The following excerpt is from the seventh chapter of Mathias Énard’s novel, Zone—his first novel translated into English from the French by Charlotte Mandell. Before Zone’s publication by Open Letter Books in December 2010, it won multiple literary awards including Prix du Livre Inter, Prix Décembre, and Prix Initiales. The excerpt finds Zone’s narrator, Francis Servain Mirkovic, amid a journey from Milan to Rome to sell the Vatican information he acquired as a spy for French intelligence. Indicative of the novel in its entirety (you can read an NC book review of Zone here), Mirkovic drifts between stories—stories of his past as a soldier for the Croatian army, stories of former comrades, stories spanning mythological epochs, and stories of lovers. Mirkovic crosses the boundaries between his present reality and the prismatic chaos of his traumatized mind, hoping this trip to sell information from the zone will be his last.
everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, living shut up inside yourself harried destitute full of memories I’m not taking this trip for nothing, I’m not curling up like a dog on this seat for nothing, I’m going to save something I’m going to save myself despite the world that persists in going forward laboriously at the speed of a handcar operated by a man with one arm, blindly a train at night in a tunnel the dark even denser I had to sleep for a bit, if only I had a watch, I just have a telephone, it’s in my jacket hanging on the hook, but if I take it out I’ll be tempted to see if I have any messages and to send one, always this passion for writing into the distance, sending signs into the ether like smoke signals gestures with no object arms hands stretching out to nothingness, to whom could I send a message, from this prepaid phone that I took care to get a tramp to purchase for me in return for a big tip, as luck would have it he had an identity card and wasn’t too wasted, the seller didn’t cause any trouble, I left my apartment dropped off a few things at my mother’s sold my books in bulk to a bookseller at the Porte de Clignancourt took three or four things, as I was sorting through things I of course came across some photos, I saw Andrija again in his over-sized uniform, Marianne in Venice, Sashka at twenty in Leningrad, La Risiera camp in Trieste, the square chin of Globocnik, Gerbens’s mustache, I took everything, and I can say that everything I own is above me in a slightly scaled-down bag, next to the little briefcase that’s going to the Vatican and that I plan to hand over as soon as I reach Rome, then tonight in my room at the Plaza on the Via del Corso I’ll go drink at the hotel bar until it closes and tomorrow morning I’ll take a bath buy myself a new suit I’ll be another man I’ll call Sashka or I’ll go straight to her place I’ll ring at her door and God knows what will happen, Zeus will decide the fate that’s suitable to allot me the Moirae will bustle about for me in their cave and what will happen will happen we’ll see if war will catch up with me again or if I’ll live to be old watching my children grow up the children of my children hidden away somewhere on an island or a suburban condo what could I possibly be living on, what, like Eduardo Rózsa I could tell the story of my life write books and screenplays for autobiographical films—Rózsa born in Santa
Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia of a communist Jewish father a resistant in Budapest was the special correspondent for a Spanish paper in Zagreb before he became a commander in the Croatian army, I met him once or twice on the front and later in Iraq, an admirer of Che Guevara and war who founded our international brigade, a group of volunteers who spoke English among themselves Warriors of the Great Free and Independent Croatia who all arrived like me after the first images of the Yugoslav madness, Eduardo was already there, he landed in Croatia in August 1991 one month before me during Osijek and the first clashes, he came from Albania and before that from Budapest and Russia where he trained for espionage for guerilla warfare for comparative literature and philosophy, a poet—today he writes books collections of poems and plays himself in films, maybe Che Guevara would have ended up the same if he hadn’t made Achilles’s choice, if he had been given life he too might have become—weapons put away, life over—an actor, he was so good-looking: like Hemingway Eduardo Rózsa wrote fast, I picture him on an August night on the terrace of the Hotel Intercontinental in Zagreb where all the foreign press stayed, the Vanguardia from Barcelona reproached him for describing the fighting too much and for not talking enough about politics, he downed shots as he described the first battles, the Yugoslav tanks against the shabby Croats, his hotel room was transformed into a real War Museum, pieces of shrapnel ammunition the tail-ends of rockets maps relics of all kinds, Eduardo a funny character idealist warrior converted to Islam after having fought for the Catholic crucifix, vice president of the Muslim community of Hungary, formerly press secretary for the first free Iraqi government, men want causes, gods that inspire them, and in that scorching August of 1991 in front of the Intercontinental’s pool his R5 riddled with bullets in the