If you’ve been following any of the recent Antoine Volodine talk going around Three Percent—both on the blog or on the podcasts—and have heard his fans wax obsessive over all his alter author-egos, you’re probably starting to feel some Volodine fatigue setting in. One more mention of what his books do to your dreams, of postexoticism, prison literature, Untermenschen, or people with blends of Eastern European, Mongolian, and Middle Asian names, and you’ll start bleeding from your ears, right?
Sorry, but we’re not done yet.
Yet unpublished in English, Les aigles puent, a novel by Lutz Bassmann (one of Volodine’s many reoccurring faces/names/characters), is the tale of a man named Gordon Koum who has just returned from an assassination mission for the Party, only to discover that his home city has been devastated by a (possibly nuclear) bomb. Everything is completely and irreversibly demolished, turned to black ash and soot. Everyone whom Gordon Koum loved—his wife, his children, his comrades—is dead at the hands of these “witch bombs.” As he picks through the rubble, Gordon quickly realizes that everything is hopeless, that all is lost. Maddened, irradiated, and wracked with sorrow, our protagonist sits on a bit of rock and waits for death, his only companions a dead bird stuck in the tar, and a golliwog that had miraculously survived the blast. He uses his gift for ventriloquism to converse with them, and tells them stories of his lost friends: Benny Magadane, Antar Gudarbak, his wife Maryama Koum, and many others.
The book is in some ways very similar to Volodine’s Minor Angels: a man in pain is reciting strange short stories about others (I would consider the “In Memory of X” and “To Make X Laugh” chapters to be narracts), including stories about himself. In the case of Les aigles puent, however, the main character is not being punished for some crime, and in fact Gordon Koum could be said to be the antithesis to Will Scheidmann—as a Party member he is working against the dominant forces of (presumably) capitalism, whereas Scheidmann ended up restoring capitalism to its former state in his world.
Another interesting thing about the novel is the mention of a man named Müller, whom
Gordon Koum has killed. In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Müller is the name of a brutal prison guard who threatens to have the character Tarchalski beaten if he doesn’t return to his seat during his interview with another character, Blotno. Could this be a possible revenge fantasy of Bassmann’s? Post-Exoticism mentions that yet another character, Elia Fincke, has compiled a list of all the prison guards who had committed violence against the post-exotic authors between 1975 and 1999, so one might begin to wonder if all the villainous characters in these works get their names from this list.
Bassmann’s writing here is quite compelling, and the book provides a counterweight for both Minor Angels(in Gordon Koum’s similarities and differences to Will Scheidmann) and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (as we get to see now the effects of Bassmann’s imprisonment and madness on his writing).
Here’s an excerpt1 from chapter eight of Les aigles puent, “To Make Ayïsch Omonenko Laugh”, in which the narrator prepares to come face-to-face with Noë Balgagul, a ruthless ferry captain who forces his passengers into a humiliating game of charades to ensure their safe travel . . .
Noë Balgagul was the patron of a ferry that he called his ark. He was an old mercenary who pretended to have given up crimes against humanity to commit to the purifying path of spirituality. In reality, the atrocities he knew or committed had forever scrambled his senses. His vision of the world had blackened, it was inhabited by monsters and phantoms. Noë Balgagul’s religion extolled nothing, advocated no morality, and gave no explanation for the omnipresence of suffering in the fates of living creatures. It brought neither relief nor hope. It was an obscure construction, devoid of divinities and even mystic principles. It came to him while he was kneading maniacally his own private bitumen of cruelty and insanity, and no reassuring flame ever came to this tar. The spiritual principles of Noë Balgagul were reduced to a lugubrious practice, whose teachings he did not try to disseminate, except for in his immediate entourage, a band of deserters and brigands who had pledged allegiance to him.
I had been warned that Noë Balgagul performed a species of baptism as soon as crossing candidates boarded his craft. First he took their dollar, then he divided the unfortunates into several categories whose criteria were known to him alone. To these categories, all of them degrading, he attributed arbitrary names, names of animals that provoked his crew’s contempt, but which provided the foundation for a wretched role-playing game. This game lasted the entire slow crossing. A few regular clients sometimes escaped this obligation, but no one else. One by one, the passengers stepped foot onto his enormous punt. Noë Balgagul took the coin they paid him all the while examining them from feet to head. He appointed them a seat and, immediately, classified and baptized them. This selection conformed to illegible religious principles and, ultimately, its only point of origin was in Noë Balgagul’s caprices and petty irascibility. According to the title he had received, the traveler had to adopt the behaviors of a pig, a parrot, or a male or female human. He had to act them out with determination and even fervor. His fate depended on it, and in that one could find a religious relation between the totem he had been saddled with and the consequences that poor observation of the ritual could provoke. Those who were too half-hearted in miming their animal were thrown into the water by Noë Balgagul’s assistant, a specialist in fencing who delighted in the idea of then jabbing them with the gaff hook and who never objected to carrying out his employer’s murderous orders. The river was nasty, opaque, punctuated by eddies and treacherous churnings. It was several hundred meters wide and Noë Balgagul never threw out anyone before reaching the halfway point. In numerous places, algae countered the swimmers’ movements. Those from the city, who had left the hell of war to fall into the hell of peace, were powerless. Very few managed to get back to the shore.
That is what I had been told about Noë Balgagul, biological products, and the river.
1 Trans. by John Thomas Mahany
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .