Why This Book Should Win – Street of Thieves by BTBA Judge George Carroll
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
Street of Thieves – Mathias Énard, Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter Books
Last year, I advanced Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God, tr. from the French by Lulu Norman, for The Best Translated Book Award a book that follows the lives of a group of teenage soccer players from Sidi Moumen who become Islamist martyrs, suicide bombers in the 2003 Casablanca attacks.
This year I’m championing Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, in which one of the main characters becomes involved with an Islamist group turned Jihadist.
I hope that I’m not developing a pattern – not the French translation part, the radicalism part.
Street of Thieves is a coming-of-age story of two childhood friends set mostly in Tangiers during the Arab Spring. Lakhdar, the narrator, wants freedom – to travel, smoke weed, earn money, read French noir detective novels, have sex with Spanish women. His friend, Bassam, introduces Lakhdar to the “Group for the Propagation for Islamic Thought” for whom he becomes their seller of books and pamphlets.
After the organization severely beats a neighborhood bookseller, their paths split, Lakhdar moves away, Bassam gets deeply into the group. Bassam might be involved in a stabbing in Tangiers, a bombing in Marrakesh, and ultimately an assassination.
“Men are dogs,” says Lakhdar, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…” Exiled from his family because of an indiscretion with his cousin, Lakhdar starts with nothing, lives on the street, takes a series of jobs, goes on the run, falls in love, and ends up in a Barcelona neighborhood of junkies and prostitutes, the Street of Thieves.
Lots of big words – fate, fear, corruption, revolution, liberty, love and loyalty and tragedy, but no theme bigger than identity. Is Lakhdar more than his religion? More than his nationality? In the final pages of the book, he testifies “I am not a Moroccan, I am not a Frenchman, I’m not a Spaniard, I’m more than that . . . I am not a Muslim, I am more than that.”
Love of language, the study of language, the beauty of language are all manifested in the book. Love of books – “which is the only place on earth where life is good” – certainly won this judge over.
Street of Thieves should win The Best Translated Book Award because Énard has filtered multiple complex social issues through the eyes of a wonderfully likable narrator. If I’ve made that sound dreadfully serious, it’s my mistake.