Thursday, May 21, 2015

Zone by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell (from French)
2014, I read ebook version
528 pages, reflection on war, internal monologue

Francis Servain Mirkovic is taking a train from Milan to Rome with only a suitcase - a suitcase filled with sensitive information from his 15 years working for the French Intelligence Service with a specialization on the Mediterranean basin, especially the war-torn regions of Northern Africa and the Middle East, where he travelled extensively to meet with contacts from all sides of the conflicts; he is traveling to Rome to finally hand off that information to a representative of the Vatican, which will allow him to escape from the chaos of his "Zone" as his area of specialization is called in the business, although it won't allow him to go home; although he was born and raised in France, he is of Croatian origin, and by joining the Croatian army during the Balkan Wars, he identified with his ethnic origin, although now he has little connection with the new states formed after that war, so he has fallen into the abyss of truly not belonging anywhere but having ties, information, and interests everywhere; hopefully the woman he hopes is still waiting for him in Rome will be happy to see him, and will accept the change of his name, taken from a man from his neighborhood in Paris who has been in a psychiatric hospital for many years, and maybe they will even be able to run away together and he will escape his past once and for all and become a truly new person with no Zone and no need to remember the atrocities committed there, but now while he's on this train he must find a way to while away the time; he brought a novel along, which is set in his Zone, recommended by a woman in a bookshop who couldn't know about him could she?

Enard uses this intense, impelling prose to describe Francis's inner monologue during the entirety of his train journey. The result is a meditative investigation of war, violence, and what it does to a person when he or she gets involved, either directly or through research.

Thankfully, this main, unstoppable narrative is broken in three places by normally structured sections from the novel that Francis is reading. Besides giving the reader a chance to breathe (very necessary!), the story introduces war and violence from a different perspective: a woman fighter in the Lebanese civil war whose partner has been killed. Francis's analysis of this story provides another angle for him to contemplate his own work, which is revealing of Francis's own backstory and interests in the region.

Zone as a Novel 

Since a lot has been written about Zone since its publication, I will just give a summary of my impressions. This is a very difficult book, both in form and in content. The single sentence compels you to continue reading, but because of the more than 500-page length, it is impossible to get through it in a single sitting. Luckily the prose is broken into chapters, and the chapter breaks provide locations that are more or less stopping places.

Several members of the IFFP shadow panel have criticized the length of this novel, which, combined with the period-less writing, made the writing less compelling to them. I disagree, because I think that this book would not have been as effective if the true length and tediousness of the train journey had not come through. According to one review, the original French version is exactly 517 pages long, which corresponds to the number of kilometers on this route between Milan and Rome. In effect, the length allows us to travel the whole distance with Francis from start to finish, which I thought was brilliantly well done.

The themes of the novel are also difficult, but Enard manages to pull them off. I came away from this novel thinking about several things that I had never even considered before. One of them was Francis's account of taking a weekend off from fighting in Croatia to go to Paris. He leaves the front, gets on a train and in just a few hours goes from an active war zone to normalcy. Then, after spending a couple days in a normal environment, he does the same thing in reverse. I had never considered what this kind of thing would feel like. How traumatizing would that be! How strange that, because of fast transit, people today can move in and out of war zones so easily. And in this situation, how would he be treated by immigration officials? Or other people in the community? There is so much to think about here that I'm still trying to get my head around it.

Of all the books that I read for the IFFP, this one was the most difficult but also the most enlightening. It is not for the faint of heart, but in the end it is most worthwhile. While I do not necessarily expect it to be our shadow panel winner, I would not be unhappy if it did win. Overall, a most interesting book and one that I recommend if you are looking for a challenge that will make you think.

Zone can be purchased from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and Flipkart

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