"Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven" by Antoine Volodine [A Sample]

As promised, here’s an excerpt from Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven which we’ll be bringing out next year. It’s a pretty amazing text, which, as you’ll see, is filled with intertextuality, literary games, and horrible smells. Enjoy!

Lutz Bassmann passed his final days as we all did, between life and death. A rotten odor stagnated in the cell, which did not come from its occupant but from outside. The sewers in the city were fermenting, the docks in the harbor were emitting a rancid signal, the covered markets were stinking terribly, as they often did in the springtime when both the waters and the temperature began to rise. The mercury in the thermometers was never below 34 or 35° Celsius before sunrise, and it always rose back up from its nightly drop to give way to oppressive grayness. Puddles of moisture had reformed their apparitions on every wall. In the hours preceding dawn, darkness grew in power in the depths of lungs, under the bed, under the nails. Clouds burst into cataracts under the slightest pretext. The noise of the storm haunted everyone. Ever since Bassmann began to feel unwell, the rain had not ceased its patter against the prison’s façade, furnishing the silence with the sound of lead. It streamed over the exterior, crossed over the edge of the window, and gloomily drew lines of rust beneath the bars, onto the bulletin board that certain guards had baptized as the “union board” and which resembled a very old cubist or futurist collage, very dense, very faded. The water zig-zagged between the photographs and the newspaper clippings that Bassmann had pinned there, and which helped support him in his stay in the high-security sector, among us: this immobile voyage had already lasted for twenty-seven
years, twenty-seven long, long, longer-than-long years. Then, the already-dirty liquid met up with a thin blackish ribbon wending its way to the bottom of the wall, thus mixing with the infiltrations from a leak in the plumbing, perhaps in the toilet’s evacuation pipe. No doubt there, yes, in this pipe, or in a pipe of the same kind. Over several months the humidity had pierced the cement and gradually expanded. Hence, when atmospheric pressure dropped, the stench rose. Hence these waves that heavily velveted the surroundings, similar to the vapors of a cadaver on the march toward the nothing. The administration was waiting for Bassmann’s death before undertaking any renovations. With their obtuse frankness common to horrible bipeds, and without snickering, for in their impatience to see the end of history they did not even snicker anymore in front of him when they spoke of his end; the guards had made this known to the prisoner. Bassmann himself was not waiting for anything. He was sitting facing our damaged portraits and looking at them. He contemplated the spongy, almost-illegible photographs, the obsolete portraits of his friends, men and women, all dead, and he looked back on who knows what trouble and, at the same time, glimmering marvelously, that he had lived in their company, at the time when they were all free and shining, the time when all of us, from the first to the last, were something other than. But that’s not important. I have said “our” faces, among “us,” all of “us.” This is a process of the literary lie, but one which, here, plays with a truth hidden upstream of the text, with a not-lie inserted into the real reality, elsewhere rather than in fiction. Let us say, in order to simplify, that Lutz Bassmann was our spokesperson until the end, both his and that of everyone and everything. There have been several spokespeople: Lutz Bassmann, Maria Schrag, Julio Sternhagen, Anita Negrini, Irina Kobayashi, Rita Hoo, Iakoub Khadjbakiro, Antoine Volodine, Lilith Schwak, Ingrid Vogel. This list that I give contains deliberate errors and is incomplete. It follows the post-exoticist principle according to which a portion of shadow always subsists in the moment of explanation or confession, modifying the confession to the point of rendering it unusable to the enemy. To objective appearances, the list is only a sarcastic way of telling the enemy one more time that they will learn nothing. For the enemy is always part stalker, disguised and vigilant among readers. We must continue to speak in a way that denies the enemy any profit. We must do this even as we testify before a tribunal whose competence we do not recognize. We devise a solemn proclamation, in a language that appears to be the same as that of the judges, but it is one that the judges listen to with dismay or boredom, as they are incapable of making sense of it . . . We recite it for ourselves and for men and women not present . . . In no circumvention of phrase our remarks coordinating with the magistrates’ understanding . . . There was nothing extraordinary about the rain that sounded and rang out in Bassmann’s agony in this period; it was completely expected in the month of April. In this region that is touched by the tail-end of the monsoons, we were in the habit of associating springtime not with green rebirth as is the tradition in occidental literature, but with the slow and loud din of the deluge, mugginess, and mephitic atmospheres. Inside of the prison, pestilences alter in intensity by the second as they circulate in an unpredictable manner that prevents any immunization. A feeling of suffocation tormented us from dawn-to-dawn. It is not surprising to discover that psychosomatic illnesses spring up during this phase of the prison calendar. Added to the respiratory troubles are the troubles of solitude. It was extremely difficult for us to converse between cells, on account of all the background noise, from the monotonous sweeping and the trickling that kept on at every hour, muddying the content of our messages. That year, the “we” was even more than normal a literary lie, as much a convention of fiction as Lutz Bassmann was alone. Now he was alone. He had reached the moment of our common adventure that several of us had described, in books completed or otherwise, as that of ultimate defeat. While the last surviving member on the list of the dead—and, this time, it was Bassmann—stammered his final syllable, then, on this side of the story as well as beyond it, only the enemy would keep strutting straight ahead, undefeated, invincible, and, among the victims of the enemy, no spokesperson would now dare come to interpret or reinterpret any of our voices, or to love us. Lucid in spite of the split personalities corrupting his agony, Bassmann sought only to communicate with the deceased.1 He no longer tapped on the washbasin pipes or on the door, saying, for example, “Calling cell 546,” or on the ealed siphon behind the toilet bowl, asking for cell 1157, or on the bars of the window, saying “Bassmann here . . . please respond . . . Bassmann is listening . . . please respond . . .” Now he knocked nowhere. He concentrated his regard on us, the photographs of those who had preceded him in disappearance, and he made the smallest of murmurs pass through his lips, pretending not to be dead and reproducing a whispering technique that the most tantric among us had many a time used in their romånces: with an audible exhalation, the narrator prolongs, not his or her own existence, but the existence of those who are going to dwindle into nothing, because the narrator is the only