Mathias Énard's Zone: The dark side of the sun

Through the fractured mind of a narrator in crisis, a new novel traces 2,000 tangled years of Mediterranean history and politics, writes Scott Esposito.

A group of women carry supplies down a street August 8, 1982 in Beirut, Lebanon. Roland Neveu / Liaison
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Mathias Énard

Translated from the original French by Charlotte Mandell

Open Letter


First, let us dispense with formal concerns. Zone is a 517-page novel that, with one notable exception, is written as one mammoth run-on sentence. It encompasses three continents, scores of wars, entire historical epochs, kings, fascists, freedom fighters, Guantanamo torturers and a number of literary greats. Representing the absorbing and frequently unhinged consciousness of one Francis Servain Mirkovic, it soon reveals that our narrator is on an overnight train from Florence to deliver a briefcase full of dirty secrets to the Vatican.

In the opening chapter Francis declares that he is headed "to the end of the world". This seems an appropriately apocalyptic start for a book that seeks to sum up thousands of years of conflict across cultural, national, and religious lines. For the past decade Francis has worked as a spy for the French government, murdering, bribing, digging up evidence on some and destroying others throughout the Mediterranean basin - the titular Zone. But now he has decided to escape from this life that is slowly but surely driving him to the brink. In order to do this, he plans to end his life as Francis and assume the legal identity of a man locked away for the rest of his days in a mental ward - a former colleague and a casualty of the very work Francis now fears will lead him to his own ruin. This is an apt choice. Francis's dark work for the Zone's elites has pushed him to the edge of insanity, but he thinks he can buy his freedom with the Church's "thirty pieces of silver" - the money he expects in exchange for his briefcase full of secrets. Already Francis is debating his future, be it a quick suicide with a gun, a slow one with alcohol, or a torpid counting of days in some unobtrusive corner of the world. All are equally likely.

Mathias Énard's attempt to tell Francis's life story in this particular way is certainly noteworthy, but Zone is not a groundbreaking book. One-sentence novels are not nearly so rare as they might seem: the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou's mediocre Broken Glass, published just this year in English by Soft Skull, pulls the same trick. So do the Czech author Bohumil Hrabal's Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age and dozens of others.

Moreover, Zone's language is far from experimental. Whereas, in Eden Eden Eden, the French novelist Pierre Guyotat used the one-sentence format to shape words in a manner that Michel Foucault claimed "no one has ever spoken [before]," Énard's vocabulary tends toward the quotidian. Clean and clear, his thousands of narrative shards are easily consumed, marshalled by a phalanx of commas. Once a reader becomes accustomed to the flow of Francis's thoughts, Énard's prose becomes sharp and smooth as a knife's edge. This headlong stream-of-consciousness style quickly picks up steam, obscuring the fact that Francis makes for rather an anaemic protagonist and making the extreme fragmentation of the story easier to bear.

Although Énard's petit modernism should not be taken for experimentalism, Zone is nonetheless impressive. Its great success is in the author's ability to use the novel's structure to portray Francis's scattered mind and to map out an extraordinarily broad historical terrain. He has taken Francis's entire adult life, plus the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean Zone and pulverised it into linguistic smithereens. These have then been painstakingly arranged it into something resembling Francis's frenetic mind. Shot through with vivid characters, taut stories, bizarre flights of free association, and pages of historical erudition, Francis's journey becomes a looping, digressive, spasmodic text - one that lashes together geographies and epochs.

This history of the Mediterranean à la Francis assaults contemporary visions of Europe as a community of fixed nation-states, turning the countries of the Mediterranean basin into plots of land that have for centuries been criss-crossed by various ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and political systems. The familiar demarcations of the world as told by western scholars give way to a new entity - the Zone as seen through Francis's shadow-history. Zone's lack of periods becomes a true asset. Confronted with a bewildering new geography, the reader is all but forced to crash along with Francis through the boundaries of character, time, geography, logic, and culture, just as Francis's thoughts crash through syntactical barriers that would typically be forced by hard punctuation. One does not so much read this book as become absorbed in it. The cacophony of images is vast and and chaotic, yet this is a kind of bewilderment that engages, instilling a desire for repeat readings in order to gain a clearer view.

Zone's expansive sweep makes it a tour de force of historical information, girded by the seduction of fascism (echoes of which seem to crop up like a plague wherever Francis travels), the long Mediterranean history of tension between the East and West, and fascination with the Other. Énard's knowledge ranges from the major to the minute, the latter including the slipper collection of King Alfonso XIII of Spain (the last monarch before Franco), the Nazi Rudolf Hess, who absconded to Britain under mysterious circumstances just before Hitler opened the Eastern Front, and a young Cervantes who is conscripted onto a warship and almost dies before he writes Don Quixote. Reflecting Francis's literary pretentions, the book is studded with writers who have passed through the Zone. William Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry, and Ezra Pound all steal scenes. There are also cameos by Jean Genet, Curzio Malaparte, Apollinaire, Maurice Bardéche (the infamous French collaborationist), Céline, Robert Walser, and Ibn Khafaja (the 11th-century Arabic poet who lived under Moorish rule in what would become Andalusia), to name a few.

But Zone is not all dislocation and discord. There are some fantastic stretches that, taken out of context, would make impressive short stories. Early on Énard spins us a tale from Francis's time as a Balkan soldier in the 1990s, where he is initiated in the ways of war. It is a wonderful five-page anecdote of a foray into no man's land made by Francis and his comrade Andrija as they hunt a pig that refuses to die:

He went over to the animal took out his bayonet the sow tried to bite him and began squealing when the knife slashed her fat, I was seized with mad laughter too, despite the bombardment, despite the Chetniks who must have been thinking about preparing an attack I had in front of me a soldier black with wet mud dagger in hand in the process of running after a crazy animal in the roar of explosions, a machine gun began firing on the Serbian side, Andrija took advantage of it to shoot a bullet from his Kalashinikov into the animal 7.62 too small caliber to drop the pig he'd have to hit it in the head it went on squealing even louder as it limped...

The incident of the squealing sow comes through with palpable realness. The chaos that Francis finds in the Balkans is beautifully evoked by the image of two trained killing machines making a hash of slaughtering a pig, risking their lives for a pitiable meal.

As here, Énard continually shows his skill at efficiently building up palpable moments and memorable characters, but there is at least one notable misstep: the novella Francis reads on the train, which marks this book's one break from one-sentence rule. It tells the story of a group of Palestinian soldiers resisting Israeli forces during 1982's Siege of Beirut and functions as Énard's attempt to let the East speak amid the clamour of Francis's thoughts. This story about a rebel's attempt to claim the body of her dead lover from Beirut's war-torn streets is not bad, but Francis's more authentic, more original thoughts so far outshine it that the East feels pale and diminished - an outcome that is clearly contrary to Énard's intentions.

Zone's formal conceit will undoubtedly scare some readers off. It shouldn't, though. This book is far more immersive than intimidating. Moreover, its meaty historical trajectory means that its appeal reaches far beyond the strictly literary, encompassing both history and politics. Charlotte Mandell's translation from the original French nimbly traces Francis's shifts in register as he moves through guilt, pride, resignation, rage, and hope, while still maintaining his personal quirks and cadences. At length, Zone comes to feel like a book that has contained multitudes, one that can support a hundred theories and spark a hundred arguments. It is not quite the work of high art that some have claimed it to be, but it is a startling, stimulating read, a document that should stand out as a memorable part of the long history of its setting.

Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.