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 beginning, it’s easy for the reader to doubt that Mirkovic will make it to Rome in one piece, much less execute his plan to sell the briefcase and limp off into the sunset with his paramour. One of the novel’s main questions is this: What form will Mirkovic’s self-destruction take?
But Zone is not really a novel about Mirkovic. In some ways, it’s not a novel at all, and Mirkovic’s story could be told in less than 200 pages; rather, the bulk of Zone recounts various atrocities in the region throughout the twentieth century — episodes from the Armenian Genocide, the Yugoslav Wars, the Spanish Civil War. There are numerous assassinations, including fascinating set pieces revolving around Gavrilo Princip, the tubercular gunman who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie, sparking what Mirkovic calls “the beginning of the race to horror.” And, of course, Mirkovic cannot forget the Holocaust, with one recurring figure being Harmen Gerbens, an elderly, drink-sodden Dutch SS officer whom Mirkovic met in Egypt during his intelligence work.
Though many of these stories-within-stories are drawn directly from the historical record, a fair amount of embellishment may bother those looking for a more factual accounting. Channeled through his frequently unreliable protagonist, Énard’s talent is to present history not as it is commonly understood; instead, he is uncannily good at drawing out the small commonalities of violent conflicts (for example, that Gavrilo Princip died in Terezin, the future site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp) and freighting them with great symbolic import.
As Énard weaves these pieces into his feverish monologue, one gets the sense of history as something geological, a succession of ruins and conflicts laid upon one another like layers of rock. The dead are the incriminating fossils perpetually finding their way to the surface. When Mirkovic visits Lebanon, he recognizes a posh nightclub and a new apartment building not as signs of economic progress, but as sites, in each case, of massacres.
Mirkovic’s own story is sparse, but essential to this geologic view of history. We learn that one of Mirkovic’s grandfathers witnessed the assassination of Ferdinand and Sophie. In a characteristic bit of interpolation, Énard places James Joyce and his wife at the scene when the murdered royals’ bodies arrive by ship in Trieste:
… Nora takes him by the arm, impressed by the royal coffins, she says to him how sad, they say she was beautiful, James does not reply, Sophie’s beauty doesn’t matter much to him, not many things matter to him …
This well-drawn vignette is another example of Énard’s ability to link a succession of figures famous and invented, making Ferdinand, Sophie, Princip, Joyce, and Mirkovic’s ancestors part of the same broad drama. Similar vignettes link Mirkovic’s mother (a child piano prodigy) with Francisco Franco, Jose Millan-Astray, and other prominent fascists, for whom she once performed.
What attracted Mirkovic to this violent life? It’s never quite clear, leaving Énard’s protagonist stubbornly opaque. (“I’m obscure even to myself,” he confesses at one point.) We learn that his mother’s pride in her Croatian heritage — members of the family belonged to the far-right Ustashi movement — spurred his interest in going east to fight, though she doesn’t seem to have pushed him. His father, a remote, taciturn engineer, served in the French army in Algeria, where he was likely complicit in torture and other crimes. Ultimately, in the son’s mind, his father’s impenetrability represents a response to his guilt, a calcification of the soul, and a template for the son to follow: “my father preceded me into the Zone,” he says.
Mirkovic, in his time serving with the Croatians, flirted with fascism, but it would be more apt to label him amoral, a political and professional vagabond. He does mention his own “right-wing opinions,” but one doubts his commitment to any particular political cause, if not his ability to be caught up in one. What one learns from Mirkovic’s account of his war experiences is that, save for a hard core of true believers, most soldiers care only about saving themselves and their brothers-in-arms. His Balkan accounts are blackened with the kind of gory mayhem and dark humor common to war stories. They’re visceral and discomfiting, in the way that such stories should be, and their emotional center of gravity is Mirkovic’s close relationship with Andrija, a fellow soldier known for outrageous, reckless behavior. Each of them seeks an animating purpose; the Croatian cause is merely a handy, and eventually hollow, stand-in.
Mirkovic is an obsessive creature. His psychic terrain is crowded with grave materials: alcohol, the unbridgeable gulf between him and his lovers, the nihilism of war, artistic struggles, demagogues. He sees evidence of war crimes, massacres, pillaging everywhere he goes — the whole awful ambit of the twentieth century’s horror. It’s as if his eyes were attuned to a unique spectrum, always alert to the madness of the past.
Obsession can also be a product of being boxed into a particular way of life and of that life’s exigencies. The Zone is Mirkovic’s home, his place of professional expertise, and his defining obsessions come from this roiling whirlpool. If he ever left the Zone, some part of it would stay with him always, a parasite colonizing his brain. Like the speaker in Guillaume Apollinaire’s identically titled poem — to which the novel occasionally alludes — Mirkovic sees the world as drained of beauty; both he and his poetic antecedent are, to use Apollinaire’s phrase, “fed up living with antiquity.”
