Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zoning in and out with Énard’s Zone

So I finally finished Mathias Énard’s Zone last week and since it is a one-sentence wonder, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I thought I’d do something different, that is write about the book in kind of, sort of the style in which the book is written, which is to say one big, long sentence that wanders but has a definite destination because the main character is this guy, Francis Mirkovic, who is French but Croatian (I think you can see that in his name) and a former soldier and an intelligence gatherer, and anyway, he’s on a train because he missed his plane, so that means he has a lot of time to look around and think about his family and his life and all the things he’s done and people he’s met, and lots of that isn’t very pleasant, really, it’s about war and violence and truly horrible, awful things people do to each other and the Zone refers to places where many violent conflicts happen, the Mediterranean basin, as the back of the book says (I couldn’t say it better myself), and while he’s on that train he reads a book about Lebanon, but he also refers very often to mythology and ancient history and World War 2 and World War 1 (I almost forgot) and his own participation in the strife in what used to be Yugoslavia, which is awful and very vivid, some of the most interesting stuff, and, well, a lot of this is interesting, particularly when it’s about him and what he did himself but some of you probably already know that I don’t really like reading much nonfiction (which I always hate to admit) which means that some of the more historical asides got a little not-interesting for me, and Francis also talks about his girlfriends, who I kind of felt sorry for because he’s no gift as they say in Russian, not the nicest guy, not that that matters, no, I can read fiction about nice and not-nice people, but some of the things he does aren’t very pleasant, and also you can tell there’s war in his DNA because his father was in Algeria so there’s this feeling that war is just part of who people are, and what else can I say about this book, well, there are also many threads about literature like Don Quixote and Under the Volcano and I can’t forget The Iliad, you really can’t miss them, they’re pretty obvious, plus there are carnivalesque themes with lots of drinking (what better way to forget, right?, particularly when you’re a guy who collects memories about awful things that we shouldn’t forget) not to mention dancing, and in Beirut there’s a mention of a dance that “instead of a dance of memory it’s that dance of oblivion that only state-controlled memory allows,” so Francis thinks about all this as he takes the train, because he missed the plane, and he’s going to Rome where he’s going to turn in a briefcase full of information about all these terrible things and then he’s going to disappear and no longer be Francis Mirkovic but be someone else, using the identity of a guy he knew who’s now in a psych ward and that guy too was involved in conflict though not of the same type as a declared war, the book is really a lot about war so if you like reading about war and what it means, you’ll probably like Zone, especially because it’s really about how war and violence and conflict go on through the ages, on and on and on, kind of like that train clicks along until, maybe, the tracks or the journey or the world ends, which is also referred to in Zone, and the book is about memories, heavy stuff, and even I think male bonding, and about a sort of person like Francis who is, oh, I don’t know, maybe pan-European, and I think the book is pretty-not-bad for what it is, though I think that 516.2 pages of mostly all one sentence (with the exception of that book Francis reads on the train) is really quite a lot, too much, probably, for a reader like me so sometimes I felt I read a lot like I ride on a train, meaning sometimes I felt fully alert and engaged, watching what’s out the window, but other times I kind of zoned out (sorry I like puns), mesmerized by everything, with blurred vision so I probably missed things, but in the end, I felt like it all made sense, that it had a point, as I hope this post does, too, that you can get something out of it, like I got out of Zone, and here’s the disclaimer, I thank Chad Post of Open Letter for sending me a copy of the book to review, and of course I also want you to know that you can read more about Zone in lots of other places, like Scott Esposito’s very informative interview on Conversational Reading with Charlotte Mandell who translated Zone from the French, and Oh wow, she didn’t read it all before she translated it, I can’t imagine doing that because I always like to know what’s coming, I really do, but I can understand it might be fun to have suspense even as you translate, plus there’s also a review in last week’s New York Times Book Review (here) and on Words Without Borders (here) and if you read all of them you’ll learn lots more about the book because there are so many threads in it that one blog post like this can hardly catch and write about them all, so I think that’s all I want to say about Zone, which I do recommend, I’m glad I read it though it is one of the harder books I’ve read in a long time and oh, one more thing, I think it would be a fun book to read and research simultaneously, very enlightening, because Énard mentions so much history and literature, eons of it, really, I could probably spend months reading it and all the subtexts, now that would be a great project, so that’s all for now, bye, next week I will probably tell you about Copenhagen Noir, which sure is easy to read after Zone, even if there are some pretty disturbing things there, too.


  1. Nicely done review, Lisa, you are so in tune with the nature of the book and all the dimensions and of course I love the references to anything Eastern European or Russian so I think I may just go order a copy now from Amazon where I have a customer account that gets too much use after reading your reviews and I should probably make a payment first and then hit two-day shipping and get it sooner and push all my other books aside because for some reason the protagonist sounds kind of neat in a way but I'm not sure if it's in a Sturla way or a Gregori way, if you know what I mean, but it sounds like it's got an appeal, after all, he does sound brooding and dark and thus tender but maybe I'm reading too much into this and I can't wait to read it but I'm not sure if I should try and read Copenhagen Noir at the same time as you just for fun because I have it here too and we could talk about it and comment on things and perhaps relive the scariness because I'm sure it'll be scary like Moscow Noir was and yet I'm sure an IKEA or something will come into play somewhere but I'll have to see if you want to read it at the same time too so let me know what you think

  2. Well, yes, Amy, I think you might be interested in this book given all the Eastern European mentions because there are a lot, with Francis being of Croatian descent and all and yes, he's a dark character, darker than Sturla and Grigorii and, like I said in that long long long post that I'm glad made sense for you, well, Francis, he's not always doing very pleasant things, much, much worse than Sturla stealing that darn coat, and yes I know what you mean about wanting to buy books when you read reviews, I do the same thing sometimes, and even though I always love to give you books this is a book that, alas, I want to keep because it kind of feels like something I'll go back to someday, it's a book with a lot of layers, and as for Copenhagen Noir, which is so different because it's stories, of course, but not as brooding to use your word, yes, they're dark but so pretty matter of a fact, except one that's more, oh, I don't know maybe metaphysical or something, and there is a mention of IKEA, one so far, and the stories even remind me of Scandinavian design because they're so cleanly manufactured, so neat so not a novel in one long sentence, and of course they're also about dark things but different ones, anyway, I'm almost done with Copenhagen Noir, just a few stories left to go, I think, and would love to know what you think of it when you read it too, maybe soon