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Mathias Enard: Zone (Zone)

Zone was the novel of the French rentrée of 2008 and it is easy to see why. It has been variously compared to Céline, Proust and Homer, though the more valid comparisons seem, at least to me, to be Jonathan Littell‘s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) and Edward Whittemore‘s Jerusalem Quartet. The novel – 500 pages, all in one sentence (though with chapters) – tells the story, from a somewhat cynical perspective, of the zone of the title, which is, approximately the Middle East/North Africa and parts of Eastern Europe. While focusing on relatively modern events, it covers many of the major conflicts in that region, going right back in history, even to Anthony and Cleopatra. Indeed, as a potted history of the region and its troubles, this is a pretty good introduction.

However, there is a story to this novel and it is the story of Francis Servain Mirković though, during the course of this novel, he is operating under the pseudonym of Yvan Deroy, which will be his new identity when he has completed his current task. His father was French and mother Croatian but he seems or, at least, seemed to owe more allegiance to his Croatian blood than to his French blood, as he fought for an irregular (and brutal) Croatian outfit, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, though he has since worked for the French secret service. The book recounts a journey he is making from Paris to Rome, where he is to deliver a package of documents to the Vatican. These documents contain details of the various dirty deeds that have taken place in the zone, as recorded by him, and he plans to sell them and retire. He was meant to go by plane but overslept and missed it, so he is taking the train. The journey is his one sentence reminiscences of his career as a spy, irregular soldier and sundry other shady professions, coupled with his account both from a personal view (people he has known) and his views on history generally of what has happened in the zone. He also recounts his personal life, particularly his account of his various lovers.

Enard manages to recount, with a certain detachment reminiscent of Jonathan Littell‘s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), though more cynical and more humorous, the perspective which is very far from being the moral high ground. Atrocities take place in his Croatian adventure (fighting against the Serbs and then the Bosnians) but we do not see him directly involved in any, except for an attack on a pig which he and his colleague steal (for food) from the Serbs, while under fire, in a hilarious episode. But he does recount many episodes, both historical and ones he knows of personally, where atrocities have taken place, including Israeli atrocities, atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and in the Balkans generally. His coverage even extends to the Spanish Civil War (Enard lives in Barcelona). Unlike Jonathan Littell, he does not seem to be pointing out the banality of evil but, rather, saying that the political situation in the zone, aided and abetted by all the major powers, is such a complete mess that it all too often comes down to various unspecified groups fighting against various other unspecified groups to little purpose, except for the fact that they have always done it and probably always will. Nor does he take a moral stand. It is each man (and, very occasionally, woman) for himself and for his cause. And it is quite probable that that is the only way that the zone can be considered. Like Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), this is one for the essential reading list of the 21st century.

Publishing history

First published in French 2008 by Actes Sud
First English translation in 2010 by Open Letter
Translated by Charlotte Mandell