Stephen Fry's documentary about gay life across the globe is unexpectedly absorbing

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

Stephen Fry: Out There
BBC2

I didn’t have high hopes for Stephen Fry’s two-part documentary about gay life across the globe. There’s some part of Fry that I can’t ever quite warm to and when, early in the first film (14 October, 9pm), he went off to see Elton John and David Furnish – cue the loud crunch of tyres on sweeping gravel – my heart sank.

It may well be true that, for Fry, Elton’s decision to come out was a “game-changing moment” but I can’t believe it was for many. Elton is another person to whom it’s rather hard to warm, for all his “bravery”, for all his fundraising white-tie balls. The clue to some of my distaste on this score lies, I think, in the words “white tie”. What do Elton and Furnish represent in our culture? The word that floats unbidden into my mind is “excess”. So kill me! I’m a puritan at heart – though not, I hasten to add, a sexual one.

After this, however, things picked up. The films were moving, absorbing and often blackly funny, and all praise to Fry, who managed to stay calm during several encounters that would have left me punching the walls. In Uganda, a country where politicians still hope to legislate against homosexuality, Fry enjoyed a bizarre conversation with a pastor who muttered darkly about carrots.

“Oh, gracious!” said Fry, mildly.

“You’re not using your penis the way you should use it!” continued the pastor, upping his game. “But I’m not interested in anuses and penises,” Fry said. He then listed his preferred sexual practices, none of which involved penetration. From the tone of his voice, he might as well have been reading aloud from the menu at the Garrick Club.

Next, to the US, the home of “reparative therapy”, which seeks to “cure” gay men of their urges. In Los Angeles, Fry met Joseph Nicolosi, the psychologist who is one of the technique’s leading lights and who believes that homosexuality is the result of childhood trauma. For a while, they batted the arguments (I use the word loosely when it comes to Nicolosi) back and forth. It was all a bit desultory, and I was worried; Fry seemed to be losing heart. But then a coy look moved over his face. Taking in Nicolosi’s tanned visage, carefully trimmed beard and surprisingly dark hair, he told the good clinician that his appearance was distinctly metrosexual: he could very easily pass for a gay man. Nicolosi, silent now, looked stunned; his mouth actually fell open a little. Goal!

I’m joking around, but in fact Nicolosi’s “therapies” are at best cruel and at worst dangerous. Fry’s second film (16 October, 9pm) ventured into more upsetting territory: in Brazil, a gay person is murdered every 36 hours; in Russia, it is illegal to “promote” homosexuality, a law that has far-reaching and monstrous consequences for the parents and children of gay people (who are “promoting” homosexuality by being alive); in India, the hijras (men who, broadly speaking, identify as women) are forced to live on the outer margins of society. Fry proved a kind and thorough reporter on these matters – though I wish he had not cried so often, which I found self-indulgent.

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

In Russia, nationalism has brought with it religious zealotry, incense seeping into the crevices of the political life, noxious as gas. Fry was granted an audience with Vitaly Milonov, a politician who has suggested that gay athletes could be arrested at next year’s Sochi Olympics. They spoke for some minutes. Milonov is training to be a priest, and kept going on about angels.

“How do you sleep at night?” asked Fry, exasperated. “I can sleep after I pray,” Milonov replied. Fry’s references to St Petersburg’s glorious past – he mentioned Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev, both of them gay – fell on deaf ears, which was hardly surprising.

I looked at Milonov, blunt as an old penknife, and tried to conjure his hinterland. I could see him lighting candles in an oniondomed church and I could see him rocking out to Deep Purple or Smokie (of Bradford, who are huge in Russia) as he drove home through snow-streaked boulevards. But I could no more picture this unthinking homunculus at the ballet than I could imagine him striding across the room and kissing Fry tenderly goodbye.

Stephen Fry outside the city parliament in St Petersburg, Russia. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism