Discussed in this essay:
Zone, Mathias Énard. Actes Sud. 516pp, EUR 22.80
Right before reading Zone for the second time, I decided to draw up a list of impressions about Mathias Énard’s book from memory. To my great surprise, everything I wrote was negative. I remembered liking the book, but couldn’t remember why. Why was that, I wondered? I’d first read Zone right after publication, and at the time the book had a small but significant buzz around it. Some friends I trust had said very positive things about it, and Claro, the respected novelist and translator, was so enthusiastic about Zone that he called it one of the novels of the new century. Some days before I started reading French literature’s announced eighth wonder, though, another friend registered his negative view of the book.
In retrospect, I fear that my first reading of Zone was harmed by my friends’ constant comments: I read it with the idea of establishing who was right and who was wrong, thus failing to interact with the book on its own terms. I also fell into another trap, one that unfortunately befell many other readers: Zone, as has been much noted, is a 517-page sentence, and its rhythm is one that draws readers inevitably toward the end, much faster than you would have thought. It’s difficult to stop for a breather, to try and reflect on what’s being read. Somehow, form and content stymie a consideration of the meaning of the narration and the way it works. I thought I liked it perhaps more than I really did.
When I finished Zone for the first time, my overall impression was positive, but much less enthusiastic than many: its failings were too numerous for it to be worthy of all the hyperbole. This second reading a few months later gave me the opportunity to forget about the buzz, to break away from the structure, and to free myself from the non-literary to focus on the book at my own pace. Re-reading Zone, a few notes before the end of the world.
1. A man in a train
French intelligence service employee Francis Servain is aboard the Milan-Rome train one cold December night. His only luggage: a briefcase filled with documents that he is going to sell. What do they contain? Who is he going to sell them to? Why? 517 pages for 517 kilometers might not be enough to get to the bottom of it, but it will give the reader a good idea: drugged up and hung over, Francis can’t sleep and he constantly thinks about his life’s somber days, the ones that lead him right into his first class seat, on a journey to what he calls the end of the world.
2. The zone in Zone
In the early ’90s, Francis, whose mother is Croat, joined the fight for the independence of the motherland: first against the Serbs, then against Bosnian Muslims. Although he doesn’t mention it clearly, he cannot deny his participation in various crimes against humanity. These acts, committed without any second thoughts as to their necessity in service to a just cause, don’t prevent Francis from joining the service of the French government, but they do weigh heavily enough on his soul for him to become obsessed by the people who, before and after him, took part on a much larger scale in slaughters, murders, rapes, and assorted war crimes.
After witnessing in The Hague the trial of an officer he fought under, Francis decides to become an amateur historian of the weirdest sort: he takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by his professional traveling and accumulates a vast archive of atrocity, some of it very exclusive and secret—names of victims and executioners, places and means, all of it encompassing the darkest side of the Mediterranean countries’ last 50 years. The briefcase charts his zone, both mental and geographical: from Gibraltar to Baghdad. But the man has seen enough and fully intends to drown his hopelessness, his weariness, and his disillusion in the riches afforded by his buyers, the agents of what he calls “the great archiver.”
3. Conflict zone writer
Énard’s first novel, La perfection du tir (“The Perfection of the Shot”) told the story of a sniper in an unnamed civil war (echoes of Yugoslavia abound, but it could be just about anywhere) who falls in love with a 15-year-old girl he had asked to take care of his ailing mother. The love of a man who doesn’t know anything other than warfare and long-distance murder of random citizens is not the sweetest kind of love, and in Énard’s novel tragedy tends to strike with more frequency at home than on the front. Not half as ambitious as Zone, La perfection is at times very striking, falling just short of impressive. More importantly, it already shows Énard’s interest in conflicts and what they do to men. This interest is probably derived from Énard’s long sojourns in the Middle East (he speaks Arabic and Persian and translates books from both languages), where he comes into contact with more than enough witnesses to some of the most horrendous events of the 20th century—the very ones Francis has packed his briefcase with.
4. A sentence that hides many
Much has been made of the 517-page sentence. Too much. Most French reviewers took it as the cue to yell experimental! The few English-language mentions that Zone has garnered on blogs and in newspapers have generally taken a similar approach.
Let’s take this opportunity to set the record straight: nothing could be further from the truth than to call Zone an experimental book. Calling Zone experimental is lazy journalism fueled by little knowledge of literary history. Unreliable narrators haven’t been considered experimental for quite a while, and the same can be said of literary games with punctuation. Examples can be found around the world. In France, one of the most famous examples of the extremely long sentence is Pierre Guyotat’s Eden, eden, eden, published almost 40 years ago and 250 pages in length.
