I remember that the first night in the Ghetto I had no blankets and I was so frozen I rolled myself up in a dusty oriental rug, fully dressed, with my shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover my feet, I read some stories about phantom boats by William Hope Hodgson before falling asleep like a failed fakir or a dead sailor ready to be returned to the sea sewn up in his hammock, far from the eroticism that some attribute to Venice, a guy rolled up like a dusty threadbare cigar, on his own bed, with his shoes and a hat,
Francis Mirkovic, an ex fighter for Croatian independence turned French intelligence agent, is on a train from Milan to Rome, to sell his wealth of knowledge of war criminals, terrorists and arms dealers from the Zone, the Mediterranean rim, that he has criss-crossed since he gave up fighting. Hungover and coming down from amphetamines, the train draws out an endless stream of consciousness from Mirkovic, as he contemplates his actions now, and in the past, and relives the horrors and atrocities of his Zone, intermingled with the women who have gently forced love into his life of strife, nightmares and recollections.
Written as one long continuing sentence, Zone consumed me while I was reading it, to the end that I spent days engrossed in it. I quickly realised I would need to jump in at running speed to enjoy Enard’s racketing prose. Early on it reminded me of Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, who himself is mentioned in the novel several times, in that the relentless drive of thoughts and stories leave you almost disorientated, yet utterly enthralled. In Under the Volcano you are drunk and left feeling hungover, Zone is slightly different, you are hungover, and the erratic thinking is how I would imagine being on or coming down from drugs would be.
It is a visceral look back at a life lived seemingly at the mercy of the current, from the Croatian war of independence to the work as as a security operative. Yet this is not a confession for redemption, while there is emotion when Mirkovic remembers his best friends from the war, or the few women that have managed to pierce his external self, it is an almost forensic examination of what has been, and what has led him to the point he’s at now, giving up himself for a fresh start.
Every now and again Mirkovic is jolted back to the train, or he recounts history and stories linked to each station en route, where he thinks about the passengers around him, or looks out of the window where he sees something that triggers another memory and he is off again, while we are breathless in his wake, slowly, carefully putting everything he has told us together, slotting it in place to understand. A completely different process from Mirkovic himself, who is almost purging himself of the Zone, and perhaps of himself, ready to fully embrace his new identity and life.
Zone is the second book I’ve read from Mathias Enard and he is fast becoming a favourite author of mine. His love affair with his own zone, the Mediterranean and near east, the captivating storytelling that intermingles with history that zooms in and out from whole conflicts to individual lives that blends together into an absorbing narrative that is as fascinating as it is beguiling.
Sadly at the moment it looks like I only have one more translated book to read, and now I’ve emerged from the Zone, I want to head straight to the Street of Thieves.
I thought of Lebihan and his scorn for anything south of Clermont-Ferrand, the old man was right, Athens was disembowelled, they were building a subway line the gods were not very happy to have their cellar drilled into like that and took revenge by sinking newspaper kiosks underground parking lots and inattentive foreigners into the abyss, Hephaestus the lame and Poseidon the earth-shaker caused quite a bit of trouble for the harried engineers, not counting the pompous archaeologists from the Antiquities department who wanted to analyse each pebble taken out of the excavations, which made Athenians say that their subway wouldn’t be ready till the end of days, The Hellenes were a proud people but not without irony,