garage his pen in hand he thought about the Bolivian sierra about socialism about Che and his old hole-filled uniform, he had just been shot at by Serbs on the highway from Belgrade, he writes his article, it was the first time he was under fire, the half-open window shattered to pieces, the passenger seat opened up suddenly spitting out its stuffing with hisses and metal clangor, with the speed and distance he probably didn’t hear the explosions, he swerved turned off the headlights instinctively and kept going straight ahead his hands damp clutching the steering wheel sweat in his eyes up to the suburbs of Zagreb, up to the hotel, up to the foreign colleagues the two French photographers who were sharing his room, they see Eduardo arriving dripping with sweat beside himself those two twenty-five-year-old journalists also came to Croatia to get shot at and to run around the countryside with Yugoslav tanks on their tail, to them Eduardo is a master, a man of experience and now he’s arriving trembling and sweating, he says nothing, he takes out his notebook and quietly goes to get drunk on plum brandy by the pool watching the American reporters laughing in the water at their cameraman’s jokes, that’s where it happens, touched by Zeus Eduardo Che Rózsa chose his camp, the next day in Osijek he’ll go see the Croatian officers, he’ll enlist, join the Achaean ranks in a fine rage, a rage against the Serbs: the journalists saw him one fine day in a khaki uniform, a rifle on his shoulder and when I arrived at the end of September he had abandoned the pen to devote himself to war, he would come back decorated medaled honorary citizen of the new Croatia, a hero, godfather of I don’t know how many children, and he would write his exploits himself, play his own role in the film—the first time I saw him it wasn’t on the screen, he was sitting in the middle of the trench in which I was crawling in Osijek, I was scared stiff, absolutely clueless, the shells were raining down in front of us there was the Yugoslav army its tanks and its elite troops, I didn’t know where I was going I climbed up the trench my nose in the autumn smell, in the humus, to escape, to go home, to find again the attic room and Marianne’s caresses, I couldn’t hear anything and I couldn’t see much I had glimpsed my first wounded man fired my first cartridges at a hedge, the uniform of the national guard was just a hunting jacket that didn’t protect much I was shivering trembling like a tree under the explosions Rózsa was sitting there I crawled right onto him he looked at me and smiled, he gently moved the muzzle of my gun away with his foot, had me sit down, he must have said something to me of which I have no memory and when our people began firing he’s the one who propped me up against the parapet with a pat on the back so I’d start shooting too, before he disappeared, Athena comes to breathe courage and ardor into mortals in battle, and I fired calmly, I fired well before jumping out of the trench with the others, fear evaporated, flew away with the shells towards the enemy and the farm we were supposed to take, far from Zagreb, far from the Hotel Intercontinental from its covered pool its terrace and its sauna that I had never seen, far from Paris, Che Rózsa would continue his career, I heard his name many times during the war, heroic and other more mysterious deeds, like the murder of a Swiss journalist accused of espionage for I don’t know whom, some people thought he had come to infiltrate the brigade: he was found dead by strangulation during a patrol, a dozen days before the British photographer Paul Jenks was shot in the back of the head as he was investigating the previous man’s death, heroes are often wreathed in shadows, marked by Hades great eater of warriors, Eduardo as well as others, even though in those days journalists were falling like flies, in Croatia at least, or later on around besieged Sarajevo—in central Bosnia, between Vitez and Travnik, they made themselves much scarcer, aside from a few reporters from the television channel owned by the HDZ, the Croatian party in Bosnia, who had the strange habit of emerging from nowhere, like a jack-in-the-box, of appearing at the unlikeliest times and some British reporters clinging to the white tanks of the nuisances from BRITFOR—those photographers and journalists were plying a strange trade indeed, public spies in a way, professional informers for public opinion, for the majority, we saw them that way, high-end informers who hated us as much as Her Majesty’s soldiers scorned us, frustrated by inaction their hands on the triggers of their 30-millimeter guns, perched on top of their Warriors painted white, ice-cream trucks they were called in Croatia, what possible use could they serve, they collected the corpses and negotiated cease-fires so they could go on leave to Split, where they swam, danced, drank whisky before returning to count the shots in Travnik, through binoculars at their windows, or to jog around the stadium—Eduardo Che Rózsa ex-secret agent ex-journalist ex-commander of one of the best-organized brigades in eastern Slavonia writer poet screenwriter turned Muslim and activist for Iraq and Palestine, in Budapest in his suburban house, is he thinking about the Chetniks he killed, about his first two dead, torn to