Collector of Corpses: Zone by Mathias Énard

Where to start with Zone by French author Mathias Énard?

“I climb into the trans-Italian express that must have been the zenith of progress and technology ten years ago for its doors were automatic and it went faster than 200 kilometers per hour in a straight line on a good day and today, a little closer to the end of the world, it’s just a train”

Imagine you are on a train bound from Milan to Rome, trapped inside the head of a French Intelligence Service agent, hung over and pumped up on amphetamines, who by reckless dalliance has missed his fight and is, as a result, having to make this critical trip by rail. Which gives him plenty of time to perseverate while he clutches a suitcase filled with documents graphically detailing war crimes, witnessed or reported to him during his time in the “Zone”, an area stretching from the Mediterranean to Central Europe. At the end of his journey he intends to sell the secrets he has collected, effectively resigning with a final act of treason, and disappear into a new existence with an identity assumed from a man long condemned to an asylum. And as the reader you are bound to the narrator, Francis Servain Mirković, for one breathless 517 page sentence.

zoneAs he streams forth a catalogue of brutal visions from his own memories, from history, art and literature, there is no respite. Even his love affairs are recounted with a desperate intensity. This not a book of bitter humour, it is a chronicle of horror, a memoir of regret. Francis is longing to be released from the burdens of his experiences, but that end is all very vague, growing even more so as he nears Rome. In the meantime, unable to sleep, to turn off his fevered brain, he is assaulted by grotesque images of his time on the battlefields of Bosnia with a Croatian militia unit. His lost comrades haunt him, his lost lovers loom large and through it all run threads of historical violence – decapitation is a particular obsession that he sees in, yet seemingly shares with, Caravaggio. Warriors of antiquity, martyred saints, Nazi war criminals all cast long shadows across the path of his racing thoughts. Violence is vividly described, and is often up close and personal.

This is not a leisurely read.

As a small concession to the reader, the single sentence is divided into chapters and periodically broken with segments of a novel about a female Palestinian fighter but there are times where one gets the distinct feeling that facts, and at times, streams of words words words are being employed as filler, as if anything less punishing than 500 pages would have been unthinkable. The risk however, is that the power of the images will be diluted, reduced to noise, numbing the reader, or worse, driving him or her away. Even the literary detours that turn toward Cervantes, Malcolm Lowry, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Cavafy are typically delivered as measured portraits of ugliness and depravity.

If you have ever been in a room with someone who is in a manic state, you will know that they fill the space, suck up all of the available air. Such is the sensation of spending time in the presence of the narrator of Zone. Left to my own devices I am not sure I would have been inclined to open this book (sometimes size matters) or at least may well not have ventured past the first 150 pages or so. I may have disembarked at the next available station. And that would have been a shame.

Somewhere, two thirds of the way in maybe, the pressure begins to dissipate, perhaps as the drugs wear off, and the pace of the monologue eases, opening up space for more personal reflection and musing, more meaningful literary diversions and a sober assessment of his last serious love affair gone wrong. Even a little touch of humour. Mind you we are not exactly tripping through fields of daisies but the relentless deluge of decapitated heads, eviscerated corpses and raped women does ease to a slower flow of grisly images, as the full weary weight of the life Francis is longing to step away from settles in on him.

Zone 2

This novel, ably translated by Charlotte Mandell, was added to our IFFP Shadow Jury longlist when several members of the group argued that it had been sorely overlooked by the official jury. And it made the cut for our version of the shortlist. Given what I know now about the difference between the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award, I feel that this is the type of book that more appropriately belongs to the latter. However in North America, Zone was released by Open Letter in 2011 (and, in fact, another Énard title was longlisted for the BTBA this year) whereas its eligiblity for the IFFP is based on the 2014 UK release from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

So what did I really think? My overwhelming first impression is that this book is one of style and literary merit but that at times it feels contrived. Perhaps, someday, when I look back I will think, yes, that was quite the experience. I may think back on Francis stepping forth at the end of his journey, reborn or perhaps beaten into the pavements of the Eternal City, with a sympathetic fondness of sorts.

I don’t know.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

19 thoughts on “Collector of Corpses: Zone by Mathias Énard”

  1. A 517 page sentence. That even outdoes Proust, if my Swiss cheese memory is right, his longest was over 900 words. It makes me want to reread ‘if on a winter’s night a traveller’. In fact, I’m going to.

    xox

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  2. I really admire you for finishing this one. I don’t know if I could have made it all the way through, especially because it is one long sentence. Sometimes when authors use a literary device like that it is just so distracting that it takes away from the story.

