Zone

Critics and theorists from Goethe on have fantasized about a stateless pan-European literature. These fantasies have surged as the EU searches for a common cultural identity beyond its single currency and Eurovision. Yet in practice, pan-European literature has more often tracked the spread of violence across European borders. In Zone, 38-year-old French novelist Mathias Enard crosses historical allusions reminiscent of W. G. Sebald with the breathless grammatical style pioneered by Pierre Guyotat, ultraviolent chronicler of the ultraviolence of the Algerian War, in order to tell the tale of a French Croatian who enlists as a hired gun in the Yugoslav Civil War. Stateless and hunted, the narrator moves through the cracks of the EU system, a powerful reminder of the persistent seductions of epic violence, the poems of force that remain close to the heart of 21st-century Europe. Translated by Charlotte Mandell for Open Letter Press, the English edition will be published in its entirety this December.

After my two years of war I’ve never been so free, I own nothing now, not even my real name — 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 18th arrondissement 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 on the internet from a cybercafé on the Champs-Élysées, 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 changes 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 airplane ticket he didn’t use and now he’s playing at making out the landscape in the gathering dusk, far from Venice from Alexandria from Cairo from Marianne with the white breasts a little closer to the end of the world thirty kilometers from Milan where Bonaparte rested for a few days in the middle of his first Italian campaign, in a magnificent palace confiscated from I forget whom, Milan whose train station so resembles the pharaonic temples that the same Bonaparte conquered before launching ever further into the Syrian expedition and the disaster of the siege of Saint-Jean d’Acre, Yvan Deroy the mad or catatonic schizophrenic committed in a specialized institution in L’Haÿ-les-Roses, in the asylum they used to say — Yvan emerges from his lethargy only to shout and assault the staff and the other patients violently, to try to kill them for they are his enemies, he shouts, they wish him harm he is simply defending himself nothing more no mystical flights of fancy no voices no hallucinations Yvan emerges from his semi-comatose state only into the pure violence of a wild animal according to the phases of the moon or the changing course of his treatment, and this has been so for almost twenty years despite the quantity of medication he has taken he resists his sickness resists therapy, he is me now Yvan had a shaved head the time he raised his right arm in salute wanted to put an end to democratic corruption the servants of Bolshevism and international Jewry, he went to church on Sundays to hand out pamphlets to middle-class housewives whom he frightened more than anything else, he read Brasillach and every February 6th visited his grave with the other militants to celebrate the martyr and promise revenge for the victim of Gaullist injustice and Jewish hatred, Yvan and I visited Maurice Bardèche official fascist who offered us a volume of his pro-Franco history of the Spanish War written in collaboration with Brasillach — Yvan Deroy went mad, I forgot him as I went through normal military training then paratrooper military training and finally all possible military trainings before going to serve France, volunteer for a long period of service they said at the time, months slogging around in the mountains, team spirit songs weapons marches nighttime commandos grenades light artillery a hard happiness shared with comrades I was more than a little proud to come back on leave and share my naïve martial exploits, the kid from Arès was still just a puppy on parade, in training, on maneuvers in the South of France, on maneuvers in the North of France, on maneuvers in the Alps always happy to have a life so full of weapons honor and fatherland, sweating in the mountains on the Saint Bernard Pass with Hannibal and Bonaparte who didn’t get blisters, mounted on their elephants or their horses, Hannibal the Tunisian was inches away from succeeding, Rome trembled, Bonaparte succeeded, Austria capitulated — Yvan Deroy remembers today in this train that his parents were proud of him, that those fervent Catholics thought of his army as a scout camp that would fortify body and soul, his mother whispered in his ear, prophetically, don’t forget, your homeland is also Croatia, I wanted to go into politics enroll in Sciences-Po once my time of service was over I had a knack for contemporary history tenacious and hardworking everything would smile down on me even Marianne who without sharing my right-wing opinions came from a good Christian family, Yvan Deroy has just crossed the Alps one more time while his actual body languishes, waiting for the end of the world prostrate in a wheelchair — now I’m traveling incognito while still being “legal” a good suitcase-carrier invisible in the crowd of identities and minor bank transactions, Yvan Deroy, impossible to sleep effect of the half-amphetamine I took this morning to hold out after having snored for two hours good and drunk like an imbecile I missed the plane and even more stupidly I rushed over to the train instead of waiting for the next flight, now I’m hungry, a little, maybe I should go eat or drink something we’re traveling very fast it’s drizzling a little this December evening I remember the long nights of the Croatian autumn, the corn fields are the same the rain too in Slavonia around Osijek in 1991 we were freezing in our hunting jackets and despite all my military training and my alpine exploits I was afraid, I was the most experienced of my companions and I