pieces by a grenade in a barn by the Drava River, about his comrades fallen like mine, is he still thinking about the war, about Croatia, he a Catholic by his mother a communist by his father, a murderer by the grace of God, does he remember the freezing rain of the winter of 1991 in the outskirts of Osijek, Eduardo who grew up in Chile until the coup against Allende, deported to Budapest on a chartered flight of foreign “Reds” who couldn’t be sent to the firing squad or tortured, Eduardo going in the opposite direction from me began in intelligence before he became a journalist, then a volunteer to fight with the Croats, by our side, and returned, enriched with wisdom’s store, to live in Hungary through his remaining years, in poetry screenplays books strange missions, plus everything I don’t know about him probably, Eduardo Che Rózsa who didn’t recognize me when we met in Baghdad by the Tigris not long after the invasion, between a cheap restaurant and a peanut-vendor, during the fleeting euphoria of victory, of dictatorship overthrown, justice restored—the treasures of Troy were still burning, manuscripts, works of art, old men, children, while already the coalition forces were congratulating each other on the river’s shores, not worrying about the first attacks, the signs of a catastrophe of the same caliber as the one in the 1920s, or even worse, Eduardo Rózsa was strolling in the company of a few officials by the eternal Tigris, I was eating a corncob from a street vendor with a guy from the embassy, I had just met Sashka and I didn’t want war or peace or the Zone or to remember Croatia or Bosnia I wanted to go back to Rome even for just twenty-four hours to be with her, and then Commander Rózsa walks by without seeing me, a ghost, was I the ghost or him, I had already begun to disappear I was burying myself little by little in the contents of the suitcase, in Sashka whom I thought I’d seen for the first time in Jerusalem years before, in Iraq the heat was incredible, a damp vapor rising from the slow Tigris bordered with reeds where from time to time corpses and decaying carcasses ran aground like the Sava River in 1942 without perturbing the American patrols who were still strolling about like Thomson and Thompson in Tintin a blissful look on their faces as they observed around them the country they had just conquered which they didn’t know what to do with, Baghdad was drifting, ungovernable like Jerusalem or Algiers, it was decomposing, an atom bombarded by neutrons, hunger, sickness, ignorance, mourning, pain, despair without really understanding why the gods were persecuting it so, destroyed, sent back into limbo, into prehistory the way the Mongols did in 1258, libraries, museums, universities, ministries, hospitals ravaged, Rózsa and I the ex-warriors come to share the spoils or inhale its remains, as specialists of defeat, of victory, of the New World Order, of the peace of the brave, of weapons of mass destruction that gave the soldiers a good laugh, they slapped each other on the back as they drank their Budweisers like after a good joke, in Basra the British were the same as in Bosnia, very sportsmanlike, professional and indifferent, they unloaded humanitarian aid trucks as I’d seen them do in Travnik, as Rózsa had seen them in Osijek, except this time they were authorized to use their weapons, which they weren’t shy about using: they hunted former Ba’athists the way others hunt deer or rather wild boar in the Ardennes, the English soldiers were returning to Basra, to the same place where their grandfathers had been stationed in 1919, after the Dardanelles, after the Hejaz and Syria, the exhausted Tommies rested their legs in the country of palm trees and dried lemons, by the edge of the swamps and meanderings of the Shatt al-Arab, they stuffed their faces with dates and lambs stolen from native shepherds, wondering how much longer the war would last, it lasts forever, almost a century after Gavrilo Princip’s Balkan gunshot, the referee’s pistol shot in a long-distance race, all the participants are already at the starting line, ready to dash forward into the world of Ares great eater of warriors, hoping to return loaded with treasure and glory: Che Rózsa commander covered in medals from the great patriotic Croatian war, Vlaho or me decorated with the order of the grateful nation, Andrija with a fine black marble tombstone with no corpse, To our brother the Hero, he no longer has a body, Andrija, no bones beneath his slab, no gold pin on his jacket he’s a name a phrase a brother and a hero, I was thinking of him in Baghdad conquered humiliated subjected and pillaged as I passed Rózsa the Hungarian from Bolivia a convert to Islam and to international aid, president of the Muslim community of Budapest, or something like that, after having been a fervent defender of Opus Dei, was he informing for the Hungarians, or the Russians, or the English, were we still colleagues, colleagues of the shadows—in the night of war, of the Zone, of memories of the dead, we were living together, without seeing each other, we were sharing the same life, passing each other by the edge of the Tigris, that Styx like the Tiber like the Jordan the Nile or the Danube like all those deadly rivers running into the sea
—Mathias Énard translated by Charlotte Mandell