For the last two years I have participated as a Shadow Jury member for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, assessing the complete longlist for longevity, translation and readability along with a range of other Jury members. We total our scores, come up with our own shortlist and then debate the final nominees before deciding upon our winner. Earlier this year the jury did decide that Jenny Erpenbeck’s “The End of Days” (translated by Susan Bernofsky) was the top of the list, and therefore agreed with the official judges. Last year we didn’t have Hassan Blasim’s “The Iraqi Christ” on top, opting for Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s “The Sorrow Of Angels” as the winner. However the Shadow Jury this year took the option to call in a work which had not even made the official longlist, that novel was “Zone” by Matias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell).
“Zone” originally was published by Open Letter Books in the USA in 2010, however the British release (by Fitzcarraldo Editions) was in 2014 and our sources did advise us that it was entered for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize but was overlooked.
How to explain “Zone”? Basically you board a train in Milan and travel 600 kilometres with Francis Mirkovic and his thoughts. We learn early on that our traveller has an assumed name of Yvan Deroy, this is a trip as a result of a missed plane, a massive hangover and amphetamines to stave off sleep.
Oh – and it’s a single sentence, not opening with a capital letter, nor closing with a full stop (there are a few exceptions but more on that later…)
I have an appropriated passport under the name of Yvan Deroy, born almost at the same as me in Paris and locked up a long time ago now in an institution for psychotics in the suburbs, he never had a passport and his doctors would be quite surprised to know that he’s wandering around Italy today, I got this document in the most legal way in the world with a record of civil status and a doctored electric company bill at the 18tharrondissement town hall: I’ve had so many different names these past years, on identity papers of all colors, I’ll become attached to Yvan Deroy, tonight the mute psychotic will sleep in the Grand Plaza in Rome, he reserved a room at an internet café on the Champs-Elysees, Yvan Deroy won’t go see his Roman lover right away, he’ll hand over his last suitcase to whomever has a right to it, as they say, someone will come visit him in his room they’ll proceed with the exchange before Yvan Deroy disappears more or less for good, Yvan has had a new life since last month even an account opened in a big branch of an ordinary bank, which is a big change for him from his postal savings account where his parents regularly deposit the price of his little extras in his “residence”, today he owns an international credit card – Yvan bought himself two pairs of pants and as many shirts in a big department store, withdrew cash paid in advance for one night in the Plaza and an airplace ticket he didn’t use and now he’s playing at making out the landscape in the gathering dusk,
This is a journey “to the end of the world”. Our narrator (his thoughts) carries a locked briefcase containing all the informant information he has gathered, which he is going to deliver to the Vatican. We only learn of our traveller’s real name after 250 odd pages (unless you read the back cover), a pro-Fascist Balkan fighter who turns to gathering informant information on war atrocities.
In my review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango” I referred to an interview with the writer about his disenchantment with the paragraph break and the full stop. Again, here is an excerpt of that interview:
"… the short sentence is artificial – we use almost never short sentences, we make pause, or we hold on a part of a sentence end …" he reaches for it with his left hand as it passes "… but this characteristic, very classical, short sentence – at the end with a dot – this is artificial, this is only a custom, this is perhaps helpful for the reader, but for only one reason, that the readers in the last few thousand years have learned that a short sentence is easier to understand, this is also a custom, but if you think, you almost never use short sentences, if you listen …"
This is not only when writing, when thinking, he continues, but "… in daily life – if you are in a bar, and if you drink with somebody – your friend, your acquaintance, an unknown person who speaks, who tells you something – he wants or she wants to tell this something very, very much, because we all have only one sentence, and we are looking for this sentence where we have some power to say something, for one sentence, in one life we have only one sentence and everybody in a bar or in a school or in a university or everywhere, in the street are looking for their own sentence, and this man or this woman doesn't look for a pause, for this artificial, very easily understandable kind of sentence, no, he or she always uses always very, very long, fluent word combinations – this is very fragile, but fluent, you can't cut it …"
This very much so applies to “Zone” where our “protagonist” is finding his “own sentence”, a 521 page sentence trying to make sense of his life to date, his future, his lovers, his horrors, his reading habits, the people on the train with him, whatever is entering Francis’ mind…
Living shut up inside yourself harried destitute full of memories I’m not taking this trip for nothing, I’m not curling up like a dog on this seat for nothing, I’m going to save something I’m going to save myself despite the world that persist in going forward laboriously at the speed of a handcar operated by a man with one arm, blindly a train at night in a tunnel the dark even denser I had to sleep for a bit, if only I had a watch, I just have a telephone, it’s in my jacket hanging on the hook, but if I take it out I’ll be tempted to see if I have any messages and to send one, always this passion for writing into the distance, sending signs into the ether like smoke signals gestures with no object arms hands stretching out to nothingness, to whom could I send a message, from this prepaid phone that I took care to get a tramp to purchase for me in return for a big tip, as luck would have it he had an identity card and wasn’t too wasted, the seller didn’t cause any trouble, I left my apartment dropped off a few things at my mother’s sold my books in bulk to a bookseller at the Porte de Clignancourt took three or four things, as I was sorting through things I of course came across some photos, I saw Andrija again in his over-sized uniform, Marianne in Venice, Sashka at twenty in Leningrad, La Risiera camp in Trieste, the square chin of Clobocnik, Gerben’s mustache, I took everything, and I can say that everything I own is above me in a slightly scaled-down bag, next to the little brief-case that’s going to the Vatican and that I plan to hand over as soon as I reach Rome, then tonight in my room at the Plaza on the Via del Corso I’ll go drink at the hotel bar until it closes and tomorrow morning I’ll take a bath buy myself a new suit I’ll be another man I’ll call Sashka or I’ll go straight to her place I’ll ring at her door and God knows what will happen
As you can probably gather, this is not an easy read, following a person’s thoughts on a six hundred kilometre train journey, the length of sections matching the length of the train journey. As I said before a 521 page sentence, but there are a few “breaks”, our protagonist reads another book (a book within the book) and those short sections are punctuated, these sections contain hard returns as well, highlighting the restrictive form of the written, published form, you are suddenly drawn to the limitations imposed by punctuation, the flow, the spell is broken.
This book is “a journey with the journey, to ward off fatigue, thoughts, the shaky train and memories – warrior, spy, archaeologist of madness, lost now with an assumed name between Milan and Rome”
The circular narrative as Francis returns to his former loves, his former war crimes, his memories of war atrocities, spellbinds you, as a reader you are drawn into his amphetamine soaked mind, you pick up the rhythm of the train travel, you wonder if the two-hour journey ahead of you matches the two hours from one Italian city to the next:
Take into consideration the pain of Francis the suitcase-carrier huddled in this first-class seat, crushed by alcohol fatigue amphetamines the dead and the living as if he could no longer stop his brain his thoughts the dark landscape rushing by
In the words of Mathias Enard (though the thoughts of Francis of course) “sometimes you come across books that resemble you, they open up your chest from chin to navel, stun you” this is one of those works. Be bold, push ahead, take the journey with Francis from Milan to Rome, you won’t be disappointed.
And as you now know I rated this work above the official (and Shadow Jury’s) winner, but our Shadow judging of the Prize is done as a Jury, not as a single judge, so I’ll cop the fact that others didn’t agree with me. However I can say this is a book that will change your thinking of what literature can achieve, a monumental work, one that needs to be experienced.