was afraid, in the name of well-greaved Achilles I trembled from fear clinging to my Kalashnikov the best weapon in our squad that they’d entrusted to me because of my military experience my Croatian was rudimentary I said little cannon for mortar shell bullets for cartridge group for section not to mention regiments battalions units that I still mix up, fortunately there was Andrija, Andrija the lion had courage to spare, he was a farmer from around Osijek he fished for pike and carp in the Drava and the Danube with which his mother cooked a mean terribly spicy fish stew smelling of mud — I must be hungry to be thinking of that now, the best meal I ever had I still owe to Andrija, one night around Christmastime, we were exhausted and chilled to the bone in the mostly destroyed farm that served as HQ for us we began drinking ljiva to get warm four hundred meters away Chetniks were snug in their shelters nothing very new on the front not many shells a few explosions as if to keep us warm — no one likes handling mortars in the cold and the rain the cartridge cases slip from your gloved hands you flounder in the mud the barrel always sinks down into it a little and makes the shot go wrong, better stay snug inside four walls despite the leaks and the drafts, we drink then drunk two hours later we’re dying of hunger, no desire to eat canned food, a desire for a celebration, Andrija takes my hand he says come come I know where there’s a fantastic dinner and suddenly we’re out in the rain slogging between the mines in the middle of fields in the dark holding our assault rifles, he leads me to the western end of the sector almost in front of our lines — stop they’ll mistake us for Serbs, we’ll get ourselves blown away, shh, he replies, he points to a ruined farm on the other side, the Chetnik side: there are pigs there beautiful pigs what can we do with a pig I said, we’ll eat it you idiot we hear an explosion and the night lights up and whistles, the night lit up blue, we dove into the mud — our own people had spotted us, God knows how, and logically thought we were Serbs, demented Serbs strolling about in the rain in the midst of enemy mines, they were probably going to fire one or two more shells to be safe, Andrija began crawling toward the pigs, the Chetniks, and dinner, fortunately the mine field was ours up to the road, we were pretty much in familiar territory, the earth was soaking it stuck to our stomachs a little 40mm mortar exploded somewhere behind us how could there still be pigs in a bombarded farm by the edge of the road that separated us from the enemy, I heard them when we set the mines Andrija replies, having reached the asphalt we wait a few minutes, the silence is complete, we cross, on the other side about two hundred meters away are the Serbian positions — we can see a few vague lights between the hedges, we swig some liquor to warm ourselves up and full to the brim of ljiva not worrying about the landmines the enemy might have put there we approached the ruined farm, listened for a long time and in fact we heard the snorts and grunts of animals that had smelled our presence, and now what, how are we going to find a fucking black pig in the dark? Andrija began laughing, uncontrollable laughter his hand on his mouth, unable to stop, he tried to control himself and his hiccups sounded like a pig’s squeal, which made him laugh even harder, they must have heard his animal-like hiiichiiic kilometers away in the silence — stop, your noises are going to make the Chetniks hungry, I said, and Andrija almost crapped in his pants from laughing, we were there in the dark drunk as pigs in the middle of no man’s land stretched out in the mud in the rain in front of a bombed farm the Serbs two hundred meters away at most, so drunk we didn’t even hear the Croatian shell set off that fell a scant twenty meters away, the sudden abrupt explosion flecked us with dirt, Andrija’s laughter suddenly stopped, come on, he said, we’ll go get the fucking animal and we’ll get back, the Serbs began to return fire, we spotted mortars being fired just in front of us, 80s, we’d end up stuck there between two lines of fire with no dinner, it must have been almost midnight we carefully went round the shack and in the flash of a nearby explosion we discovered an enormous sow stuck in an improvised corral, mad from the shells she was turning round in circles like a goose Andrija began laughing again, laughing uncontrollably, how are we going to carry this colossus we’ll have to cut it up on the spot, he went over to the animal took out his bayonet the sow tried to bite him and began squealing when the knife slashed her fat, I was seized with mad laughter too, despite the bombardment, despite the Chetniks who must have been thinking about preparing an attack I had in front of me a soldier black with wet mud dagger in hand in the process of running after a crazy animal in the roar of explosions, a machine gun began firing on the Serbian side, Andrija took advantage of it to shoot a bullet from his Kalashnikov into the animal 7.62 too small caliber to drop the pig he’d have to hit it in the head it went on squealing even louder as it limped Andrija the bloodthirsty madman ended up knocking it onto its back knife between his teeth like the Bolsheviks in the Nazi propaganda posters, Andrija straddled his pig like a pony I felt sick to my stomach I was laughing so hard, he ended up reaching the carotid with his blade the sow fell grunting in a gurgling puddle of black blood, around us the battle was raging, an exchange of artillery and machine gun volleys — we finished off the flask of ljiva and the dying animal before hurling ourselves onto it bayonets in hand to cut ourselves a thigh apiece which took us at least a quarter of an hour of steady effort especially to detach the bone from its socket, in the meantime