APRIL 15, 2017
ANTOINE VOLODINE IS ONE of the most singular writers working today, but his singularity resides partly in his multiplicity. Since 1985, he has written under a series of heteronyms, of which “Antoine Volodine” is the most prolific. Works published under the names Lutz Bassmann and Manuela Draeger have also appeared in English translation, while the body of texts attributed to Elli Kronauer has not yet been translated. As Brian Evenson notes in his foreword to Radiant Terminus, the latest of Volodine’s novels to appear in English: “[Volodine’s heteronyms] take on a life of their own, with distinct interests and concerns, and together make up a collective of authors who write ‘post-exotic’ literature.” When interviewed, Volodine sometimes uses the pronouns “we” and “us,” as if speaking on behalf of a movement. He also stated in a 2015 Paris Review interview that “Elli Kronauer, Lutz Bassmann, and Manuela Draeger are not literary inventions — they are authors who exist in the world of official literature, with oeuvres distinct from those of their comrades, no matter how close they may be.”
Paradoxically, then, Volodine belongs to no movement, but his fictional project has brought one into existence: post-exoticism. And while his books defy categorization by genre, the post-exotic writers who are their authors practice a dizzying array of invented genres, including romånces, shaggås, and interjoists, to name a few attributed to Volodine and his heteronyms. Each of Volodine’s books is sui generis, but his body of work is held together by its oneiric surreality, its post-apocalyptic and carceral settings, and its theme of failed revolution. Fundamentally, though, the key preoccupation of Volodine’s oeuvre is literature itself, though it bears faint resemblance to more familiar modes of postmodern metafiction.
Volodine has explained that he coined the term “post-exoticism” as an “irreverent wisecrack, but [also as] a way […] to confirm that I didn’t belong either to science fiction, the genre in which my first four books had been classified, or to highbrow French avant-garde literature.” Especially in its early sections, however, Radiant Terminus revisits Volodine’s earlier sci-fi orientation. The opening chapters, which feature three wanderers traversing a disaster zone, allude to Tarkovsky’s Stalker and to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, the inspiration for that film. (Volodine has translated work by the Strugatsky brothers into French.) In some respects, then, Radiant Terminus is an homage to the Soviet sci-fi tradition. This allegiance is consistent with two features of the post-exotic enterprise: Volodine’s stated aim to “write a foreign literature in French” and his tributes to defunct egalitarian and proletarian literatures.
Radiant Terminus is the longest of Volodine’s narratives to appear in English, and it offers more of a sustained lineal narrative than much of his previously translated work. Set in an imprecise future after the fall of the Second Soviet Union — the chronology of which remains murky — the story unfolds in a vast Chernobyl-like wasteland on the edge of the Siberian taiga. The novel’s protagonists, Kronauer (also, recall, one of Volodine’s heteronyms) and Ilyushenko, have fled the Orbise, the fallen capital of the communist state, and arrived in a region of semi-abandoned collective farms. A series of disasters has left this zone, formerly powered by a network of nuclear reactors, with levels of radiation sufficient to eradicate most life. (Several passages describe insects being incinerated when they land on irradiated farm equipment.)
Yet those whom the radiation does not kill off become immortal. Or rather, they enter the Bardo: the liminal state between death and rebirth described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, another leitmotif of the Volodinian oeuvre. In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Volodine’s ludic primer on the tenets of post-exoticism, he glosses the fictional movement’s appropriation of the Buddhist scripture: “The Bardo Thödol [Book of the Dead] is for us a referential text from which we have eroded every truly Buddhist dimension and that we have reconstructed according to our individual and collective sensibilities, in order to adapt it to our literature, for it to help our characters live their non-lives and cross their non-deaths.” And indeed, the Bardo is stripped of any mystical and spiritual elements in Radiant Terminus, represented instead as an effect of extreme radiation on genetically anomalous bodies.
Like the practitioners of post-exoticism, Kronauer and Ilyushenko maintain an ideological commitment to egalitarianism that has become hopelessly at odds with the world they inhabit. “Fortunately there was still Marxism-Leninism,” Ilyushenko thinks early on. “Otherwise we’d be in a filthy, shitty nightmare. Who knew if we’d be able to differentiate between classes, and even between the living, the dead, and even the dogs and that kind of thing.” Yet such distinctions, already hazy at the book’s beginning, disappear entirely as the novel progresses. Radiant Terminus, the settlement that gives the book its name and to which its protagonists gravitate, is the decrepit shell of a Soviet kolkhoz, or collective farm. Its name invokes a bright utopia dissolved into radioactive poison. Its inhabitants, too, occasionally cite the ideological commitments of the Second Soviet Union, but these come to resemble non-referential incantations, perhaps belonging to the genre of the “post-exotic litany.”
In the first chapter, Kronauer leaves behind Ilyushenko and their dying fellow partisan Vassilissa Marachvili and enters a forest from which they have seen smoke rising, hoping to find a settlement. Yet he soon realizes that “the old forest isn’t an earthly place like the others […] crossing it means wandering among its menacing trees, advancing without any landmarks, blindly […] walking with difficulty among its strange traps, beyond all duration, means going both straight ahead and in circles, as if poisoned.” Kronauer has entered an enchanted space: the forest is the port of entry, the narrator informs us, to “a realm where Solovyei is the absolute master.” Solovyei is nominally the Radiant Terminus kolkhoz president, but he is also described variously as a “shamanic authority from nowhere,” a “vampire in the form of a kulak,” and a “monster belonging to who knows what stinking category.”
Likewise, categories blur as soon as Kronauer and later Ilyushenko enter Radiant Terminus. Solovyei, both sorcerer and bombastic poetaster, records his strange incantations on a mechanical cylinder phonograph and tortures all those he encounters by forcing them to listen. Those who listen thus end up trapped “within someone else’s dream, in a Bardo where you are a foreigner yourself, where you are an unwanted intruder, neither living nor dead, in an unending and endless dream.” Such is the permanent fate of Solovyei’s three daughters and the other inhabitants of Radiant Terminus. These include the daughters’ drone-like husbands and “the Gramma Ugdul,” a Bolshevik firebrand once awarded the distinction of “Foremother of the Proletarian Pantheon.” Now an ancient crone, she guards the radioactive core — a blazing hole in the earth that provides heat and electricity to the kolkhoz, “like a dragon over its treasure.”
The simile strengthens the feeling that we have entered a fairy tale realm, but it is one replete with incongruous and banal fragments of modernity. The spell placed on Kronauer when he enters Radiant Terminus involves having to repair the same fire hydrant over and over again. Obsolete scraps of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric circulate throughout the text, as does a strand of radical feminism attributed to the post-exotic writer Maria Kwoll, which holds that all sex is violence against women, and all men are sexual predators. Solovyei encourages his daughters’ adherence to Kwoll’s writing, since it makes them suspicious of intruders like Kronauer. In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Volodine locates the “non-opposition of opposites” at the core of post-exotic writing. It should not surprise readers, then, that an ideology of progress infuses a realm of utter stasis, or that feminism helps an obscene patriarch maintain his daughters’ fealty.
As the forgoing suggests, Volodine’s is a literature of bricolage, composed of fragments drawn from disparate cultural spaces. For instance, the names of two of his invented genres, the romånce and the shaggå, clearly resonate with Arthurian romance and Norse saga, respectively implying the presence of pre-modern European narrative modes in his texts. A wandering idealist trapped in an enchanted kingdom, Kronauer resembles the heroes of such quest narratives. Perhaps gravitating toward his preordained role as the knight who breaks the spell of the sinister enchanter, Kronauer becomes embroiled in a plot to undermine Solovyei’s tyranny.
