Learning the locusts’ lesson

We depend on insects for our existence, yet we abuse them casually.

Some years ago, at a time in my life when I was close to unemployable, a friend wangled me a job at Zoology Field Station No 3 (Insect Breeding), which, in spite of its grand title, was a series of small, almost ramshackle wooden huts and a couple of old glasshouses on a tiny plot of land just off Huntingdon Road in Cambridge.

My task there was simple: I grew plants to feed to the locusts and tobacco moths, I carried buckets of food mush into the cockroach house and scattered it across the concrete floor and I vacuumed the glass cases where the various insect tribes lived and died, and, in ways that never ceased to fascinate me, transformed themselves from one form into another. The locusts were my favourites: they would fasten themselves, upside down, to the side of the case, then gradually slip free of their old skin, leaving behind a perfect, if slightly shrunken image of the shining new body that had emerged. It was an astonishingly beautiful process and I would often take my lunch in the locust room so I could watch it happen, over and over, the new form emerging from the old, the massive continuum of transformation that is the essence of what we call nature, occurring before my eyes in one emblematic instance, endlessly repeated, yet always individual in the fine detail.

It is common knowledge, now, that we depend on insects for our continued existence; that, without key pollinators, the human population would collapse in less than a decade. Yet there is no other life form on the planet that we abuse so casually, as the current neonicotinoid controversy shows. In serious matters, our duty is to err on the side of caution – a policy that goes undisputed when the ecology of Wall Street or the City of London is in apparent jeopardy – but when it comes to safeguarding bees, all manner of folk, from government departments to the National Farmers Union, are now up in arms about the proposed ban.

Meanwhile, all over the country, garden centres and hardware stores are stocking their shelves for the summer with a wide variety of poisons, so their untrained and unconcerned customers can eliminate any variety of insect life that might cause them the least annoyance.

In response to the introduction of agricultural DDT in 1945, the great entomologist and popular science writer Edwin Way Teale said, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety per cent of all insects are good and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”

When Teale uses the word “good” here, he is speaking from a human point of view. There is no good or bad in nature, which is the great lesson that careful attention to insect life teaches us – and nobody paid closer attention to insects than Teale. He saw how essential even the most common or, to human eyes, annoying bugs are to the economy of nature but he also understood that the lessons they teach us can be subtly philosophical, even spiritual.

“In nature, there is less death and destruction than death and transmutation,” he said – and, as I munched on my cheese and pickle sandwiches in the locust room at Field Station No 3 almost three decades ago, I was subtly, perhaps even subliminally, learning the truth of that saying.

As they move from phase to phase of their life cycles or shrug off an old skin to emerge brightly reborn in the summer light, insects remind us that life’s changes, life’s transmutations, are subtler and more varied than we think – and that our ordinary narratives of profit and loss are rather tawdry compared to the generational play of the butterfly, which in ancient Greece (lest we forget) was synonymous with the soul. 

There is no good or bad in nature. Photograph: Laura Letinsky/Gallerystock

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1970 issue 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