Compass by Mathias Énard (tr. Charlotte Mandell). New Directions. $18.95, 448.
Zone by Mathias Énard (tr. Charlotte Mandell). Open Letter Books. $16.95, 517pp.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West. Penguin Classics. $28.00, 1181pp.
One way authors construct great books is by shaping their styles to their subjects—or finding subjects that suit their styles. Take, for instance, William Faulkner, who in Absalom, Absalom!, uses a sentence style that is iterative, often qualifying what has gone before in telling the same story again and again, each time with a different detail, a shift in emphasis that sends the narrative in a new direction. In As I Lay Dying, on the other hand, he tells a more intimate story and, rather than encompassing the entirety of the South, now concentrates on a family, giving each character a unique voice, a unique way with words that captures their worldview. Arguably the greatest American novelist, Faulkner uses still different techniques for The Sound and the Fury and Light in August. This strategy of synchronizing a novel’s key parts—its themes, symbols, structure, language, and so on—such that they operate in concert for the work’s individual subject has become rare in contemporary American literary fiction. Too often American writers are content, once they have found their literary voice, to use the same for their entire oeuvre.
We are lucky to have translations of the French novelist Mathias Énard, whose career suggests the exploratory, variegated template of Faulkner. A translator from Persian, Arabic, and Spanish, Énard has written nine novels in an assortment of styles and on an assortment of subjects. As Faulkner nearly always located his fiction in Mississippi, Énard has focused on the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, what he calls in his eponymous novel, the “Zone.” And as the themes of slavery, black-white relations, history, Reconstruction, and the South run through Faulkner’s novels, Énard has his touchstones of music, violence, East-West relations, and literature, all of which appear in his most recent book to be translated by Charlotte Mandell into English, the 2015 Prix Goncourt winner, Compass.
The novel takes place over a single sleepless night in 2012. The narrator, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist specializing in the “Oriental” influence on European classical music. He has just received a note along with an article written by a fellow Orientalist and long unrequited love, Sarah, and is also contending with an unspecified, possibly terminal, medical diagnosis. He reflects on their meetings over the years across Europe and the Middle East, thinks about articles he should write, and contemplates the influence of the East (which, to him, extends only as far as Iran) on the West (which he sees stretching no further than Portugal).
Many of Énard’s narrators are well-read: the soldier-spy in Zone is interested in history and has read widely, the doctor in the hitherto untranslated Remonter l’Orénoque makes casual references to Chichikov, Céline, and Chekhov, and even the protagonist of Street of Thieves, a young Moroccan man who went “to a totally average school where [he] learned a little French and Spanish,” reads Casanova. Compass’s Ritter is particularly educated, steeped in both Middle Eastern and European literatures, citing a panoply of writers and books, among which Pessoa, Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, and A Thousand and One Nights show up as frequently as the composers he claims are his true interests. Ritter is not an opinionated academic; he does not take sides. Living in Vienna, “the gateway to the East,” Ritter is positioned between the East and the West, supporting Énard’s thesis that “being exists…between an unfathomable self and the other in oneself,” and throughout the novel, Ritter and Sarah’s actions are often telegraphed through the stories of others, making manifest “the other in oneself.”
These side stories are common throughout Énard’s body of work, and, in his best books, they tend to impart to them the structure of travel literature. Although Ritter never leaves his apartment, he makes his way through memories of visiting with Sarah the cities of Europe and those of the Middle East. He recalls first meeting Sarah in Styria, Austria, at the home of “Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, first great Austrian Orientalist,” walking the streets of Paris with her, showing her Vienna, where they saw “the Josephinum, the former military hospital where there’s an absolutely atrocious museum: the exhibition of anatomical models from the end of the eighteenth century”, time in Tehran, Istanbul, sleeping in the parvis of a castle outside Palmyra. And each location is accompanied by one or more historical anecdotes. Ritter details the history of Liszt’s tour of Europe with his Érard piano and the magnificent welcome the composer received in Constantinople. He recounts Balzac’s pursuit of the woman who would become his wife as a complement to Ritter’s own introduction to Sarah in the same Hammer-Purgstall home in Austria. These thumbnails are staples in travel literature and particularly guidebooks, such as the Let’s Go series, which punctuate each geographic entry with a quirky anecdote about the history or customs. One could go so far as to argue that augmenting a travel narrative with such sketches goes back to the episodic structure of The Odyssey. (A similarity, I believe, with the references to Homer in Compass, Énard—and Ritter—would embrace.)
