Street of Thieves – Mathias Enard

Men are like dogs, they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it, lick their fur and their genitals all day long, lying in the dust, ready to do anything for the scrap of  meat or the rotten bone they want someone to throw at them, and I’m just like them, I’m a human being, hence a depraved piece of garbage that’s a slave to it’s instincts, a dog , a dog that bites when it’s afraid and begs for caresses.

I was looking forward to this, and it did not disappoint. Enard, is currently my favourite author, although I believe I have now read all of his books in English, so not sure where I go from here.

We start in Tangier, Lakhdar is caught with his cousin Meryem and leaves the family home. He returns to Tangier and meets up with his friend Bassam, and they dream about a better life elsewhere, while the Arab Spring takes flight around them. Lakhdar meets Judit, a student from Barcelona and strikes up a tentative romance with her, as Bassam becomes more aloof and withdrawn into his religion, Lakhdar works for a better life. He gets the chance to work on a ferry plying between Tangier and Algeciras until it is impounded due to lack of funds. He makes it into Spain and eventually to Barcelona, homing in on Judit like a port in a storm. He settles down in the downtrodden Raval district and it is while he is here that Bassam reappears, quiet, pensive and seemingly waiting for something.

As with Compass and Zone, I disappeared into the Street of Thieves. Enard captures the eruption of the Arab spring in north Africa while Europe stands on the opposite shore and watches curiously, and he does this while ostensibly writing about two young boys who are dreaming of a better life, in a place that doesn’t want them. The boys separation after Lakhdar is kicked out of his home is perhaps the catalyst for Bassam to disappear into his religion, but perhaps it was there all along. While alluding to it throughout the book it is never clear exactly what Bassam is up to with Sheikh Nureddin, yet it is perhaps telling that I thought I knew exactly what he was doing and thought Lakhdar was incredibly naive about his friend. Yet I can imagine it is a situation that is difficult to navigate out of when you’re in his position, and the more his doubts grow, the more he wants to give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile Judit is full of revolutionary zeal in Spain, before she falls ill, and taking a step back it’s almost as if Enard is painting the end of days, and perhaps it is, given the hatred and division that is swirling up in the world. Yet Street of Thieves is never bleak, at least it did not seem so to me, Lakhdar, while never fully accepting the fate of the current that sweeps him along, always sets to and tries to make something of the situation he is landed in.

Having been to Tangier, briefly, travelling on a ferry from Algeciras, and stayed in the Raval quarter in Barcelona, a somewhat cleaned up quarter than the time of the book, and even read one of the french detective novels that Lakhdar reads, I had a completely different experience to him, which resonated around my head as I read and made me think more about Street of Thieves than I would of done normally.

So thank you Mathias Enard, and for the excellent translation by Charlotte Mandell. I must now patiently wait for a new novel from my new favourite author.

Men are like dogs, with empty gazes, they circle in the twilight, chase a ball, fight over a female, over a corner of the kennel, stay stretched out for hours, tongues lolling, waiting to be done in, in a final caress – why, in one instant, does one make a decision, why today, why now, maybe he’s the one who decided and not me, Bassam seemed to be looking at me, seated, back straight, in the living room; light from the street projected his shadow on Mounir’s closed door,

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Ghostdancing Vol 1

I put this together a while ago, but now it’s cold and rainy here in England, it seemed a good time to upload it. Some atmostpheric electronic beats and pieces from St Germain, Melanie De Biasio, Way Out West, Nicolas Jaar, Maribou State and others.

Men Without Women – Murakami

I tried to collect fragments of clues as to her whereabouts, in all sorts of places and from all sorts of people. But these were nothing but scraps, assorted bits and pieces. No matter how many you collect, fragments are still just that. Her essence always vanished like a mirage. And from land, the horizon was infinite As was the horizon at sea. I busily chased it, moving from point to point-from Bombay to Cape Town to Reykjavik to the Bahamas. I made the rounds of every town with a harbor, but by the time I arrived, she was already gone. Only a faint trace of her warmth remained on an unmade bed.

Oh Murakami, how do you do it? You’re like a drug. I love reading the simple, elegant prose that makes everyday actions seem so much more than they are, part of a fascinating narrative. Yet you also make the most bizarre, sometimes absurd situations seem absolutely normal. I the more I strive to understand, the less I actually do. And the less I understand, the more I read to understand, and so it goes on. I mean, it works a treat, I’ll give you that.

Seven short stories ranging from the bizarre to the unreal, about men without women, or men and women, or maybe just about men. It’s Murakami, it literally could be anything. Obviously there’s a jazz bar, a jazz bar owner even. There’s an actor, a house bound patient and a cosmetic surgeon amongst the seven men. They retell or recall stories of the women that have impacted their lives, in that Murakami way where it’s not quite normal, but not quite abnormal.

Of course, some of it resonated with me, with my own life and my previous relationships, some of it was completely alien, oftentimes the two occurred in the same short story, and taken simply, is how men see women and how they rub and bounce along off of each other throughout life. I wouldn’t pick out one story over and above the others, and I think that the collection works as a whole, although, in all honesty, I couldn’t tell you why, it just does.

