By Mathias Énard
Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter Press
December 14, 2010
. . . I thought about Harmen Gerbens the Dutchman and about his apartment, about the Jews of Cairo and Alexandria who came through Spain in 1967, about all those movements in the Zone, ebb, flow, exiles chasing other exiles, according to the victories and defeats, the power of weapons and the outline of frontiers, a bloody dance, an eternal interminable vendetta, always, whether they're Republicans in Spain fascists in France Palestinians in Israel they all dream of the fate of Aeneas the Trojan son of Aphrodite, the conquered with their destroyed cities want to destroy other cities in turn, rewrite their history, change it into victory, in other places, later on, . . .
France's Mathias Énard has lived in the Middle East, as well as in Barcelona as a professor of Arabic. He was awarded the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie and the Prix Edmée de la Rochefoucault prizes for his debut novel, La perfection du tir, and the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Décembre for his second work, 2008's Zone.
Francis Servain was born to a cultivated Croatian mother in exile and a French engineer haunted by his murky actions during the Algerian War. Influenced by neo-fascist identity politics and his grandfather's own involvement in the Ustaša movement, Servain, at a young age, returned to his ancestral homeland and fought for a free Croatia during the Bosnian Civil War. After finally fleeing the genocide and senseless chaos, he joined French intelligence and began to specialize in underworld networking throughout the "Zone" - that volatile region surrounding the Mediterranean. From Israel and the West Bank, to Libya and Lebanon and Turkey, to Spain and Syria, Servain became intimately acquainted with an ongoing cycle of violence perpetually spawning new violence in a never-ending dance of death dating back to the mythological histories of Greece and Rome. He has left all this behind now and changed his name so they can't find him. He is on a train in Italy heading to Rome with a suitcase full of names, beginning with an old Nazi living in Egypt. He is taking this suitcase to the Vatican, hoping for some kind of absolution.
Zone is bleak. It is a litany of atrocities strongly reminiscent of "The Part About the Crimes" in Bolaño's 2666. It is also a single, rambling, stream-of-conscious sentence, nearly five hundred pages long and interrupted only by two excerpts of a novel-within-a-novel about a female Palestinian in Beirut in 1978, on the eve of its fall to the Israelis. Although it is never stated outright, Servain is clearly plagued by PTSD, as seen in his inability to stop the memory reel no matter how much alcohol he consumes. But The Sentence is more than just a recitation of Servain's knowledge, feelings, and experiences. It is also a textual manifestation of war with no end or perhaps a Matryoshka doll - one individual's gruesome past, uncovered, reveals links to other conflicts in other countries. Zone is ultimately a protest against man's continuing folly. It is not so much that "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it" as it is simply that history is maybe the only thing left alive. History - collective and personal - inspires the ideologies and other excuses people use. The greatest force of them all is probably vengeance.
It is interesting that Servain at one point finds himself thinking about William Burroughs writing Naked Lunch in Tangiers. The Zone, as Servain knows it, really does recall Burroughs's Interzone in both name and spirit - a total Crapsack World, laid out in breakneck prose and violent to the extreme. But whereas Burroughs sought to satirize the hypocrisies and hidden animosities of mid-century America, Zone is about these underlying prejudices and impulses brought to the fore. Francis Servain's father was a mild-mannered man who enjoyed model trains and had participated in "special interrogations" in Algeria. Servain himself is a sympathetic war criminal, which should be a contradiction in terms. And herein lays the real despair of Énard's work: in this potential that exists in just about everyone, and how our denial of our own darkness leads only to the "othering" and dehumanization of our enemies as monsters who had it coming.
"It says 'Death' on every page," says one critical review of 2666. ". . . The bleakness of Bolaño's vision radiates out, but so little understanding comes with it." You can make the same charge against Zone as well. Énard's unrelenting focus on war in a single sentence of over 500 pages borders on repetition and nearly becomes exhausting. But maybe that was his intention. Reading about war is trying; try living it. I'm not sure Zone really has a point, at least not a redemptive one. What I did get out of it, though, was a sense of horror not only at what people go through but at what they put themselves through. Zone is closer to a documentary than a work of fiction (Énard's research included journalists, historians, and filmmakers) and I think that's how it should be approached. It's not holiday reading, that's for sure.