Énard uses a similar structure to much better effect in Zone. Again a man is remembering his life, although his travel becomes a little more manifest as the narrator, Francis Servain, is traveling by train from Paris to Rome. The two books are more similar in their structure than this would indicate, however, as Francis is essentially stationary, sitting in his seat, commenting on his fellow passengers, going to the bar car, stopping in the restroom. Although there is the movement of the train, Francis, himself, seems to be moving only through his past. And here the asides, the allusions, the anecdotes, the sheer abundance of Énard’s learning much better support the theme of the novel.
Francis Servain is a Frenchman who fought in the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s, then worked in the French espionage service in the Middle East. Memories of the three important romantic relationships of his life flow into the biographies of war criminals, ex-Nazis, and spies. Francis has now assumed a new identity and is getting out of the intelligence business definitively, by selling his secrets in Rome. The real story in this great book, however, is the persistence of violence. Zone is modeled after The Iliad not only in its 24 chapters and through Francis’s repeated evocation of the influence of Zeus and Ares, not just by the epithets that help in keeping the names straight through hundreds of pages of discursive text, but through its inevitable returns to violence. As Homer suffuses his poem with violence and death, Énard does the same with his novel. “History is a tale of fierce animals,” Francis states, “a book with wolves on every page.” Énard has learned from Homer to separate and differentiate the individual victims and perpetrators, to give enough particularity to each act of barbarism to prevent the reader from being overcome with the stultifying abundance of, say, de Sade. Instead, I am reminded of the long middle section of 2666, in which Bolaño describes the murdered women in his stand-in for Ciudad Juárez. Every page has a summary of the woman’s background, a detail from her life, and then the particulars of her violent death. Zone has the same particularity, mixing fact with fiction:
Malaparte the disillusioned was a prolific journalist, he was the special correspondent for the Corriere della Sera with the Axis forces, in Croatia, in Poland, and then on the Russian front, in 1943 he interviews Ante Pavelić the Croatian Poglavnik, in Kaputt he tells how the Slavic Führer with the big eyes was a friendly man, somewhat reserved, a fervent Catholic, in his office he had a basket full of shellfish without shells that Malaparte thought were Dalmatian oysters, to hell with oysters, Pavelić said to him, it’s a gift from my Ustashis, a hundred Serbian eyes offered to the head of the triumphant homeland, Curzio Malaparte tells this story in a novel, is it true, what do I know, in any case it’s true for a number of Serbs…
Nonetheless, Énard’s decision to write the novel as a single, run-on sentence, broken into the 24 chapters of The Iliad and interrupted several times with excerpts from a book (also about Middle Eastern violence) that Francis is reading on the train, and the freeform chronology of thought that fills the chinks in one story with memories of his girlfriends and allusions to other places and other times, creates a churn that much better serves the violence theme of Zone than the everything-is-connected theme of Compass. Although the stream of consciousness of Franz Ritter does create a world in which everything is connected, the near chaos of Zone‘s structure is a better mimesis for the senselessness of violence. There is no real movement of Zone‘s present-day narrative, because, Énard is arguing, there can be no progress away from violence. We are no better than we were in 1914, when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated.
As part of the exemplary cohesiveness of Zone, Énard has given Francis a Croatian heritage, wrapping the man (and his forebears) in the action that began the concatenated European violence of the last century. Several times Francis refers to “Gavrila Princip the great instigator” and further recounts “…irony of fate, as they say, my paternal grandfather was a witness on the Canebière in Marseille, to the assassination of [Yugoslavian] King Alexander I the worst enemy of my maternal grandfather Franjo Mirković…” Although this second assassination occurred in 1934, the majority of the historical anecdotes postdate the outbreak of World War Two. Francis follows ex-Nazis into the Middle East, into France, into Spain and Northern Africa. The two assassinations are important to Francis in bringing together his Yugoslavian and French heritages in their political similarity and in becoming, for him, almost the causes of the subsequent world wars. For the reader, they take on additional importance for their primacy in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
In her subtitled “Journey through Yugoslavia,” West follows the same travelogue structure of going to a place, giving a brief history or colorful anecdote, describing the scenery, and then moving on. Her fat book extends beyond the traditional travelogue, however, in ranging freely towards whatever interests her, be it the weight of a book she wished she had packed (“[Robert] Adam’s book on Diocletian’s palace is one of the most entertaining revelations of the origins of our day, pretty in itself and an honour to its author,” weighing, she notes, “just over a stone”) or how her own curiosity leads her to research her articles and books. Written in the two years after Nazi Germany invaded Poland and containing much of the history of Yugoslavia, the land that was incessantly overrun by the Austro-Hungarian or Turkish empires for the last millennium and which, West demonstrates, Europe oft used as a buffer against the East, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is necessarily full of violence. West recoils from the continual wars but finds the rise of Hitler vile, and she concludes her book with a call to arms against Germany. No one in West’s purview is in charge of his or her own proclivities, however; every like or dislike is that of heritage, of some hundred-year-old-slight, inherited character, or cultural diktat. In describing, for example, the Muslims who had gathered in the streets of Sarajevo to watch the passing of the Turkish Prime Minister, West writes, “they were rapt, hallucinated, intoxicated with an old loyalty, and doubtless ready to know the intoxication of an old hatred.”
