Sunday, December 12, 2010

Zone by Mathias Énard

In order to describe a novel to someone who has not read it, you can simply summarise the story it tells, excluding by necessity perhaps hundreds of pages presenting a unique authorial voice, rich and memorable characters, exotic locations and significant pivots of plot. Yet, if asked to describe a poem, you could merely recite the words, arriving at the destination immediately; no need for any bright signposts.

In general we can accept the failings of the former method as a necessity, perhaps even desirable because keeping distance can save time and trouble. But the distinction presents itself with unexpected urgency when charged with describing Mathias Énard's novel, his fourth book and the first to be translated into English. Zone needs to be recited; one needs to be submerged in the disturbing pace of its narrative and disruptive power of its detail to appreciate why a summary is both easy and impossible.

Zone is an account of a train journey between Milan and Rome made by Francis Servain Mirkovic, a Croat in the pay of French intelligence, with a view to selling an archive of documents packed in a suitcase. The documents contain "names and secrets", testimonies from the terrible history of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean – the Zone of the title; events of which Mirkovic is both part and partly responsible as, in his youth, he fought in the civil war that tore Yugoslavia apart. In those days he was immersed in youth, in the thrilling moment of war, in violence and in comradeship, yet now, a paid informer with a false identity, he is not only friendless but separated even from himself.

Trapped in the "moving cage" of a train, he plans instead "a brilliant future paid for with the dead the disappeared the secrets in this suitcase". It's a risky strategy because, as he discovers, "everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing they make you come back to yourself without letting you get out of anything it’s a fine prison". These are the first words of the novel because writing begins in memory, when consciousness is displaced. Mirkovic is thereby exposed to a world of ghosts just as a train journey exposes him to landscapes: "two thousand killed and wounded, two thousand Hapsburgians fallen in a few hours lie strewn across the river’s shore, two thousand bodies that the Lombard peasants will strip of their valuables, baptismal medals, silver or enamel snuffboxes, in the midst of the death rattles of the dying and the wounded on that night of 21 Floreal 1796 Year IV of the Revolution two thousand ghosts two thousand shades like so many shapes behind my window". Scenes from the Zone like this, and from Mirkovic's own past, cascade into view: 
you don’t forget much in the end, the wrinkled hands of Harmen Gerbens the Cairo Batavian, his trembling moustache, the faces of Islamists tortured in the Qanatar Prison, the photograph of the severed heads of the Tibhirine monks, the reflections on the cupolas in Jerusalem, Marianne naked facing the sea, the squeals of Andrija’s pig, the bodies piled up in the gas trucks of Chełmno, Stéphanie the sorrowful in front of Hagia Sophia, Sashka with her brushes and paints in Rome, my mother at the piano in Madrid, her Bach fugue in front of an audience of Croatian and Spanish patriots, so many images linked by an uninterrupted thread that snakes like a railroad bypassing a city, the possible connections between trains in a station
Mirkovic's voice, despite tumbling headlong onto the page in a continuous sentence, is still that of writing, both light enough to carry us forward, above the fray and relieving us of the past and future, yet also heavy with all that the words signify. The archive is heavy on the soul of Mirkovic the traveller, the escapee, because he discovers history is not temporal – all our yesterdays – but spatial. Ghosts from innumerable wars appear and disappear like disused stations, and tortured lives and gory deaths reverberate through the cage of narrative like thousands of sleepers. It is an experience of history explored most notably by WG Sebald, as highlighted by Will Self, and, if pushed to further the comparison, Zone has the quality of a highly fevered Sebald. But its other antecedents are clearer.

