I remember the day Andrija the invincible collapsed for the first time, the warrior of warriors whom we’d never seen without his shell: around Vitez, one morning like all the others in a village like all the others, when tensions were at their height with the Muslims, a warm morning, a little misty, a munitions transport going north, a few kilometres from Travnik the deadly beauty one fine morning with a smell of spring, with Sergeant Mile and Vlaho the crazy driver at the steering wheel, I don’t remember why we stopped near that building, probably because there was a corpse on the threshold, an old man, an entire cartridge clip in his head and chest, machine-gunned from quite close up and his dog too, a Croatian house, the door was open, a smell of incense wafted out as from a church, a dark interior and wood furniture, shutters closed they must have been shot at night, the guy and his mutt, why had he opened his door, why had he gone out, Mile signed to us, a trembling orangey light was coming from a room in the back, a tiny fire, something’s burning, all three of us move towards it, Vlaho remains behind to watch the entrance, a big bedroom with candles everywhere, dozens of candles still lit and on the double bed an old lady stretched out her hands on her chest a black or dark-grey dress her eyes closed and I don’t understand, Andrija takes off his helmet as a sign of respect, he takes off his helmet sighs and mumbles something, Mile and I imitate him without understanding, all three of us are in the process of watching over an old woman who doesn’t know she’s a widow, that her husband who lit all these candles for her was shot with his dog on his doorstep by unknown men or neighbours, she has heard nothing, on her deathbed, not the machine-gun volleys outside, not the footsteps in her house, not the laughter of those who jammed that large crucifix straight upright into the middle of her stomach, its absurd shadow is dancing on the wall next to the lowered faces of Andrija and Mile, bare-headed, and it’s Vlaho’s voice that wakes us up, u kurac, he has just entered the room, fuck, what the hell are you doing here, are we going yes or no, he glances crazily at the grandmother at her desecrated body, I put my helmet back on, Mile puts his helmet on, and we leave like robots not saying a word we climb into the Jeep Andrija sits down next to me he remains silent his eyes gazing into space the tears are beginning to flow onto his cheeks he gently wipes them away with his sleeve, he doesn’t sob he looks at the countryside the houses the trees I watch him he cries like a silent fountain without hiding it, why, he’s seen lots of corpses, young, old, male, female, burnt black, cut into pieces, machine-gunned, naked, dressed or even undressed by an explosion, why this one, Andrija will die a few weeks later, he’ll have time to avenge his own tears, to cauterise his tears in the flames, to ravage enemy bodies in turn, houses, families, exulting with Ajax son of Telamon, with Ulysses in the ruins of Troy, Andrija the furious was avenging that unknown grandmother he never mentioned again, I still have in my mind’s eye the shadow of Christ on the flowered wallpaper, in the gleam of the candles, nothing had been disturbed, no vengeful inscription on the walls, nothing, it was a strange miracle this crucifix stuck God knows how into the flesh of this old woman, Andrija upset without showing it by this sign, Sergeant Mile didn’t say anything either, Eduardo Rózsa cracked too one day, and Millán-Astray, and Achilles son of Peleus, one day one fine day when nothing prepared you for it, and I too, I cracked, fissured like a clay wall slowly drying, in Venice it was a collapse followed by ghostly wandering through the hallways of the Zone, you die many times and today in this train all the names in this secret suitcase draw me to the bottom like the cinderblock attached to the legs of a prisoner thrown into the Tiber or the Danube, in the middle of middle-class Emilia, a train where the travellers are all sitting nicely, a car of passengers ignoring each other, pretending not to see the fate they share, these shared kilometres entrusted to the Great Conductor friend of model railways of halberds and of the end of the world, some facing forward and others with their back to their destination, like me, their gaze turned to the rear, to black night, to Milan the departure station: Millán-Astray Franco’s friend, the thin one-eyed one-armed general the Legionary responsible for splendid massacres in Morocco had a guilty passion for decapitation, he liked to slit the darkie’s throat with a bayonet, that was his weakness, not to say his hobby, in 1920 he founded the Spanish Foreign Legion, after a stay in Sidi Bel Abbès with the French who are always proud of their military cunning, a natural colonial mutual aid, the French Legionnaires made a great impression on Millán who was neither one-eyed nor one-armed at the time, just obsessed, fascinated with death, Millán formed his Legion in Morocco for Spain to which the poor, the hoodlums, the banished from all over Europe rushed, and he welcomed them singing them hymns—the Spanish Legionaries whom I came across in Iraq looked like young newlyweds dressed for their weddings, they sang while they marched quickly, soy el novio de la muerte, to their nuptials like those of their ancestors in Africa, to whom Millán said you are dead, full of lice, vulgar, you are dead and you owe this new life to death, you will live again by giving death, as good fiancés you will serve, pay court to the Reaper with passion, hand Lady Death the scythe, sharpen it buff it polish it brandish it in her place in Morocco first then after the beginning of Franco’s anti-Red crusade on the very soil of the homeland, in Andalusia, in Madrid then on the Ebro in the last great offensive, in Morocco against the bloody Berbers tamers of mares, in the