Casanova’s city. . . . It was distressing to think that today, if you were a murderer, a thief, or even just an Arab, you couldn’t so easily visit La Serenissima or the City of Light” (227).

Street of Thieves is a tumbling, stream-of-consciousness narrative with long breathless sentences which Mandell has captured beautifully in her translation. It is a narrative with the sort of absence of agency on the part of its protagonist — or at least absence of a self-aware empowerment — that in some stories can feel suffocatingly passive. Here, instead, it feels like realism: we are watching a life being driven by the unpredictable and insurmountable turns of circumstance. There are such huge, monumental forces acting on Lakhdar’s life — forces he often doesn’t understand and sometimes can’t even see — that though he is trying hard to succeed, things often just don’t turn out. The novel offers a picture of the turmoil and random happenstance that can sabotage one’s coming-of-age, a reality for so many individuals who — far from being asked what they “want to become” when they grow up — find themselves fighting to carve out a place in a frequently incomprehensible and often fickle world.

This review first appeared in Kenyon Review. Read the rest of the review here.