The Hour: series 2, episode 4

Plots are thickening all over the place.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

The plot thickens. All over the place, alternatively heartbreaking and silly, plots were thickening up before your very eyes in this episode.

For instance, we finally got a bit of background on Commander Stern, apparent woman-beater and corrupt cop - during the war Hector caught him beating a prostitute, but let it go because "it was war-time". Now, we're watching Hector's friendship and loyalty for his old comrade-in-arms slowly degrade as he processes what the early hints of violence have developed into. Of course, being Hector, he's still being cowardly about it - allowing Bel and Freddie to do all the leg-work, falling for slimy government apparatchik McCain's tricks, potentially endangering important sources who have spoken out against Stern with his vacillation - but he's getting there. Slowly. Even his wife thinks so - for the first time in ages, she could actually bring herself to make eye contact with him.

McCain: so slimy. Photograph: BBC

We saw more of the sinister nightclub owner Mr Cilenti in this episode for the first time, and we're definitely supposed to lay all the evils in the world at his door. He coerces his girls into performing honey-traps on famous and important men so he can blackmail them, apparently orders murders at the drop of a hat, and - let's not forget - wantonly breaches the terms of his premises' entertainment license. Clearly a rotter, then.

However, I'm just not quite convinced. I can't help feeling this could turn out to be like in the first series when the shady Mr Kish was drifting around the BBC, definitely behaving like a communist spy, only for the plot to twist away, leaving him innocently dead at the bottom of a stairwell. Also, it seems that Cilenti stalks people around London, leaving small origami swans around the place in an attempt to intimidate them. That's less the action of a terrifying crime baron (I mean, aren't body parts or straightforward threats to cut you up more traditional?) and more the action of a misunderstood paper-folding enthusiast, I reckon.

Once again, Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi managed to steal the show with their long-lost child subplot. Capaldi's Randall has now tracked down their 19-year-old daughter. When he tells Lix that the information is on its way, she does her very best to hold it together, typing, smoking and talking all at the same time. It's only when he leaves her office that she falls back in her chair, leaning so far back that not even the camera can see her face, and allows herself to sob. Later, when they read the letter together explaining who and where their daughter is now, their gruff exchanges and desperate grasping for each other's hands was enough to rend your heart in two. As much as I love Freddie and Bel (more on that in a second), Chancellor and Capaldi have just managed to vault themselves into position as the best thing about The Hour. I can only hope that their subplot is given the time it obviously deserves in future episodes.

Freddie and Bel, then. You could be forgiven for experiencing serious déjà vu for series one in this episode, as their will-they-won't-they tension of old re-emerged. Freddie's wife Camille was permitted to wear trousers for the first time in ages as she yelled at him about how he loved Bel and his job more than her, before "going away for a few days". Meanwhile, Bel seems to be getting along well enough with her devastatingly handsome ITV chap, but he did drop a few hints about how she "can't be a journalist forever", leading us to think that he's already cast her in the role of his adoring second wife, who stays at home and cooks rather than running a major news programme. I like him a lot less already.

Freddie and Bel: will they actually get it together, ever? Photograph: BBC

Predictably, the moment at which Bel and Freddie almost talked about their relationship, the news burst through and interrupted. More next week, I'm sure, but not too much - relationships like this based on professional and personal tension are always better when you don't know everything about them.

Two honourable mentions for more minor characters thickening in their own little plots - cheery Hour dogsbody Isaac, who is suddenly getting his plays performed on the radio and turning up vital details in the police corruption investigation, and McCain, who seems to be descending into a panic over his personal life. Early on in the episode, he tells us that he's been taking his "distant cousin Vera" to the theatre (beard alert) but then later on we discover he's been touting government ministers to television programmes because he's being blackmailed about his liaisons with men by Cilenti. One to watch.

Of course, amid all this character development, The Hour's writers couldn't resist slipping in a tiny bit of knowing satire, having Randall say:

"This is the BBC, not the MoD. Contracts cannot just be ignored."

Quite.

I'll be blogging "The Hour" each week - check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page

Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm. Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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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