Such structures are rightly considered challenging, though, and a 500-page sentence might legitimately scare readers, but truth be told readers need not fear: Zone is a sentence that hides many sentences. Indeed, it often feels as if the periods have merely been replaced by commas, semicolons, and dashes. The reader will naturally, almost automatically, find where the sentences should end, and this in fact is one of the problems I have with the novel: the one-sentence structure seems essentially symbolic. Énard himself rejected any formalist intent, claiming it just seemed the logical way to reflect what’s happening in the book.
Although it surely would have garnered less press, Zone might have been a better book if Énard had broken it up into multiple sentences, as much too often one feels the writing undermined by the constraint. Many pages in this book beg for periods that never come. What makes some unpunctuated or oddly punctuated books great is the creativity with which authors solve the stylistic problem they set up for themselves. But in the case of Zone there is little attempt to play with the consequences of this largely symbolic decision.
That being said, the many passages where the writing seems panting and out of breath are balanced by ones of lyrical brilliance. Énard’s heavy use of metaphors can be tiring, but there is no denying that he has a knack for finding ones that will illuminate the page. Likewise, when oxygen still reaches the sentence’s brain one sees why the book’s structure is apt, although it could have been much more efficient: Francis’ story is relentless and never-ending, and at its best Énard’s writing is the perfect fodder for the chaos and desperations that are witnessed and felt by his character. Overall though, the prose in Zone is perhaps too much like a train ride: too often it numbs the senses of the traveler to the point of sending him to sleep. But then we are woken up with the bang of bons mots. A mighty roller coaster if there ever was one.
5. Literati Zone
In 1913 Apollinaire published Alcools, his famous poetry collection, which is entirely devoid of punctuation and includes a text entitled “Zone.” And indeed, Apollinaire is one of many writers quoted in this book and probably one of its most important references: as Énard himself commented, his poem and the novel share many thematic aspects.
Apollinaire is hardly alone among literary referents, as there is not only a lot of violence in Zone; there is also a lot of literature. The two things held in common by most of the writers Énard mentions in Zone are their personal ties with the Mediterranean and their own history with its ills and its violence. Burroughs, an adept of the concept of a “Zone,” is also another Zone wanderer. Although he does not grace the book’s pages, it is difficult not to think of Claudio Magris, not only because some pivotal scenes take place in his beloved Trieste but also because Énard uses ideas of frontiers and mixed identities.
Another such writer that might come to mind while reading Zone is Thomas Pynchon, another artist of the Zone who, geographically speaking, never quite haunted Énard’s chosen stomping ground (notwithstanding the disturbing scenes at Casino Göring or the Maltese escapades). A Pynchonian pessimism seems to fill Zone’s pages, as Francis’ worries spiral around the Italian countryside he fails to see in his night train, even as he sees places like Tangiers, Barcelona, and Beirut all too clearly in his head. Furthermore, readers of Against the Day will find familiar Énard’s use of train transports as a metaphor of the century’s woes, as this mirrors Pynchon’s own assessment of them in Against the Day, where he noted that the train was primarily developed to dispatch troops faster and farther.
The two writers other than Apollinaire that Énard comes back to most often in Zone are Ezra Pound and Maurice Bardéche. The latter was the brother-in-law of Robert Brasillach, the infamous collaborationist writer who was executed after WWII. Bardéche was the intellectual face of French fascism, a leading Holocaust denier and a strong critic of the Nuremberg trials. He died peacefully at the age of 91 in 1998.
In Zone, Bardéche gives Francis Servain, then a neofascist youth, his 1939 book on the Spanish civil war, which he boasts gestated under Franco. In a way, Bardéche is the man who first puts Francis on the trail of the evils of his chosen zone of action.
Pound’s presence, obviously very political, is even more literary: one feels that, as much as Francis, Énard loves the Mussolinian poet. His work is quoted, his life in Italy told. His presence is one of madness and of genius: he is probably the writer who most intimately fits, in equal measure, the form and content of Zone’s literary project.
There are other writers or literary works that do not appear on the pages but do appear in one’s mind while reading this book. In some ways, this seemingly never-ending list of slaughters, wars, political games, terrorist acts, and historical wrongs of the Mediterranean area, told on many occasions with a very matter-of-fact tone, is reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño’s take on Ciudad Juarez’s mass murders of women in the fourth part of 2666. And, like 2666, Zone doesn’t tell us about the banality of evil, it tells us about a civilization numbing its senses, about hopelessness, about disillusion.
Finally, there is also more than a hint of Sebald at play here. The comparison doesn’t work on a stylistic level, although, much like Sebald’s books, while Zone appears to be infinitely digressive it is really centered on strong themes that lurk behind everything that happens: there is always something else the narrator thinks about, there is always something to distract him from the very event he—and the reader—was reliving. This only serves to emphasize the feeling put forward by both authors: Sebald would load every object with a history and make it a significant piece of his narration; Énard does the same with the political events Francis walks through. Both The Rings of Saturn and Zone tell the tale of an internal voyage of sorts.
