Zone – Mathias Enard

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,

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The White Book – Han Kang

The early hours of the morning and the city is cloaked in fog.
The border between sky and earth has been scrubbed out. The only view my window offers is the blurred suggestion of two poplars, ink-wash contours wavering four or five metres up from where the street lies hidden; all else is white. But can we really call it white? That vast, soundless undulation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness.

Like Flights, The White Book was picked from the Man Booker Prize International long list, and I’m pretty sure my first South Korean author.

The White Book is, from my simple understanding, a meditation of grief and loss explored through the colour white. Much like Fitzcarraldo Editions books that I am enjoying (Compass, Flights, and currently Zone), Portobello Books have produced a beautiful book that compliments Kang’s strong stark prose. Although I’m not even sure it’s completely prose. With pages made up of a few sentences or a paragraph, and nothing longer than three pages of text, The White Book could almost be poetry.

Reading an interview with Kang, she describes writing The White Book like a small ritual, like a prayer every day and that the transformation hoped for in the first chapter was achieved at the end. The salving balm to a wound, the death of a newborn sister before Kang was born, this book was triggered by a line from one of her own novels that she realised had come from her mum.

In The White Book Kang explores the birth, small life and sad death of her unknown sister, while on a writers residency in Warsaw. Starting with a list of white items, Kang commits to paper the circumstances of the life and death, of the impact it had on her parents, and her mum in particular, and both directly and indirectly, on her own life. The prose is stark and beautiful, rendered more so by the black print on the white paper, and the short paragraphs giving way to the expanse of white page.

It felt to me that this structure and style, while writing about a universal theme, death and grief, seeming otherworldly on the page, gave me a glimpse into the South Korean view of life, which I’m guessing is fundamentally different from mine.

White allows things to be covered over, made fresh, or to start again with a blank canvas, or maybe it allows you to throw into it anything you like and it absorbs it without stain, like sinking into the mist and maybe Kang was trying to make fresh as much as cover over, or perhaps I’m thinking to much. I won’t complain, I barely thought at all reading Flights, but all that white space on the page, it allows you room to think, and appreciate what is there. And that is a graceful reflection on grief. And don’t forget the colour white.

A congregation of white gulls on the winter shore. Around twenty perhaps? The birds were sitting facing out to sea, where the sun was creeping down to the horizon. As though observing some kind of silent ceremony, holding themselves perfectly still in the sub-zero cold as they witnessed the days decline. She stopped walking and let her gaze follows theirs, to that pallid source of light which was about to flush crimson. Though the cold was so severe it seemed to sink it’s teeth right down to her bones, it was precisely the heat from that light, she knew, that kept her body from freezing.

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Deptford

After a bit of a hiatus I enjoyed the sunshine by doing another one of the excellent walks by Robert Wright that I started many years ago. Today was Deptford, following the beat of an old bobby in 1899.

Deptford

Not a lot of pics but the walk was fascinating and took me back onto the Thames path briefly which I have followed previously when training for the Walk for Life.
Unfortunately Robert Wright’s websites are no longer working so I can’t link to them.