Zone, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell
Zone is famously, and misleadingly, a novel in the form of a single 517 page sentence. It’s about the least interesting thing you can say about the book, and it’s not even actually true.
Francis Servain Mirkovic is travelling by night-train from Paris to Rome. He’s a French intelligence agent, formerly a Croatian nationalist fighter in the Yugoslav civil war. He’s a fascist sympathiser, a war criminal, and now arguably a traitor as his only luggage is a briefcase full of faded secrets that he plans to sell to the Vatican so that he can make a new life.
Zone follows Francis’ thoughts on the journey. Unable to sleep his mind scatters over his own past and the history of the places the train passes. Geography here is history, with near every inch of European soil the site of ancient or modern atrocities, horror and death. From time to time he dips into a novel about a Palestinian fighter, his stream of consciousness being replaced each time by the far more conventional narrative structure of that tale.
The bulk of the book, all save the three chapters where Francis is reading the novel within the novel, is stream of consciousness. Enard uses commas and natural pauses in place of full stops, so that while the narrative never quite stops (until you reach the end) it has a natural rhythm and is actually very easy to follow. Practically this means that the book does in fact have fairly clear sentences and isn’t any harder to read than most any other book, but the lack of full stops helps convey the sense of irresistible forward momentum.
History too often seems to have an irresistible forward momentum. What happens, happens, and is then left behind vanishing from view as we hurtle ever onwards into the future. If only. The reality of course is that history leaves traces that linger with us, echoes through the years and since we never learn anything from it repeats itself with changed details but a wearyingly familiar pattern.
Zone doesn’t wear its influences lightly (you really don’t need to worry much here about missing them, Apollinaire is about the only one that isn’t pretty much spelled out). Images of the Iliad in particular recur constantly, an epic poem densely packed with the tragedy and futility of war. The Trojans and Achaeans fought for money, pride and a woman, causes no less irrational than most of those which followed in future wars.
As a young man Francis was inspired by nationalist sentiment to fight in Yugoslavia, following a path of radicalisation distinctly comparable to that followed by contemporary teenagers going to join up as Jihadis in the Middle East. Francis thinks of his battles in Homerian terms, and perhaps he’s right to do so since the reality appears to have been one of lengthy waits interspersed with moments of terror and brutality, which is largely what the Iliad portrays.
Francis isn’t the cheeriest of souls:
I dreamed, sitting between two dead cities the way a tourist, swept along by the ferry that carries him, watches the Mediterranean flow by under his eyes, endless, lined with rocks and mountains those cairns signaling so many tombs mass graves slaughter-grounds a new map another network of traces of roads of railroads of rivers continuing to carry along corpses remains scraps shouts bones forgotten honored anonymous or decried in the great roll-call of history cheap glossy stock vainly imitating marble that looks like the twopenny magazine my neighbor folded carefully so as to be able to read it without effort,
By virtue of sentiment and occupation Francis looks out on the landscape and sees not the art, the social movements, the steady advances in comfort and widened opportunity, but instead the endless unmarked graves. He sees the march of industry and technology, but through the lens of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Bosnian camps and the commoditisation of carnage.
Apollo the archer of the East also guided the Turkish artillerymen near the well-guarded Dardanelles, on the banks of the Scamander, facing Cape Helles where the monument to unknown soldiers of the battle of Gallipoli stands, white as a lighthouse, you can read over 2,000 British names there for as many bodies whose remains are scattered throughout the peninsula along with the dusty bones of 1,200 unidentifiable Frenchmen from the years 1915-1916, before the Eastern Expeditionary Corps gave up and went to try its luck near Thessalonica in support of the Serbs against the Bulgarians, leaving the Dardanelles and the Bosporus inviolate after ten months of battle and 150,000 French, Algerian, Senegalese, English, Australian, New Zealanders, Sikh, Hindu, Turkish, Albanian, Arab, and German corpses, like so many Boeotians, Mycenaeans, brave Arcadians, or magnanimous Cephallenians against the Dardanians, Thracians, Pelasgians with the furious javelins, or Lycians come from afar, guided by the spear of blameless Sarpedon,
He’s right of course, ours is a bloody history. Francis was once one of those warriors, he looks back on his soldier-days and remembers companions he loved and saw maimed and killed; it was horrible but at the same time he was filled with youthful passion and purpose, he believed in something. Since then he became a bloodless functionary, recording grim secrets of uncertain importance. His briefcase is a record of testimonies of betrayals and killings across the twentieth century, lost stories destined to be locked in a Vatican archive.
