He's a runner

Tom Ravenscroft tries to find the perfect songs to soundtrack a jog.

Due to me slightly overestimating how romantic it would be to spend the spring sofa-surfing at friends' houses, I am staying at my mum's a fair bit at the moment. Which means that I'm eating too much and not getting any exercise. So this week I decided to be a goddam man and go for my first ever run on a public road, taking an MP3 player with me, like in an advert. I now have a greater understanding of what makes good and bad running music, so here are my findings.

Feeling a little self-conscious, I set off with the oft-mentioned Burial and his new single "NYC" (Hyperdub) slowly building in my ears. It's not just beautiful but also a rather elegant thing; the beat sounds very much like the ticking of an old grandfather clock, with sparse female vocals over the top which feel like they may be coaxing you towards running to the end of time and ultimately death, albeit rather majestically. Listened to while on a run, it creates a strangely comforting sense of being alone. I suspect this also applies when standing still. Either way, I strongly advise that you try it.

After a brief stroll in order to catch my breath I put on Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers and the track "Hallelujah", which features on the box set Roots n' Blues: the Retrospective 1925-1950 (Columbia). It at once transpires that this might be one of my favourite records of all time. Going back to my earlier point, it almost makes you look forward to an untimely death, just so you can have it played at your funeral. The song takes the form of a musical round, most of the sound, due to the age of the recording, is a not entirely unpleasant hiss. But the selection of voices in the song is mind-bogglingly moving, with a main chorus quiet in the background, overlaid with various elderly men at different pitches and a solitary, slightly shaken female voice sitting above them all. It is other-worldly and at the end of it I found myself standing still with my mouth open, staring at the sky. Not a great form of exercise but a nice way to pass the time.

Finally, a therapeutic mile or two later, as I had been travelling at an astonishingly slow speed, it was time to play some rock. I went for a track called "Like a French Assassin" by the Cosmonauts, who hail from California, and here's what happened: immediately, two US military helicopters starting flying above me at an unusually low level. I wasn't sure whether they were escorting me or weighing me up, but it did, I am fairly certain, hasten my pace. The first two minutes of the track are just guitars rocking out, building slowly in anticipation of the vocals. On the next bend, the words came in and I was met by two snakes bathing in the sun. On the following corner, a posse of five or six deer ran along with me briefly before bursting off into a nearby wood. I think one of them winked at me. Despite the lazy-sounding singer, the guitar kept me going as two men flew past on motorbikes and then a group of attractive girls in a convertible pulled over to make way for me. This, people, is the power of rock: great to run along to, but if you don't respect it, it will tear your arm off.

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is broadcast on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm

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This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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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