I OUGHT to begin this review with a confession. Before I started reading Geoff Dyer’s Zona, his account of his almost lifelong obsession with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, I had never seen the 1979 film.
I had, on the other hand, read a great deal by Dyer and had always admired his wit, elegance and sincerity. As with the very best non-fiction writers, the ostensible subject is never also the destination; his essays move both intellectually and emotionally. So it did not seem impudent to read the book first, and watch the film afterwards.
The first point to make about Zona is that, on reaching the end of it, I was desperate actually to watch the film (which in itself was rather problematic: Edinburgh does not seem over-burdened with shops selling Soviet cinematic classics, and I had to borrow it from a library). Watching the film became a double experience. As far as it might be possible, I was watching Dyer’s Stalker at the same time as I was beginning to watch my own version of the film.
It is a wonderfully haunting, enigmatic film, and I could quite understand why Dyer found it such a spellbinding work. Zona is subtitled “a book about a film about a journey to a room”, which neatly summarises it. Stalker agrees to take two men, The Professor and The Writer, to the Zone. Something happened there 20 years previously – a meteorite, perhaps? – and the area is cordoned off and heavily guarded.
The rules of physics seem awry in the Zone (Stalker picks his way in an aleatory fashion, throwing nuts tied to lengths of bandages to chart their route) and at its centre is The Room, a place where your innermost desire comes true. It is, as my wife said half-way through watching it, like the TV series Lost if it had been written by Samuel Beckett.
Dyer is eloquent about his motivation in writing Zona: he is one of the authors for whom “commentary is absolutely central to their own creative project”. But the book is not a work of exegesis. “If mankind were put on earth to create works of art, then other people were put on earth to comment on those works, to say what they think about them. Not to judge objectively or critically assess these works but to articulate their feelings about them with as much precision as possible, without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences, even if those feelings are of confusion, uncertainty or – in this case – undiminished wonder”.
This is exactly what Dyer achieves in Zona. What makes this remarkable is that Stalker constantly hints at allegorical and symbolic meanings. But Dyer does not “reduce” it to a possible meaning, let alone “solve” its mysteries. The film, after reading Dyer’s homage to it, is more mysterious.
As you might expect, there are many opportunities for Dyer not to digress, exactly, but meander. The “reading” of the film is footnoted, and the footnotes frequently develop into a parallel story, switching places with the main text. There are vignettes of different points in his life when he saw the film, another beautifully written and incredibly poignant portrayal of his parents and – as regular readers of Dyer would expect – a disarming frankness.
The central question of Stalker relates to what one’s innermost desire might be. Dyer runs through options ranging from wistful regret for sexual experiences he never had, finding a lost Freitag bag (“it’s not that I believed it would bring me happiness; it was happiness, I realise now, or a component of happiness”), getting on the property ladder or just pottering around.
He can be laugh-out-loud funny, especially when describing himself as one of the “idle Stalins and back-bedroom Lenins, who are prevented from seizing and wielding power only by a chronic lack of drive, determination and power”.
What he does want most is the publication of Zona. There is something charming about Dyer’s openness in charting the vacillations and epic disappointments of the writerly life.
Dyer’s range of references is capacious: one minute he’s comparing a scene to Last Of The Summer Wine, the next he is discussing the theories of Slavoj Zizek. The film’s accreted mythos – did filming near chemical factories lead to Tarkovsky’s death from cancer? – is sketched in with geeky assurance, and there’s a degree of sympathy between Dyer and Tarkovsky’s glorious elitism.
Dyer was recently shortlisted for the Hatchet Prize, awarded to the “angriest, funniest and most trenchant book review” – and his excellent side-swipe at Lars von Trier’s Antichrist shows how pointed he can be.
But what lingers is Dyer’s ability to convey that a great work of art – and Stalker is that – is both in and out of time simultaneously.
Stalker has echoes of the gulag and can be read prophetically about Chernobyl; it is a work which generates meanings rather than exhausts them by specificity. The loveliness of Dyer’s book is that he could write it again in a decade and it would be different again.
• Zona by Geoff Dyer, Canongate, £16.99