Zoneby Mathias Énard
One of the truly original books of the decade—written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Zone tells the story of a French Intelligence agent on his way to the Vatican to sell a briefcase of secrets. Over the course of his train ride, he thinks back over his life and all the damage he's caused in this violent/i>
One of the truly original books of the decade—written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Zone tells the story of a French Intelligence agent on his way to the Vatican to sell a briefcase of secrets. Over the course of his train ride, he thinks back over his life and all the damage he's caused in this violent century.
"Homeric in its scope and grandeur, remarkable in its detail, Énard's American debut is a screaming take on history, war, and violence ... Mandell's translation of the extravagant text is stunning."Publishers Weekly
"Frenchman Mathias Énard’s Zone, released in France in 2008 and just out from Open Letter, has earned abundant and varied praise. Already the proclaimed darling of French critics and awards, the novel is poised to make a startling impression upon its audience in America. It's a one-sentence wonder; a spy thriller; a miniature history of the Mediterranean; intellectually dense and historically expansive; an overwhelmingly exquisite and trying tome."Words Without Borders
"One does not so much read this book as become absorbed in it. The cacophony of images is vast and chaotic, yet this is a kind of bewilderment that engages, instilling a desire for repeat readings in order to gain a clearer view ... At length, Zone comes to feel like a book that has contained multitudes, one that can support a hundred theories and spark a hundred arguments ... a startling, stimulating read, a document that should stand out as a memorable part of the long history of its setting."Scott Esposito, The National
"Move over, James Joyce and all other pretenders. The new owner of the record for longest sentence in published literature is Mathias Enard for his 517-page French novel "Zone." In fact, the entire novel, except for a few pages of flash backs, is made up of a single 150,000-word sentence."Patrick T. Reardon, Oklahoma City Newspaper
"Énard takes up the challenge of writing an endless sentence by including only one period in his long novel. This ambitious gamble won Énard considerable praise in France, and now, with Charlotte Mandell’s lucid translation, readers of English can evaluate his text and larger mythic framework ... Though the reader is marooned in Mirkovic’s consciousness for more than 500 pages, the boundaries of his skull do not feel claustrophobic, because the mind at work in the novel is remarkably elastic ... this millennial archive also measures guilt it passes sentence, as it were, on both the regrets and memories of Énard’s narrator and the larger guilt and shame that he describes as “the weight of Western civilization.”"Stephen Burn, The New York TImes
"Zone is a documentary novel. While throughout its pages, it invokes acontinually the sources of Western lliterature vis-á-vis the ancient myths, it all the same reflects our age's curatorial impulses to preserve information lest it be forgotten over the course of the nest news cycle. It is, in short, one of the best books of the year."Christopher Byrd, The Daily Beast
"...one of the more breathlessly received French novels of recent years, now elegantly translated into English by Charlotte Mandell ... the author is less interested in the conventional tale of cross and double-cross than with the psychology of betrayal. So, instead of a Bond-style spectacle, we get a meditation on honour, belief, fealty, and patriotism. In place of an espionage thriller we find a historical and philosophical investigation into the human propensity to bend high ideals into justifications for bloodshed and tribal hatred."Geordie Williamson, The Australian
"Only rarely is a novel ambitious enough to contribute to the general discourse on the novel, as if one book could illuminate them all. Yet, “Zone,” which draws equally from the French- and English-language novelistic traditions, is perhaps capable of telling us something about one possible shape the novel may take going forward. Formally ambitious and with a deep sense of political engagement, “Zone” is brilliant but imperfect, a virtuosic showcase of memory, consciousness, and the lingering effects of political conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the crisis in Palestine ... Buoyed by powerful, stark prose and an acute sense of empathy, “Zone” carries the novel forward as unstoppably as the history it seeks to describe."David S. Wallace, The Harvard Crimson
"...The books should be a disaster, a pretentious mess. But somehow, miraculously, it's not. It's compulsively readable, thoroughly compelling, and, to my way of thinking, the most exciting and interesting new work of literature I've read in a long time."Dennis Abrams, Publishing Perspectives
"Zone is a contemporary Homeric epic, 500 pages of one sentenceand it works. Enard’s message is that no matter where the conflict takes place and what the issues are, the human atrocities are the same."Olive Mullet, New Pages
"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."Jacob Silverman, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Énard plumbs the depths of human cruelty to create a work of extraordinary moral gravity and literary power, a novel that deserves a place among the great works of war literature."Michael Andrews, Bomb Magazine
The New York Times
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By Mathias Énard
Open LetterCopyright © 2008 Mathias Énard
All right reserved.
IntroductionI first learned about Zone in September of 2008 when I was in France for a literary festival. Looking for something new to read, each time I'd meet with a journalist or reviewer, I'd ask what they'd read recently that they'd liked. The book that came up most often, and most enthusiastically, was one published just a few weeks earlier, Mathias Énard's Zone.
