Zone – Mathias Enard – translated by Charlotte Mandell

Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate
Darling I remember the way you used to wait
Twas there that you whispered tenderly
That you loved me
You’d always be
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marlene
Time would come for roll call
Time for us to part
Darling I’d caress you and press you to my heart
And there ‘neath that far off lantern light
I’d hold you tight
We’d kiss good-night
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marlene
These are the opening lyrics to “Lili Marlene” a German love song which became popular with soldiers during World War II. The 1939 version recorded by Lale Andersen was virtually unknown until after the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, when Radio Belgrade became Soldatensender Belgrad and played the song frequently to entertain the German armed forces within its reach.
The song is a recurring theme in Mathias Enard’s “Zone”, as is the parting of a loved one.
How to explain “Zone”? Basically you board a train in Milan and travel 600 kilometres with Francis Mirkovic and his thoughts. We learn early on that our traveller has an assumed name of Yvan Deroy, this is a trip as a result of a missed plane, a massive hangover and amphetamines to stave off sleep.
Oh – and it’s a single sentence, not opening with a capital letter, nor closing with a full stop (there are a few exceptions but more on that later…)
I have an appropriated passport under the name of Yvan Deroy, born almost at the same as me in Paris and locked up a long time ago now in an institution for psychotics in the suburbs, he never had a passport and his doctors would be quite surprised to know that he’s wandering around Italy today, I got this document in the most legal way in the world with a record of civil status and a doctored electric company bill at the 18th arrondissement town hall: I’ve had so many different names these past years, on identity papers of all colors, I’ll become attached to Yvan Deroy, tonight the mute psychotic will sleep in the Grand Plaza in Rome, he reserved a room at an internet café on the Champs-Elysees, Yvan Deroy won’t go see his Roman lover right away, he’ll hand over his last suitcase to whomever has a right to it, as they say, someone will come visit him in his room they’ll proceed with the exchange before Yvan Deroy disappears more or less for good, Yvan has had a new life since last month even an account opened in a big branch of an ordinary bank, which is a big change for him from his postal savings account where his parents regularly deposit the price of his little extras in his “residence”, today he owns an international credit card – Yvan bought himself two pairs of pants and as many shirts in a big department store, withdrew cash paid in advance for one night in the Plaza and an airplace ticket he didn’t use and now he’s playing at making out the landscape in the gathering dusk,
This is a journey “to the end of the world”. Our narrator (his thoughts) carries a locked briefcase containing all the informant information he has gathered, which he is going to deliver to the Vatican. We only learn of our traveller’s real name after 250 odd pages (unless you read the back cover), a pro-Fascist Balkan fighter who turns to gathering informant information on war atrocities.
In my review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango” I referred to an interview with the writer about his disenchantment with the paragraph break and the full stop. Again, here is an excerpt of that interview:
“… the short sentence is artificial – we use almost never short sentences, we make pause, or we hold on a part of a sentence end …” he reaches for it with his left hand as it passes “… but this characteristic, very classical, short sentence – at the end with a dot – this is artificial, this is only a custom, this is perhaps helpful for the reader, but for only one reason, that the readers in the last few thousand years have learned that a short sentence is easier to understand, this is also a custom, but if you think, you almost never use short sentences, if you listen …”
This is not only when writing, when thinking, he continues, but “… in daily life – if you are in a bar, and if you drink with somebody – your friend, your acquaintance, an unknown person who speaks, who tells you something – he wants or she wants to tell this something very, very much, because we all have only one sentence, and we are looking for this sentence where we have some power to say something, for one sentence, in one life we have only one sentence and everybody in a bar or in a school or in a university or everywhere, in the street are looking for their own sentence, and this man or this woman doesn’t look for a pause, for this artificial, very easily understandable kind of sentence, no, he or she always uses always very, very long, fluent word combinations – this is very fragile, but fluent, you can’t cut it …”
This very much so applies to “Zone” where our “protagonist” is finding his “own sentence”, a 521 page sentence trying to make sense of his life to date, his future, his lovers, his horrors, his reading habits, the people on the train with him, whatever is entering Francis’ mind…
Living shut up inside yourself harried destitute full of memories I’m not taking this trip for nothing, I’m not curling up like a dog on this seat for nothing, I’m going to save something I’m going to save myself despite the world that persist in going forward laboriously at the speed of a handcar operated by a man with one arm, blindly a train at night in a tunnel the dark even denser I had to sleep for a bit, if only I had a watch, I just have a telephone, it’s in my jacket hanging on the hook, but if I take it out I’ll be tempted to see if I have any messages and to send one, always this passion for writing into the distance, sending signs into the ether like smoke signals gestures with no object arms hands stretching out to nothingness, to whom could I send a message, from this prepaid phone that I took care to get a tramp to purchase for me in return for a big tip, as luck would have it he had an identity card and wasn’t too wasted, the seller didn’t cause any trouble, I left my apartment dropped off a few things at my mother’s sold my books in bulk to a bookseller at the Porte de Clignancourt took three or four things, as I was sorting through things I of course came across some photos, I saw Andrija again in his over-sized uniform, Marianne in Venice, Sashka at twenty in Leningrad, La Risiera camp in Trieste, the square chin of Clobocnik, Gerben’s mustache, I took everything, and I can say that everything I own is above me in a slightly scaled-down bag, next to the little brief-case that’s going to the Vatican and that I plan to hand over as soon as I reach Rome, then tonight in my room at the Plaza on the Via del Corso I’ll go drink at the hotel bar until it closes and tomorrow morning I’ll take a bath buy myself a new suit I’ll be another man I’ll call Sashka or I’ll go straight to her place I’ll ring at her door and God knows what will happen
As you can probably gather, this is not an easy read, following a person’s thoughts on a six hundred kilometre train journey, the length of sections matching the length of the train journey. As I said before a 521 page sentence, but there are a few “breaks”, our protagonist reads another book (a book within the book) and those short sections are punctuated, these sections contain hard returns as well, highlighting the restrictive form of the written, published form, you are suddenly drawn to the limitations imposed by punctuation, the flow, the spell is broken.
This book is “a journey with the journey, to ward off fatigue, thoughts, the shaky train and memories – warrior, spy, archaeologist of madness, lost now with an assumed name between Milan and Rome”
The circular narrative as Francis returns to his former loves, his former war crimes, his memories of war atrocities, spellbinds you, as a reader you are drawn into his amphetamine soaked mind, you pick up the rhythm of the train travel, you wonder if the two hour journey ahead of you matches the two hours from one Italian city to the next:
Take into consideration the pain of Francis the suitcase-carrier huddled in this first-class seat, crushed by alcohol fatigue amphetamines the dead and the living as if he could no longer stop his brain his thoughts the dark landscape rushing by
In the words of Mathias Enard (though the thoughts of Francis of course) “sometimes you come across books that resemble you, they open up your chest from chin to navel, stun you” this is one of those works. Be bold, push ahead, take the journey with Francis from Milan to Rome, you won’t be disappointed.
 My edition is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the United Kingdom, the same work appearing in the USA published by Open Letter Books in 2010. Eligibility for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 2015 is therefore uncertain, however if this work is eligible it would be a travesty to not see it on the shortlist (but the judges disappoint us year after year so nothing would surprise me)


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One thought on “Zone – Mathias Enard – translated by Charlotte Mandell

  1. I'm currently halfway through Zone and feel, like you, it's a major work. Which makes me feel even worse about having bought the Open Letter version and then left it lying around unread for 4 years!

    Like

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