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After Revolution: A Review of Antoine Volodine’s Writers

By Diana George.

Antoine Volodine, Writers, trans. Katina Rogers (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)

“I hate reading ‘difficult authors.’” In this interview filmed in 2011, French writer Antoine Volodine looks pained when asked why he dislikes hearing his books called “difficult.” He counters that his books are only difficult to summarize, not to read. It’s true: the ramifying narrative strands of Volodine’s novels fascinate, but they are almost impossible to describe. Like the fictitious novels penned by one of his writer-characters in the newly translated Writers (Dalkey, 2014; Éditions du Seuil, 2010), Volodine’s books consist of “dark scenes, oscillation between political and mystical spheres, biting humor, nested story lines, tangled interior worlds, portrayal of the drift towards madness or death.” And Volodine’s books present a further difficulty for summary: they belong to a fictional-yet-real literary movement named (by Volodine) “post-exoticism.”

In a “post-exotic” novel, the plot usually begins long after the defeat of an unnarrated “world revolution”; the characters are often revengers or revolutionaries, now imprisoned,  or mad, or dead; and the narrative voice shifts among narrators and “surnarrators,” in books-within-books ascribed to various heteronyms—these last are fictional post-exotic writers who sometimes also publish books in our world. (Volodine’s heteronyms with autonomous literary careers include Manuela Draeger and Lutz Bassmann.) Their battle lost, these fictional post-exotics have not conceded defeat or renounced their beliefs; instead, they’ve taken up writing—but post-exotic writing is a lowly, risible act, often consisting merely of tapping on pipes in prison cells, or murmuring or sighing or coughing out words that come to nothing in the end.

Given this complexity, Volodine’s books may sound difficult, to a degree that belies the rapt experience of reading them. And in Writers, the writer-characters struggle with a Beckettian difficulty: how to come to the end of writing. However, even as they try to reach silence, the writers in Writers go on writing—in gripping, poetic, hallucinatory images—after the end of revolution, after defeat or betrayal. Volodine has said that it is revolution’s defeat—“the disfiguration of that generous dream”—that makes his characters suffer. We readers, too, are living on after the disfiguration of just such dreams, and because we live in what looks more and more like end times, the problem of how to come to the end is not solely a concern of “the guild of difficult authors” (as one of the writer-characters in Writers puts it).

To phrase it as a pull quote I may well regret: Writers is like Beckett’s The Unnamable crossed with The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, at once dismal and absorbing, shifting between static friezes and gripping tales, as if Beckett’s titular character had changed his mind about “relaps[ing] into picaresque” (as he puts it), abandoning his sere modernist world and “slipping toward… the resorts of fable.” Reminiscent of Beckett, the writer-characters in Writers try to stop going on writing, but they do so in intricate, fascinating, terrifying worlds—worlds riven by an absolutely just yet absolutely shattered dream of revolution:

The post-exotic writers weren’t mere scribblers of rubbish, they were armed and engaged in politics, they had taken the road of secrecy and subversion, and with no fear either of madness or death, they threw themselves into a battle that they had but the faintest chance of winning, an infinitesimal chance, and thus they found themselves soldiers and loners, laughably few at the front of a war in which, combat after combat, they lost everything. It even happened that they lost the certainty that one day the wretches’ children would open their eyes on a world not filled with shadows, not ruled by the mafia, and not unequal.

It’s like the St Crispin’s Day speech as retold by Ulrike Meinhof. But Shakespeare’s Henry V spoke just before battle; the war in Writers is long since lost. In defeat, the book’s exhortations are cut adrift; they cannot be put into operation, neither in the post-exotics’ worlds nor in our own. Writers has no statement to make about our present historical conjuncture or the possibility of a renewed revolutionary movement. For all its hortatory furor, this is a littérature that is strikingly désengagée. Underneath the vociferations of Writers lies something silent.

This silence might frustrate a reader who comes to Writers looking for “encrypted messages about action or insurrection” (Volodine, in another interview). In one chapter of Writers, the leaders of a doomed rebellion in an insane asylum are confronted with a fellow inmate’s obdurate commitment to writing; the rebels “don’t really know, in the end, whether he’s an ally to convince, or an enemy.” They want the writer-inmate, one Bruno Katchatourian, to declare himself, “whether by admitting that he’s been, for a thousand years, a clandestine leader of dark forces, or by tracing for them a strategy that could lead them to final victory.” But Katchatourian, although he too is a revolutionary who has “stood up to the police with weapons and explosives,” is ultimately devoted to aims that seem orthogonal to both revolution and writing. The writer Katchatourian wants to stop writing, and he wants to do so by ending both his life and his literary oeuvre with the word “end.”

The chapter of Writers that is devoted to Katchatourian’s desire to come to the end of writing does, in fact, end on the words “it will end.” It is a complex involution: the end is invoked just at the moment it goes on in the future tense, and the words “it will end” belong both to the book we hold in our hands and to a book that is being composed in Katchatourian’s mind. Moreover, this chapter of Writers, entitled “Begin-ing” [sic], contains fragments of an interpolated, archival text: a childishly misspelled story, a text we are to suppose was written by the fictional character Katchatourian at five years of age. In fact, as Volodine says in in this interview (at about forty-four minutes in), the quotations come from the first story he ever wrote, at age five or six, the auspiciously and awkwardly titled “Comancer.” The presence of “Comancer” in Writers—as chapter title and interpolated fragment—is not just a reward for fans who assiduously parse Volodine’s interviews, and it is not the only metafictional gesture in Writers. The end of the book also includes archival material: the fictional writer-character Nikita Kouriline researches the day of his birth, in Moscow on June 27, 1938, and he comes up with a list of those executed on that day in Butovo, near Moscow, for counter-revolutionary crimes. The names of the dead, their alleged crimes, their proletarian occupations (typesetter,” “cart driver,” “laborer in pit No. 57”)—all come from Volodine’s research into Soviet records of mass executions (as Volodine attests in the above-mentioned interview at about fifty-two minutes in).