So if you want Murakami with the smallest pinch of romance, with his usual dollop of weird and just the right amount of normal, then read Men Without Women.

This is what he told me. “I’ve been out with lots of women who are much prettier than her, better built, with better taste, and more intelligent. But those comparisons are meaningless. Because to me she is someone special. A ‘complete presence,’ I guess you could call it. All of her qualities are tightly bound into one core. You can’t separate each individual quality to measure and analyze it, to say it’s better or worse than the same quality in someone else. It’s what’s in her core that attracts me so strongly. Like a powerful magnet. It’s beyond logic.”

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy

Most of his visitors, brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own youthful hubris, did not completely grasp the layered meaning of the couplet they had been offered, like a snack to be washed down by a thimble-sized cup of thick, sweet tea. They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realized that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali’s own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.

Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, I don’t know what it is, but I sink without a trace into novels set on the sub continent. It’s not somewhere I have a desire to visit, or who’s history is of particular interest to me, but the authors have a certain flair for description, for crafting so joyfully the sights, sounds, smells and colours of this part of the world. Yet the bright, bold and overwhelming picture is merely a back drop to the horrifying, brutal and at times unbelievable lives being lived by millions of people, painstakingly served up on the page. That would be enough, but there’s more. There seems to be a sideways glance, an honest, yet self depreciating mocking of how ridiculous the brutality of it all is, how contradictory the faith and the lives are intertwined, how it’s in plain view but out of sight. The horror is diluted ever so slightly by the humour, the sheer force of personality of the survivors, of every single person who makes it to the end of another day.

Arundhati Roy encapsulates all this, and surpasses all others I’ve read, with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Utmost Happiness is most definitely what I felt after finishing this.
For all the brutality and pointless horror throughout the whole novel, it’s a warm story of friendship, love, of survival. Set against the backdrop of Kerala’s fight for independence, a small group of characters find each other and survive against the prejudice, hatred and inexplicably cruel violence that permeates India as it convulses and changes.
Roy gathers a small group of characters around Anjum, formally Aftab, and Tilo, who’s sudden decision to claim an abandoned baby brings them together in an Old Delhi graveyard where the breathing live side by side with those who have breathed their last. As Anjum builds a community out of the way, Tilo, seen mostly through the eyes of three men who love her unconditionally, arrives with a baby snatched from a street of protest.

The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As though she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked – like pets. As though she was watching considerately, somewhat absent-mindedly, from a distance, while we minced along, grateful to our owners, happy to perpetuate our bondage.

In the background the might of new India stamps it’s worn sandal down on Kerala. The mindless violence of a child who has discovered it’s own might by squashing ants and then discovered that actually, the ants can bite is perfectly captured, with an almost mocking, sardonic voice. A voice that says look India, look at how far you have come, yet how far you have yet to go. But The Ministry is not a novel utmost about violence, it is about life, in all it’s natural colours, smells and glory. So much did I enjoy it that it felt like the book was breathing in my hands.

It’s the detail that Arundhati Roy beautifully paints, while dealing with a whole country, through a small number of seemingly inconsequential protagonists that make The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a breathtaking read.

As Aftab kept strict vigil, day after day, over nothing in particular, Guddhu Bhai, the acrimonious early-morning fishmonger who parked his cart of gleaming fresh fish in the centre of the chowk, would, as surely as the sun rose in the east and set in the west, elongate into Wasim, the tall, affable afternoon naan khatai-seller who would then shrink into Yunus, the small, lean evening fruit-seller, who, late at night, would broaden and balloon into Hassan Mian, the stout vendor of the best mutton biryani in Matia Mahal, which he dished out of a copper pot.

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Familiar Things – Hwang Sok-Yong

It made sense. If Baldspot had not shown him the hideout when he first came to the island with his mother, Bugeye might have felt so hopeless that he would’ve tried to run away at once. Baldspot gave up on stoking the fire, and backed away from the stove with a pout. He looked upset about getting hit on the head.
The boys cooked their dinner away from the swarms of flies crowding the garbage, away from the grown-ups, down by the river’s edge where the air was heady with the scent of grass and flowing water. Afterward, they lay side by side on a big scrap of canvas.

Another book that caught my attention from the pedestal in Foyles, it was an impulse buy, to try a new author and expand my bookish horizon a little further.
Bugeye and his mother move to the improbably named Flower Island, a massive landfill site at the edge of Seoul where outsiders make a meagre living collecting recyclables from the rubbish.
As his mum moves in with the group leader, Bugeye ends up with a younger step brother, Baldspot, who takes him to a secret hide out some of the kids have made. While hanging out with Baldspot, he notices lights moving around the landfill site, and Bugeye learns they are dokkaebi, spirits of people gone before.

