Photograph: The Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents, Turkey (detail) cc Marko Anastasov
ANY CONSIDERATION OF ZONE — the first novel by Frenchman Mathias Énard to be translated into English — must contend with one central fact. The novel is, as its jacket copy promises, composed of a single sentence stretched across 517 pages. This scheme means a lot and little to the novel. Énard's formatting of his story is deceptively simple (he generally exchanges periods for commas), which makes the book highly readable, but this gargantuan sentence also charges the book with a peculiar rhythm: manic, propulsive, intentionally repetitive, an endless string of staccato drumbeats. Here's a taste of Énard's style, which can transmute the horrific into something sublime:
in Iraq the heat was incredible, a damp vapor rising from the slow Tigris bordered with reeds where from time to time corpses and decaying carcasses ran aground like the Sava River in 1942 without perturbing the American patrols who were still strolling about like Thomson and Thompson in Tintin a blissful look on their faces as they observed around them the country they had just conquered which they didn't know what to do with, Baghdad was drifting, ungovernable like Jerusalem or Algiers, it was decomposing, an atom bombarded by neutrons, hunger, sickness, ignorance, mourning, pain, despair without really understanding why the gods were persecuting it so ...
Zone is the story of Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French intelligence agent who, prior to his entering the secret services, fought alongside Croat forces during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s. Middle-aged and profoundly shaken by his years of working in and studying the violent history of the "Zone" (the Mediterranean region and some surrounding countries), Mirkovic has assembled a briefcase of secret documents culled from his intelligence work. Some of these documents describe war crimes in various conflicts; others, such as a file on a low-ranking SS officer, are simply information gleaned to satisfy his fixations. Mirkovic plans to sell the briefcase to an official at the Vatican for 300,000 Euros and run away with Sashka, his latest girlfriend, whose enduring presence in Mirkovic's life owes itself only to the fact that she has not yet uncovered his disturbing past — his "barbaric side" — nor the nature of his unshakeable obsession with history's most heinous crimes.
When the novel opens, Mirkovic, having missed his plane from Milan to Rome, boards a train, but not before a strange man approaches him, attempts to shake his hand, "shouts in Italian 'comrade one last handshake before the end of the world,'" and breaks into laughter. In another novel, such an encounter might become a recurrent motif, a warning from the sort of mad but knowing prophets with which we are long familiar in film and fiction. Instead, in Zone, the encounter, while poignantly invoked a couple other times, becomes lost in the torrent of Mirkovic's internal monologue.
Mirkovic, too, is lost; hungover, an alcoholic, jacked up on amphetamines, he has taken on the identity of Yvan Deroy, an inmate in a mental asylum. From the begi...read more