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    1. It was a bit of an endurance test, more for the relentless brutality. A few hundred less pages might have improved the overall experience. I love Bernhard, for instance, but his work has rhythm, dark humour and relative brevity.

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  3. I read about this somewhere a few weeks ago and was on the poise of buying it until I discovered the alarming fact it was one sentence. It’s a device that can work (much of Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou was written like that and I loved it) but to sustain it over 500 plus pages seemed extreme.

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    1. The single sentence or paragraph can work but when it consist largely of a barrage of violent images one feels bludgeoned not engaged. I realize the reader is not supposed to feel comforted but our narrator has made his bed, so to speak so empathy is hard to maintain. A number of the shadow jury members thought it was superlative. I am somewhat less enthusiastic though it has it moments…

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  4. I also read about this book somewhere a few weeks back and had it on my list to read – but I’m now not sure this is really for me! I think I will slip it down the list to those marked ‘Mmmmmm…’!

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  5. I am interested in Zone but suspect I might find it too gruelling a read for the time being. It’s interesting to hear you’re on the fence on this one (and useful to hear a different perspective). Thanks for the review.

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  6. Personally, I think there should be awards for readers who get through novels like this! Well done – I fear I would never even to attempt to read this, both for the subject matter and the style.

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  7. I actually bought this book when it was on the BTBA list but didn’t read it until this year. I didn’t find it the intimidating slog I feared it would be, though you’re right, there’s not much in the way of light relief! I kind of admired the refusal to soften the message about human violence and cruelty – the single sentence seemed determined to reflect its unending nature.

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    1. I think I would have admired it more at 300-350 pages max! At times it seemed more like filler – historical facts and brutal images running at you as the reader. I suspect that was intended to be the effect of the speed because the pace does open up in the latter section. I cannot imagine it surviving the IFFP jury, but it is much more in keeping with BTBA material.

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  8. I really liked this and expect it to make my end of year list, but perhaps not to top the list. A little contrived is perhaps fair, it is a very structured novel and the structure sometimes drives the content. I loved though the physicality of the narrative, the sense of being carried through the night on a wave of words and desolation.

    There’s a review at mine which you may have seen. One thing I thought though is that it’s not really a single sentence. Enard simply uses commas where most would use full stops, I found it much easier to find stopping points than in say Krasznahorkai’s Satantango which washes over the reader like a mudslide.

    I think the fence is a fair place to be. As I say, I’m among its fans, but I’ve seen levels of hype for ti which I don’t think are actually fair to the book, which create expectations no book could really match. I think it’s a well written, powerful and fascinatingly structured book, but I’ve seen people saying it’s the most important book of the century so far and that seems to me a claim that’s both silly and that no book should have to carry. There’s also a lot of disagreement about the short stories within the text and how they relate to the whole, sufficiently so that I’m not personally sure those elements worked as well as intended.

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    1. I don’t regret the read but because I was reading it for the IFFP shadow jury and some jury members had proclaimed the book in such glowing terms, my expectations were very high. References to Bernhard and others I love in the introduction added to my hopes. I do think it was the content (or dependence on a limited number of motifs) for so many pages that coloured my experience.

      I have not read Satantango yet but I did recently buy it. Even if it lacks more obvious stopping points it does clock in under 300 pages! I am a bit of a slow reader so, as they say, size matters. 😉

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  9. Ah, I’d have to disagree here – it’s well worth every page, and the historical digressions are not really digressions but a third strand to the story. The book is as much about mankind’s bloody history and an inability to learn from the wars of the past as it is about Merkovic’s career and the train journey 😉

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    1. On a purely philosophical note, I wonder if there is the risk of inuring the reader to that very message about mankind’s bloodthirsty legacy with the endless parade of violent images? I was listening to a radio documentary about the Paris Commune the other day and it made me think of a textbook I had in high school (late 70’s). It had a photo of the corpses of several commune members. I remember being just riveted by that picture of real deal bodies! Now on TV, an evening hardly goes by without images of bodies lined up along roadsides or fallen in the aftermath of violent events. We hardly think about it any more. At moments Zone came near to numbing rather than furthering the intended message for me.

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