Achilles 2.0

A review of Mathias Énard’s Zone

“Énard’s attempt to modernize the Iliad is even more explicit than Joyce’s attempt to modernize the Odyssey in Ulysses. Indeed, Zone reads as if it were narrated by Molly Bloom—were she to have been cast as a battle scarred Achilles rather than an unfaithful Penelope.”
While I was reading Mathias Énard’s Zone, published in December by Open Letter Press, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, each of whom make cameo appearances in the novel, were overthrown by democratic, secular and largely peaceful uprisings. Both revolutions are the latest examples of the inextinguishable capacity of humankind to act collectively and consciously, in accordance with the principles of liberty and justice, to improve their economic situation and determine their own lives.

But the optimism I felt while alternating between Zone and the homepages of Al Jazeera and the New York Times to get the latest news from Tunis and Tahrir Square has been tempered by the reports from Libya, which, as I write, is engulfed by Civil War. Unlike his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Muammar al-Qaddafi—“Qaddafi the sublime madman” in the apposite epithet of Énard’s narrator—has proved both willing and able to use mercenaries and air strikes to massacre those trying to end his 42-year autocracy. Having shuffled its feet for weeks, the United Nations has finally authorized no-fly zones over the country, in a last ditch effort to help the beleaguered Libyan rebels survive Qaddafi’s merciless counter-offensive.

Events in Libya are a disquieting confirmation of Énard’s grim prophecy in Zone: that the blinding blue waters of the Mediterranean have yet to soak up the last drops of blood spilled by warriors fighting there. For humanity, it seems, “there are always Carthages to destroy.” Though “Operation Odyssey Dawn,” the name given to the American-led intervention in Libya was dismissed by a military spokesperson as having “absolutely no meaning,” I could not help, for reasons will soon be clear, but find the reference to Homer entirely uncanny.

Francis Servian Mirkovic, Zone’s narrator, is described by his employer, the French Intelligence Services, as a depressive and an alcoholic. He is also a fascist fellow traveler; a former Croatian soldier in the Balkan wars and undiscovered war criminal, a man whose only known hobby is amateur historian.

Having missed his plane after a long night of drinking, Mirkovic is traveling by train from Paris to Rome. He has stolen the identity of his boyhood friend, Yvan Deroy, a neo-Nazi who is now confined to a small room in a mental hospital in France. He carries a suitcase filled with concentration-camp photographs taken by a Dutch SS Officer now in hiding in Cairo. He hopes to sell the contents of the briefcase to “the eternity specialists” at the Vatican, for a proverbial 30 pieces of silver (which comes out to $300,000 with inflation), which will allow him to quit his life of espionage and war and take up with an icon painter with whom he has fallen in love.

The reader gets on the train with Mirkovic at Milan, where he is already drunk, and extremely agitated by memories of his violent past and the violent history of the Zone, the name he gives to the nations that surround the Mediterranean basin. The personal and the political intersect in Mirkovic’s consciousness for the rest of the train ride, which lasts for a single breathless 517-page sentence. With the exception of the final one, the only periods in the novel appear when Mirkovic reads during his journey from a collection of Lebanese Civil War stories by the fictional author Rafael Kahla.

Kahla’s third-person narration is as concise as Mirkovic’s first-person narration is expansive, but Énard demonstrates equal proficiency in these two very different prose styles. The latter, by far more difficult to sustain, is propelled by a locomotive rhythm of discrete syntactical units—phrases like “man’s estate” and “the end of the world,” the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” and the word Zone itself, which accrue resonance through repetitions and subtle variations. Credit is due to Charlotte Mandell, who translated the novel from the French and rendered Énard’s protean yawp in lucid, readable English.

Zone is heavily influenced by modernism’s experimental streak, prompting one American critic to castigate him for his “slavish imitation of Joyce” in a parodic single-sentence review. But Énard is not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve. Dozens of writers are name-checked during the course of the novel. Those with some connection to the Zone, like John of Patmos, Cervantes, Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, Genet, Malcolm Lowry and William Burroughs—whose novelInterzone, along with the famously unpunctuated poem by Apollinaire, are the likely sources for Énard’s title—intrude for several pages at a time on Mirkovic’s capacious, gin-soaked consciousness.

But the author with whom Énard is most consistently in conversation is Homer, the blind bard of the Trojan War. Énard’s attempt to modernize the Iliad is even more explicit than Joyce’s attempt to modernize the Odyssey in Ulysses. Indeed, Zone reads as if it were narrated by Molly Bloom—were she to have been cast as a battle-scarred Achilles rather than an unfaithful Penelope.

