Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were one to read every book by Volodine and his pseudonyms, his driving philosophy would then become fully clear. It may not be meant to.
His novels return to the post-apocalypse, to prisons, psychiatric hospitals, interrogations, and writers. They trod familiar ground, the same characters reappear, and images are like memories half-remembered. The writers he creates not only belong in his universe, but create their own projects that fit within his—it’s turtles all the way down. Yet in the reoccurrence, there is nuance, and his universe expands—the other reality of the post-exotic becomes more grounded.
The Volodine project, the pseudonyms, and the intertexual exchanges, are pushed to the forefront in responses to his work. But there are also more immediate pleasures, not dependant on his larger oeuvre. His work puts anonymous people in strange and engaging circumstances, and he lets the weirdness leave a reader to catch up, confused.
Comprehensive understanding isn’t necessary for the oddness to be compelling. That he is creating such often bizarre, yet familiar, worlds is itself entertaining. The latest drip from his reservoir of the post-exotic, is Writers, translated by Katina Rogers, is no exception. In “The Theory of the Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen,” Maria is introduced as a woman running in the dark, her age wildly uncertain, and we realize she may not even be alive:
She feels the darkness enter her through every opening of her body. These openings that a lama should have closed this morning with wax and cotton, once the death had been verified, which is exactly what he didn’t do, for destiny opposed it. The memories of her last moments come to her then fade before they can become believable elements.
Uncertainty, and comfort with that, is essential to moving through Volodine’s world. Some grounding will come, but enjoying the groping-in-the-dark there is essential. Elements of genre—of science fiction and noir—run through Writers. Volodine is not self-serious either; there are moments of dark, and self-aware humor: “He. . . . even theorized a bit on incompleteness, at least when his friends asked him how his creations were coming along.” The touches of genre, the humor, the flights of the bizarre, entertain at the same time they fit the spirit of his project.
Writers is a collection of sort of miniature biographies. The writers are hidden in obscurity, sometimes in hospitals, sometimes on the verge of suicide or violence. They are against the world as it is, as it was, or as it will be: the time periods are uncertain, sometimes they exist in our past, sometimes our future. Their writings, whatever form they take, and their acts, toward suicide or outward violence, are all gestures of protest.
In this, they are writers of the post-exotic, however that may yet define them. The subjects of the first two biographies are identified as assassins who killed assassins. Who those latter assassins would be is never explained, other than that they have “indirectly killed hundreds of thousands and even millions of people.” Is this flung far into the future after cataclysm, or are we instead to think which people in our world indirectly kill?
These writers have more of an affect through their assassinations and other acts than through their writing. They are all utterly obscure figures, never leaving the margins of society. The voice of these biographies—whether one voice seemingly out of time or a multitude of them—is a special reader to recognize these writers, to bring them out of the spaces they have been hidden in. It doesn’t matter that this may be a hopeless task, wondering in an aside “if the term ‘known’ means anything, with regard to a writer.”
Writers is not about acknowledging unappreciated geniuses though—these writers are anything but. When the author described in “Begin-ing” wrote as a child, his “top priority wasn’t to execute feats of perfect spelling to please the teacher but to lay down the text torrentially.” At other times, writing instead takes on the form of speech, performance. In “Tomorrow Will Have Been a Lovely Sunday,” Nikita Kouriline has no “great aptitude” for writing, but he becomes a writer anyway. He interrogates the story of his birth and in the place of his grandmother’s fictions surrounding it finds the truth: tolling bells timed with his birth were gunshots of slaughter. To restore that story, to protest the violence, he begins to speak the names and lives of the dead. These dead are mostly illiterate, so his “novel” for them is on their terms, direct, oral.
If these writers are not people whose genius has been missed and needs recognizing, if their work is as fractured and strange as they are, then why should their stories be told? Because in every aspect of them, the writing and their lives, they are revolutionaries, and this puts them on the side of the humane: they are the post-exotic.
One definition of the post-exotic: “a final useless and imaginary testimony spoken by the exhausted or by the dead and for the dead.” These testimonies try to encompass the world as a defense of it. Lists are present in Writers more than once, of the dead and the living, and of nearly anything else, including “sixty thousand first and last names of victims of unhappiness” and “ten thousand names of places, rivers, and localities.”
What the writers of the post-exotic defend against is more obscure than a single entity or system. As one of the biographical subjects says,
Post-exoticism’s writers have in their memory, without exception, the wars and the ethnic and social exterminations that were carried out from one end of the 20th century to the other, they forget none and pardon none, they also keep permanently in mind the savageries and inequalities that are exacerbated among men.
They are writers of protest without a movement to be lost within. Though at points there are totalitarian systems working in a subject’s world, there is not always one, and it doesn’t necessarily matter. They are against dominant cultures and systems as an idea. Even in a time of peace and satisfaction, Volodine’s post-exotics demand that we remember the suffering that led to the peace, and the suffering that lies ahead.
In “Begin-ing,” this defiance against systems, the way they enforce violence against the individual, is made clear. The penitentiary clinic has been taken over by the mental patients. The leaders capture and violently interrogate the writer. They perform the same acts their wardens did. Order has turned to madness, but the mad institute their own order. In the face of it, the writer uses the same habits of resistance he used against the actual doctors, and sees it as only “one more painful phase in his interminable journey of imprisonment and hospitalization.” The form of rule doesn’t matter, whether totalitarian, passive, or utterly mad, these writers must be against it.
That the act of writing is often Volodine’s focus rather than the result is not incidental. Life without action is empty, and “Acknowledgements” is the testament to that. This narract (to use one of Volodine’s terms) is not a biography, but a writer crediting those who helped create his works. Sometimes, their input is direct, practical, other times indirect, even spiritual. In all of them is a lived life and lived connections. When the writer in “Tomorrow Will Have Been a Lovely Sunday” finds the facts behind his grandmother’s misremembering of his birth, it is a moral corrective, returning the true acts in the world, of those killed and of the crushing system.
Writers is a slim work, and just a glimpse into Volodine’s project, but the glimpse is a clear and honest one. Madness and sanity overlap, what the system calls madness may indeed be sanity, if the system is mad. And writing may never mean putting pen to paper, but simply being one whose “intention is to stay as long as possible alongside the humble and terrible animals, alongside humans who are killed and who are burned in ovens, alongside women who are martyrized and who are burned in ovens.”