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Zone

Zone is a contemporary Homeric epic, 500 pages of one sentence–and it works. Enard’s message is that no matter where the conflict takes place and what the issues are, the human atrocities are the same. Therefore, the style allows for the account of one savage leader and his victims to bump up against others with not even a comma in between:

Zone is a contemporary Homeric epic, 500 pages of one sentence–and it works. Enard’s message is that no matter where the conflict takes place and what the issues are, the human atrocities are the same. Therefore, the style allows for the account of one savage leader and his victims to bump up against others with not even a comma in between:

all those faces are superimposed on each other now, the
terrified the decapitated the burned the bullet-pierced
eaten by dogs or foxes the amputated the broken the calm
the tortured the hanged the gassed, mine and others’ the
photographs and memories the heads without bodies the
arms without bodies the dead eyes they all have the same
features, it’s all of humanity one icon the same face the
same sensation of pressure in your eardrums the same long
tunnel where you can’t breathe, an infinite train a long march
of the guilty of victims of terror and revenge

For those squeamish about gory details, they are too many and too brief for any to cause nightmares. And there is a hook to keep us reading beyond a morbid fascination. But the reader will never think of the most picturesque tourist spots like Corfu, Venice (its foggy, mildewy beauty, as the most freezing Mediterranean city), even Florence and Rome the same way again: we are walking on bones.

For even a reader sensitive to comma splices, this novel flows easily, even though there is not much plot with our being in the mind of the main character throughout. Francis Servain Mirkovic—a warrior for Croatian independence and afterwards a French Intelligence Officer who collected Mediterranean stories of atrocities—is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. There the Vatican will pay him his “pieces of silver” for his suitcase of stories. At that point, he dreams of being free of the Zone, the organization which had him seek out the stories from the areas between Barcelona and Beirut. However, besides reliving his contacts with his dangerous and cruel contacts, some smiling and pleasant–he wonders what his future will hold. The train goes in and out of dark tunnels while he unfolds the suitcase’s dark contents and gradually even his life.

What stand out are his two warrior friends, Andrija and Vlaho, with whom the song “the three drummer boys coming back from war” fits. But even more vivid are his three girlfriends Marianne and Stephanie, both of whom he breaks from brutally, so that only the “distant” Sashka can he dream of reconnecting with in Rome. In his “long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior,” he is often drunk.

The hook is the question as to whether he can escape the Zone considering how much he knows. He has changed his life three times, but this time he has erased his identity and adopted that of a childhood friend Yvan Deroy, now insane in an institution. Will he die like his friend Andrija? Where can he go to escape his memories, the weight of that suitcase, even after its delivery to the Vatican?

Famous writers like William Burroughs and Malcolm Lowry appear because of their brutal acts against their wives. Plus songs—Sinatra’s “My Way” along with “Lili Marleen” metamorphose in different places and finally in Guantanamo. Caravaggio, the painter, is repeatedly mentioned for his fascination with decapitation and death. But the most consistent allusions are to the classics—such as Achilles, Zeus, even Dante, right up to the end:

I thought about all those movements in the Zone, ebb
flow, exiles, chasing other exiles, according to the victories
and defeats, the power of weapons and the outlines of
frontiers, a bloody dance, an eternal interminable
vendetta, always, whether they’re Republicans in Spain
fascists in France Palestinians in Israel they all dream of the
fate of Aeneas the Trojan son of Aphrodite, the conquered with
their destroyed cities want to destroy other cities in turn,
rewrite their history, change it into victory

In the beginning, Francis meets a madman in the Milan train station who holds out his right hand and shouts, “comrade one last handshake before the end of the world,” and at the end we come full circle.

This novel might have been more intense with fewer words. With blocks of print, at least there are chapter breaks. However, even Odysseus has a real resolution after he returns home, which is not the case here. Therefore, readers must be aware that the style’s openness means even if there finally is a period, it is not the end of the sentence (in more than one sense of that word).

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