West truly believed in these stereotypical distinctions and did not exempt herself from these cultural and historical strictures: “If we [she and her husband] bought that bay over on Korchula we would not know what kind of house to build, we would have to take an infinite amount of thought, and our success would be a matter of hit and miss; and we would have to think of what we wanted our garden to look like. But these people’s culture instructed them exactly how best they might live where they must live.” Her stereotypes manifest in everything and do allow her pleasure in unadulterated Croatian or Serbian or Bosnian culture. Nonetheless, her writing about history, wherein she habitually gives an overview of the politics, the movement of armies, and the ever changing borders, reinforces this cultural grouping in pages of text that is often demoralizingly dense and, what’s worse, boring. She frequently lacks the necessary personal touch of Homer, of Bolaño, of Énard, whose Zone is in part, I believe, a direct response to West’s prejudice.
Where West’s “Turks…are a people who tire easily,” where her “Slovenes are a sensible and unexcitable people,” and her “South Slav loves the Russian, White or Red, but he does not think him as efficient as himself,” Énard presents his characters as individuals defined by their circumstances, defined, in Zone, by the endless cycle of violence and revenge. Francis is not a born killer. He is not a born racist or bigot. The violence begets this. As if to further clarify his repudiation of West, Énard describes a fellow soldier telling Francis at the beginning of his war service in Yugoslavia, “you’ll see, you’ll hate the Serbs and Muslims sooner or later, I [Francis] was surprised, the Serbs maybe, but the Muslims…” And, yes, through the death and disfigurement of his war buddies, the violent world of Zone transforms Francis. He soon embodies the predicted hatred and commits his own atrocity.
With the subsequent drinking, drugs, and violence, Francis clearly suffers from PTSD, and Énard shows how his girlfriends try to heal him over the years. First there is Marianne, a beautiful Parisian whom he met in Alexandria before his time as a soldier and stays with him through the war.
Marianne was obsessed with the war, more than me maybe she wanted to know, questioned me endlessly, read treatises about the former Yugoslavia, she had even started learning Croatian which infuriated me, I don’t know why, her accent, her pronunciation irritated me, I need silence, I needed her body and silence, the only person I managed to talk about the war with was Ghassan: indirectly, little by little, by commenting on the qualities of some rifle, a certain brand of rocket-launcher we began, the way lovers create intimacy little by little, exchanging anecdotes, war stories, and comparing our lives as soldiers, they were nothing alike…
Francis drinks with the ex-soldier Ghassan every night he is in Venice with Marianne, and eventually she leaves him with “a furious kick right in the balls.” Still, Francis does not wake up to his situation, and next comes Stéphanie, a coworker in French intelligence.
Stéphanie would not have waited for me, she had too much of a feel for the current situation and for time, a taste for the present, much less Christian, in this sense, than Marianne the bourgeois, Stéphanie wanted to know, though, she was curious about the war…it had become an obsession, to understand and make me “clear the air” as she said, erase the trauma that she imagined…
On the train to Rome, Francis often remembers Stéphanie, and, by the end of Zone, he suspects that she has read his intelligence file and knows all that he has done. She nonetheless sticks with him until his trauma becomes untenable. Although Stéphanie seems to be the woman he loves, he then finds comfort in Sashka, a woman who knows him as an entomologist, a woman who “is not curious” and “expects nothing from anyone.” At times he hopes that he will meet Sashka in Rome, although he also says, “I don’t know if I want to see her again, she doesn’t have the power to reach me, to cure me, or the will to either, I feel I’m going to destroy her like Marianne, torment her like Stéphanie…”
Francis is haunted by what he has done in the war, by his own, personal atrocities, and he claims that in his most violent act he was imbued with the power of Athena, the hatred of Eris. This decidedly literary trope of blaming the gods works to attach the novel to the literary continuum beginning with The Iliad, but it also works as a bookish man’s attempt to distance himself from what he has done, from the other he sees in himself. Énard expands this idea of “an unfathomable self and the other in oneself” in Compass, where the idea is repeated by both Ritter and Sarah and functions as a way to understand artistic influence and even the storytelling of the book itself. Ritter tells many stories, and friends, acquaintances, and figures from history stand in for the two protagonists. Since so much of their time was spent apart, Ritter seems to be imagining Sarah’s life through the stories of earlier female Orientalists who found adventure in the Middle East. He gives accounts of, among others, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who, seventy-some-odd years prior, stayed in the same hotel he and Sarah visited in Aleppo; Lady Hester Stanhope, who left “everything behind and [settled] in the Ottoman Levant, where she never stopped governing, reigning over the little domain she had carved out for herself;” and Marga d’Andurain, who “had fallen in love…with the region, the Bedouins and the desert.” There are stories of sham marriages (as Ritter surely wishes Sarah’s was), spies, and violence. And in his passivity, Ritter seems to consummate his love affair with Sarah vicariously, through a seduction of another woman as recounted by Sarah’s mentor, Gilbert de Morgan, who used the chaos of the Iranian revolution to push aside his rival and ravish his beloved.