On first glance, Zone seems an unlikely choice for best-loved novel, even among critics. Not only is it not a plot-driven book, it's a book that takes place entirely during a train journey from Milan to Rome. In one sense, very little actually happens: a man boards a train on his way to Rome after having a deranged individual hold out his hand to him and say "comrade one last handshake before the end of the world." Shaken, he proceeds on to Rome. While in transit, he smokes in the bathroom, he goes to the bar and has several drinks, he watches people get on and off the train, he dozes a little. But, most of all, he thinks, turning over and over in his head the details of his own life as well as very specific and often very troubling obscurities from the wars and conflicts of the twentieth century. This, in fact, is where the action and the tension of the book lie: within a single human skull. The man is, we quickly learn, an amateur historian of atrocity—or, rather, someone able to pass as an amateur historian. In actuality he is an ex-soldier from the Balkans, where he both witnessed and participated in atrocity, and a spy for the French intelligence service. Or, as he phrases it, a "warrior, spy, archeologist of madness, lost now with an assumed name between Milan and Rome, in the company of living ghosts ..." He is bringing to Rome a briefcase full of secrets that he intends to sell and, afterward, to abandon his real identity for good. Along the way, his mind will touch on Ezra Pound and Dalton Trumbo, Eduardo Rózsa and the song "My Way" (in multilingual versions), the Spanish fascist Millán-Astray and the autoerotic asphixiator William Burroughs, the Armenian genocide and the crimes of Croat terrorists, the Black Hand and the Holocaust, on girlfriends and comrades he left behind. Indeed, his time on the train is the moment in which Francis Servain Mirkovic, exhausted and drunk and a little frantic, begins to take all the different things that have led him to this moment and synthesize them in a way that is at once brilliant and terrifyingly disturbing.
The swirl of information, the confusion of Francis's own mind, is augmented by the way the novel represents his thoughts; Zone, 517 pages long, is written as a single run-on sentence in which everything is allowed to jostle up against everything else. Énard does show a little mercy: this sentence is broken up into twenty-four chapters (not un-coincidentally the same number as in The Iliad—"I wanted to do a contemporary epic," Énard told Robert Solé in Le Monde des Livres) and in addition is disrupted three times by excerpts from a Lebanese book that Francis is reading. But what's remarkable is how quickly a reader's mind can adapt to this, how the rhythms of Énard's text and his sometimes slightly eccentric use of commas end up carrying one swiftly forward. There's a remarkable flow and rhythm to the sentences, partly imitating the rocking rhythm of a train, which almost allows you to forget that you're reading a book that's a single sentence long. Zone rarely if ever feels artificial; its form, as Beckett suggests of Joyce's "Anna Livia Plurabel," is its content, its content its form: "His writing is not about something; it is that something itself." (Beckett, "Dante ... Bruno . Vico .. Joyce").
Zone owes something to Michel Butor's La Modification (1957), a novel in which a man takes a train from Paris to Rome to unexpectedly visit his lover, intending to inform her that he is leaving his wife for her but changing his mind along the way. Like Zone, the frame of the story proper is the train ride, though the nature of each narrator's thoughts are rather different. In addition, Butor writes in second person using standard punctuation and paragraphing. One might think as well, in passing, of other nouveau romanists such as Claude Simon (for the non-paragraphing he uses in Conducting Bodies, not dissimilar to Énard's own non-paragraphing) or Alain Robbe-Grillet (because of his interest in detectives and spies and because of the importance of a train journey in La Reprise). Yet at the same time it would be as appropriate to mention either Samuel Beckett's trilogy or Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles in the place of Simon, or Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow in the place of Robbe-Grillet. Not to mention Patrik Ouredník's Europeana. Or countless other books. Indeed, Zone is a book aware of, and carrying on a conversation with, many different literary traditions.
On a political level, Zone is engaged but very far from being partisan—it's a very different book from, say, Peter Handke's polemical A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. Francis is neither wholly reliable nor wholly unreliable, and it is difficult for the reader to ever feel fully at ease with him. He is implicated and not particularly trying to hide it, but he can reveal himself only gradually, only slowly, as a way of trying to free himself from himself so that he can start over. In his mind, the line between victim and murderer comes to seem as confused and arbitrary as the lines we draw between nations and then fight to the death to protect. For him "there are lots of innocent men among the killers in the suitcase, as many as there are among the victims, murderers rapists throat-slitters ritual decapitators ..." Strains of innocence and guilt run through both sides. Someone's views can shift as easily as a gun can be aimed, and individuals begin to fall into roles out of fear or hate, almost against their will. This is a book about trying—and probably failing—to escape the aftershocks of one's own trauma, about trying to shake one's ghosts.
Indeed, for me, Zone is ultimately a book about collective and individual trauma, the way trauma bleeds its way up and down between the individual and the larger collective groups to which he belongs. It is at once about bad faith and about the absurdity that terms such as bad faith take on in the face of decapitation, atrocity, and overwhelming fear. A little push, almost nothing—a bullet that breaks one's car window, say—may well be enough to tilt the scales and make one begin to become inhuman.
After its publication Zone went on to win several major prizes, including the Prix du Livre Inter, the Prix Décembre (whose other recipients include such greats as Pierre Guyotat, Pierre Michon, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint), and the Prix Initiales, and to be a finalist for several others. "What is amazing in this horrible and sublime book," Anne Brigaudeau suggests, "is the magnificent use of language, an uncommon erudition, a meticulous know-how for narrating the worst atrocities of the century, down to little known or forgotten details." Does Zone live up to such praise? I think it does. It is a profoundly (and complexly) ethical book, satisfying both as a work of prose and in its incisive interpretation of our times. Zone is a major and compelling work, a work that will keep you in its grip from its first utterance to its last.
Brian Evenson 2010
Excerpted from ZONE by Mathias Énard Copyright © 2008 by Mathias Énard. Excerpted by permission of Open Letter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Mathias Énard has won numerous prizes for his works, including the the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Décembre for his novel Zone. He is currently a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona.
Charlotte Mandell has translated works from a number of important French authors, including Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, and Blanchot, among others. She received a Literary Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for her translation of Enard's Zone.
Brian Evenson is a translator from French and the author of ten books of fiction, including The Open Curtain, which was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award.
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