military disasters of the Spanish protectorate that allowed the ephemeral creation of the first independent republic in Africa, the natives’ Republic of the Rif, the republic of Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi whose creased, yellowed bank bills you can still find at the second-hand stores in Tétouan, Abd el-Krim the hero, the gravedigger of Spaniards was on the point of losing Melilla after the disaster of the Battle of Annual in July 1921 where 10,000 poorly armed, malnourished Spanish soldiers perished, without leaders and without discipline, one of the most resounding military blunders after the Somme and the Chemin des Dames, which would make the liberal monarchy of Alfonso XIII the Roman exile tremble: did he know, in his room in the Grand Hotel on the Piazza Esedra, with his collection of slippers and his princely visits, that his enemy of the time, the Berber cadi with the ponies, had found asylum in Cairo, at the court of King Farouk the anglophile: I picture him smoking a hookah by the Nile, for years, until, one day in 1956, the new king of independent Morocco suggested he return home—he refuses, maybe because he likes Nasser and Tahia Kezem too much, or maybe because he prefers to have his blood sucked by Cairo mosquitoes rather than by a Sharifian king, he dies without ever seeing his country again or holding a weapon, aside from a 9-millimetre Campo Giro picked up from the mutilated corpse of General Silvestre, commander of the Rif Army, the buffalo-horn-plated butt of which, smooth and scratchless, bears the arms of Alfonso XIII sent into exile by the defeat of his general and his brand-new pistol, Silvestre the murdered with the undiscoverable scattered body, replaced by the brothers Franco Bahamonde and Juan Yagüe, eagles with poetic names, and their elder brother Millán-Astray with the absent eye, to whom his legionaries offered pretty wicker baskets garnished with decapitated Berber heads, to his great delight, just as before him, around 1840, Lucien de Montagnac, a colonel who was also one-armed, the pacifier of Algeria, staved off colonial boredom by decapitating Arabs like artichokes—I suddenly see Henryk Ross’s photo of the Łódź ghetto, a crate full of men’s heads next to another larger one where the headless bodies are piled up, that would have delighted Astray the one-eyed or Montagnac the ill-tempered, admirers of the samurais with the slender swords and of those saints who carried their own decapitated heads: long after his wars, Millán-Astray the bird of prey translated the Japanese Bushidō into Spanish, code of honour and of honourable death, of decapitation of the conquered soldier, law of the friend who slices your neck and thus saves you from suffering, just as the French revolutionaries adopted the guillotine for its democratic painless aspect, a king’s death for everyone, the leader’s rolling in a basket, whereas before the Revolution decapitation was reserved for nobles, with commoners dying in spectacular torments, drawn and quartered or burnt for the most part, if they survived questioning—in Damascus not long ago they hanged opponents from immense streetlights on the Square of the Abbasids, from the raised basket used in Paris to trim trees, I remember one day a hanged man who had stayed up too long ended up being decapitated from his body and fell his head rolled between the cars provoking an accident which caused one more death, an innocent little girl, probably just as innocent as the guy whose shoulderless face had frightened the driver, also innocent, just as there are lots of innocent men among the killers in the suitcase, as many as there are among the victims, murderers rapists throat-slitters ritual decapitators who learned to handle their knives on lambs or sheep, then Zeus did the rest, in Algeria my Islamists were the world champions of decapitation, in Bosnia the mujahideen killed their prisoners in the same way, the way you bleed an animal, and my own entrance to the Boulevard Mortier bore the sign of seven monks’ heads abandoned in a ditch, I can’t escape decapitation, these faces pursue me, up to Rome and Caravaggio with his head of Goliath David’s fist closed in the bloody hair or in the so-refined Palazzo Barberini Judith with her sword in Holofernes’s throat, the blood gushes so nicely, the beautiful widow looks both disgusted and resigned as she severs the carotid artery, the servant holds the bag that will surround the damp relic its eyes wide open, its hair sticky, a somber image among the religious scenes, the Saints Jerome, the portraits of bishops become popes, the innocent girls wild Judith neatly beheads the Babylonian general, to save her people in the same way Salome obtained the head of the Baptist, beheaded in his cell by a brutal guard, with a thick knife, as shown by Caravaggio, again, on the immense canvas in the cathedral of the Order of the Knights of St John in Malta, summer of 1608, when the order was incorporated, a year after arriving in the impregnable island, forty years after the Ottoman siege when Jean de Valette shot Turkish heads out of his cannons like cannonballs, to frighten the enemy, Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio the Milanese would have liked to die beheaded, he died ill on a beach in Argentario, facing the grey sea that he had never painted, or that he had always painted, in the dark immensities where the bodies of beautiful boys and saints are born, of murderers prostitutes soldiers disguised as saints, Caravaggio great master of darkness and decapitation
This is an excerpt from Mathias Enard’s Zone, a novel ‘written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence’. It will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in August 2014.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot, and many other distinguished authors. She has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone.