Antoine Volodine’s Army of Avatars

Antoine Volodine’s Army of Avatars

Is there any other writer whose work is as strange and hermetic and gloriously, painfully appropriate to the unparalleled shittiness of our times?


I cannot think of any other writer whose work, taken as a whole, is as strange and hermetic and gloriously, hilariously, painfully appropriate to the unparalleled shittiness of our times as that of Antoine Volodine. Or, I should say, of Volodine and his familiars, the multifold mad, hunted, imprisoned, tortured, dreaming, doomed, dying, and frequently dead writers who appear in the pages of his books and who count him among their number, a narrator no more or less fictional than any other.

His confederates include Maria Henkel, author of A Very, Very Artificial Insemination and The Right to Worms, among others; Irina Kobayashi, author of On the Correct Use of the Guillotine at Sunset; Elli Kronauer, who penned Call for a Widespread Revolt and Nothing Else; Manuela Draeger, author of Sleeping Sickness and The Second Mickey; and the prolific Lutz Bassmann, whose many titles include Will Share Soviets With Mummies or More if Agreed, Marmot on Sofa, and A Hilarious Variety of Atomic Wars. Most of these authors appear in Volodine’s books as characters or occasional narrators. Which would all be simply funny, except that Volodine’s heteronyms also intrude into our putatively nonfictive world. Kronauer has published five books in France under her own name; you can find them there in bookshops, shelved with the Ks. Thirteen of Draeger’s short, whimsical works have so far made the transition into materiality. Three were collected in the United States in 2011, in Brian Evenson’s translation, under the title In the Time of the Blue Ball. And four of Bassmann’s books have seen print in France. One of them, We Monks & Soldiers, made the crossing into English with the help of translator Jordan Stump. The spine of last year’s Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11 bears only Volodine’s name. Its title page, though, lists seven other authors, Bassmann among them. And if Bardo or Not Bardo, Volodine’s latest creation to be published stateside, appears to have been written solely by its actual author, keep in mind that he is, as he insists in interviews, a mere “spokesperson” for his various doubles.

Welcome to post-exoticism, the literary movement founded by Volodine’s small army of avatars, defined by one of them (Bassmann again) as “a literature coming from elsewhere and going elsewhere, an alien literature.” The most elegant of its oddities to appear in English so far is surely Minor Angels, which is not to be confused with the foundational post-exotic text of the same name written by one Maria Clementi, who in this Minor Angels—the one you can hold in your hands—appears as a very old woman who has dreamed every year for 1,111 years that she is a man named Will Scheidmann. Scheidmann, for his part, is at once a narrator of the text and a pivotal character in it, spinning off the stories we’re reading while bound to a post and awaiting execution for the crime of reestablishing capitalism on a wasted and largely depopulated planet that in many respects resembles our own. (In case you wondered, Maria Clementi’s Minor Angels, as yet unpublished in our particular corner of the multiverse, follows “Moyocoatzin and Mlatelpopec, two beings with the appearance of grotesque birds,” who live in relative harmony in “an eternally burning shopping mall” until Gardel, an imprisoned revolutionary, immolates himself in his cell and enters the mall by way of their dreams.) Such is the landscape of post-exoticism: surreal, apocalyptic, tragically post-revolutionary, at once mournful and absurd, refracted through a dizzying network of accordioned narrations—and all of it perhaps a dream, or a dream of someone else’s dream.

Despite the occasional birdlike beings, the fictional landscape of the post-exotic is nonetheless a largely recognizable terrain, sometimes too familiar for comfort: “a land whose riches belong only to the rich, a planet of flayed earth, of forests bled ash-dry…cities whose keys lie in the hands of the multinational mafia…democratic machinery that obeys their every bidding and deprives the poor of any meaningful victory.” These are the words of Varvalia Lodenko, one of a small crew of immortal, ultra-leftist witches who conjure Scheidmann out of “stray shreds of rag and bits of lint” cross-stitched into an embryo. Hexed into life and tasked with reawakening the revolution “before the last debris of humanity were reduced to impalpable powder,” Scheidmann betrays his creators, and Lodenko is left to hunt down “capitalism’s last Mafioso” herself, though “the human population now consisted of thirty-five individuals,” counting Scheidmann, the immortals, and the offending mafioso.

This summation is considerably more linear than the book itself, with its multiple and always indeterminate narrators (the first person, for Volodine, is never, ever stable) and its exacting, V-like structure. The book is divided into 49 short “narracts,” one of several genres unique to post-exoticism, with the first and 49th fragments mirroring each other, and the second and 48th, and so on. But for all its complexity and flux, the universe of Minor Angels, and of nearly all the texts Volodine has published under any name, is a coherent one, consistent despite the many folds in the fabric of its narratives.

Humanity is on its way out. The revolution came and failed, but its disciples fight on. Something very bad happened, but it happened long ago. In Minor Angels, “There’s scarcely anyone left in the cities, or the countryside…. Years of endless wind have swept away the stench of the mass graves.” In We Monks & Soldiers, attributed to Bassmann, the coastal zones are still inhabited, but “only a handful of particularly resilient spiders” survive in the interior. Soldier-monks, assassins dispatched by the remnants of an underground revolutionary bureaucracy, carry out hits in other people’s dreams. The texts published under Bassmann’s name tend toward oneiric, brooding violence. Draeger’s are more tenderly surreal, a wistful, anarchist quasi-utopia in Volodine’s otherwise grimly dystopian oeuvre. In Draeger’s wondrous In the Time of the Blue Ball, fire has only recently been invented (and immediately abandoned as “too dangerous an invention”). The earth has chilled and is barraged by a constant hail of meteorites. No one’s having babies anymore, but no one seems to mind. On the bright side, everyone mainly gets along. There are no more police, no more governments, and no “important people, the ones in charge.” And there are legions of passive baby pelicans; a woolly crab called Big Katz; cruel, marshmallow-gobbling battes (like bats, but sharper-witted); a dog named Djinn who joins a fly orchestra; and endangered noodles named Auguste Diodon.

* * *

If this is all, perchance, confusing, in 1998 Volodine offered up a key of sorts: Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11. On one level, the book functioned as an appendix to his already published books, with lists of heteronyms and their often hilariously titled publications, and multipage explanatory “lessons” defining the various Volodinian genres: the aforementioned narract, plus the Shaggå, the interjoist, and the romånce. (The “lesson” is itself another post-exotic genre.) But Lesson 11 also had a narrative of its own. In it, we learn that Bassmann, Draeger, Clementi, et al. are prisoners, dissidents, and ex-guerrillas locked up for life in “the high-security sector.” It is there, in the cellblocks, that they gave birth to post-exoticism as “an interior construction, a withdrawal, a secret welcoming land,” a means of communication among members of a “vanquished army” and with their few surviving allies outside the prison walls. Its many formal feints and dodges are survival strategies meant to mislead informants and police: “For the enemy is always part stalker, disguised and vigilant among readers.”

Reading is hence figured as hostile interrogation, the first-person narrative as self-incrimination, the critic as cop, the reader as prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, judge. Literature is based on an “aesthetic of mistrust”: The post-exotic author changes names and introduces errors, gaps, and ambiguities to render all confessions useless. The text “speaks in a fallacious fashion, talks at length, solely to gain time—it talks about something else.” (One might pose that latter phrase as an almost adequate definition of literature.) Room is left, but precious little, for a different sort of reader, a fellow traveler of the imagination who can be addressed “non-­abstractly,” who is willing to abandon herself and be directly “animated” by the text. Reading—­and, on the other side of the coin, writing—is thus either an act of intimacy or of violence, either an insurrectionary conspiracy hatched between author and audience, or an inquisition serving the ugliest of masters.

More than most of Volodine’s other works, Lesson 11 anchors itself to a recognizable chronology. He offers straightforward Gregorian years for the arrests of his incarcerated avatars, from the first batch locked up in 1975 (fully half of them named Maria) to Manuela Draeger, the most recent, whose incarceration dates to 2001. The movement’s roots, we learn, reach back to the 1960s, those “years of underground hope, luminous despite the lead and despite the violence of the prisons.” No surprise, then, that Volodine’s novels began appearing in the mid-1980s, with that insurrectionary hope banished and the forces of reaction—neoliberal this time—confidently in power. From that decade on, any overt political resistance voiced through literature would be (and with few exceptions still is) deemed a quaint and dated affectation. Recall Varvalia Lodenko, who in Minor Angels preached of “a cynicism so well-oiled that the merest allusion to its existence…condemns you to a place of invisible marginality.”

Volodine aims to occupy those margins, in defiance spitting out a voluminous and at times triumphant literature of defeat. In one of the stories collected in the volume titled Writers, the beautiful Linda Woo, an accomplished guerrilla assassin, “speaks the world” while standing alone in her cell. “Like us, she has lost all battles,” writes Volodine. She channels the voice of another incarcerated writer, one of the Marias, and, crying in solitude and grief, defines post-exoticism as “a final useless and imaginary testimony spoken by the exhausted or by the dead and for the dead.” Elsewhere in that collection, in one of Volodine’s most haunting stories, Nikita Kouraline, a solitary and alcoholic factory watchman, “writes” a novel, reciting it aloud for an audience of rags and scraps of metal and wood. It has no plot, just griping rants and a list of the names and bare details of the thousands who were exe­cuted in one of Stalin’s more ambitious purges on the day of Kouraline’s birth. The revolution is also a defeat. It always was, but Volodine’s soldier-monk-shaman-scribes fight on. Their doomed mission is to save what can be saved, to make an offering of sorts, to preserve some space just outside the frame of what gets called literature where a dying, insurrectionary humanism might breathe on a little longer.

