Stephen Durrant's Reviews > Zone

Zone by Mathias Énard
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Apr 30, 12

Read in April, 2012

"Zone" refers here to the narrator's zone of operation: an area we might call the "Mediterranean rim," most notably Barcelona, Venice, Trieste, Croatia, Salonika, Istanbul, Beirut, Jerusalem, Algiers, Tangier, etc. The narrator, Francis Mirkovic is a French-Croat fascist and an amateur historian of twentieth-century horrors. His stream-of-consciousness narrative, which consists of one 517-page sentence, takes place as he rides a train between Milan and Rome, where he will deliver to the Vatican, for reasons never entirely clear, a huge file of the names of both perpetrators and victims of recent atrocities. This combination of a highly unsympathetic narrator, a virtual catalog of extremely unpleasant events, and a rambling, convoluted style would not seem to make for a compelling novel. However, I would rank this among the best of the novels I have read in recent years. One should not fear the style itself since "Zone" is fairly easy to follow despite the lack of periods. In fact, some reviewers have said that Enard could simply have changed many of his commas to periods without making any real difference in the narrative. This criticism misses a critical point: the narrative attempts to capture the repetitive rhythms of the train in which the narrator is riding and, more importantly, the interconnected but confused pattern of violence that has characterized the "Zone" for so long. Perhaps the central theme is that endless patterns of revenge, in which virtually every ethnic group and religion are now implicated, have become so automatic that there remains virtually no hope for any long-term cessation of violence. As I read "Zone," I could not help but recall Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones" ("Les Bienveillantes"), a comparison I know several reviewers have also made. Besides having similarly demented narrators describing horrors in which they have sometimes been willing participants, each novel has an encyclopedic quality. One emerges from each of these novels a bit exhausted as much from the huge amount of information dispensed, as well as from the violence itself, and feeling that one has, for better or worse, learned a great deal. As much as I admire Littell's huge book, I prefer "Zone," even though the vision of the latter is darker. Enard's narrator is not offering an apology nor seeking to convince the reader that he too could have committed similar crimes. Instead, the violence of the "Zone" is like a fabric into which everyone is now tightly woven, leaving virtually no hope for escape. A bleak message made with frightening narrative power.
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