A “zone” can be a sort of void, a negative space separating two visions of human life, as in the case of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The term can be chillingly vague, representing a broad region whose borders might be arbitrarily stretched and redrawn, making escape impossible. Mirkovic knows this; it is his ultimate, if barely articulated, fear:
… all those movements in the Zone, ebb, flow, exiles chasing other exiles, according to the victories and defeats, the power of weapons and the outlines of frontiers, a bloody dance, an eternal interminable vendetta, always …
The irony here is that the train bearing Mirkovic from Milan to Rome may seem like a vehicle of personal liberation, but it is, for the time being, just a shuttle into another part of the Zone. (He rarely imagines life elsewhere. North America may as well be the moon.) The text’s frenetic movement only adds to this disjunction, to the sense that each stop on Mirkovic’s train ride is another step on a perilous journey into the past. For in the Zone, trains — from the cars to Auschwitz to the transports bringing soldiers to the front — represent only a quicker approach to death, never a path to freedom.
Mirkovic fixates upon two types of men, not always separate: writers and war criminals. The latter are protean, shape-shifting creatures, constantly changing names, professions, and allegiances — not unlike Mirkovic himself. They include Eduardo Rozsa, a real but larger-than-life figure “born in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia of a communist Jewish father a resistant in Budapest was the special correspondent for a Spanish paper in Zagreb before he became a commander in the Croatian army.” Rozsa was also a poet, KGB-trained spy, Opus Dei member, and actor. Bolivian police killed him in a raid on April 16, 2009.
A corrupted intellectual, Rozsa is a quintessential example of the merging of Mirkovic’s two male archetypes. Along with him, we have appearances from Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ezra Pound, Curzio Malaparte (the Fascist Italian writer who later became a critic of Mussolini), and Albert Speer. Mile Budak, a Croatian writer who crafted the Ustashi government’s plan to eliminate its Serb population, also figures in the story as a friend of Mirkovic’s grandfather.
Mirkovic’s heroes, if he has any, are those who defy the temptations of ideology: William S. Burroughs, who, after accidentally killing his wife in a game of William Tell, found inspiration and refuge in North Africa’s opium dens; Mohamed Choukri, the Moroccan writer praised for his autobiographical trilogy about poverty and desperation; Jean Genet, who melded the personae of radical outlaw and writer like no one else. He eulogizes Francisco Boix, who hid photographs of the Mauthausen concentration camp that later formed an essential piece of testimony at the Nuremberg trials. But Mirkovic’s closest alter ego may be Malcolm Lowry, the great alcoholic novelist, who nearly killed his wife in a manner that seems to presage an episode from his own life. Mirkovic invokes Lowry repeatedly; he seems to recognize that Lowry, along with these other men, somehow balanced on the knife-edge of sanity and survived long enough to create something great. Mirkovic has trod a similar path but has nothing but a suitcase of documents to show for it.
Énard’s use of a single sentence is not quite as formally inventive as one might presume. Commas are easy substitutes for periods, and most conventional punctuation can be eliminated without compromising meaning, as novelists as various as Cormac McCarthy and Juan Goytisolo have found. Énard has also interrupted his sentence, broken up his text into 24 chapters, a few of which are the (conventionally punctuated) story of Intissar, a Palestinian woman fighting Israeli forces and mourning her dead lover in war-torn 1982 Beirut.
While there is no apparent structural necessity for the novel’s formatting, then, its relentless energy, as if we were, like Mirkovic on his amphetamines, speeding towards inevitable collapse, gives readers a sense of being trapped within the text, waiting for some break, some salutary period, to free us.
Mirkovic’s valediction, an incantation from a man “standing over the charnel pit of history,” reminds us that civilization itself may be an illusion, since war and devastation persist even in the sun- and art-soaked Mediterranean. As proof of our own blinkered worldview, take Mirkovic’s description of the end of the twentieth century, an ostensibly peaceful, prosperous time:
in the madness of the 1990s the stench of medieval war, disembowelments, amputations, corpses scattered everywhere, houses burned down, women kidnapped, villagers terrified, bloodthirsty bandits, and God, God everywhere to control the dance of death …
The people of Algeria, the Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and the Balkans, among others around the globe, would surely nod their heads in recognition.
Twenty-four chapters: the number of hours in a day but also the number of chapters in The Iliad. Zone is replete with references to Homer and the Trojan War, which Mirkovic sees as something like the Agent Zero that infected the Zone, precipitating millennia of conflict. Mirkovic compares Princip’s pistol-shot to a starter’s gun at a century-long race, but it’s a metaphor better, if anachronistically, applied to his view of the Trojan War.
Mirkovic’s invocation of Hellenic mythology is evidence of his obvious ambition, a deliberate, Joycean grasping at the timeless. Like Homer’s work, Zone is an oral, and oracular, tale, but it is an epic only by way of juxtaposition, a collage of history’s recorded terror. For that reason, his tendency to call Croat soldiers “agents of Ares” or to fall back on remarks about Priam can seem like an unnecessary crutch, a way of reminding the reader that the author has set one of literature’s foundational texts as his model. The notion that we are dealing with one big tapestry — from Homer to Énard — is sometimes hammered home too often or a bit too directly, as when a man from Lebanon is referred to as a Phoenician.
But Mirkovic does share something with Ulysses: if not his strength, his cunning, or his chest-thumping sense of his own importance. The man in disguise, Mirkovic, now calling himself Yvan Deroy, is also on a journey, leaving war behind and heading towards some final reckoning — in this case, to be found at “the terminus of absence.” In one of his more despairing speeches, Mirkovic resignedly says, “to each his own devil.” After all this time, this breathless flight, this desperate, angry summing up of centuries of human failure and Mirkovic’s bit part in it, it seems he will finally meet his own.