‘Zone’ by Mathias Énard and translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell tells the story of Francis Mirkovic, a Franco-Croat intelligence officer who is travelling by train from Milan to Rome after missing his plane. He will be delivering a briefcase containing a dossier about war crimes across various parts of the “zone” where he worked – the region around the Mediterranean Sea spanning across Spain, Lebanon, Cairo and Croatia – which he plans to sell to the highest bidder thus ending his career as an agent. During the journey, Francis reflects on his twenty-year career, his future, his family, his relationships with Marianne, Stéphanie and Sashka, his fellow passengers on the train and much more.
Originally translated into English and published in the US in 2010, ‘Zone’ was first published in the UK last year by Fitzcarraldo Editions. It was a surprise omission from this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist and has been enthusiastically promoted by Tony and Stu as one of the best, if not the best, works of translated fiction published last year or even this century so far. However, despite the enthusiasm of other members of this year’s IFFP shadow jury, I was unsure about how I would fare with ‘Zone’ and approached it with some caution. Far from a conventional spy thriller, it is an unashamedly avant-garde work which the TLS describes as “a novel that takes itself very seriously, and invites its readers to do likewise”.
As well as the train journey itself, numerous digressions make up the majority of the book, where Francis recalls his often traumatic experiences as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars as well as his work in Cairo, Beirut and several other places in the area known as “the zone” around the Mediterranean Sea. With the exception of three brief passages from the book Francis is reading by an imaginary Palestinian author Rafael Kahla, there is only one full stop at the end of the text. The prose reads like a 520-page stream of consciousness broken up mostly with commas as well as chapter breaks. Interestingly, it was the Kahla passages which, for me, were the least enjoyable sections and I was glad to get back to Francis’ story after these. The hypnotic rhythm of Francis’ story is surprisingly easy to adjust to and less gimmicky and tedious than I thought it would be thanks to a lucid translation by Charlotte Mandell. It also suits the rhythm of the train journey and non-linear narrative as well as Francis’ general state of mind during his journey nursing a hangover with amphetamines.
The scope of ‘Zone’ is incredibly ambitious and it is certainly weightier and ultimately more powerful and rewarding than many of the other titles longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. At times exhausting and overwhelming in its countless references to obscure literature and geopolitics, ‘Zone’ isn’t the easiest read but it is a pretty spectacular one and I’m glad it was called in by the shadow IFFP jury.
Many thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for sending me an eBook copy of ‘Zone’.