The cast of Derek, from left to right: Kev (David Earl), Hannah (Kerry Godliman), Derek (Ricky Gervais), Vicky (Holli Dempsey), Dougie (Karl Pilkington). Photo: Netflix/Channel 4
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Fresh from baiting the disabled, Ricky Gervais’s “Derek” takes aim at the elderly

Ricky Gervais wrote Derek, and he’s decided it’s not offensive – so it can’t be, can it?

I liked The Office. It’s law you say that before you criticise Ricky Gervais. Then you have to agree that he was jolly decent to eventually apologise for his ignorance of disableist language. Yep, with a bucket of caveats, I suppose he was.

Still, I came to Derek pre-annoyed. I’m aware I could have switched over, but you can’t comment on the emperor’s new clothes if you don’t go to the parade. And yes, I went to the parade knowing he was naked. But like a driver slowing down at the scene of an accident, I came to gawk.

The subjective stuff is subjective. No point saying it wasn’t funny when to some it clearly was. No point saying it was badly acted and written, poorly realised or wasn’t sad, when people took to Twitter in their hordes to point at their tears. That I remained dry-eyed even though I’m as open to manipulation as the next emotionally-labile ninny, is probably my failing. Maybe I was too cross to cry. That’ll explain it.

My pre-annoyance started with Gervais’s appearance on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man sofa. The publicity still for the show he chose (I say “he chose”, I mean “the Gervais team chose”, I suppose) was of the sleazy character Kev (actor David Earl) lying on the floor to get a better view up the skirt of an elderly woman doing yoga. The old money shot. Imagine the horrors of elderly fanny. I bet that thought made you shudder – Gervais certainly hopes so, because that’s the point of it. Old people’s bits are physically repellent aren’t they, and the idea of a younger man getting some kind of kick out of peering at them, that’s BOUNDARY PUSHING. But funny, yeah? Really funny? Oh, and the jokes on HIM, don’t you get it? Oh yeah. I get it.

I moved into full annoyance in episode one of this second series. Derek is set in an old people’s home, and it’s shot for some unexplained reason in Gervais’ preferred mockumentary style, so there’s lots of knowing looks to camera. The “knowing” extends to some of the most cynical product placement I’ve seen on TV – only the product is Gervais himself. Derek is being shown how to use Twitter, of all things, and how to do a hashtag, as if. The audience is given clear instructions on the right hashtag to use (I’m not repeating it here, I can’t quite bring myself to) and WOW! as Derek tweets, there it is! On actual Twitter! Fictional TV meets social media in real time; seems we are all about pushing boundaries tonight. And Gervais does like to trend on Twitter. Maybe he needs the approval.

Because of its setting, there’s obviously lots of old people around, mostly as silent props. Chair fillers. The show is not about them, it’s about the people serving them, so if they seem to be secondary characters, it’s because they are. It’s when they dare to speak where it all gets a bit, shall we say, tricky. Their roles fall into a couple of categories. They might get you all teared up as they sing over-sentimentalised Hallmark-style songs. (Old people and their tragic lives make me cry.) Or they might have to sit unflinching, not reacting as pervy Kev yells “labia” at them, in a kind of twisted version of the game where if you laugh, you’re out. (Old people will tolerate anything because they don’t really get it.) Or if they’re really lucky, as happened this week, a character will get to play flirty with a younger man, much to the horror of Gervais and his crew. If you’re in any doubt that this is meant to be the reaction, witness the way the camera stares. Did she just say that? it asks. The idea that old people might be sexual with each other is barely tolerable. Sexual with “us”? Gross.

Now, I know that if I were to so much as raise an eyebrow at my partner in front of teenagers, it would make them lose their lunch. But Gervais is not a teenager, he’s 25 days younger than me, as it happens. Old enough to have developed empathy. Old enough to know that you don’t lose your personality with age, you don’t become an asinine, empty vessel. You still have all the feelings. Yes, all. Old enough to have realised a slightly more rounded view of human experience; old enough not to point and go “eurgh”. It’s puerile and exploitative. It’s time to accept that you and me, Ricky, we’re getting old. I don’t know about you, but I’m assuming that when I’m an octogenarian, bollocks will still be one of my favourite expletives.

One approach here is an appeal to decency. “Imagine if that was your mum or grandma”, as if personalising a problem is the only way someone can recognise it. It’s not an approach I’ve generally got much time for – but hey, turns out if it that was my mother in the yoga pose, I’d be incandescent. Not because she’s incapable of standing up for herself, but because of all that’s implied. The gaze, the shuddering crudity, the derogatory humour of abhorrence, all at her expense. But Gervais is a slippery sod so he already crafted a generic get-out: I am the writer, and I decided it’s not offensive, so it’s not. But that’s bollocks. Good word, isn’t it? Useful.

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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