"Zone" by Mathias Enard [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Zone by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Publisher: Open Letter Books
Why This Book Should Win: It’s a 517-page one-sentence novel. (Kind of.) How many other 517-page one-sentence novels have you ever heard of? That’s the kind of monumental project that should be rewarded.
Like with My Two Worlds, this Open Letter title has a pretty fun backstory. I heard about this via a review online and a quote from Claro claiming that it was “the novel of the decade, if not of the century.” (Realizing now that I’m sort of a sucker for respectable authors using that “X is the X of this [long time period]” mode of recommendation. Hmm.)
Anyway, based on a review, a hyperbolic blurb, and a relatively short sample (which erroneously ended with a period, but the less said about that the better), we made an offer on the book right before the Frankfurt Book Fair. Of course, the French publisher was hoping for a bidding war (they always are) and some Exorbitant Big Press Advance (who isn’t?), so they held our offer in check. Aannnddd then the economy collapsed and the Jonathan Littell book underperformed and the idea of a 517-page one-sentence novel sounded like a Bad Business Decision.
Which was awesome for us. Rights secured, we told Publishers Weekly who ran this as a notable Frankfurt acquisition, which led to the Chicago Tribune running this piece, cautiously titled: “The Longest Literary Sentence,” and which contained the dumbest quote (or at least one of the ten dumbest?) I’ve ever given:
But is the record-setter gibberish? Not at all, says Post.
“It’s told from inside this guy’s mind as he takes a train trip,” he says. “It has a lot of commas.”
Lot of . . . Jesus. Well, it does have commas by the truckful, and semicolons, em-dashes, and a whole slew of non-period punctuation. (Except the hyphellipses. If only . . .)
Anyway, that all happened well in advance of publishing the book. And in terms of the book itself, this truly is Epic Literature. It’s about the violence in the latter part of the twentieth century and is narrated by a former information agent who has decided to give it all up and is on a 517-kilometer long train ride to hand over all his secrets to the Vatican. During the train ride he has a little time to think, about his wartime experiences, about info gathering, about women he’s been with, about, well, basically everything. He also reads a book while he’s on the train, which serves as the sort of clinamen to this whole “one-sentence” thing.
But speaking of that—I may have praised it above, using this unique trait as a reason why this book deserves the BTBA, but in a way, I wish we never had to talk about it. Zone is not a gimmick. It is a fully realized, amazingly ambitious novel. As you read it and fall into Francis Servain Mirkovic’s mind, you witness an author going for it all, like authors never seem to do anymore . . . which is really why this book deserves the award.
Here’s what Stephen Burn said about it in the New York Times:
Near midnight on a Friday in April 1854, Gustave Flaubert wrote one of his many letters to Louise Colet. Flaubert had spent days hidden away in his Croisset retreat, researching theories of clubfoot and discarding pages from the manuscript of “Madame Bovary,” and he told Colet that he had come to the conclusion that “the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time. They knew everything.” This conception — the novel that knows everything — would come to obsess Europe’s modernist writers, who dreamed that a narrative of infinite detail and esoteric knowledge could blur the boundaries between traditional genres, with fiction shading into nonfiction, poetry bleeding into history.
At other times and in other places, similar ambitions can be found, but it is a specifically modernist legacy that obsesses the French writer Mathias Énard in his novel “Zone.” Like Flaubert and James Joyce, Énard seems to have found a model for his omnivorous novel in the Homeric epic, while Ezra Pound’s ghost also haunts “Zone.” Énard describes Pound’s “Cantos” as “magical,” and it seems significant that in a canto beginning with an invocation to “poor old Homer,” Pound reflects on a voice “weaving an endless sentence,” because in “Zone” — aside from three excerpts from an imagined Palestinian fiction — Énard takes up the challenge of writing an endless sentence by including only one period in his long novel. This ambitious gamble won Énard considerable praise in France, and now, with Charlotte Mandell’s lucid translation, readers of English can evaluate his text and larger mythic framework.
But don’t take our collective words for it, check out this sample to get a sense of this amazing novel.
Or just watch this: