Frenchman Mathias Énard’s Zone, released in France in 2008 and just out from Open Letter, has earned abundant and varied praise. Already the proclaimed darling of French critics and awards, the novel is poised to make a startling impression upon its audience in America. It's a one-sentence wonder; a spy thriller; a miniature history of the Mediterranean; intellectually dense and historically expansive; an overwhelmingly exquisite and trying tome.
The novel is billed as a modern-day Iliad and has the same number of chapters as the Iliad has books. It, too, tells of a misguided soldier. Francis Servain Mirkovic, offspring of a fascist Croatian mother and a professional torturer/diplomat, is off on an overnight trip away from his life as a spy and into his new life as Yvan Deroy: a regular guy with a regular girlfriend waiting for him in Rome. Along the way, he fantasizes, falls asleep, dozes in and out, reads a book, studies the people on the train, and recalls his life as if it were flashing before him during the last seven seconds of his life. While on the train he thinks back on his life and on history in general. And here is where the action of the story takes place, as a sort of extended flashback.
On the train with him is the suitcase of secrets he plans to sell to the Catholic Church for $300,000 (“I’m going backwards my back to my destination and to the meaning of history which is facing forward, history which is taking me straight to the Vatican, with a suitcase full of names and secrets”). It’s an immense journey to the end of the world, this trip to the Vatican, and he’s told as much by a passing vagrant who appears within the first pages of the book.
The protagonist is a guilty man in a guilty world. When he remembers his accidental visit to The Hague during the International Court of Justice’s trial of one of the generals he served under during the last Croatian War, he remembers worrying that at any moment someone might see him and call out, “Police! Police!” He is guilty of horrible war crimes against Serbs and Muslims, against his enemies (spies) and friends (informers).
Still on the train, he recalls leaving college to enlist with the fervently nationalistic Croatian army; he wants to defend his parents’ homeland. He’s grown up with his mother’s altar of photographs of the head of Croatia’s Second-World-War Nazi Party Ante Pavelic, Croatia’s president during its war of cecession in 1991 Franjo Tudman, the weeping virgin, and finally, Christ.
This is superlative writing, bringing to mind the insane flames of thought of Denis Johnson, another writer whose last book is about a war. But, Énard’s book is about many wars and the stream-of-consciousness writing seems less a stylistic decision than the natural thought processes of a war veteran’s post-traumatic stress burdened brain:
It’s hard to understand hatred when you haven’t experienced it or when you’ve forgotten the burning violence the rage that lifts your arm against an enemy his wife his child wanting revenge wanting pain for them make them suffer too, destroy their houses disinter their dead with mortar shells plant our semen in their females and our bayonets in their eyes . . . because I myself had cried when I saw the solitary body of a beheaded kid clutching a toy in a ditch, a grandmother disemboweled with a crucifix, a comrade tortured enucleated grilled in gas like a shriveled-up grasshopper, his eyesockets empty and white, almost gleaming in the carbonized mass of the corpse, images that still today set my heart beating faster, make my fists clench, ten years later . . . there’s nothing to be done these images lose none of their force.
He beheads, rapes, maims, and shoots Serbs and then Muslims. It is after he turns his rage against his former allies, the Bosnians, that he quits the army and returns to France. He later rants: “the little clean-shaven crazy Muslim I killed with my own hands with a knife, with pleasure the way you have a drink, I recognize him, in a rage after unbearable injustice, between the shaky noises from the train, my bayonet an improvised knife in his young Bosnian throat, the joy of his innocent blood bubbling onto my hands.”
His mind bounces from one idea to the next, never able to hold a conversation with the reader for long. While this is infinitely loyal to the mental state of the anti-hero, it makes for difficult reading. Characters fill out slowly, snippets of information released like we were the spies and not Mirkovic. But we readers are not spies, and cramming all the details of his characters into the framework of the plot presents a heavy load for the reader over the span of five hundred pages, with little dialogue, few commas and without paragraphs or periods (except at the end). To order the book, Énard offers chapters and geographic “milestones” that tell us what city of his journey the train is in. But these structures buckle beneath the weight of narrated detail.
Ultimately, the tangents lead too far away. While Énard does an admirable job of bringing us back, by then the reader is lost and frankly glad to be back on the train with the suitcase, reassured that the book is, in fact, moving forward along with the train.
The farther you get through the book, the more the accumulation of information begins to make sense, but the commitment required is great. Bouncing around between characters and episodes whose outlines appear slowly, over five hundred pages, and are separated by interjections of related world history can make for a very bumpy train ride. Get through as much as you can marvel at and then forgive yourself when you have to stop.