Zone by Mathias Énard

Zone‘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’.


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20 responses to “Zone by Mathias Énard

  1. Do you have a favourite book that was first written in a different language?


  2. I hadn’t come across this one, so thanks for sharing. Definitely one to add to the TBR list methinks! Enjoy your weekend 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. farmlanebooks

    ” its countless references to obscure literature” This phrase alone makes me want to read it! I am a bit scared I wont get all the politics in it, but they are probably things I should look up/learn.I’m going to try this at some point. I hope I appreciate it as much as the others did.


    • You don’t have to be an expert on the politics of the Balkans or the Middle East to appreciate the book as a whole but it probably does help with some of the intricacies which may have gone over my head 🙂


  4. It’s probably a novel that would require serious rereading to get all the references, but I found it an easier read than it sounds – like you say, it’s something to do with the rhythm.


  5. Sounds intriguing… Adding Zone to my list of books to read, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. I am just imagining what would happen if I chose this for our next book group. Some of us are still traumatised by the weight of In The Light of What We Know.


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  8. Pat

    Hi Clare, great post, Zone has been on my to-read list since reading his latest book The Street of Thieves (read in French) Due out in English by Fitzcaraldo in August, you can look it up on my blog under French Language writers, Pat


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