Milan-Rome, before the end of the world
Emmanuel Vigier - 15/03/2009
One October morning on top of the Canebière, in Marseilles, in the heart of the Zone, in the heart of the Mediterranean, Mathias Enard is travelling, having left for three months to meet with his readers. The Zone, is the vast geographical and historic territory, that is title, décor and subject of the novel. The Zone scopes from Gaza to Sarajevo, passing by Beirut, Algiers, Mostar, Venice, Trieste, Taormina, Barcelona, Rhodes…Marseilles appears on page 257: (...)en 1945, embarquaient à Marseille les troupes coloniales françaises démobilisées après la victoire, les goumiers du Maroc, les tabors, les tirailleurs algériens, et dix ans plus tard ce sera le tour du contingent français de s'y embarquer pour aller combattre les fellagas en Algérie, mouvement de va-et-vient guerrier qui remplace la marée (...) (t: “[…] in 1945, in Marseilles, the French colonial troops demobilised after the victory, were embarking the Goumier soldiers from Morocco, the Tabors, the Algerian infantry, and ten years later it was to be the turn of the French conscripts to embark, to go and fight the Fellagas in Algeria, a back and forth movement of war that replaced the tide […]). Marseilles, where the king of Yugoslavia died in 1934, a murder that long resounded in the family history of the hero of “Zone”; the traveller, the storyteller, the grandson of a Fascist Croat Franjo Mirković, "an Ustasha from the outset”. In this family, heritage is a burden. It’s hard to find out what the hero’s father did in Algeria, “the engineer specialised in bathtubs”. Francis Servain Mirković, also has a shady past – he fought in the Croatian army during the wars that tore former Yugoslavia apart – and his present is made of missions in dangerous areas of the Zone, a land of conflicts, clashes, crises, political murders and endless wars. (...) je m'enfonçais dans la zone sans passion mais avec une curiosité grandissante pour les agissements des dieux courroucés (...) (t: “[…] I kept going into the zone dispassionately, but I grew curious of what the angry gods would do […])”.
A suitcase full of stories
Francis Servain Mirković is probably taking his last trip. An intelligence agent, he’s in a train between Milan and Rome. His thoughts wander, around the books he read, his ghosts, his memories as an erudite secret agent. On the next day, he will submit to the Vatican the fruit of years of investigation, figures and names, black lists. (...) la petite valise discrètement menottée est toujours au dessus de mon siège, qu'est ce qu'elle contient en réalité, qu'est ce que j'y ai mis, tous ces mots, tous ces destins croisés, le monde entier, un foetus dans un bocal de formol, l'essence de la tragédie, l'énergie de la vengeance (...) (t: […] the small suitcase discreetly handcuffed placed under my seat, what does it really carry, what did I put in it, all those words, all those destinies I crossed, the whole world, a foetus in formaldehyde jar, the essence of tragedy, the energy of revenge […]). Francis has a lot to say, many stories in his suitcase. How did this character come to existence that the reader hangs on to for more than 500 pages? “I had many notes, and recordings…Many stories in my head…Everything started maybe in 1996-97, I was professor in French in Syria, in a village of the South. I was told many things back then. Later on, in 1999, I participated to a conference dedicated to the Iran-Iraq war. I met some veterans, I listened to them”.
Mathias Enard filled his suitcase with stories gathered along his journey through the Mediterranean, in the Zone. He abandoned his thesis on contemporary Arabic and Farsi poetry. He lived in Beirut, published his first novel, “La perfection du tir”. He is now settled in Barcelona. Became interpreter, translator, dubbing translator and teaches French or Farsi. The suitcase gets heavier. Thanks to a residency at the Villa Medici in Rome, in 2005, the “Zone” project starts to take shape. Mathias Enard validates, tallies, investigates, gets imbued in the geography of the places and their history. A trip to the countries, the cities, crossed by his hero and by the hundred characters – real or fictional, crazy writers, anonymous heroes, aging executioners – that populate “Zone. “I had an enormous wall filled with little notes…The incredible thing, is that I kept discovering links between characters or places, curious coincidences that drew them closer…As if the entire perimeter of the Mediterranean was connected by events.”
Ebb and flow
The reader will be tempted: How can he sort out reality from fiction? Who was really Gertrude Bell, the archaeologist spy that conspired for the formation of modern Iraq? Or Frances Boix, Spanish republican, photographer of Mauthausen, with an excerpt of his diary reproduced in the heart of the narrative? The writer sometimes amused himself by completing the missing pages. “I’m much freer than a historian. I can make things up.” Behind the facts and actions of Francis Servain Mirković in the Zone, there’s either History or the present: civil war in the Lebanon, black years in Algeria, occupation of the Palestinian territories, Balkan wars… The Balkans hold a central position in the Zone. “The wars that put an end to Yugoslavia, in Croatia, in Bosnia, during the 90’s, represent the last major conflict in Europe, and involved an important portion of the Mediterranean. It has caused a tearing, a deep wound. The illusion of the construction of Europe…”
Over the successive pages, over the life of the hero, death, often violent death, keeps lurking, tirelessly. (...) je pensais (...) à tous ces mouvements dans la Zone, flux, reflux, exilés qui en chassent d'autres, au gré des victoires, des défaites, de la puissance des armes et du tracé des frontières, une ronde sanglante, une vendetta éternelle et interminable(...) (t: […] I was thinking […] about all those movements within the Zone, the ebbs and flows, exiles chasing away other exiles, over the course of the victories, the defeats, the power of the weapons and the lines of the borders, a bloody round dance, an eternal and endless vendetta […]) Mathias Enard assumes and claims this non complacent view on the Mediterranean: “The beaches, the food, all these images… I’ve had enough, I think, of seeing the Mediterranean reduced to publicity. We need to show that this space is full of contacts, exchanges, and fracture lines…So many things mustn’t be forgotten if we want to unify it…” His character has the same lucidity. Francis Servain Mirković knows every corner of the Zone, its traps, its no ways out, the prisons in Syria and the daily life in Gaza (...) Gaza le fond du fond de la Zone le seul endroit de la Méditerranée où vous ne trouverez pas un seul touriste sur les immenses plages jonchées de barbelés rouillés de bouteilles en plastique de tristesse de misère Gaza l'insensée poursuit sa route vers la fin du monde dans la haine et les cris de vengeance, abandonnée (...) (t: […]Gaza the pit of the Zone, the only place in the Mediterranean where there’s not a tourist to be found on the wide beaches covered in rotten barbed wire, plastic bottles, sadness and misery. Gaza the insane, follows its road to the end of the world amidst hate and cries of vengeance, abandoned […]).
An echo of the Iliad
Mathias Enard is enjoying the success of his book, notably among librarians. However, the style of “Zone” can be disturbing, scary. The French press has largely underlined the particular style of this roman-fleuve, published by Actes Sud: 24 chapters, each composed by a single same sentence, “like a train, that never stops”. The only period of the novel is the final period. “I didn’t want to write a difficult text. I got the idea while taking a train, precisely, between Milan and Rome…” For the reader, this is a new experience. It’s up to him/her to mark the pauses, the silences, within the uninterrupted music of Francis Servain Mirković, his flow of words and thoughts. “Zone” echoes a mythical text of the Mediterranean, the Iliad, also composed of 24 books…
The reader may find similar episodes, matching characters. Once arrived at the Milan station, he will be surprised by the shortness of the trip, still eager to hear more stories, real or false, beautiful or tragic, curious to explore the Zones, eyes wide open…