one who can preserve their memory. Word by word, moan after moan, Lutz Bassmann struggled to make last the mental edifice which would eventually become once again dust. His breath merged with the putrid sewers that wandered through the prison. He still tenuously held on to reality and he managed to keep together fragments. He managed to keep his voice from giving out again. So that for one hour more, two and a half hours, one more night, the worlds that we had built with swift carpentry and defended would persist. Mental edifice . . . Worlds . . . Swift carpentry . . . What is . . . Huh? I will respond. We had called that post-exoticism. It was a construction that was connected to revolutionary shamanism and literature, literature that was either written by hand or learned by heart and recited, as the administration through the years would sometimes forbid us any paper material; it was an interior construction, a basis of withdrawal, a secret welcoming land, but also something offensive that participated in the plot in the naked hands of certain individuals against the capitalist world and its countless ignominies. This fight was now confined solely to Bassmann’s lips. It was suspended in a breath. As thirty years of incarceration had left his mind feeble, and reduced his creative spirit to scraps, his final murmurs no longer obeyed the logics of pioneers, combatants, oneiric footprints, or enthusiasm, without which the post-exoticist project had produced no more than two or three works. During his agony, Lutz Bassmann uniquely wished to move the embers that he had guarded, and not to be absorbed too quickly along with them by the nothingness. But even before, from the beginning of the ten years, maybe because he estimated that the confidants were already unattainable or no longer existed, it seemed that he had lost his creative spark. His latest works, his final romanesque jolts, took shelter under rather unattractive and uninspired titles, such as To Know How to Rot, to Know How Not to Rot, or Structure of Deconstructed Obscurity, or Walk Through Childhood. These are narrative poems and Shaggås, supposedly-compact pieces diluted into vast arrièregarde logorrheas that one can take no pleasure in reading. There are also romånces, such as About-Face Vandals, One-Thousand Nine-Hundred Seventy-Seven Years Before the World Revolution, and even The Mantis, but the brooding that inspired them has devolved into nothing communicable. Their encryption is vain, their undeniable beauty is vain, maybe simply because no one—No one listens. No living being other than Lutz Bassmann is paying attention. In such works, the idea of connivance with the reader, so oily and so generously spread onto the clockwork of official literature, has been disregarded to even the smallest detail. Here we have the terminal rumblings, the ultimate punctuated throaty rasps of post-exoticism . . . POSTEXOTICISM. That word again. Here again this heavy term. Around it we have circled, from the beginning, like vultures around a carcass. WHAT IS POSTEXOTICISM? An insolent question, very unwelcome on the day of Bassmann’s death, but its appearance here demonstrates that a half-century after
Minor Angels, by Maria Clementi, sympathizers, on the outside, have not . . . Demonstrates that the incarcerated have been left alone. A symposium on post-exoticism was organized with Lutz Bassmann’s involvement before the 00’s of the 21st century, eighteen or nineteen years ago. It lived more or less in 1997. Beyond the walls of the prison, this must have been an age of hollow editorials, or of reflux toward what official literature itself considered as the worst. Two popular chroniclers had been sent to us by a cultural magazine in general circulation, subsidized I believe by mafia industrialists in meat and construction. I say “I,” and “I believe” but this is again just a matter of pure convention. The first-person singular serves to accompany the voice of others, it signifies nothing more. Without damage to the understanding of this poem, one can consider that I have been dead for ages, and not take the “I” into account . . . For a post-exoticist narrator, anyway, there is not the thickness of a piece of cigarette paper between the first-person and others, and hardly any difference between life and death. But let us classify the problems. I spoke of two salaried employees of the dominant ideology, two virtuosos of journalism, of stardom and writing, a man and a woman who, for the occasion, had muted their mercantile convictions and come before us wearing the faded finery of intellectuals neither spineless, nor completely orthodox. They wanted, they announced, to inquire about prison literature, and shine a new and favorable light on romånces, several volumes of which had appeared outside of the prison, under the signature of one of our figureheads. I also think that General Intelligence desired to evaluate the state of our forces and to form an opinion on the persistence or extinction of our capacities to harm, on the chances of the survival of egalitarian propaganda in the new millenium. The journalists presented themselves by insisting on their capacity as novelists sometimes at odds with the authorities, as, like in all totalitarian societies, those who are approved by the censor are also those who have the right to express themselves officially against the censor, and they articulated their author names with a casual humility, hoping maybe to impress us with their notoriety, with the value that credit agencies and the public recognize, but, as we were indifferent to this kind of authority, and as their magazine had never inspired anything in us but contempt, they became again before us what they were in both reality and in the world of media: two mercenaries of speech, Niouki and Blotno, Niouki the woman, Blotno the man, capable of theorizing on art and philosophizing on the fate of the people, capable over several hours of adapting themselves to our vision of the world, of entering into a dialog with us, and even of getting friendly with us, capable of everything. They had five or six afternoons; they worked with us in turns, according to a program that we thwarted as quickly as possible. Anonymous, imperturbable, silent, a police officer attended the sessions and recorded us on a tape recorder. We were summoned to the interview room one after the other. The Blotno faced us with a notebook and pen, no doubt because he had been informed that only the police would be allowed to listen to the taped recording. As he was constantly scribbling, he hardly ever lifted his eyes in our direction, eyes that shone with a relative absence of insincerity, very blue, a myopic, almost Prussian blue. If I stray from the striking color of his irises, I now feel powerless to describe his physical attributes, the particularities of his head. In a pinch, I believe I could remember his corpulence. He was about medium-sized. The Niouki is less nonexistent in my memory. Her chest seemed to me like that of a cow or a cowgirl. Her breasts had made an impression on me, but I don’t remember exactly what that impression was. For that matter, they weren’t of any interest to. Lutz Bassmann went first and kept his mouth shut the whole time. In
order to break the drawn-out silence, the Niouki summarized the stages that, according to her, post-exoticism had passed through since Minor Angels, Maria Clementi’s first romånce, written in 1977.

