April 16, 2011
“…life in parentheses on a train taking me to Rome…”
The story line of Mathias Énard’s Zone is simple. Francis Mirković, the man whose life hangs suspended between these thin grammatical arcs, has decided to shed his former life as a shadowy operative in the French intelligence services and one-time fighter for the Croat side in the vicious Balkan Wars. Mirković’ wants to retire, to go off under an assumed name into a vague, idyllic future that he can’t quite bring himself to believe in. ”Could I leave all that behind me, leave behind me the war and the Boulevard the way you forget a hat in a bar?” Not likely. Nevertheless, he’s on the train from Milan to Rome, where he has a buyer for a suitcase full of information and databases, quietly gathered as insurance over the years while he worked as “an expert, a specialist in politico-religious madness which is an increasingly widespread pathology.” The suitcase contains an explosive cocktail of names, dates, evidence, hearsay, and documents implicating any number of intelligence officers, spies, murderers, mercenaries, radicals, terrorists. Mirković’ has a buyer – the Vatican – and a price of 300,000 euros. Perhaps I am wrong, but I could not help but wonder why the Vatican would want this and just how far would 300,000 Euros last? Nevertheless, these minor points were the only off notes in a truly remarkable book.
A French-born Croat, Mirković has known his share of violence. He’s steeped in the treacherous and violent history of Europe and the regions surrounding the Mediterranean, which he calls the Zone. The Zone is also Mirković’s memory, which is the real subject of the novel. On the train ride between Milan and Rome, stories flood onto the page, a multinational memory of plots, massacres, murders, rapes, decapitations, mutilations, betrayals, and torture. Mirković’s memory, served up as a Homeric tale, is a scrambled and terrifying history of the last century. At the same time, Zone, originally published in France in 2008, is a very timely book, offering cynically prescient glimpses into the foundations of torture that had supported the regimes of Mubarek and Gaddafi.
But the Zone is more than a geopolitical map or one man’s crowded memory, it’s a place where men do battle and women are left the consequences. The book opens modestly with a lowercase e with this statement:
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, you travel with a lot of things, a child you didn’t bear a little Czech crystal star a talisman beside the snow you watch melting…
Mirković uneasily inhabits this “man’s estate,” setting up a rich, complex dialectic of gender. War, in Énard’s Zone, is the one unceasing reality of history. Simultaneously glorified and horrifying, war provides the powerful bonds that men build between themselves as warriors. But inevitably these bonds end either in death or in becoming physically or emotionally maimed.
…war was his element, for it was simple, funny, and virile, in a world where becoming a man didn’t mean growing up but sharpening yourself, reducing yourself, pruning yourself like a vine or a tree from which you take away the branches little by little, the female part, or the human part, who knows, a classic garden hedge sculpted into the shape of a phallus, a rifle, the male archetype we were all trying to resemble, strong, skillful, prehistoric hunter free of a brain…
Under these circumstances, it isn’t surprising that the bonds that men and women want to build between themselves simply don’t have a prayer. Throughout Zone, Mirković recalls and assesses his failed relationships with women. His partial ability to grasp his own failures in this regard is underscored by the inclusion of a novel that Mirković reads on the train, segments of which are inserted directly into Zone. The novel, by a fictional Lebanese author, is written from the perspective of a woman living with and helping support a group of Palestinian freedom fighters in war-torn 1980s Beirut. Her lover is killed by Israelis and as she attempts to wash and dress his body for burial she is nearly raped by one of his best friends. Mirković, who refers to this as a story about love, suspects that the real meaning of the story resides in the tender and unbearably sad ritual of washing the body of the dead.
Zone quickly gained notoriety for being a single sentence (ignoring the excerpts from the Lebanese novel that Mirković is reading), but this is only true insofar as a sentence is defined by the appearance of a period. Énard’s Joycean style propels across the page like the hurtling train on which Mirković is riding, releasing an incessant flood of random stories and historical anecdotes. But if Énard’s literary model for Zone is Homeric in shape, the well-read Mirković’s pantheon of writers is considerably more modern and edgy, including not only Joyce, but Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and a score of other mid to late twentieth century writers. Mirković’s reflection on Finnegans Wake seems almost like a precis for Zone itself:
…Joyce wanted to write a piece of shadow, 600 pages of a dream, all languages all shifts all texts all ghosts all desires and the book had become living dying sparkling like a star whose light arrives long after death and this matter was decomposing in the reader’s hands…
But more than once, the book that Zone reminded me of was Hermann Broch’s masterpiece The Death of Virgil, which George Steiner once described as words flowing in “sustained polyphony.” Virgil, too, was on the final stage of a journey, returning from Athens to Roman soil to die and be buried. The comparison seems especially apt in the final pages, as Mirković’s train approaches Rome.
…everything is more difficult when you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser, but sometimes the gods offer you flashes of clairvoyance, moments when you contemplate the whole universe, the infinite wheel of worlds, you see yourself, from high up, for a few instants truly before leaving, propelled into the next thing, toward the end…
Mathias Énard, Zone. Rochester: Open Letter, 2010. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell.