In the Critics this week

Jesse Norman on Edmund Burke and Brian Eno interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, John Gray reviews Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman. Burke, Gray argues, is:

“the thinker who more than any other exemplifies the contradictions of conservatism”. The principal contradiction in Burke’s conservatism is between, on the one hand, his hostility to “political rationalism”, the notion that society can be remade in the image of abstract ideals, and, on the other, his commitment to a species of providentialism according to which the steady advance of liberty is evidence of a divine author at work. Margaret Thatcher, Gray goes on, saw the political settlement she achieved “as a chapter in a Burkean grand narrative of liberty. Unsurprisingly, this settlement has now collapsed.”

Also in Books:

Sarah Churchwell is decidedly unimpressed by Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s novel based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F Scott Fitzegerald (“Writers of historical novels owe a debt to the facts that have inspired their fictions: Fowler wants to capitalise on the facts but feels no obligation to them”); former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont reviews A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison (“Iran has not been blameless in the nuclear negotiations … but the west will have to deal with Iran, just as it has had to deal with China”); Sophie Elmhirst reviews John Crace’s biography of Harry Redknapp, Harry’s Games (“[Redknapp] just wants to be liked and yet has shown remarkable disloyalty to both colleagues and players over the years”); Nick Spencer, research director at the thinktank Theos, reviews The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones (“[Jones] protests that he wishes to avoid New Atheist vituperation, but when he does write about Christianity his attitudes are clear”); Daniel Swift reviews an edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters edited by Dan Wakefield (“Vonnegut is loved and celebrated because in the face of the darkest moments of human history he sounds attractively adolescent”).

In her Critics Interview, NS pop critic Kate Mossman talks to musician, producer and all-round renaissance man Brian Eno. “The art world bothers Eno,” Mossman writes. Eno tells her: “The art world has got into the habit of believing that its prices reflect its importance.” Eno himself has sometimes been on the receiving end of the kind of snobbery that reigns in the art world, mostly for his production work with mega-selling bands such as Coldplay and U2. “People don’t think my production is cool,” he says. “ [But] I like working with both those bands because they are at the centre of something I’m usually at the edges of … Snobbery is an English disease.”

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews the new film by director Joachim Lafosse, Our Children (“Those of us who are forever citing Nicole Kidman’s tear-stained close-up in Birth as the ultimate example of wordless acting will now have to update our reference points”); Antonia Quirke listens to Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day (“Sound and silence, words and song, infinitely poetic: pure radio”); Rachel Cooke praises Hayley Atwell’s performance as a South London copper in ITV’s Life of Crime (“It’s great to see another tough woman copper hijack prime time”); Alexandra Coghlan returns to the Southbank Centre’s ongoing “The Rest is Noise” programme (“[The] festival reached its gritty core in the dark times of 1930s Germany”); architect Amanda Levete explains why “resistance is the fuel in the process of design” and why “cities are never perfect”.

PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Artist and music producer Brian Eno poses in front of his light illustration at the Sydney Opera House (Photo: Getty)
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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