Weird. Unfamiliar. They are two words that I think of when I think of Familiar Things. The story is very sad, focusing mostly on the kids as much as the life of the outsiders working on the landfill site, a harsh juxtaposition to the often futuristic portrayal of South Korea, and Seoul in particular. There is some comment on our throwaway society, but given the setting of the story, it did not come across as particularly heavy.
What I found weird were words and phrases that cropped up throughout the book, whether intentional or a quirk of translating I couldn’t tell, but describing one of the neighbourhoods that the trash trucks come in from as ‘the cream of the crop’ was unexpected and while it works, it didn’t feel quite right in a novel. That’s probably just me though.

As pointed out by the Economist on the cover, the story floats between harsh reality and whimsical folk tale without jarring the reader, but at the same time the message behind the novel, the vast gulf between the have’s and the have not’s, is one that has been heard and told before, and while the reality is harsh, there are other realities that are harsher still and so Familiar Things becomes exactly that, a Familiar tale. While the ending is sad, there is a glimmer of hope, but sadly, probably not enough for me to read further.

Bugeye didn’t hide the derision in his voice when he referred to the stew Mole had made for them the last time from discarded fish. The adults called everything cooked with foodstuffs scrounged from the landfill ‘Flower Island stew’.
‘Watch it, man. Don’t you know who I am? I’m the youngest member of the Co-op!’
The Environmental Co-operative was the creme de la creme of all the private truck sectors, the one the Baron was forever envious of, as it covered the U.S military bases, the factory districts and the private residential areas. Along with three districts south of the river, the permit fee for the Co-op was many times higher than anywhere else.

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The Seville Communion – Arturo Pérez-Reverte

He was uneasy, because he knew he had taken a first step towards understanding this church, it’s priest, the message sent by Vespers, and the reason he himself was there. It was easier, he realised, to despise Father Ferro than to see him, small and uncouth in his old-fashioned chasuble, creating with the words of the ancient mystery a humble haven where the twenty or so faces, most of them tired or bowed with age, watched – with fear, respect, hope – the piece of bread that the old priest held in his proud hands.

Having loved The Siege, I ventured further into Perez-Reverte’s catalog, debating between the Captain Alatriste series, his (seemingly) more crime orientated books and the alluring Queen of the South, I opted for The Seville Communion.

A hacker breaks into the Pope’s personal computer to leave a message that a small church in Seville is in danger of being demolished and is killing to defend itself. Enough to pique any Pope’s interest, right? The Holy See dispatches Father Quart, less to save the church than to investigate the flagrant breach of the Pope’s personal computer. As the James Bond-Lite priest investigates he struggles to uncover the identity of the hacker while battling with the forces that are trying to protect, and those that are trying to destroy, the church.

Father Quart, arguably the main protagonist, is portrayed as a suave supermodel with a collar, but when he first meets Gris Marsala, he at moments becomes flustered. Maybe it’s because she is a woman, and a strong woman, such creatures are not appreciated by the church. He then becomes hot under the collar (sorry) for the beautiful Macarena Bruner, the churches protector, even as he battles with the indomitable Father Ferro it’s resident priest.
Perez-Reverte has an engaging turn of phrase when writing, his description of Quart’s boss Spada as a weary mastiff, which fit perfectly after we meet him is an example, and it’s this prose that engages the reader perhaps more than the plot. His picture of Seville is rich and detailed, and having been there he evoked memories of the streets and plazas.

Unfortunately for me, although an engaging, easy read, the Seville Communion was no more than that. It feels very formulaic, although to be fair, as you may well have gathered by now, I feel that way about the entire crime genre, and there were no characters that stood out. Father Quart goes against the grain as a smart, sophisticated priest-agent, and I did wonder at times if he was being set up to be in an ongoing series  of books, but by the time he is exiled out to South America at the end I understood this not to be the case. The other characters are are slightly cliched, the ruthless banker and his gambling addicted assistant, the gruff old fashioned priest, the hapless-heart-of-gold criminals who never seem to pull off that big job and get paid, all the while dreaming of enough money to give up their life of petty crime for good.

There are a few twists, and reveals that I can say I didn’t see coming, but whether that was because I wasn’t pay attention enough I couldn’t say. If you want something to ready easily then this will do, it was nowhere near as good as The Siege for me.
I’m going to try the Captain Alatriste series still, and I have hopes for the Queen of the South, but for the whodunnits, I’m sorry to say, I don’t really care.

“Funny, isn’t it? The universe is amusing. Polaris, the star you were looking at a moment ago, is four hundred and seventy light years away. That means we’re orientating ourselves by light that comes from the beginning of the sixteenth century.” He pointed at another spot. “And over there, in the Cat’s Eye Nebula, concentric shells of gas are all that’s left of a star that died thousands of years ago.” He walked over to another window and his features were more visible in the moonlight. “What are we?” he asked. “What part do we play in this great scene spread out above our heads? What do our miserable little lives and desires mean? Your report to Rome, the church, the Holy Father, you and I, what does all this matter to those lights?” His grating laugh rang out again.

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