Following Homer, Énard divides his poem-in-prose into 24 chapters. His protagonist can’t help but notice Achaean antecedents for contemporary life (as when, for example, he compares an Italian cop’s Segue to Achilles’ chariot). He unselfconsciously applies Homeric epithets to modern men and women (as when he calls Burroughs “the visionary,” or one of his girlfriends “Marianne of the beautiful peplos,” or Egyptian generals “lovers of whisky great hunters of terrorists”) and even imagines that the Olympian gods interfere in their affairs (as when he says it was Apollo “son of Leto” who guided the bullets from the barrel of Gavrilo Princip’s gun into the body of Archduke Francis Ferdinand). And though he ultimately comes to a different conclusion, Mirkovic finds himself faced with the same dilemma as Achilles: “…we’ll see if war catches up with me again,” he reflects gloomily, somewhere between Parma and Reggio Emilia, “or if I’ll live to be old watching my children grow up the children of my children hidden away somewhere on an island or a suburban condo…”

However, to focus exclusively on Énard’s formal experimentation and literary influences would obscure what is most interesting about Zone: the litany of wars, battles, genocides, revolutions, repressions, deportations, assassinations and acts of terrorism that occupy Mirkovic’s thoughts for the better part of the book. Beyond his memories of the Balkan wars and his counterterrorist espionage, Mirkovic is haunted by nearly every bloodbath in the Mediterranean region since the fall of Troy. He imagines Thermopylae, Actium, and Cannae; he envisions the Crusades, the Mongol invasions, the Inquisition, the Battle of Lepanto, and the fall of Constantinople; his mind explores the Italian and Egyptian theaters of the Napoleonic Wars. But it doesn’t stop until it re-creates the horrors the Battle of Gallipoli and the revolt in the Arabian desert, the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War and the thousand microfronts of World War II, the Battle of Algiers (in which his father fought and tortured members of the FLN), the Shatila massacre, the Second Intifada, and the recent Gaza War.

Mirkovic’s “suitcase of catastrophes”—both the literal one handcuffed to the seat above his as well as the metaphoric one that is his stream of consciousness—weighs on the reader far more than the absence of periods does. In any event, Énard is not merely performing a genre exercise. Rather, he piles horror upon horror to make a point about human nature, which the reader vividly experiences, insofar as it is possible in a work of art, through the sheer accretion of atrocity. As Mirkovic puts it, remembering his former comrade-in-arms Tihomir Blaskic, who was tried for war crimes at The Hague:

…I thought about what I would have said if they had questioned me, how I would have explained the inexplicable, probably I too would have had to go back to the dawn of time, to the frightened prehistoric man painting in his cave to reassure himself, to Paris making off with Helen, to the death of Hector, the sack of Troy, to Aeneas reaching the shoes of Latium, to the Romans carrying off the Sabine women, to the military situation of the Croats in Central Bosnia in early 1993, to the weapons factory at Vitez to the trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo which are the mothers of the one in The Hague—Blaskic in his box is one single man and has to answer for all our crimes, according to the principle of individual criminal responsibility which links him to history…

In short, as long as there have been men, there has been war. Zone compellingly argues that it is probably the case that it will remain ever so.

True, these are not new observations, but rarely are they so singularly and effectively made. Particularly uncanny is the way Énard defamiliarizes modern warfare by juxtaposing it with Greek gods and heroes. To Mirkovic’s mind, there are no soldiers, only warriors. For the past millennium and a half, warfare in the Zone has mainly been the instigation of the three monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and their secular inheritors—nationalism, liberalism, and to a lesser extent, communism. Whatever their differences, each of these ideologies congratulates itself on its transcendent principles, which provide righteous justification for war. But perhaps the pagans of ancient Greece and Rome, whose gods were essentially personifications of various natural principles and human emotions, knew better. We moderns may pick up our machine guns in the name of God, or the purity of the race, or open markets, or the revolution of the working class, or even humanitarianism, but when it comes time, Énard suggests, it is always pagan “Eris, the indefatigable goddess of Strife,” who pulls the trigger.Zone is an important reminder that, however far we have come since the Fall of Troy, the warlike spirit of those well-greaved Achaeans is with us still, sharing our train cabins, dominating our headlines.