Zone is more complex in its use of complementary doubling. During one scene in the Yugoslav Wars, Francis joins another soldier in sneaking into no-man’s-land to kill a pig for their dinner. Énard makes enough references to the protection of Athena, the Greeks, and the tribute to the gods for one to be put in mind of Odysseus’s covert mission to gather intelligence across enemy lines in The Iliad. Later Francis describes how a retired Nazi’s daughters remarried, changed their names, and never told their children about their family history, giving the reader a feel for how Francis will behave once he has surrendered the documents and begun his new life. As in Compass, the doubling is imperfect, hinting more than describing, but where in Compass these imperfections mean nothing to the greater scheme of the novel, Zone‘s imperfections point towards our incomplete understanding, as though a scheme exists beyond our ken, perhaps—Homerically—as the intentions of the gods.
Énard includes another type of doubling in Zone. Francis’s reminiscences are occasionally interrupted by chapters from a novel about the 1982 Lebanon War he is reading on the train from Paris to Rome. After scores of pages of Francis’s thoughts without a sentence break, the chapters are initially striking for their conventional style. Here Énard—through the fictional author Rafaël Kahla—tells the story of Intissar, a young Palestinian soldier who is recovering the body of her boyfriend. Énard often uses texts to offer a different voice in his first-person narratives. Compass includes excerpts from Sarah’s scholarly articles and the aforementioned story of Gilbert de Morgan, which Ritter wrote when he was younger and whose reading now creates that emphatic gap between his current and past selves. In Énard’s untranslated L’Alcool et la Nostalgie, the first person voice is offset by the inclusion of a final missive. Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants is also balanced with interlaced letters. And so on. In Zone, however, Énard goes further than simply offering a competing voice. Francis questions the text. He asks if the story of Intissar is true, how much the author was involved in the Palestinian struggle, in short, all of the questions Zone‘s readers are asking about Énard and his book. As interesting as these questions are, however, none matter to the thesis of Zone. The presentation of Intissar, a reluctant warrior who, now that her boyfriend is dead, will step away from the violence, rather allows Francis—and the reader—a contrast with his life and a further demonstration that everyone gets pulled into the violence. By the end of her story, we see this definitively, and Énard’s prose slips briefly from the realism of Rafaël Kahla back into the single-long-sentence style of Francis, as if this headlong rushing of words were reality, or were Énard’s natural style, a thing he can no longer hold back, a style that, in this book, has found its subject.
Naturally, Francis sees himself in Intissar’s story, and in some of the book’s most moving passages, Francis expresses his sympathy for the Palestinian woman. In the light of Compass‘s “unfathomable self and the other in oneself,” I can believe that he is pitying himself. Throughout the novel, Francis remembers his relationships with women along with the histories of atrocities. The two cannot be unlinked, and Énard shows how violence has destroyed his relationships. We watch as it insidiously inserts itself time and again between Francis and Marianne, then Francis and Stéphanie. And Francis seems perpetually to be sifting through history to find himself in others or others in himself. Unlike West, who, with her prejudices, always sees the other as other, Francis sees himself in Intissar, in Gilbert de Morgan, in the retired Nazi denied by his daughters, in Ares and Odysseus. Or, at least, he wants to see himself. He wants to normalize his experience, which he cannot do, and now he hopes that he can achieve normalcy by walking away. Of course, the entirety of Énard’s great, horrific novel shows this to be impossible.
Robert E. Tanner is a novelist no longer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Statorec, The Seventh Wave, and Map Literary. This essay made possible with the generous support of Jentel.
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