the artillery duel ended in a scoreless tie, we just had to go back and crawl for a good half of the way dragging the animal’s legs that must have weighed almost fifteen kilos each — we arrived soaking wet exhausted stinking of shit so covered in mud manure and blood that our comrades thought we were fatally wounded, finally when we fell from exhaustion into a dreamless sleep, on the ground, Andrija still amorously clinging to a sow’s ear like a child with his rattle — the next day it was pouring out we roasted the two thighs in a fire of damp wood and the gods were so happy with this porcine burnt offering that they protected us from the shells that the Serbs rained down on us all day, enticed by the smell: the smell in the wind cruelly reminded them that we had relieved their mascot of its two hind legs, Andrija all throughout the war kept “the Chetnik ear” dried and hairy in his pocket, so that new recruits thought with horror that he actually possessed a monstrous human relic torn from the enemy, Andrija I miss you, two years we lived together two years from Slavonia to Bosnia from Osijek to Vitez and Herzegovinan Mostar, Andrija funny brutal great soldier a crummy shot: back from my investigation in Prague not long ago I take the night train for Paris via Frankfurt, last car, last compartment, a man in his 50s is already sitting there, he’s eating a sandwich, it is eight o’clock at night, his head is round and bald, he’s wearing a gray suit he looks like an accountant, he greets me politely in Czech between two mouthfuls, I reply just as politely, I settle in, the train leaves the Prague station on time, I mechanically play with a little crystal star prettily wrapped in red tissue paper, souvenir of Bohemia — once he’s finished his sandwich my companion extracts a thick paperback volume from his luggage, a kind of catalogue he begins consulting feverishly, jumping from one page to the other, one finger on columns of numbers, then back to the previous page, he looks at his watch before looking angrily out the window, it’s dark out, he can’t see anything, he goes back to his book, he often looks at me, questioningly, he’s burning to ask me a question, he asks me do you know if the train is stopping in Tetschen? or at least that’s what I understand him to say, I jabber in German that I have no idea, but it probably will, that’s the last Czech city before the border, on the Elbe, the man speaks German, he agrees with me, the train must stop in Tetschen, even if it doesn’t take on any passengers there, wissen Sie, he says, if we got out in Tetschen, we could get on the freight train that left Brno this afternoon a little before five o’clock, it would leave us in Dresden around two in the morning and we could catch this very train which isn’t supposed to leave before 2:45, it’s incredible, don’t you agree — I agree, the man continues, his catalogue is actually a giant railroad timetable, there are all the trains here, do you understand, all, it’s a little complicated to use but when you get the hang of it it’s practical, it’s for railroad professionals, for instance we’ve just passed a train going in the other direction it’s 9:23 well I can tell you where it’s coming from and where it’s going, if it’s a passenger train or a freight train, with such a book you never get bored when you travel in a train, he says seeming very happy, how come he doesn’t know if the train is stopping in Tetschen, well it’s very simple, very simple, see, the stop is in parentheses, which means it’s optional, but the stop is indicated, so we have the possibility of stopping in Tetschen, we had another possibility for a stop a few minutes ago and you never realized a thing, you didn’t even notice that we could have stopped there, wir hatten die Gelegenheit, you see this book is wonderful, it allows you to know what we could have done, what we could do in a few minutes, in the next few hours, even more, the little Czech man’s eyes light up, all eventualities are contained in this schedule, they are all here — the train’s engineer has only to consult it, I’ll give you an example, I know you’re going to Paris and so you are going to change in Frankfurt to take the 8:00 am Intercity, in the meantime you’ll have eaten Brötchen and a sausage in the train station, then when you arrive you’ll certainly go to your home on 27 rue Eugène-Carrière in the 18th arrondissement of Paris where you’ll arrive tired at 3:23 in the afternoon, you’ll set down your bags take a quick shower and two options will then occur to you, go to the office immediately or wait till the next morning, each possibility will have its advantages and its disadvantages, if you go to the Boulevard Mortier you won’t be home when someone rings your doorbell at 5:48 pm, but if you stay, the intervention of this young person and the news she brings will make you forget one part of the information to be included in that secret file, that list of dead people you’ve been gathering for some time now by using more or less illegally the means that Foreign Security puts at your disposal, you see everything is written here, pages 26, 109 et passim, in either case, whether you’re there or not, the next connection will be on page 261 in the timetable, the Venice-Budapest express, where you’ll get drunk and sing “Three Drummer Boys,” then on page 263 you’ll get into a freight car headed for the Jasenovac extermination camp on the Sava River, then on page 338 into a Benghazi-Tripoli train, you see, the Tangier-Casablanca express is on page 361, all that will bring you to page 480 and the loss of a kid you won’t know, and so on, your whole life is there, many connections will bring you quietly, almost without your knowing it, to a final Pendolino train diretto Milano-Roma that will carry you to the end of the world

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