The tortoise knows it’s what’s inside that counts

In our Nature column, poet Ruth Padel considers the tortoise - the animal which refuses to be read.

Visiting the salt-spattered brown and blue isles of the Galapagos is as harrowing as it is wonderful. You think how life could be, or could have been. The islands were never part of any continent, so their animals evolved without the presence of human beings. There are no predators except hawks. Nothing tells these creatures how dangerous we are. You step into Eden, where the sea lion lies down with the iguana, you clear your boots of harmful non-native seeds and avoid treading on blue-footed boobies – but you are bringing in the human stain.
 
The 16th-century Spanish who discovered the islands called them Galapagos after the giant tortoises that, 300 years later, helped Charles Darwin work out how individuals and species change to fit each particular environment. “The vice-governor,” he said, “declar[ed] that the tortoises differed on different islands . . . he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought.” When the ornithologist John Gould studied birds Darwin brought back, and told him the finches and mockingbirds from different islands differed, too, he realised how important this was.
 
But of all Galapagos wildlife, their eponymous giant tortoises were the most destroyed by human goings-on. Pirates and whalers caught them and stacked them in the ships’ holds, where they survived miserably, without food or drink, for a year. Their meat was “more delicious than chicken or beef”. Settlers introduced goats, pigs and rats; these ate tortoise eggs and destroyed tortoise habitat. Giant tortoises nearly died out: half of the original 15 subspecies are now extinct, including the Pinta Island tortoise, whose last representative, known as Lonesome George, died in 2012.
 
But though human beings destroy, they also sometimes save. Since the 1960s, in a parable of exemplary conservation and one of the most successful breed-and-release programmes in the world, the Galapagos National Park has brought seven subspecies back to viable numbers. They collect the eggs; breeding centres hatch and raise the young through their vulnerable early years, and then release them.
 
Once upon a time (says an African story), God told the animals he would award a prize for the best dance. Lion shook sparks from his mane, Ostrich perfected a feathery high kick, Impala leaped about in arabesques, Giraffe improvised a dreamy sarabande. Tortoise just drew in his head, legs and tail. “You didn’t try,” jeered the others, but God gave the prize to him. “You danced for yourselves,” God told the rest, “but Tortoise’s dance was inside himself. He danced only for me.”
 
A tortoise refuses to be read: God knows what’s going on inside. In a lovely poem by Mark Doty, children rush excitedly into a grown-ups’ dinner party carrying a wild tortoise. They know this creature can “make night/anytime he wants, so perhaps/he feels at the center of everything,/as they do”. They hope “he might, like God, show his face”. They show him to the adults, so they can experience his “prayer,/the single word of the shell,/which is no”.
 
As a symbol, the tortoise links identity to privacy. So do islands. The remaining subspecies of Galapagos tortoise now symbolise the ways in which we, too, sometimes say no. The Galapagos National Park has got rid of human-introduced feral goats, pigs and rats and is re-tortoising islands where tortoises used to live.
 
No more waiting in the hold to be dinner: the giants are back in the habitat that evolution gave them. Their slow dance may seem only for them, but it is dispersing native seeds and trampling vegetation so that light penetrates and seeds germinate. They are ecosystem engineers, bringing the habitat back to how it was before humans came. We benefit, too. We can stand like Adam in Eden and watch.
 
Ruth Padel is curating this year’s writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo. Details: zsl.org/writerstalks 
A clue in your shell-like: as we encroach on other creatures' worlds, tortoises retreat into their own. Photograph: Frans Lanting / Gallery Stock.

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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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