“in Rafah in Khan Younis in Gaza everything is so dense that it’s impossible to aim”
Rereading Zone in January 2009 makes watching the news oddly familiar. Énard doesn’t dedicate much space to Gaza itself (a couple of pages toward the end; although, the Palestinian plight is amply covered in the book Francis reads in the train and Énard gives us to read, a novel of love among the PLO’s last soldiers in 1982 Beirut) but the little space he does give to Gaza is strong enough to evoke accurate images of the situation the people of Gaza are forced to live in. These pages exemplify what Énard does best: showing through the narrator’s stream of consciousness scenes and moments that we’d rather not think about. In a way, confronting the news report coming just now from the zone and reading Zone’s pages on similar events humanizes the disembodied corpses we thought we saw once too often on the evening news.
This is obviously true when it comes to the Middle East, but the same can be said about the extensive developments ongoing in Yugoslavia: the next time the spotlights are on a state embroiled in a gruesome civil war, Énard’s text will become even more powerful. And this makes sense: if there is one thing I kept on thinking while reading and rereading the book, it is that it was about the return of the same. It’s not that history will repeat itself but that some events will be reproduced again and again; war is an obvious example, and it would be difficult to find a part of the world that has seen more of this kind of conflict than the Mediterranean. One subtitle to Zone could very well be “everything started in Troy,” and Énard makes the book’s roots exceedingly clear (the novel is structured in twenty-four scrolls to mimic the Iliad, and there are constant references to Homer’s text and characters throughout). Once the last page is reached, it’s also obvious that the never-ending war, the mother of all East-West clashes is not going to end in Iraq, nor on the barbed-wired beaches of Gaza.
7. Fiction’s accountability
One reviewer of Zone maligned it for what the writer believed to be Énard’s lack of objectivity: partial to the Palestinians, he is ignoring Israel’s suffering. It’s unavoidable that a book as politically and historically loaded as Zone will attract controversy, but this reviewer forgot one thing: Zone is a fiction, and fiction is not necessarily accountable to the outside world, especially with such an unreliable narrator as we suppose Francis to be. For this reason, one should not discuss whether Énard has properly balanced his account.
However, what needs to be looked at is the internal coherence of the narration. Robert Coover took great liberties with the facts in his fantastic The Public Burning, but it worked because the world he built, in spite of its many discrepancies with the world we think we live in, was logical—everything makes sense in Coover’s setting. And this is my major gripe with Zone, the book’s lack of coherence. On some occasions, Francis’s take on the events (and his choice of words to describe them) seems at odd with what we know of the character. This is, to my mind, particularly the case when it comes to the Spanish Civil War. We have here a man given a traditional, conservative upbringing in a family with Ustase ties, a man who fought in the Balkans for an independent and Christian Croatia before working for French external intelligence services (hardly the most progressive employer) and who, inexplicably, talks of Franco and the Republic with the words of the left. There is no doubt Francis has changed a lot since his youth, and Énard does a great job describing the internal turmoil that haunts him before leading him on the road to Rome, but when did he turn from rightist to leftist? Nothing in the novel gives us a clue.
This might not bother most readers, but if a fiction writer has no obligation toward objectivity, as some would have it, she does have to account for the internal logic and coherence of her creation. In such a tight, dense novel, it’s surprising to see this sort of failing. To be fair to Énard, Francis says in a superb passage on Armenia that “the slaughter committed by others is always less of a burden, Memory always selective and history always official.” This can be read as an explanation of why Francis decides not to fall in the trap of focusing on what used to be his side of the chessboard.
8. End Zone
“the dance of oblivion that is only allowed by state-owned memory, that judges where it is good to remember and where it is better to build a parking lot, much more useful to a European town than the memories of troublesome people who would have died, anyway”
Zone doesn’t seduce so much as it makes its reader uncomfortable and sets her mind to work. In Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker wrote an alternative history of World War II that led the reader to disturbing what-ifs. Énard too writes an alternative history of his zone: through the mind of Francis Servain, he makes us see what we tend to forget and, sometimes, what lies ahead. Zone is history of literature as well as history of the Mediterranean, although there is no lesson or philosophy behind all this. It’s an admission of human failure. In spite of the book’s many weaknesses it is a powerful read, a novel for the ages, because what is inside will probably never be out of date and will always somewhat enlighten the reader’s view of the times she lives in. (It remains to be seen whether it will work on an American reader, one likely much less familiar with most of what happens in the Mediterranean zone.) Francis is sure his journey is toward the end of the world, and Zone is an end of the world novel that knows precisely that this is actually not the end of the world. This might very well be the crudest joke, the most gruesome story narrated here by Mathias Énard: it is not over.
François Monti lives in Brussels, Belgium, from where he runs the litblog Tabula Rasa and his fiction blog Auto-fission. He is also a founding member of the Fric-frac club électrique, a clandestine congregation of French-speaking litbloggers whose only common trait seems to be the worship of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s oeuvre.
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