No head Turner?

Turner Prize 2008

"If you’re working as an artist nowadays the worst place to be in terms of critics is Britain… You go elsewhere, you go to America, you go to Europe, then you get a fair reception. People look at your work and actually try to understand it," the artist Mark Leckey told Channel 4’s Nicholas Glass on Monday, immediately after winning the Turner Prize.

Nevertheless, this year there was little of the ‘Is this Art?’ style criticism usually associated with the Prize in the arts press, although The Daily Telegraph did wheel out Sister Wendy.

Rather, the critical consensus was largely one of indifference: "It didn't start any fires” and “bland”, were common criticisms of the four nominees, seen to be rehashing stale ideas (see Cathy Wilkes's jumble of ‘ready-mades’), rather than offending the nation. Further, the art world seems to seek actively not to be understood; Leckey himself described his desire for a "cultish practice", in a "cosseted" art world.

In her show, nominee Goshka Macuga took on the role of curator, re-arranging photographs from the Tate archives; Mark Leckey presented a video of one of his lectures, in which he is both curator and critic. This new autonomy of artistic practice can be baffling to the outsider. The impenetrable jargon of the Tate curators only went to enhance this sense of an exclusive, closed-off art world.

Having now won the Prize, Leckey may want to broaden his horizons. The 1999 Turner Prize winner, Steve McQueen, carried off three awards at the British Independent Film Awards (Bifas) for his film Hunger. Best Film went to Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film about a Mumbai street child.

Golden Revolution

1 January, 1959: the puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista flees Cuba for the Dominican Republic; after six years of struggle, and four hiding out in the Sierra Maestra, the island belongs to the Cuban Revolutionaries... The photography agency Magnum have decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this event with a "Permanent Revolution Season". Wednesday saw the opening of an exhibition documenting the agency’s long engagement with Cuba, from Rene Burri’s iconic image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, to the portrayal of life today in Castro’s Cuba. They will also be a screening both installments of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film about Che Guevara on 1 January at Curzon Soho, Curzon Richmond and the Renoir Cinema. (The official release date is 2 January, Che: Guerrilla comes out on 20th February).

Both "Che" films will be shown in Havana this weekend, as part of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Benicio del Toro, who plays Che in the film, will be there, as will Rodrigo Santoro, the Brasilian actor who plays Raul Castro. He may even meet the man himself, and it would be interesting to see how the Castro brothers receive an American film about the figure they turned into the poster boy of the Revolution. The President of the Film Festival, Alfredo Guevara, spoke positively of US President-elect Barack Obama in his inaugural speech on Tuesday. Two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Obama will assume the Presidency: might we see a change to the deadlock of US-Cuban relations?

Bombs over Bollywood

Mumbai is not just the financial centre of India, it also hosts the nexus of film, music, celebrity, gossip and fashion that goes by the name of Bollywood. The terrorist attacks have had their effect there, too. Cancelled film releases, ruined parties, closed cinemas and postponed weddings have gone alongside the more serious consequences of the bombings and shootings.

The actor Amitabh Bachchan, revered demi-God of Hindi film, wrote extensively on his "Big B Blog" in response to the attacks, revealing that he now slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow.

His thoughts were faithfully reproduced in the papers and on fan sites. The Mumbai Mirror, however, condemned those Bollywood celebrities who sought to use the attacks as an opportunity for exposure as "vultures". This blow to the Indian film industry comes at a crucial time of extensive Hollywood investment in Bollywood.

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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