Mathias Énard: Zone

Mathias Enard wins Goncourt, France's top literary prize: jury
Right before reading Zone for the second time, I decided to draw up a list of impressions about Mathias Énard’s book from memory. To my great surprise, everything I wrote was negative. I remembered liking the book, but couldn’t remember why. Why was that, I wondered? I’d first read Zone right after publication, and at the time the book had a small but significant buzz around it. Some friends I trust had said very positive things about it, and Claro, the respected novelist and translator, was so enthusiastic about Zone that he called it one of the novels of the new century. Some days before I started reading French literature’s announced eighth wonder, though, another friend registered his negative view of the book.
In retrospect, I fear that my first reading of Zone was harmed by my friends’ constant comments: I read it with the idea of establishing who was right and who was wrong, thus failing to interact with the book on its own terms. I also fell into another trap, one that unfortunately befell many other readers: Zone, as has been much noted, is a 517-page sentence, and its rhythm is one that draws readers inevitably toward the end, much faster than you would have thought. It’s difficult to stop for a breather, to try and reflect on what’s being read. Somehow, form and content stymie a consideration of the meaning of the narration and the way it works. I thought I liked it perhaps more than I really did.
When I finished Zone for the first time, my overall impression was positive, but much less enthusiastic than many: its failings were too numerous for it to be worthy of all the hyperbole. This second reading a few months later gave me the opportunity to forget about the buzz, to break away from the structure, and to free myself from the non-literary to focus on the book at my own pace. Re-reading Zone, a few notes before the end of the world.

1. A MAN IN A TRAIN

French intelligence service employee Francis Servain is aboard the Milan-Rome train one cold December night. His only luggage: a briefcase filled with documents that he is going to sell. What do they contain? Who is he going to sell them to? Why? 517 pages for 517 kilometers might not be enough to get to the bottom of it, but it will give the reader a good idea: drugged up and hung over, Francis can’t sleep and he constantly thinks about his life’s somber days, the ones that lead him right into his first class seat, on a journey to what he calls the end of the world.

2. THE ZONE IN ZONE

In the early ’90s, Francis, whose mother is Croat, joined the fight for the independence of the motherland: first against the Serbs, then against Bosnian Muslims. Although he doesn’t mention it clearly, he cannot deny his participation in various crimes against humanity. These acts, committed without any second thoughts as to their necessity in service to a just cause, don’t prevent Francis from joining the service of the French government, but they do weigh heavily enough on his soul for him to become obsessed by the people who, before and after him, took part on a much larger scale in slaughters, murders, rapes, and assorted war crimes.
After witnessing in The Hague the trial of an officer he fought under, Francis decides to become an amateur historian of the weirdest sort: he takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by his professional traveling and accumulates a vast archive of atrocity, some of it very exclusive and secret—names of victims and executioners, places and means, all of it encompassing the darkest side of the Mediterranean countries’ last 50 years. The briefcase charts his zone, both mental and geographical: from Gibraltar to Baghdad. But the man has seen enough and fully intends to drown his hopelessness, his weariness, and his disillusion in the riches afforded by his buyers, the agents of what he calls “the great archiver.”

3. CONFLICT ZONE WRITER

Énard’s first novel, La perfection du tir (“The Perfection of the Shot”) told the story of a sniper in an unnamed civil war (echoes of Yugoslavia abound, but it could be just about anywhere) who falls in love with a 15-year-old girl he had asked to take care of his ailing mother. The love of a man who doesn’t know anything other than warfare and long-distance murder of random citizens is not the sweetest kind of love, and in Énard’s novel tragedy tends to strike with more frequency at home than on the front. Not half as ambitious as ZoneLa perfection is at times very striking, falling just short of impressive. More importantly, it already shows Énard’s interest in conflicts and what they do to men. This interest is probably derived from Énard’s long sojourns in the Middle East (he speaks Arabic and Persian and translates books from both languages), where he comes into contact with more than enough witnesses to some of the most horrendous events of the 20th century—the very ones Francis has packed his briefcase with.

4. A SENTENCE THAT HIDES MANY

Much has been made of the 517-page sentence. Too much. Most French reviewers took it as the cue to yell experimental! The few English-language mentions that Zone has garnered on blogs and in newspapers have generally taken a similar approach.
Let’s take this opportunity to set the record straight: nothing could be further from the truth than to call Zone an experimental book. Calling Zone experimental is lazy journalism fueled by little knowledge of literary history. Unreliable narrators haven’t been considered experimental for quite a while, and the same can be said of literary games with punctuation. Examples can be found around the world. In France, one of the most famous examples of the extremely long sentence is Pierre Guyotat’s Eden, eden, eden, published almost 40 years ago and 250 pages in length.
Such structures are rightly considered challenging, though, and a 500-page sentence might legitimately scare readers, but truth be told readers need not fear: Zone is a sentence that hides many sentences. Indeed, it often feels as if the periods have merely been replaced by commas, semicolons, and dashes. The reader will naturally, almost automatically, find where the sentences should end, and this in fact is one of the problems I have with the novel: the one-sentence structure seems essentially symbolic. Énard himself rejected any formalist intent, claiming it just seemed the logical way to reflect what’s happening in the book.
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