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In a ghoulish section of Mathias Énard’s latest novel, Street of Thieves, the narrator describes his attempt to find a job in the Spanish port of Algeciras where he’s been given a temporary, one-month visa. His name is Lakhdar, a Moroccan, and he’s filled with the same dream of many of his peers—entry to Spain and then, hopefully, on to France and perhaps even eventually America. If you’ve visited the coastal areas of Spain, Italy, or even France, you’ve probably observed a vast number of North Africans, mostly males and mostly illegals. Many of them hawk goods in public areas, always with one eye out for the police.
Lakhdar’s fortunate because he’s been given a visa for one month, after which time he intends to flee the area and travel on to Barcelona, where he’s got a Spanish girlfriend he met back at home, in Tangiers. For a while, he worked as a cabin boy on a ferry, travelling between Tangiers and Algeciras, but he was never permitted to exit the port for the mainland. Then, suddenly that temporary visa and, even better, a job that will permit him to earn a little money. But it’s a job that comes straight from hell.
“Marcelo Cruz’s business had been flourishing; for years he was the one who gathered, stored, and repatriated all the bodies of illegal immigrants in the Strait—drowned men, men who died from fear or hypothermia, bodies the Guardia Civil gathered on the beaches, from Cadiz to Almeria. After the judge and the pathologist, when they were assured the poor guy or guys had indeed croaked, their faces turned gray by the sea, their bodies swollen, they would call Marcelo Cruz; he would then put the remains in his cold-storage room and would try to guess the stiff’s origins, which wasn’t a piece of cake, as he said. There aren’t any easy jobs, Seńor Cruz repeated to me during the trip in his SUV, which brought me to the funeral enterprise, a few kilometers away from Algeciras toward Tarifa.”
Lakhdar becomes Cruz’s assistant. He’s locked up on the premises with the bodies at night, more of a prisoner than an employee. Cruz promises him decent pay but all he gets is his food and lodging. “I lived in death,” he observes, and after some weeks he starts writing poems for the dead, “secret poems that I would then slip into their coffins…I gave them names, tried to imagine them alive, to guess their lives, their hopes, their last moments. Sometimes I saw them in my dreams. I never forgot their faces.” He knows that he has to escape, leave the house of death but he doesn’t know how. Cruz has also been affected by his job. He surfs the Internet looking for atrocities, images of bodies, faces of death, yet he appears to have sympathy for the younger man.
The entire sequence of events describing the gathering of bodies, and the process of preserving them becomes an elaborate metaphor for the all-too-common end of too many North Africans’ attempts to enter Europe illegally. It’s right out of the newspapers, those disturbing accounts of illegals drowning before they reach Europe. You could say that Lakhdar is one of the fortunate ones. Shortly, he will escape to Barcelona and live on the Street of Thieves, with hundreds of other illegal immigrants. It’s an area of the city tourists are advised to avoid, a “street of whores, of drug addicts, drunkards, of dropouts of all kinds who spend their days in this narrow citadel that smelled of urine, stale beer, tagine, and samosas.”
What I have mentioned thus far—the hopeless lot of so many illegals in Europe’s big cities—is only half of the story. Earlier, Énard shows Lakhdar (when he was still at home) as a young man, sexually repressed, with little future, though he has taught himself French and a good bit of Spanish by reading European detective novels. Those books lead to a job in a bookstore, “The Muslim Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought,” which turns out to be a front for a radical group behind recent attempts to destabilize the country. The Arab Spring has arrived, which Lakhdar hopes will lead to an influx of European girls in the country. After the bookstore is burned down, he gets a more legitimate job digitizing out-of-print books for a European publisher, but that only leads to more longings on his part to get to Europe.
There is an even earlier incident with a childhood sweetheart that resulted in his estrangement from his family, so when he has a brief sexual relationship with a Spanish student from Barcelona, he sets his goals on getting into Europe, though there is no way he can get there legally. All these parts of his past are brought together in his final activities in Barcelona, as the novel ratchets up the political overtones that have been there since the beginning. One of his boyhood friends shows up fully radicalized. He makes the following observation, “All these Arab Revolutions are American machinations to bust our balls a little more.” These remarks and others connect Street of Thieves to Zone, Énard’s earlier novel, which I widely praised in my review of three years ago.
I thought that Zone was one of the best novels of the decade. I still feel that way. Street of Thieves is a much shorter, lesser novel, almost plotless in many ways. Though Charlotte Mandell’s translation suffers from a few rough spots, Open Letter (the publisher at the University of Rochester) should be commended for continuing to promote Mathias Énard’s extraordinary work in the United States.
Mathias Énard: Street of Thieves
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter, 265 pp., $15.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.