Zone has been hailed as potentially one of the first truly great books of our century. I think it’s far too early to call that, but it is a thoughtful and resonant read. There’s a lot more here than statistics of slaughter. Francis’ mind turns to the three great relationships of his life, one long ended, one more recently and one that he hopes waits for him in Rome. He thinks back to his family; to his companions in Yugoslavia; to the lives and works of people like William Burroughs, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Curzio Malaparte (he has a fondness for writers of greater talent than wisdom); reflects on the daily lives and rationalisations of Nazis as they carried out their industrialised murder.
From time to time he dips into the novel he carries, about a Palestinian fighter named Intissar who has just lost her lover to an Israeli machine gun. Francis finds Intissar’s story intensely moving, its deeply personal focus on a single woman’s struggle reminds him of his own experiences in Yugoslavia but given dramatic weight, and her loss is easier to empathise with than the mass anonymity of 3,000 years of organised killing.
Defeat begins with the feet. It insinuates itself first into the same boots that were supposed to lead to victory, the ones you’d gotten ready, for years, for the last parade. Defeat begins with the boots that you polished every morning, the ones that grew misshapen, covered with dust, the ones that kept the blood from your toes as well as they could, that crushed insects, protected you from snakes, withstood stones on the path. Physical at first, like a cramp that makes you limp, defeat is a weary surprise, you begin to stumble, in war you totter on fragile feet. Suddenly you feel what you’d never felt before, your feet can no longer run, they refuse to carry you into the attack—suddenly they’re paralyzed, frozen despite the heat, they no longer want to serve the body that owns them.
Many reviews have commented on the novel within the novel having a notably clumsier technique than Francis’ own narrative, seeing it as a pastiche of banal mainstream thrillers. I think that’s a misreading, partly as I don’t think the Intissar passages are particularly badly written but mostly as Francis makes frequent literary references pretty much every one of which is to highly regarded and influential literary figures (Tsirkas crops up a lot too, and Cavafy). Instead I think the Intissar passages are showing what Francis longs for, a narrative that even if terribly sad follows a path that makes sense, that has personal meaning and that carries at the end a possibility of redemption. Francis wants to leave his own history behind, reinvent himself as a new man in Rome, trade his briefcase of dry tragedy for a life and a future that doesn’t merely continue his past.
I let myself be carried away, page after page, and although I’ve already spent a large part of my day as an ambiguous functionary reading—notes, reports, forms, on my well-guarded screen—there is nothing I desire more then than a novel, where the people are characters, a play of masks and desires, and little by little to forget myself, forget my body at rest in this chair, forget my apartment building, Paris, life itself as the paragraphs, dialogues, adventures, strange worlds flow by,
Because Zone follows the train’s route precisely we can’t of course know what happens to Francis once he disembarks. We have only his journey; his memories, fantasies and brief dreams in snatched moments of sleep. Spend 500 pages in anyone’s skull and it becomes hard not to sympathise with them, particularly if they want to reinvent themselves, to be better than they were. He has doubts himself about the possibility of what he seeks, knowing too well his own history of incipient alcoholism and mood swings as pitilessly set forth in his own personnel file held by his agency and shown to him by a friend.
