The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead, from Hitchcock to Heatherwick at the V&A.

Film

The British Film Institute, London, SE1: The Genius of Hitchcock, 1 June – 1 October

He is perhaps Britain’s most iconic filmmaker, and from June until October the BFI will be paying homage to the visionary director who left an indelible stamp on the world of cinema, art and popular culture. Two years ago, efforts began to restore Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films. Thanks to serious dedication from the BFI and its patrons, the restored films will be screened at world premiere events in June and July, hosted by iconic London venues including the British Museum and Wilton’s Music Hall. From August until October the BFI Southbank will also be screening the entire retrospective of the Hitchcock’s cinematic career.

Dance

Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican Centre, London, EC1 and EC2: Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch — World Cities, 6 June – 9 July

Pina Bausch has stood the test of time as a seminal influence on modern dance, a performer and choreographer with an experimental viewpoint and an “unmatched ability to combine the poetic and the everyday”. Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the Barbican Centre team up for a marathon series of performances: ten works inspired by ten global cities – each one lived in by Bausch and her dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal for a period of time – staged over four weeks. Sadler’s Wells artistic director and Pina Bausch devotee Michael Morris calls the season an endurance test dreamt up “over a dinner filled with red wine.” Sure to be an extraordinary dance spectacle of the first order.

Ideas

Hay-on-Wye, Wales: How the Light Gets In Festival, 31 May - 10 June

How the Light Gets In can proudly call itself the largest philosophy and music festival in the world. Hosted in the lovely Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, the festival features ten days of debates on a host of philosophical topics ranging from art to ethics, politics to science. Here is a place where provocative ideas can mingle with a fine array of alternative music and comedy. Our own culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, will be chairing a debate on Uncharted Territory: Progress for the New Era, as well as speaking in discussions titled Hawking v. Philosophy and The World in Our Hands (featuring Nigel Lawson and Polly Higgins).

Exhibition

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, SW7: Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, 31 May - 30 September

This will be the first major exhibition of the work of Thomas Heatherwick and his design team at Heatherwick Studio. Hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum, who have called Heatherwick “one of the most inventive and experimental British design studios practising today,” this is a thrilling opportunity to see some of the more infamous (a redesigned Routemaster) and lesser-known gems (the Longchamp zipper bags) from Heatherwicks’ oeuvre. Thames and Hudson have also published a very beautiful book to coincide with the show’s opening.

Art

Various Venues, London: London Festival of Photography, 1 - 31 June

Formally known as the London Street Photography Festival, this month-long series of exhibitions is back for its second year with a new name but the same agenda – to provide a platform for photography as a means of “visual storytelling”. This year’s exhibitions will be grouped around the common theme of Inside Out: Reflections on the Public and Private. With work from established and emerging artists, contemporary practitioners and historic entrepreneurs, the scope of work is broad and forward thinking. Highlights will include The Gaddafi Archive, an exclusive series excavated from the Human Rights Watch photography collection, and the Great British Public - contemporary images from across Britain shot by range of talented photographers.

Alfred Hitchcock in Cambridge, 1966 (Photo: Peter Dunne/Express/Getty Images)
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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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