This Ancient World
A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone
by Mary Stein
By Mathias Énard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter Books
I am lucky enough to have experienced the horrors of war only indirectly in the form of newspaper articles and television newscasts. I remember small blue-on-black explosions of sparkling shards arching through Iraq’s sky, ticker tape reeling across the bottom of the screen attempting to quantify casualties like stock market quotes. But in 1991 during the First Gulf War, a series of wars began tearing Yugoslavia apart—a nation splitting at cultural and political seams—and in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro, people were faced with an entirely different wartime experience: Instead of watching dim explosions on the television, they found war erupting in their cities, backyards, homes and bodies.
Zone, Mathias Énard’s fourth novel (of five), his first novel translated into English is an attempt to articulate the experience of the Balkan wars from the inside. Charlotte Mandell’s deft translation from French highlights Zone’s lyric quality, conveying the retroactive point of view of a narrator who condenses the personal and cultural impact of the Yugoslav wars along with historical war crimes, genocides and ethnic cleansings dating back to Troy.
Zone’s narrator, Francis Servain Mirkovic, is a French-born Croat, a former soldier who fought “…for a free and independent Croatia, a free and independent Herzegovina and finally for a free and independent Croatian Bosnia…,” thus, in his own mind, straddling the boundary between victim and perpetrator. In the present story of the novel, Mirkovic is a spy for French intelligence collecting stories of war crimes “…like someone who becomes a referee having been a boxer and himself no longer touches the faces that explode beneath fists, he counts the blows…”
Under the influence of alcohol and amphetamines, Mirkovic has just boarded a train from Milan to Rome intending to sell the Vatican another “sad piece of the past in an entirely ordinary plastic suitcase wherein is written the fate of hundreds of men who are dead or on the point of disappearing…” Using the identity of a childhood friend, Yvan Deroy, as a cover, Mirkovic finds himself “lost now with an assumed name between Milan and Rome, in the company of living ghosts.” A bizarre interaction with a stranger further unhinges Mirkovic, inciting a state of post-traumatic stress. As Mirkovic’s train crosses city boundaries, his erratic mind wanders, and he finds himself unable to separate his own trauma-tainted memories from the stories and names of the dead that fill his suitcase.
Mirkovic wants to emancipate himself from his past. He is consoled with the notion that this trip to the Zone will be his last and that he will there abandon his own history along with his suitcase filled with ghosts. Selling his suitcase of information will allow Mirkovic to afford a new identity and a new life and his past will vanish before “the clear eyes of Sashka”—his lover with whom, “everything stays outside … the war, the Zone, the suitcase [he’s] filling”.
Enard’s entire novel occurs within the confines of Mirkovic’s short journey. Little happens during the present narrative: Mirkovic observes passengers and tourists, reads a novel, visits the dining car or restroom. But he is trapped in the prism of his own mental chaos, weaving a phantasmagoric interior monologue that intertwines stories of his past with accounts of a historical succession of wars. Amidst these narrative circumambulations, Mirkovic avoids addressing his gruesome involvement during the Yugoslav wars until the novel’s culmination where his own crimes against Bosnian Muslims are revealed.
The cadence of Énard’s prose mimes the constant and lulling movement of the train. The 517-page novel contains only one full stop which comes at the end, its overlapping fragments illustrating Mirkovic’s interior collisions. At first glance, the non-stop sentence with its eccentric phrasing appears almost anarchistic. But the apparently erratic use of commas shapes the rhythm and sway of Mirkovic’s elliptical thoughts: When Mirkovic lapses into backstory, commas are often used more conventionally to guide the reader through more lucid memories. But Énard is apt to dismiss commas in order to convey Mirkovic’s present muddled mental state: “I’ve seen dozens of them over the years, in my files, martyrs candidates for martyrdom torturers enlightened ones desperate ones activists full of the cause of God without really knowing which they were serving.”
These comma-less collisions mark Mirkovic’s inability to individuate not only stories and experiences, but stories from his own experiences. In his mind, people become entities and syntax complicates his interior landscape: “Burroughs prophet of psychotropic drugs would survive Kerouac Cassady Ginsberg and his own son Billy Burroughs the drunkard.” But this poetic phrasing also reflects Mirkovic’s beliefs in regard to history’s inevitable cycles of war. Over and over the subject/object ambiguity of the narration limns a singular consciousness of the effects of war: “all these lovely folk mourned the death of Christ on the cross the Jews lamented their temple the Muslims their martyrs fallen the day before and all these lamentations rose up in the Jerusalem sky sparkling with gold at sunset.”
