“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: Zone

Mathias Énard

Mathias Énard’s Zone tells the story of a day in the life of Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French secret service agent of Croatian heritage, who is travelling by train through Italy; Mirkovic’s journey is no simple holiday, however. He is carrying a briefcase filled with secret documents that he intends to turn over to a man in Rome in exchange for enough money to retire from his life as a spy. Despite this set-up—which may sound worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock movie—Zone is no page-turning thriller, or at least not one in any conventional sense. Indeed, this novel, which has been translated from the French, is best-known for its unusual formal qualities: its 517 pages are composed of one, continuously running sentence.
            Technically, there are few full-stops in the book (at a few points Mirkovic reads chapters of an imaginary novel with standard punctuation and formatting), but by and large the book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that catalogues Mirkovic’s freely associating thoughts while he is riding on the train. The use of this mode has lead some reviewers to compare Zone to some of the monumental works of 20th-Century Modernism, like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. With its political themes, pulp-fiction conceit, and more modern setting though, Zone is considerably more accessible than either of those two books. (And I would argue that more apt comparisons might be Claude Simon’s Flanders Road and Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, which share both Zone’s breathless style and its thematic emphasis on war and empire). Zone is, nonetheless, a highly allusive and intentionally ‘literary’ book, which references such writers as Ezra Pound, Jean Genet, Robert Walser, Proust, Hemmingway, Ferdinand Celine, Homer, William S. Burroughs and Malcolm Lowry, among many others.
            But more than anything, Zone is a book about the history of European wars and genocides (with a particular emphasis on the eastern end of the continent where it elides into the Middle East). Indeed, the spies that Mirkovic works with simply refer to Europe as the ‘zone’, and Énard shows an incredibly vivid and interesting familiarity with this material cataloguing the Trojan War, Napolean, World War II, the Balkan Wars, and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, in which Mirkovic served as a soldier. Mirkovic also spends a great deal of time ruminating on the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Yugoslav Wars, as well. All of which is to say that Zone isn’t exactly light reading, and Énard does nothing to spare his readers from the gritty details of life in a warzone.
            But for all of this ugliness, Zone itself is a beautifully written book, and Énard demonstrates incredibly precise control over his prose, which moves easily between Mirkovic’s present ride on the train and his often-harrowing memories. I’ll be honest—readers who are put off by difficult books (and don’t like stream-of-consciousness works by writers like Virginia Woofe and William Faulkner), probably won’t be converted by Zone, but for any reader willing to give something a little bit more challenging a go, Zone is an absolute must-read, and would certainly appeal to readers who have enjoyed Roberto Bolaño’s longer books like 2666 and The Savage Detectives. Zone is perhaps the most important literary work to be translated into English in 2010, and it’s absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in world literature.
Read an excerpt from Zone. Buy Zone here.

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