Mathias Enard’s Zone makes me wish there were less books.
Mathias Enard’s Zone – in a stunning translation by Charlotte Mandell – reminded me why I read, what I read for, and why it still matters to me that people bother to write.
I haven’t read anything this worthy of publication in years, nor this stylistically and thematically interesting, this politically and literarily engaged, this exciting and gripping, this moving and heart-breaking and this – the real kicker given that Zone is a 521 page stream of consciousness – readable.
Zone is as close to a flawless novel as I have encountered in a very, very, long time.
Zone is not something lazily squeezed out by a career novelist (even though it technically is), it is a harrowing and intense exploration of the latter half of the 20th century, of modern politics, of war, of violence, of alcoholism, of death, of despair, of sex, of humour, of history, of life.
Zone does everything a great novel should do, and the real tragedy – which I found myself unable to ignore despite how much I loved it as I read – is that hardly anyone is going to read it.
Zone is too good to have been published now, 100 years too late. The novel isn’t where people go for culture any more, and this truly breathtaking work of literary art will never have its cover plastered across the bedrooms of a million teenagers, it won’t inspire music and relationships and friendships, I’m never going to bond with a stranger over how truly incredible Zone is: Zone is better than the world it has arrived in. Unless France’s literary cultural scene is abrasively thriving, this is a book that will, sadly, be underread. And what a truly awful fate that is for the most impressive work of fiction I have (personally) encountered this century. Zone is amazing. Read it, read it, read it.
Zone is, quite simply, the greatest work of fiction I’ve read for AGES.1
It’s nominally quite easy to describe: a man who has worked within the French security services (after fighting in the Croatian War of Independence) is travelling by train from Milan to Rome c. 2003/4/5ish with a briefcase full of information that he will sell to the Vatican on arrival. As he travels, he reminisces.
521 pages of being locked into the mind and the memory of Francis Mirković, a man suffering through an intense alcohol and amphetamine hangover that he medicates against with more booze, a few cigarettes in the train toilet, a little bit of heavy reading, staring out of the window and diving into his head, which contains his past plus the past of the Zone he became an expert on. Accumulating knowledge was his professional focus and his hobby: at work, he was paid to discover the present, in his free time he learnt about the past.
Francis’ Zone is the Mediterranean, encompassing Venice, Belgrade, Istanbul, Beirut, Alexandria, Algiers, Tangier, Barcelona and lots of other places in between. He is a hugely knowledgeable individual whose memories and thoughts stretch out along 15 or so different timelines moving, slowly, in parallel. These narratives from disparate parts of his life are set in different places, with different characters, and all of them move gradually forward as the train does. We see him as a soldier, as a lover, as a wreck following war, as a successful spy, as a child, as a son, as an almost father, as a holidaymaker, as an alcoholic, as a depressive, as a man teasing happiness into his own life and as a man with nothing but information and an assumed name. We see school days, office days, university days, as well as violence, sex, conversation, study, regret. Francis’ two long term relationships are explored in detail: Marianne, who loved him before he went to war but he couldn’t bear to be with her after the horrors he lived through/committed in war; and Stéphanie, who worked with him as an office-based spy in Paris, until her curiosity led her to find out the truth of Francis’s past.
The reader sees friends and family members die, the reader travels, the reader learns. Zone is full of scenes where Francis meets people in bars, in hotels, in cities, and they talk, they exchange information. As he compiles a history of the Med and atrocities committed across it, he slips into anecdotalised descriptions of the lives of politicians, writers, artists, dancers and aristocrats. We slip into the lives of Isadora Duncan, Malcolm Lowry, William S. Burroughs, Rudolf Hess, Gertrude Bell, Peter I of Serbia, Sergei Yesenin, James Joyce, Hemingway and many others – Francis is a deeply knowledgeable man, and within the recesses of his mind is information on the tragic lives of people other than just the killers, war criminals and missing dead that he records on paper/digitally. Francis catalogues the movements and displacement of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, where they were taken from and where they ended up, how they got there, and who let them be taken. As a soldier he was witness to war crimes, and potentially active in the acts too. Even by the end of the novel the reader doesn’t know exactly what Francis did, but this is not due to authorial vagueness, this is Francis hiding from himself, from his own actions. It is his reticence to speak and think about his engagement with wartime sexual violence that is most telling: the reader sadly feels that he probably was involved, but Francis doesn’t admit so, not to himself and not to the reader who is witness to his thoughts.
Francis is not at heart either a good or a bad man, he is merely a man, living in a violent age.
Francis is sharp: he remembers, he recounts.
Within Zone, we get three brief intervals from stream of consciousness where Enard presents a few pages of the book Francis reads. This is a narrative set within the Lebanese Civil War, and is equally as violent and depressing as Francis’ own war experiences, and this story feeds into his reminiscences, as do the people he encounters on the train. Proustian slips from object to memory, from stranger to friend, from present to past. It is Joycean in its intensity, in its strict form and its ability to maintain itself for so long.
The reader forgets that there are no paragraph breaks, no pauses, no full stops (though there could be a few without losing the effect – heavy caesuras abound, but always given a comma, likewise no formal sentence ending when a chapter completes) and is overwhelmed and drowned amongst the boozy, speedy, memories of Francis. It is like being inside someone’s head, someone who has seen and who knows about terrible things. It is informative, entertaining, terrifying, horrifying, moving, witty and heavy.
Zone is a novel unlike any I have read before due to its overwhelming success at achieving everything it sets out to do. It is experimental but for a reason, it is stream of consciousness but never wanky, it is not dry despite being fact-filled and classically postmodern. It is full of allusion and image and politics and weight. It is a spellbinding piece of work that I found difficult to stop reading. It’s massive and I read it in a week.
Zone is a novel that I believe should be read by millions and millions of people. But it won’t be, I know that, and I know I’d struggle to recommend it to even my most literary of friends. It’s a difficult book because it’s about serious things, and because it’s unfocused and about male experience it isn’t very zeitgeisty. But it’s fucking brilliant and I wish it hadn’t ended.
Zone is a triumph and a real indicator that fiction isn’t dead. But the fact that I don’t believe anyone I know will ever read it makes me profoundly sad.2
1. And, as a reader, where is one supposed to go from that? Zone has both a) restored my faith in the transcendental power of fiction to amaze and impress with language and description and knowledge, and b) made me feel that literature of a lower calibre than this is pretty much useless. I’ve read some things, of course, that have as much social value, as much political import, as much linguistic virtuosity, as much impressive formal twerking, as much plot, as much substance, as much style, but I haven’t found them all in the same place, and the closest I have done is in contemporary North American poetry (Olds, Carson, Rankine), but within each of these writers’ greatest texts is a tightness of focus that – ordinarily – I would see as a strength. Zone is loose, thematically, it is all over its titular zone and throughout its narrator’s head, into every aspect of his life. AND THIS IS ITS POWER. ↩
2. The real solution would be for me to get better friends, but I’ve been hoping for that for years and it hasn’t happened. It’s why I have a dog now. He’s cool but, alas, illiterate. ↩