The Two Best Reads of 2010

Last year, I had five books to recommend for the year. This year only two, though I confess, again, that there are other works I have clearly missed. Every critic who comes up with such a list needs to admit to a certain amount of chutzpah as well as basic restrictions of time. Books?especially good books?make a demand on the reader: a reflective response if they are controversial, a leisurely pace if they are imaginative. So I have one of each for this year: Arianna Huffington’s Third World America, which I reviewed in the October 1st issue of CounterPunch, and Mathias ?nard’s Zone, which I write about for the first time.

Huffington’s book was published in early September and ignored by many major reviewing outlets. The New York Times Book Review gave the book a measly one paragraph in an ominous review of several works; The Washington Post, ignored the book completely. A friend of mine who has been connected with almost every administration of the past fifty years has told me that books such as Third World America are political footballs and even so-called left-of-center publications either ignore them or publish a review so vacuous that they might not have been mentioned. In other words, yes there is a vast right-wing conspiracy and it’s out there influencing books such as Huffington’s that expose the abuses of our leaders, the cracks in our country’s foundations.

The sub-title of Huffington’s mind blowing work?”How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream”?tells it all. Huffington meticulously documents the decades-long transference of money from the middle to the upper class, a trickle-up system, supported by anonymous donors (think Koch brothers), as the gap between the elite at the top and everyone else has returned the country to the era of the plutocrats before the stock market collapse in 1929. And the debris along the wayside? Less governmental oversight of American industries, banks, and businesses, denunciations of climate change, massive unemployment with little or no concern for ordinary Americans and the day-to-day struggles of their lives. It’s easy to see why Huffington’s work was so royally ignored. Read it for yourself, give it to your friends?especially every conservative you know.

Mathias ?nard’s Zone arrives with a different set of issues concerning its publication in the United States. Hailed as a masterpiece in Europe?where people, apparently, still read challenging novels?Zone has ended up with an obscure publisher in the United States, virtually guaranteeing minor coverage and few readers. Worse, many younger people these days have the attention span of a flea; they’re too busy with social-networking, which pretty much guarantees that new writers will be unable to build significant followers as their careers unfold. As a teenager and then as a young adult, I remember the excitement I experienced reading recently-translated works of European writers (Robbe-Grillet, Soltenitzen) as they were beginning to be published in the United States. That’s not happening today.

Zone is the an outer narrative of horror and self-discovery, presented as the journey of a French-born Croat, named Francis Servain Mirkovi?, who late in life rides a train from Milan to Rome, 1500 kilometers, one long night after he misses his airplane.

Ostensibly, he’s traveling to Rome with a briefcase full of documents to sell to a representative of the Vatican, for $300,000. The briefcase?which he refers to as “my suitcase of catastrophes”–is full of photos, of official documents, secret reports, memos from generals, vast lists of names: the victims of major twentieth-century atrocities. Genocide, mass murders and executions?of Armenians, Jews during the Holocaust, Algerians, Palestinians, Croatians and Bosnians–“thousands of names of killers and victims, painstakingly annotated,” all the sickening massacres in the Zone, the expanse of land and water from North Africa to Germany and Yugoslovakia.

The zone is also the area of Mirkovi?’s own secret activities, a lifetime of espionage for the French government, beginning in Algeria and concluding with military action in Croatia, where he participated in unspeakable acts of violence and torture. The women he was involved with and left, his comrades in warfare, the “politico-religious madness” he was a part of and supported, but also an act of atonement because Mirkovi? is also a compulsive amateur historian, stuffing his briefcase with documents from country after country, wherever there has been unrest in the twentieth century. He refers to his work as “facing history,” but it might also be “where the bodies are”?the millions of bodies from the war zones of a hundred years.

The vast narrative includes vignettes of the lives of an incredible array of writers and other figures who also faced history by confronting or implementing evil during the century’s endless warfare: George Orwell, Blaise Cendares, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Bell, Lawrence of Arabia, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Albert Speer, Rudolph Hess, Isadora Duncan; but also?and this is what is so uncanny about the novel?in a vast list of supposedly imaginary characters at the end of the novel, ?nard identifies real people “who have entrusted me with their stories?witnesses, victims, or killers, in Barcelona, Beirut, Damascas, Zagreb, Algiers, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Rome, Trieste, Istanbul.”

Epical in scope, Zone further makes use of parallels to warfare in ancient Greece, in Alexandria and Troy?all of Western history from Homer on down. If he had been caught and tried as one of the perpetrators of genocide or the massacres in any one of the areas where he acted, Mirkovi? speculates, “I would have explained the inexplicable, probably I too would have had to go back to the dawn of time, to the frightened prehistoric man painting in his cave to reassure himself, to Paris making off with Helen, to the death of Hector, the sack of Troy, to Aeneas reaching the shores of Latium, to the Romans carrying off the Sabine women, to the military situation of the Croats of central Bosnia in early 1993, to the weapons factory in Vitez, to the trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo that are the father and mother of the one in The Hague?.” Mirkovi?, who travels under the name Yvan Deroy, is Conrad’s Kurtz–not dying in Africa, but returned to tell his own story and, by extension, the tale of all the rest of us who have watched silently as one war after another becomes the modus operandi of modern man.

This amazing, brilliant novel?517 pages in length?is narrated in one continuous sentence, but Mathias ?nard guides the reader with numbered chapters and page references which pinpoint the movement of the train from Milan, through Lodi, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Prato, Florence, and finally Rome. And the stories, the stories within stories, are a veritable feast to the mind: violent, of course, but also beautiful, rich with memorable characters?above all of them Francis Servain Mirkovi?, a contemporary Odysseus, struggling, puzzling to make meaning not only of his own life but the madness of the world around him.

The translation by Charlotte Mandell is seamless?like the narrative itself.

Third World America
By Arianna Huffington
Crown, 276 pp., $23.99

By Mathias ?nard
Open Letter/Univ. of Rochester, 517 pp., $16.95



Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.