Mirkovic’s experience of war as soldier and bystander motivates an imagery of violence and decay that imbues his physical environment. In the beginning of his journey, “the Alps sparkled like knives” and “the Alps whose peaks I saw, flint blades ripping the sky and setting the tone of the apocalypse.” As the novel wears on, nature becomes a metaphor for the inevitability of the cycle of violence: “a great wave of screaming blind men will cry for revenge …, as surely as the tide, having gone out, comes back in to the rhythm of the moon’s movements”. The metaphors represent Mirkovic’s own acceptance, his despairing belief, that violence is a cyclical force as inevitable as nature itself.
Because Mirkovic’s fragmented thoughts shift and collide, his mercurial narrative becomes disorienting at times. Énard’s single-sentence format would be easy to dismiss as experimental, but the deceptively haphazard lyricism of Énard’s ambitious prose functions as a structure necessary to and inseparable from Mirkovic’s narrative identity.
Mirkovic’s pelagic consciousness contrasts strikingly with Zone’s precise surface novel structure: Its 517-pages represents the number of kilometers between Milan and Rome; the twenty-four chapters echo the divisions of The Iliad. But these superimposed structures are more symbolic than essential to Zone, which is also segmented into geographical “Milestones” (Milan, Lodi, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Prato, Florence and Rome), Italian cities Mirkovic passes during his train journey. In the absence of chronological storytelling, these milestones organically track the meandering mind of Mirkovic, each locale sending the narrator into new digressions of his train-induced trance.
Mirkovic’s only reprieve from his trance-like historical/hysterical fugue state occurs when he reads a Palestinian novel he brought on the train with him: To him, its tidy polarities of innocence and guilt and heroism and cowardice exist as separate and coherent entities in contrast with the incoherence of his mental apparatus. This Palestinian novel-within-the-novel (a narrative structure as old as Don Quixote) appears in three sections of Zone, briefly interrupting the lyric of Mirkovic’s obsessive narrative. This novel’s form contrasts with Zone itself in almost every way, offering a foray into realism with its linear plot structure, conventional dialogue between characters, and a heroine’s close third person point of view. Yet, as I say, these interruptions are the only reprieve for (and from) Mirkovic’s convoluted interior landscape.
Zone is overtly political; its subject matter navigates between crimes against humanity from the Holocaust, to Guantanamo, to Algerian genocide, and the current Israel/Palestine conflict. But Énard’s treatment manages a largely non-partisan stance. Zone’s depiction of violence and decay and its narrator’s resigned acceptance of the endless and inevitable cycle of war blurs the boundaries between murderers and victims, tracing history’s constant and futile pursuit of justice where “one single man has to answer for all our crime, which links him to history, … on trial in place of all those who held a weapon,”.
Nor does Zone shy away from its literary influences. The title itself refers to a poem of Guillaume Apollinaire, “Zone” (also translated by Mandell), which clearly influences the tone and structure of Énard’s novel. But ghosts of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Burroghs, Jean Genet, Homer, and Cervantes literally haunt Zone’s pages, some even appearing briefly as characters. Énard presents a performance of Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” which begins in a moment of levity during a burlesque act and later morphs into a mode of torture for prisoners of Guantanamo. At one point, Mirkovic’s obsession with decapitation summons the Renaissance painter, Caravaggio, to his mind.
But Zone is not a mere recapitulation of literary traditions. Énard’s work is a contemporary epic—a rare milestone on the trajectory of the (r)evolution of these classic predecessors. Énard succeeds in creating a narrator who is fully realized within his fragmented consciousness. With Zone, Énard crosses boundaries aesthetically and culturally—translating a distinctive Eastern European experience of wartime violence into vivid narrative. If only momentarily, Mirkovic’s tale interrupts the comforts of conventional disillusionment engendered by the experience of war at a distance via television or headlines and delivers the reader into a more epic mode of resignation: In the words of Mandell’s translation of Apollinaire, “In the end you are tired of this ancient world.”
— Mary Stein