Arostegui, Maria (1975)2
Bach, Mathias (1991)
Bartok, Giovan (1991)
Bassmann, Lutz (1990)
Bedobul, Kynthia (1988)
Breughel, Anton (1975)
Breughel, Istvan (1985)
Campanini, Giuseppe (1988)
Clementi, Maria (1975)
Damtew, Oleg (1998)
Dawkes, Ellen (1990)
Domrowski, Monika (1998)
Draeger, Manuela (2001)
Echenguyen, Irena (1981)
Echenguyen, Maria (1976)
Fincke, Elia (1998)
Garcia Muñoz, Maria (1985)
Gardel, Wolfgang (1975)
Gompo, Khrili (1980)
Heier, Barbara (1991)
Henkel, Maria (1980)
Hinz, Mario (1998)
Hoo, Rita (1992)
Iguacel, Maria (1975)
Khadjbakiro, Iakoub (1977)
Khorassan, Jean (1996)
Kim, Petra (1992)
Kobayashi, Irina (1991)
Koenig, Astrid (1990)
Kronauer, Elli (1999)
Kwoll, Maria (1975)
Lethbridge, William (1992)
Lukaszczyk, Vassilissa (1987)
Malaysi, Jean (1979)
Malter, Hugo (1990)
Marachvili, Türkan (1992)
Marconi, Ivo (1992)
Mayayo, Erdogan (1998)
Nachtigall, Roman (2000)
Negrini, Anita (1977)
Nordstrand, Verena (1986)
Ossorguina, Raïa (1986)
Ostiategui, Leonor (1996)
Ostiategui, Pablo (1996)
Peek, Marina (1998)
Petrokian, Aram (1992)
Pizarro, HansJürgen (1998)
Reddecliff, Dimitri (1990)
Retsch, Dorothea (1975)
Retzmayer, Rita (1979)
Retzmayer, Zeev (1976)
Samarkande, Maria (1978)
Santander, Monika (1982)
Sauerbaum, Maria (1996)
Schnittke, Maria (1980)
Schrag, Maria (1975)
Schwack, Lilith (1979)
Sherrad, Aidan (1990)
Soledad, Irena (1977)
Soudaïeva, Maria (1975)
Sternhagen, Julio (1975)
Tarchalski, Yasar (1990)
Thielmann, Maria Gabriella (1992)
Thielmann, Ralf (1982)
Velazquez, Sonia (2000)
Vlassenko, Jean (1987)
Wallinger, John (1991)
Weingand, Anita (1986)
Wernieri (1975)
Wolff, Rebecca (2001)
Wolguelam, Jean (1975)
Zhang, Yann (1977) ]

2 Year in parentheses indicates date of incarceration at highsecurity

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