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Review: Geoff Dyer Unravels Tarkovsky in 'Zona'

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We’re used to seeing books adapted for the screen. In any given year it seems that at least a quarter of the movie releases have their origins in novels, short stories or comic books. Even TV shows have started to plunder the literary arts for their inspiration. It’s one of cinema’s great truisms that these adapted works never quite live up to the promise of the originals.

To date, the stream hasn’t flowed in the other direction – from movies to the page, with films being adapted into literary works – but if anyone can change that trend it’s Geoff Dyer. There are few points of comparison when it comes to discussing Dyer’s work, a portfolio that includes fiction, autobiography, travel, military history… the list goes on. His latest, Zona, is just as difficult to pin down. Subtitled “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room”, Zona appears on the surface to be a highbrow critique of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece Stalker, a film that’s revered for its dense imagery and cinematic mastery.

It quickly becomes clear, however, as the pages of Zona turn, that this isn’t your typical film critique – it’s barely a critique at all. Instead Dyer offers us an intensely personal homage to the film that has haunted his adult life, a movie that has resonated for him in the most unexpected places. Film students will undoubtedly find Zona infuriatingly subjective, as Dyer’s thoughts turn to his childhood, his mother’s desire for a really nice piece of steak, and his regret at never having had a threesome (an opportunity which has twice been presented to him, if we’re to believe his recollections). What does this have to do with Stalker? At times, very little – but it tells us a lot about Dyer himself, and the ways in which art in general and film in particular can influence and affect our lives.

A scene from Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'.

Zona‘s rambling charm doesn’t end there. Much of the book simply retells Tarkovsky’s film in Dyer’s own words, and in doing so it turns a visual masterpiece into something that comes close to being a literary equivalent. Film is all surface and appearance, but Dyer delves into the imaginary internal lives of Tarkovsky’s characters, ‘adapting’ his source material for a different medium. Zona doesn’t interpret Stalker as much as it transforms it into something wholly new.

Dyer’s only problem is sustaining this unusual tangle of genres for the duration of an entire book, and you may find your interest flagging as some of the footnotes drag out into multiple pages – even the promise of a threesome isn’t able to evoke more than a wry smile. But if students of Tarkovsky’s work will find Zona flabby and incoherent, then fans of Dyer’s witty genre-bending will be hooked from the start. Zona was never meant to be a film critique. Instead it critiques film, art, and even life itself, as Dyer takes us on an unusual journey through obsession and fascination that will make you reassess your own relationship with the big screen. As Dyer himself confesses: “forgetting or not noticing is an authentic and integral part of watching any film – and [Zona] is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection”. When our guide’s rememberings are this witty and informed, however, then we have no cause for complaint.

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer is available now from all good bookstores, and via the Random House website, priced $24.00.