Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Monisha Rajesh, Chris Anderson and Diana Souhami.

Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

In Andrew Duff’s review in the Telegraph, he praises Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh for its “witty and insightful traveller’s-eye view of the country from inside its railway network”. Rajesh appears to have avoided falling into the trap of boring the reader with a tedious travel memoir by exploring India geographically as well as culturally: Rajesh criss-crosses Induan Rail’s “geographical diamond”, experiencing all its freedoms and frustrations while enduring endless inquiries as to her marital status.”

Time Out Mumbai, while praising, is also more critical of the book. Their reviewer Karishma Attar begins with the damning claim that India’s image as “exotic and dangerous” hasn’t changed with this new travelogue. “The novelty and satiric richness run out quickly for the experienced Indian traveller. Dry humour doesn’t quite take the sting out of travel Indian-isms, which Rajesh lists with unerring steadfastness...” Attar does point out the text’s “witty, dry, first-person account” but adds: “This is a journey rife with 'shocks' that comes as no surprise.”

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution may be optimistic but the Guardian’s Steven Poole is not convinced. He criticises the American editor-in-chief of Wired’s “techno-economic utopia [which] looks curiously scrambled”. Poole goes on to add that “[f]ew techno-utopias are as confusing as this one. In Anderson's brave new world, everyone is a creative-geek tinkerer but no one does the boring stuff”.

In contrast, Michael Roth’s review on the Huffington Post and in the Washington Post is more complimentary. “Anderson is an excellent guide to companies that make niche products for an international market ... [and] a good storyteller,” according to Roth. According to Roth, Anderson is “an indefatigable cheerleader for the unlimited potential of the digital economy”. Likewise, Oliver Franklin in GQ enjoys the “fascinating characters” featured in the book from “Will Chapman, a Washington-based designer 3D printing Lego kits, to Neil Gershenfeld, an MIT professor”.

Murder at Wrotham Hill by Diana Souhami

Diana Souham’s previous book, Edith Cavell, told the story of the eponymous nurse who was shot for smuggling allied soldiers out of Belgium during the First World War. In her latest offering, Murder at Wrotham Hill, we are transported to post-war Kent and the murder of “gentle eccentric spinster” Dagmar Petrzywalski.

Critics are unanimous in their view that Souhami’s book evokes a detailed picture of postwar austerity Britain. The Guardian’s Blake Morrison writes “both the murderer and murderee were classic products of the age”. He observes the author’s use of “zeitgeisty minutiae”, which is not always effective: “[It] is enriching, at worst distracting.”

But whilst Morrison “isn’t entirely clear” as to why Souhami chooses to write about the “model citizen of austerity Britain”, Jenny Diski in the London Review of Books admires the “great clairity and attention” with which Souhami evokes the postwar period.

Sinclair McKay of the Telegraph, whilst also reading the work historically, praises it for transcending cultural emphera: “Both killer and victim stood at an angle to society, and the strangeness of their stories resonates deeply in another way, leading one to meditate on ideas of malevolent fate and evil.” He is full of praise for Souhami’s writing which he describes as “too clever to allow any neatness”, evoking the “cruel and bewildering randomness” of the murder in question.

Indian passengers wait on a train at railway staion during a power outage in New Delhi in July 2012. (Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/GettyImages
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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