Tuesday, 23 December 2014

'Zone' by Mathias Énard (Review)

Fitzcarraldo Editions is a new press in the UK, publishing quality books in plain, sleek designs.  Their first offering is a book which, while previously translated into English, had never been released in the UK.  A lengthy novel, it's a 520-page journey, one you're unlikely to forget - let's go and visit the Zone...

Zone by Matthias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins at Milan's main train station.  Frenchman Francis Mirkovic, having missed his morning flight, is two-thirds of the way through an epic train journey from Paris to Rome.  As the wheels start moving once more, the tired, hungover Mirkovic starts thinking of the end of the journey.

With five-hundred-and-fifty kilometres to go, there's ample time for thoughts, and Francis is a man with a lot to think about.  He's leaving the world of the French intelligence service, in possession of a suitcase which is to be sold in Rome, the proceeds of which will help him start a new life.  Ignoring the passers-by at the station, he prepares for the hours ahead:
"...I have to be strong I can't linger over the faces of young women I have to be resolute so I can gather momentum for the kilometers ahead of me then for the void and the terror of the world I'm changing my life my profession better not think about it..."
p.15 (Fitzcarraldo Press, 2014)
As his experiences flash before his eyes on the long run to Rome, we wonder how he'll ever forget what he's been through...

Zone is an excellent book, a sweeping novel acting on several levels.  Ostensibly, it's a description of a train journey; in reality, it's an opportunity to delve into the bloody past of the Mediterranean region.  Yes, there's plenty of sun and relaxation on the beaches, but it's also a place of constant struggle and bloodshed.  This is the Zone of the title, and as the wheels roll smoothly over the tracks, lulling the tired passengers to sleep, the reader is confronted with a tangle of war memories, as Mirkovic reminisces about 'work' and his personal life.

We move from the first level of the exhausted, hungover agent on the train to the second level, his experiences as both a soldier and a spy.  He's a veteran of the Balkan wars, a volunteer fighter in the Croatian army fighting for his mother's homeland.  The time available for reflection allows flashbacks to surface, atrocities both witnessed and undertaken, and he remembers the fate of Andrija and Vlaho, his comrades in arms.

His subsequent career as a spy, a seller and buyer of information, may seem slightly less violent, but only on the surface.  The information still leads to death, only this time at arm's length, and it's this suitcase full of the dead which is being brought to new owners.  It may appear to be his ticket to freedom, but it could also be a container full of guilt, a burden weighing him down.  Énard cleverly uses Mirkovic's stories to gradually unveil more about the agent's personal life, his character being revealed over the course of the journey.  His war crimes, his personal relationships, his mental torment - the closer he gets to his destination, the more we see him unravel.  This is a man on the verge of falling apart completely...

The Zone itself, from Gibralta and Morocco to the Middle East, is a cradle of life, a region which has given birth to civilisations for millennia; however, it's also a setting for war and death.  The third level of the novel lifts us above Mirkovic's personal experiences, expanding upon the interconnections between the wars:
"...do we always know what the gods are reserving for us what we are reserving for ourselves, the plan we form, from Jerusalem to Rome, from one eternal city to the other, the apostle who three times denied his friend in the pale dawn after a stormy night perhaps guided my hand, who knows, there are so many coincidences, paths that cross in the great fractal seacoast where I've been floundering for ages without knowing it..." (p.76)
While the writing and structure are very different, there are shades of Cloud Atlas here in the way that the events of different eras overlap.

The book goes back and forth in time, looking at the history of war in the Mediterranean,
giving us a four-dimensional view of the Zone.  Énard skilfully weaves in stories of the Spanish Civil War, the Great War struggles and Holocaust massacres, along with older tales of Hannibal and his elephants and the siege of Troy.  This is a region soaked in blood, home to legions of bones:
"...on the beach of Megara you still find, washed up by the waves, tiles of mosaics torn from Punic palaces sleeping on the bottom of the sea, like the wrecks of the galleys of Lepanto, the breastplates sunk in the Dardanelles, the ashes thrown in bags of cement by the SS of La Risiera along Dock No. 7 in the port of Trieste..." (p.106)
We begin to understand that the procession of soldiers and corpses is never ending...

Zone is a wonderful work, one with a dizzying array of references and ideas.  One of its more noticeable features is its style - it's a book without sentences, for the most part reflecting the motion of the train.  The words push the reader smoothly onwards, just as the train surges powerfully on through the Italian countryside, and Mandell has done sterling work to recreate this fluid style in English.  The book starts mid-sentence, and although it ends with a full stop, in a sense it really doesn't finish here.  It's just a part of the one, big sentence that is life.

Énard has created a great novel, one that deserves to be read, and it'll probably be among my best few books of the year.  It's a work I could have written far more about, a novel to be both read and studied.  Above all, it's a reminder that the conflicts of today are shadows, echoes of those of yesterday and antiquity - the soldiers may change, but the Zone doesn't...

Open Letter published the American edition of Zone, and they have just published another of Énard's books, Street of Thieves, again translated by Charlotte Mandell.  Anyone who enjoyed Zone may want to check that one out too...