With the inclusion of this archival material, it is as though meditating on the end had affected post-exotic narrative’s farthest border: the border between the fictional and the real. The revolutionary strategies in Writers cannot be put into operation in our world; just so, it’s said of a novel by the fictional writer-character Bogdan Tarassiev that its “narrative world refers to nothing but itself. It is closed, constructed with a familiar reality so distorted that it is no longer transposable. It must be recognized as such rather than seeing in it a shifted description of our own.” Nonetheless, Writers never stops opening its closed fictional worlds onto real ones. Hence, the chapter called “The Strategy of Silence in the Work of Bogdan Tarassiev” concludes with a metafictional Mobius strip. It revolves around the fictional Tarassiev, an author of novels much like Volodine’s: they allude to, without depicting, a class war between les miserables and les heureux du monde. It is both the strength of Tarassiev’s art and the weakness of his craft that he cannot or will not represent “those who govern the planet” in his novels: “with the sentiment that such a representation would be mentally and literarily impossible, Tarassiev never worries about activating any sort of believable image of the rich, even at the moment when they’re killed, even at the moment when he, as the author, kills them.” At the end of his life, Tarassiev actually does kill several of the rich and powerful at a charity function, just before turning the gun on himself. In the pocket of Tarassiev’s jacket is found a note that could be interpreted as enjoining its readers to cross the border from fiction to act, to go from hortatory revolutionary novel to political assassination, or from writing to suicide; but this lapidary note—ending with the words “do as I do”—is signed, not by the writer Tarassiev, but by one of his fictional characters, Wolff. This signature puts a loop in the just-concluded passage from the fictional to the real, and Tarassiev’s suicide note is assimilated, not into the annals of history, but into a marginal, disregarded literary oeuvre, where it is henceforth known as Opus 25.

If Wolff’s incendiary opus fizzles rather than ignites, Writers is nonetheless not just a critique of revolutionary passion, a sentimental education that would teach its readers to abjure such follies. Just as the rebels in the “Begin-ing” chapter cannot get Katchatourian to confirm that he is either an enemy or an ally, that his writing either conspires with dark forces or contains a path to victory, so, too, is it difficult to put the ending of Writers squarely in line with a liberal condemnation of revolution. In the last chapter, the fictional writer Kouriline shamanically recites the names of those who were executed on the day of his birth. These names come from an actual archive of Stalinist executions, but Writers is not just a coda to The Black Book of Communism. However tragic revolution’s vicissitudes, Writers does not use them to warn us off revolution. The catastrophe is merely presented in its terrible beauty: “somber and tattered, traversed by extraordinary images and hallucinations.” With all the ambiguity of Bolingbroke’s “[I] love him murdered,” Writers loves the revolution in ruins.

As with the insertion of the character Wolff’s suicide note into the jacket pocket of the writer Tarassiev, the inclusion of archival material in Writers is destabilizing. To reiterate: it affects narrative’s farthest border, that between the fictional and the real. In saying this, I don’t mean that the difference between reality and fiction collapses; rather, the fact of fictionality does not absolve the fictional writers in Writers, and neither does it absolve us, Volodine’s readers. We, too, find ourselves implicated in these narratives of the end. My review copy of Writers starts with a brief interview between Volodine and an unnamed interlocutor (this text is absent from Dalkey’s published edition, and it does not appear in the original French, either). The interviewer might have been Writers’ able translator, Katina Rogers, but the effaced name and the undated context grant the proceedings a spooky similarity to a typical Volodinian fictional situation: before nameless or fictional interlocutors, a writer is called to account for the fictional literary movement known as “post-exoticism.” In this interview, Volodine remarks: “One of the fundamental tasks of the post-exotic writers is to accompany these exhausted characters in their suffering, to be with them in sympathy and even empathy.” The fictional Kouriline’s list of the names of the dead; the fictional Linda Woo’s speech about the post-exotic writers; and the words of one “Maria Three-Thirteen,” a post-exotic writer, newly dead, who attempts to recount the dream of another post-exotic writer—all these are fragile attempts, on the part of writers, to sympathize with beings in their suffering. What else is the reading of fiction? What else, in a novel, are the names of the real dead—“‘Dedyonok,’ he calls, ‘Dedyonok Mikhail Ermolayevich!”—but the names of suffering beings from distant worlds? Like fictional characters, the dead at Boutuvo elicit our sympathy while remaining beyond our aid.

Nothing guarantees that the undated interview at the start of my ephemeral copy of Writers is not itself a work of fiction. But the fictional is not the false. In this eventually suppressed interview, Volodine quotes the fictional writer-character Maria Three-Thirteen, speaking about the silence underneath post-exoticism, a silence more profound, she says, than post-exoticism’s revolutionary vociferations. Maria Three-Thirteen says: “In the end, and when I say it’s the end it’s really the end, only the image counts.” But in Writers, in the end, it may be that no one comes to the end of saying the end. And of Maria Three-Thirteen’s silent image, it is as Beckett says in The Unnamable: “it is solely a question of voices, no other image is appropriate.” The longed-for silence—the end—can neither be seized nor averted, and so the writers in Writers go on.

Diana George’s fiction has appeared in Birkensnake, Third Bed, Chicago Review, and elsewhere. George lives in Seattle, works as a technical editor, writes for the port-trucker’s newsletter Solidarity, and is a proofreader at Asymptote, a magazine of literary translation.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 21st, 2014.