There is probably no rhetorical device more favored by literary critics in the past decade than forecasting the death or rebirth of the contemporary novel. Among the form’s devotees there is often a vague sense of unease, a sense that the novel is under siege and must redefine itself in a world that is willing to render it obsolete. It goes without saying that such predictions are exaggerated: the structure of the novel is omnivorous, digesting any material proffered to it and mutating in unexpected ways with each subsequent generation.
We are fortunate, then, to have a sign of the novel’s health in the recent translation of Mathias Énard’s “Zone,” published in France in 2008 and now available in a potent translation by Charlotte Mandell. Only rarely is a novel ambitious enough to contribute to the general discourse on the novel, as if one book could illuminate them all. Yet, “Zone,” which draws equally from the French- and English-language novelistic traditions, is perhaps capable of telling us something about one possible shape the novel may take going forward. Formally ambitious and with a deep sense of political engagement, “Zone” is brilliant but imperfect, a virtuosic showcase of memory, consciousness, and the lingering effects of political conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the crisis in Palestine.
Hung over and having missed his plane, French spy Francis Servain Mirkovic boards a train from Milan to Rome. At the end of his journey Francis expects to trade away the information accumulated over the years spent in his operational zone in order to receive cash and a new name, and to escape the world of espionage. The reader is placed in the swarm of Francis’ thoughts as he sits in his seat, allowed to experience his unending torrent of observations and memories. Francis’ thoughts flit between disparate topics: one moment he can examine his neighbor’s newspaper and the next he can remember an arcane piece of history, or the years he spent fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Francis has been a neo-Nazi youth, a soldier for the nationalist cause of Croatia, a transient soul, and a spy. He has built and destroyed many relationships in that time, both platonic and romantic, and these half-remembered faces continually resurface in the novel, like ghosts trailing alongside him as he speeds towards his destination. Francis cannot mirror the unstoppable progress of the train, offering a small theory of history and its observers: “a train isn’t circular, it goes from one point to another whereas I am in orbit I gravitate like a chunk of rock.”
Francis’ monologue is expressed with the novel’s most distinctive formal characteristic, its lack of periods. “Zone” barrels forward in what is close to one long, continuous sentence, only interrupted by two sections in which Francis reads a collection of short stories about the Palestinian conflict. The text of the story punctuates the otherwise continuous flow of thought. Thoughts rush by quickly, are interrupted, and return without warning, leaping to a new memory when the last trail grows cold.
At first glance, this technique runs the risk of being a simple trick. There is no doubt that Énard’s style is incapable of keeping up with the breathless energy that defined the novel’s most direct stylistic predecessor, the final section of “Ulysses.” Énard’s run-on sentence is less radical, serving as a way to create more fluid boundaries between the enormous number of topics through which the novel cycles. While the style is not always innovative, it is effective. When unsuccessful, this technique reads like multiple sentences that have been comma-spliced together, but its success is often marked by moments of powerful inertia.
The novel directly references many of its forbearers, such as Joyce himself, Apollinaire, Cervantes, and Durrell. However, Énard’s digressive strategy seems to owe the most to W.G. Sebald, mingling history and personal memory in provocative juxtapositions. As Francis’s mind flits from subject to subject, tragedy to tragedy, the reader begins to infer a complex narrative of personal relationships and political incidents.
However, the blessing of such a digressive organizational strategy can also be its curse. From his position of reflection, Francis is a truly stationary character. He is so passive that the act of remembering is the only agency his character has. Sometimes this long chain of memories feels like it lacks the causal structure that many expect from the conventional novel. Énard seems to intend that Francis remain powerless under the burden of his traumatic memories. Yet the novel occasionally feels as if it lacks a truly compelling reason to continue forward in the present.
Perhaps even more notable than the structure of “Zone” is its willingness to engage with politics. Francis in his current state seems to hold no strong political positions of his own, but instead serves as a lens that focuses the history of the Mediterranean, the zone he has served in as a spy. Francis can only be a witness to ceaseless repetitions of cruelty, a minor historian of “man’s estate.” It is a bold move to position the narrator as a participant in the 20th century’s most violent moments, from the Balkans to Algeria to Palestine. Énard creates a sense of history that is nearly apocalyptic, suggesting that we are doomed to commit the same atrocities that have existed since the Trojan War.
“Zone” is occasionally too diffuse and does not contain the type of realistic characterization that is standard in contemporary fiction. By attempting to synthesize the history of conflict in the 20th century, Énard risks overburdening himself. And yet, “Zone” makes an important contribution to contemporary literature by unifying its political and formal ambitions. Buoyed by powerful, stark prose and an acute sense of empathy, “Zone” carries the novel forward as unstoppably as the history it seeks to describe.