In the Critics this week

A History Special featuring David Cesarani on Holocaust studies, John Gray on the history of political violence and Sherard Cowper-Coles on Aghanistan.

Much of the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is devoted to our annual history special. In his “Critic at large essay”, the historian David Cesarani surveys the changing face of Holocaust historiography. “Holocaust studies” as we recognise them today were born, Cesarani argues, in the aftermath of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The work of Jewish historians who’d either been interned in the camps or had fought as partisans shattered forever “the stereotype of Jews passively accepting their fate”. Nevertheless, Cesarani concludes, “the ‘lessons of the Holocaust’ seem no clearer” than they did 50 years ago, and “efforts to comprehend the Jewish tragedy continue to provoke as much controversy as reflection”.

In the lead book review, John Gray considers the long and bloody history of political violence. Reviewing Max Boot’s history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies, and Martin A Miller’s The Foundations of Modern Terrorism, Gray argues that “lumping together every kind of irregular warfare into the category of terrorism, as is often done today, blurs the difference between those who have terror as a tactic in guerrilla warfare … and networks such as al-Qaeda that have opted for terror as their sole strategy.” Happily, Gray concludes, “we hear little these days of the absurd ‘war on terror’”.

Also in Books: Britain’s former special representative in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, reviews Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple and Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary (“if those who have directed [the latest war in Afghanistan] had applied the lessons that leap from the pages of both these books, the Afghan people might have harvested a more enduring dividend from the spilled blood and squandered millions of the last, lost decade”); Juliet Gardiner reviews Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy (“[Kennedy shows that] a greater understanding of the vital contribution of logistics and supply lines, plus the imagination, practical ability and dogged hard work of the ‘problem solvers’, … eventually coalesced to achieve an Allied victory”); Daniel Swift reviews The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography the Italian nationalist poet and later fascist sympathiser Gabriele D’Annunzio (“In fashioning himself into a public figure, D’Annunzio prefigured both mid-20th century fascism and our modern cult of celebrity”); Connor Kilpatrick, managing editor of Jacobin magazine, reviews Freedom National, James Oakes’s book about the destruction of slavery in the United States (“it was not the inevitable march of progress that destroyed American slavery – it was a political movement”).

PLUS:

Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the historian Norman Stone about his latest book on the Second World War, his admiration for AJP Taylor and the future of secularism in Turkey, where he lives and teaches: “[Syrian refugees] make sure their little girls and little boys are doing their Quran lessons separately. But that’s precisely the kind of thing that secular Turkey was set up stop. This is fantastically dangerous …”

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Pablo Larrain’s film No (“No is an inspiring watch”); Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Anais Mitchell and Jackie Oates (“much of the thrill of this music lies in [Mitchell’s] fresh utterance of attitudes and ideas that have slipped out of view …”); Thomas Calvocoressi visits “Light Show”, a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London; Rachel Cooke is not convinced by Stephen Poliakoff’s latest magnum opus on BBC2; Antonia Quirke is delighted to hear some frank discussion of sex on Radio 4; plus Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

 

Afghan children play in a street in Herat. [Photo: Aref Karimi/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