The novel's title comes from Guillaume Apollinaire's 1913 poem which shares the novel's decapitations, stream-of-consciousness narrative and drunken narrator and its 24 chapters match the number in that other great story of war, the Iliad. Zone is a literary novel because the documents themselves are literature and because the names that arise in Mirkovic's memory and discussed throughout the novel, authors as various as Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Robert Walser, Genet, Proust, Celine and William Burroughs, are his fellow travellers. Literature is heavy because of its objectivity, the manner in which human life flares and disappears in a moment. But Zone is literary in a less abstract sense too. Mirkovic sits opposite a Czech businessman feverishly consulting a thick paperback, what turns out to be a catalogue of timetables giving precise details of where and when every single train stops. Like the archive, it is a record that "allows you to know what we could have done, what we could do in a few minutes, in the next few hours, even more, the little Czech man’s eyes light up, all eventualities are contained in this schedule, they are all here". All eventualities will end somewhere. Everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book. The rigour of the catalogue's certainty is bracing and there are those, like the Czech, who relish the cold and those, like Mirkovic, who shiver. This is dramatised at the start of the journey by the cry of viva la muerte, long live death, uttered by José Millán-Astray, the one-eyed Falangist general, in his famous exchange in 1936 with Miguel Unamuno, the Catholic philosopher and "strict high priest of culture" who, in a futile speech against the coming massacre, warns the fascist that "You will succeed, but you will not convince". Mirkovic succeeded too, surviving the civil war and with the prize of an independent Croatia, but he's not convinced.
I regret I don’t know why I regret, you regret so many things in life memories that sometimes return burning, guilt regrets shame that are the weight of Western civilization
The weight of the Zone's history dragging Mirkovic down is a reminder of Nietzsche's essay On the Use and Abuse of History for Life that argues in favour of a history that serves life rather than binds it to erasable memory. It's why Mirkovic's reading matter may prompt the accusation that the book is nothing more than a pathological indulgence in others' misfortunes. Nietzsche resisted monumental and antiquarian forms of history, giving equal importance to forgetting in the lives of individuals, communities and cultures. Mirkovic's nonstop narrative might then be seen as an unhealthy Schadenfreude and self-pity over what his pursuance of war and profit has cost him and others. Yet while we may take this view, we too are implicated in being provoked to prefer forgetfulness over remembrance and the repetition of history this threatens. Zone draws our attention to the web stories weave when its stream-of-consciousness is interrupted by chapters of another book that Mirkovic has in his possession. A writer called Rafael Kahla tells the story of Intissar, a Palestinian fighter resisting the Israeli onslaught in Lebanon. Her lover Marwan has been killed in a firefight and she has to carry on, rifle in hand, lamenting his death whilst remaining true to the cause in the tradition of warriors fighting for a nation's independence. It's a sad and dignified story written with familiar punctuation and in free indirect speech; a work of fiction within a fiction reminding the reader of the longing to make something redemptive in death that overtakes both people and novels. (In fact, Intissar's story is very similar to From A to X, John Berger's grossly sentimental novel of 2008 celebrating the stifled lives of revolutionaries on either side of a prison wall.) However, the contrast to Mirkovic's narrative and to the Iliad is not in its style but its boundless pathos. Where Zone's pages leap over rows of headless bodies and the Iliad describes violent death with swift and terrible lyricism, Intissar does not let go, wanting to retrieve Marwan from death, going so far as to risk another firefight to recover and then bathe his stiffening body.

Mirkovic's present might be said to be one in which unresting death is faced when the attenuated husks of religious or nationalist myth have been breached. Mirkovic is the exposed core and the choice between memory and forgetting is impossible; a brilliant future depends on both. His existence in writing – sustained, incessant, brutal, resourceful to the brink of insanity – thereby becomes necessary for survival. Everything is coursed into a recital, a unique poetic ritual of mourning to reach the destination that is itself. Zone is indeed soaked in trauma yet, in Mathias Énard's hands and Charlotte Mandell's fluid translation, it is exhilarating, and has to be read.


  1. Anonymous2:04 pm

    Great review. Haven't read this yet (though have ordered it) and your excellent summation fairly whets the appetite. The writers mentioned by way of reference further impel expectation.

  2. I've almost finished it and yes, you have to immerse yourself in the character's story. It is hypnotic. I do feel lost in it as some of the political references are beyond me.



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