* * *

The ninth lesson in Lesson 11 addresses the movement’s attachment to the classic of Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo Thödol, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. A copy of that text, we are told, found its way into the prison library in the 1980s, after which one member of the post-exotic tribe, another Maria, chanted it aloud until all the others could recite it by rote. The book is traditionally read to the dying and the recently dead to guide them through the Bardo, the hazy realm between life and rebirth. In the high-security sector, it had a definite appeal. The inmates took it on as a post-exotic text, “a fiction whose tantric esotericism reveals no revelation,” adapting it to their needs and stripping it of its specifically Buddhist trappings “to help our characters live their non-lives and cross their non-deaths.” For Volodine, it presents almost endless opportunities to play with his favorite themes: writing and orality, non­duality, repetition, extinction, spiders.

This year, Open Letter published Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) in a translation by J.T. Mahany, who also translated Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11. It goes without saying that it is a very odd book. It is highly Bardo-centric—or “Bardic,” to use Mahany’s fortuitous term—and perhaps not the best place for the uninitiated to make their first voyage into the Volodinian cosmos. That would be the nearly perfect Minor Angels, or perhaps Writers, which provides a more exhaustive map of the varied post-exotic topographies. But Bardo or Not Bardo has its rewards. For all its darkness, it is extremely and blessedly silly.

In the first story, for instance, a hit squad of turncoat ex-revolutionaries (“They work for the mafia now, for the billionaires in power”) mortally wounds a hero of the underground named Kominform (“alias Abram Schlumm, or Tarchal Schlumm”) in the henhouse behind a monastery. Drumbog, a semi-senile monk with explosive intestinal issues, finds him bleeding among the birds, where he is joined by the killers’ boss, who has returned to pump the dying Kominform/Schlumm for information about his few surviving associates, and by a silent, “angel-bodied” woman whose flesh happens to be lightly feathered. “Her name, like mine,” says the narrator, “was Maria Henkel.” Drumbog dispatches the killer to the monastery’s library to grab a copy of the Bardo Thödol, but the assassin, who doesn’t read Tibetan, takes a collection of surrealist aphorisms instead. He reads them anyway to keep Kominform from passing out: “Weasels eat cabbage and rations and cloves…. The yellow bride makes bubbles.” Kominform, “in between death rattles,” curses and rants that the revolution will be reborn, until Drumbog returns from the latrine and recites the Bardo Thödol, guiding Kominform toward the “Clear Light.” Hens cluck all around them.

Then there’s “Glouchenko,” in which a soldier by that name stumbles through the inky-dark corridors of the Bardo, convinced that his buddies have played a trick on him and cut the lights. He hears the voices of monks reading the Bardo Thödol, but he understands nothing, not even that he’s dead. Banging into the stools and crates that clutter the Bardo’s floor, he goes on searching for a light switch. Another two stories, “Puffky” and “Schlumm,” follow characters with those names, monks in filthy rags, first on a train, later in the Bardo. One of them—in the first story it’s Schlumm, in the second Puffky, but they’re largely interchangeable—is doing research into the afterlife that the Organization, the revolutionary bureaucracy to which Volodine’s soldier-monks frequently answer, finds blasphemous. They fight, discuss their findings, go mad (or madder), and appear to be stuck in the Bardo for good.

There are other Schlumms in other stories—­Jeremiah, Bogdan, Abram, and Freek Schlumm—as well as at least two Schmuncks, Mario and Baabar. Jeremiah is “an almost normal tantric monk” (beneath his robes he wears a red-star lapel pin adorned with the faded image of a machine gun), tasked with reading the Bardo Thödol to characters named Schmollowski and Dadokian. The former is a onetime radical and killer of bankers, the latter a onetime banker who was locked away in an asylum after attempting to redistribute his bank’s holdings to the poor. They get along well and decide to rebel against rebirth into the awful “world of prisons, asylums, rich people, and spiders,” to occupy the Bardo and refuse to leave. At the very least, Dadokian begs Schmollowski to squash him if he’s reborn as a spider. I won’t spoil anything by revealing that their plan doesn’t work out. This is, you’ll remember, the literature of defeat.

Bogdan Schlumm gets his own chapter, in which Volodine mocks the outsider posturing of his own aesthetic (which would be hard to take seriously in any event: He’s been published by the most prestigious presses in France and has no shortage of literary prizes). This Schlumm is a writer and actor, intent on staging a production of three sketches from his play The Bardo of the Medusa. Ideally, all seven of the sketches that compose the complete work would be performed simultaneously, but since Schlumm must play all of the parts in each, he’s forced to act them out in sequence for an audience composed only of various minor invertebrates. His efforts to publicize the show consist of tossing announcements out the window of his dormitory, retrieving them the next morning, rolling the rain-soaked papers into pellets, and tossing them back in. (It’s never clear if Schlumm has been committed to the institution in which he resides, or if he’s there as a voluntary guest.) As a matter of ideological principle, he stages the sketches deep in the woods rather than in some more accessible venue: “Schlumm hated the star system and didn’t want to be ground up in that machine.” He is nonetheless disappointed when no human spectators show up, and further humiliated when the starlings in the trees above shower him with excrement.

Yes, it’s all very strange, but in Volodine’s world, that hardly counts as a complaint. “I wanted to scream through the hot night that strangeness is the form taken by beauty when beauty has no hope,” Will Scheidmann puts it in Minor Angels as his own execution approaches, “but I kept my mouth shut, and I waited.”

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