I’ll have to let myself be carried to Rome and continue the battle, the fight against the Trojans great tamers of mares, against myself my memories and my dead who are watching me, making faces
The Paris-Rome train is a metal cage crossing history but never escaping it. Francis’ own history is carried with him, chained to him as he chains his briefcase to the luggage shelf. Enard avoids any easy redemptive arc; Francis may despair of the past but he can’t let go of it, he enjoys too much the minutiae of old incidents. He knows the Iliad portrays nothing worth praising, but he’s aware too of how it makes that nothing both thrilling and majestic.
I drank as I thought of Andrija’s anger of his tears after the city fell, Andi a toast for you, for your rage that day or the next I forget when Fate sent us two prisoners after an ambush, one was wounded, the other unhurt was trembling with fear he said my father has money, my father has money, if you let me go he’ ll give you a lot of money, he was too afraid to lie, we had picked them up when they were trying to desert, I was tempted to let them run, I was about to hand them over to a grunt so he could take them to Osijek, but Andrija arrived, are you out of your mind? You forgot Vukovar already? Not one of them should escape, and he machine-gunned them at length, right away, without hesitating, looking them in the eyes, fifteen cartridges each in the chest, on my bed in the Hotel Danube a toast for Andi great shepherd of warriors, a toast for the stupefied gaze of the two little Serbs when the brass pierced them, a toast for the Vukovar cemetery in the falling night, for the Ivry cemetery one spring morning, for the soldiers of ’14, the Resistants the ones condemned to death and a toast for my pater probably a murderer neither a Resistant nor a man condemned to death who is keeping them company today, as the train slows down to enter Reggio in gentle and beautiful Emilia,
I chose that final quote because while it doesn’t reference the Iliad it reminded me of it very strongly, and I think intentionally. In one scene Ulysses takes a prisoner and promises life in exchange for information, but kills as soon as he learns what he wanted to know. In another Achilles takes a young man captive who begs for his life offering ransom and who Achilles has no reason to kill, but Achilles is mad with grief for Patroclus and kills the young man anyway. Anyone who thinks the Iliad heroic in the modern sense hasn’t read it. This passage is the Iliad reduced down from myth, stripped back to needless murder.
The difficulty here with quotes is that it’s impossible to get the sense of the sheer sweep of the book. Dark as it is it’s an enjoyable read, filled with frequent diversions (admittedly mostly on rather horrible subjects) and observations. Enard’s prose rocks the reader along; you’re travelling first class here with a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.
I can’t say of course if Charlotte Mandell’s translation is any good or not (it never jars, but for all I know the original could be clunky as anything), but it’s a hell of an achievement. The sheer number of reviews of this book is in part a testament to how readable it actually is and how rewarding (or to how none of us dare criticise a book so highly praised, something I’m not looking forward to when I review Nora Webster which apparently everyone loves but me).
I’ll end with a brief comment on the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, which is a new small press publisher in the UK with so far only four books published. Zone is exactly the sort of novel I want to see getting published in the UK. It takes risks, it tackles difficult questions of memory and history, it experiments with style without losing itself into unreadability in the process. That doesn’t mean I want more Zones; but I do want more publishers like Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Before I give links to some other reviews, it’s worth flagging a fascinating interview with the translator here which includes some really interesting insights into the book’s structure (including the page count being equal to the number of miles between Rome and Paris, which I hadn’t realised). If you’re cautious about spoilers it may be best leaving the interview though until after you’ve read the book, though this isn’t really a book that’s vulnerable to spoilers particularly.
On the blog front this has been very widely reviewed, particularly brilliantly by Stephen Mitchelmore at thisspace here. Other reviews I found worth noting are by Stu of Winstondad’s Blog here, at 1streading’s blog here, at the ever marvellous Workshy Fop’s blog here, and at David Hebblethwaite’s blog here, There are also of course plenty of newspaper reviews, many very good indeed. The only one I’ll link to though is Nicholas Lezard’s here, because it’s by far the most ambivalent review I’ve read of the book and so provides a nice counterpoint to the others.