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.
As 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.
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.