However, the narrative repeatedly dissolves and fractures, subverting the linearity of any quest. At one stage, Ilyushenko boards a train full of escaped Soviet soldiers. They, too, are on a quest, seeking refuge in Gulag-like “camps,” where, oddly, they hope to find “the only unimaginary place where life is worth the trouble of being lived, perhaps because our awareness of being alive is enriched by our awareness of the being such in the company of others.” That “the incomparable ideal of the camp” becomes the goal of “every man in love with liberty” exemplifies once again the “non-opposition of opposites” of Volodinian narrative and echoes a statement found in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: “the concentration camp system where we were locked up was […] the only terrestrial space whose inhabitants were still fighting for a variant of paradise.” It eventually becomes apparent that the train is on a circular track, its passengers perpetually returning to where they began, never reaching their destination. The novel’s development mimics this circularity, turning back on itself time and again.
Volodine’s text gravitates rhetorically toward expansive forms like the catalog, the list, and the litany, which can grow indefinitely and often lack a clearly defined beginning or ending. One of the most perplexing leitmotifs of the text is the lists of wild grasses found in the Siberian wastes traversed by the protagonists: “mauvegarde, chugda, marche-sept-lieues, epernielle, old-captives, saquebrilles, lucemignot, quick-bleeds, Saint-Valiyans, Valiyan-harelips, sottefraise, iglitsa.” Within the narrative, the reader learns that these terms were invented by Kronauer’s late wife, a botanist who was murdered during the fall of the Second Soviet Union. In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Volodine also writes, “we have invented names for plants and small grasses, we have been moved deeply by the idea of these tiny plants.” These are lists of signs, then, that lack any referent outside the text, and that within Radiant Terminus constitute a hermetic code of which Kronauer is the only living repository. In this manner, the catalogs of plants gesture toward the avant-garde dream of an autonomous poetic language liberated from referentiality. By extension, they function as a synecdoche for the anti-referential project of the novel itself, attributed to a fictional author, imagined from within another fictional space.
The explicit post-exotic intention to “write a foreign literature in French” presents unique challenges to the translator, whose fidelity must involve finding an equivalent to the deliberately alien quality of the original prose. Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation excels in setting a mood of discomfort partly rooted in the text’s radical semantic instability, while simultaneously lending the prose haunting cadences. The list of wild grasses provides an example worth revisiting. The first six terms in the French sequence read like this: “la mauvegarde, la chougda, la marche-sept-lieues, l’épernielle, la vieille-captive, la saquebrille.” Zuckerman has adapted the passage by eliminating the definite articles, while leaving four of the six other terms in Volodine’s neologistic French, anglicizing the vowels of “chougda” (a seemingly Slavic or Turkic term) to “chugda,” and translating “la vielle-captive,” which resonates with the key post-exotic theme of captivity and imprisonment. The resulting sequence, made more approachable for an English-language reader, nevertheless remains approximately as impenetrable as in the original text.
In the words of Volodine, “Post-exoticism is a literature coming from elsewhere and going elsewhere.” If the point of departure of Radiant Terminus is the terminal stage of a barely imagined history, its place of arrival is a boundless dream of the taiga in which all that remains to the surviving characters is the creation of literature. This literature, composed and recited amid unpopulated wastes, has no audience other than the crows hovering above, who may or may not be avatars of Solovyei, and who may or may not collectively serve as the voice of the narrator in Radiant Terminus. The narrative voice repeatedly demurs: “He or I, doesn’t matter. Him or me, same thing.” The radical interchangeability of narrators and characters is only one of the ways in which Volodine’s narrative upends the most basic hierarchies of fiction. The post-exotic text’s egalitarianism also resides in its revolt against the most fundamental of hierarchical tyrannies: the one subordinating the imagination to reality. Each of Volodine’s (and Bassmann’s, and Draeger’s) books testifies in new ways to the unsuspected possibilities of literature.