By Dennis Abrams
It really shouldn’t work at all — Matias Énard’s Zone.
This novel, the story of Francis Servain Mirkovic, fighter in the Balkan Wars, spy, and amateur historian, traveling from Milan to Rome by train, carrying a briefcase filled with names, photos, and information about the violent history of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean – the “Zone,” as Mirkovic refers to it, information that is being sold to the Vatican, has no right to be as brilliant as truth be told it is.
This is a novel in which the only physical action that takes place in the present is when Mirkovic gets up from his seat to go to the bar car, from there to the rest room to sneak a smoke, and then back to the bar car. But it is about so much more than that.
Mirkovic’s life as a soldier fighting for Croatia. His life as a spy. Unseemly sexual encounters. Venice. Paris. Alexandria. Salonika. The Holocaust. The Spanish Civil War. Algeria. Gaza. Troy. The entire bloody history of the Mediterranean, from modern times to the Trojan War. Not to mention a symbolic overlay of Homer and the Trojan War that would be enough to sink any other book. But it doesn’t.
“I thought about Harmen Gerbens and 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 outlines 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 other victory, in other places…”
Oh, and then there’s this. This is the novel that’s told in one long 517 page sentence, one long sentence following the thoughts of Mirkovic as he sits on that overnight train from Milan to Rome. (OK, Enard does cheat a bit. Interspersed in the text are parts of a short story Mirkovic is reading about the Lebanon Civil War –- complete with periods.) But the rhythm of the sentence is as compelling as the rhythm of a train on the tracks, and once you’re in it, you don’t want to get out.
With all of that, the book should be a disaster, a pretentious mess. But somehow, miraculously, it’s not. It’s compulsively readable, thoroughly compelling, and, to my way of thinking, the most exciting and interesting new work of literature I’ve read in a long time.