Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven [Excerpt]

In support of Antoine Volodine as our featured “Author of the Month,” throughout the day we’ll be posting excerpts from the three books of his Open Letter has already published. (Next week we’ll run excerpts from forthcoming ones . . . ) 

First up is Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, translated from the French by J.T. Mahany. 

Remember, if you use the code VOLODINE at checkout, you can get 30% off of all Volodine books. (Offer valid until midnight 1/31/2019.)

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 never fell below 34º or 35º Celsius, and it always rose back up from its nightly drop to give way to oppressive grayness. Puddles of mold spread across 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 the “union board” and which resembled a very old cubist or futurist collage, very dense, very faded. The water zigzagged 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 outflow 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, which gradually expanded. Thus, 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. The guards had made this known to the prisoner with the obtuse frankness common to horrid 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. Bassmann himself was not waiting for anything. He faced our damaged portraits and sat there watching 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, the fact that he had lived marvelously in their company, 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 to 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 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 authority 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 . . . Our remarks coordinating in no circumvention of phrase with the magistrates’ understanding . . . There was nothing extraordinary about the rain that sounded and rang out in Bassmann’s agony during this period; it was completely expected in the month of April. In this region, 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 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 normally, 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. When 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 despite the split personalities corrupting his agony, Bassmann sought only to communicate with the deceased. He no longer tapped on the washbasin pipes or on the door, saying, for example, “Calling cell 546,” or on the sealed 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 gaze on us, the photographs of those who had preceded him in disappearing, 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, whose memory can only be preserved by the narrator. Word by word, moan after moan, Lutz Bassmann struggled to make last the mental edifice that would eventually become dust once again. 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. That is what we had called post-exoticism.

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