Mathias Énard Zone’s Out with Tall Tales, a Long Train Ride and a Failed Desire to Change History

Aaron Botwick

Almost 150 pages into Mathias Énard’s Zone, his protagonist, Francis Mirkovic, remembers the point in his life when he stopped reading “adventure novels” and, because of his exposure to Joseph Conrad, began reading “simply novels.” It is a slight point that is quickly dismissed for a new subject, but the comparison between Énard and Conrad is a valuable one: like Heart of Darkness or The Secret Agent, Zone is a modernist novel that occupies itself with extraordinary subjects, one that combines a low-brow genre with high-brow prose. Conrad’s technique distinguishes him from other famous modernists like Joyce or Proust, who would transform the ordinary into the epic by examining the lives of their ordinary characters with telescopic lenses. Énard often refers to these authors — who act as stylistic and thematic road markers — but the ultimate result is a unique synthesis in which Énard borrows Conrad’s subject matter and applies the fierce interiority of Joyce and Proust.

It is an incredibly audacious endeavor, and Énard does not shy away from the task: Zone is a breathless, 517-page sentence that follows Francis over a single train journey from Milan to Rome. He is a semi-retired, mercantile secret agent and a depressed, alcoholic “man of the shadows” with little concern for anything but history and redemption. Over the course of the 1,500 km ride, he offers his thoughts on the history of human atrocity, from Hannibal the Carthaginian to the Holocaust. The result varies from the banal (as when he examines the train records from Auschwitz) to the intensely vulgar (“vaginas opened up by bayonet to let the semen of dozens of troops ooze in”), though the two gradually become indistinguishable. In Francis’ final judgment, murder and rape are a fixed and routine aspect of humanity; phrases such as “serving the homeland” or “fighting against the Reds” serve only as hollow justifications.

Despite amassing a great wealth of knowledge as well as personal experience, then, Francis is nevertheless incapable of providing any answers to history — his series of coincidences and correlations add up to nothing more than “winks,” useless clues placed there to frustrate anybody trying to organize the random. At one point, early on, a man approaches Francis to show him a little book containing every possible stop the train could make — “all eventualities,” he says, “are contained in this schedule.” But as they continue talking, the man reveals that the book also lists all the choices Francis will make for the rest of the novel: on page 261, he will drunkenly sing “Little Drummer Boy,” on page 263, he will get into a freight car headed for the Jasenovac extermination camp. So while Francis may be something of a player in major world events, any sense he has of influencing history is an illusion.

Énard’s Zone is certainly a novel worth its ambition. It is also filled with astounding moments: for example, when Francis recalls the story of Cervantes being shot in the wrist with an arrow while fighting against Turkish soldiers: “what would have happened if the Muslim gunner hadn’t had the noon sun in his eyes, if Cervantes had passed away, anonymous on a forgotten galley, erased by the Glory of Don John of Austria, he would no doubt have been replaced, if there is always someone to take over a cannon there will also be someone to take up a pen and a knight of mournful countenance.” Nonetheless, there aren’t enough of these moments to populate such a massive novel, and Énard often gets lost and bogged down by his meandering prose. Late in the book, Francis notes that Joyce tried but failed to write an all-encompassing novel with Finnegan’s Wake, that he “wanted to write a piece of shadow, 600 pages of a dream of all dreams, all languages all shifts all texts all ghosts all desires.” Énard, too, has tried and failed. It is, however, a fascinating failure.