Mathias Enard’s Zone was originally published in France in 2008, and then translated into English by Charlotte Mandell for US imprint Open Letter in 2010; it has taken until 2014 for a UK appearance thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions. It has the happy distinction that two of its most note-worthy features are obvious without the necessity of reading: that it is over 500 pages long, and that those 500 pages consist of one sentence – or, to express it differently, the first full stop appears at the end. (Well, that is if you exclude the sections of a novel being read by the protagonist which are punctuated conventionally). That 500 page sentence tells the story of Francis Mirkovic, a spy with a suitcase full of secrets which he is transporting from Milan to Rome to sell. Retirement, a woman, and a new identity await.
Zone’s stream, of consciousness places it firmly in the modernist tradition, and Enard is not afraid to use the same Homeric echoes as Joyce – the 24 sections of Zone mirroring the 24 books of the Iliad. As early as the first page he mentions “the sound of two bronze weapons clashing”, and Achilles is one of a number of reoccurring military figures:
“…Rome, rotting flamboyant corpse of a city, you understand too well the fascination it can exercise over certain people, Rome and the suitcase I’m going to hand over there the time I’ll spend there maybe the choice has been made the choice has been made ever since the goddess sang of the wrath of Achilles son of Peleus, his warlike choice…”
Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th century archaeologist who believed he had discovered the location of Troy also features, in a novel designed for (I would never be so cruel as to suggest with) Google. Whereas Joyce used Homer to counterpoint his quotidian content, Enard uses him quite differently, to create a sense of southern Europe and northern Africa – an area known in intelligence circles as the Zone – perpetually at war
Zone is littered with historical figures, including writers such as Ezra Pound and Malcom Lowry. To suggest these are tributes may not be entirely accurate: Lowry is pictured drunkenly strangling his wife; Pound (who also provides an epigraph) is, of course, noted for his fascism as much as his Cantos. Fascism looms large in the novel, not only because Nazism is inescapable in any examination of 20th century atrocities, but because Mirkovic has his own dark past, fighting in the Balkans. On one occasion, in his new job as a ‘civil servant’, he recognises one of his old commanders at a war crimes trial:
“I left Bosnia on February 25th, 1993, I had gotten there from Croatia in April 1992, and after a few months stay on the front near Mostar I joined Tihomir Blaskic in central Bosnia… I felt bad when I saw him in the midst of that multilingual administrative circus… in countless witnesses and hours of atrocities while I knew perfectly well who had committed them, I could see again the places, the flames, the battles, the punitive expeditions…”
Fascism seeps through the novel, from historical figures such as Millan-Astray, founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion and a supporter of Franco, to the (presumably) fictitious, like Harmen Gerbens, the ex-SS officer whom Mirkovic finds in Cairo, and whose file is the first to enter his suitcase. The atrocities are unending and unrelenting, recycled through history and involving Mirkovic (and his parents) as both witnesses and participants. This does, of course, make the novel remarkably mono-tone; even the extracts from the novel Mirkovic is reading, though written conventionally, treat of the same topic being the story of a Palestinian woman who loses her lover and comrade in fighting against the Israelis. Enard’s intention seems to be to present our worst aspects, unleavened by hope or humour, in a novel that feels like a weapon itself.
This is emphasised further by the novel’s circular nature: the madman in Milan asking for “one last handshake before the end of the world” replaced by the man he imagines will offer him “one last smoke before the end of the world.” Is escape for Mirkovic really possible? Is escape for any of us?