With the new translation of Solo Viola: A Post-Exotic Novel, Antoine Volodine inhabits the operating theater of the apocalypse. It’s a classic example of his post-exotic project. And there is alchemy in the night of surrealism.
It’s dangerous to characterize the writing of Antoine Volodine because he so intentionally self describes writing. Volodine employs heteronyms in genre study of novels by Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger, and Elli Kronauer. And much of his writing is about aspirational tendencies of imaginary novelists; his 2014 Writers includes, for instance, an aesthetic manifesto on “post-exoticism:”
“In the beginning there is no word. There is no word but there is a bit of light, and even if there is no light there is the image of a place and of a situation, and only the image matters. Only the image becomes clear from the beginning, and imposes itself. It is stable, it has all its importance from the beginning, it is sufficient in itself and could be sufficient for us.”
And In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, he made pronouncements declaring that the post-exotics undermine the “listening capacity of our torturer,” with “false childhood memories, unusable biographies, nesting stories.”
Volodine advances a project of political literature. Writing “foreign language” within French. And undermining legibility in the service of dark wonders. His forebears are various: the Strugatsky brothers, Kharms, Gombrowicz, and the history of the fantastical absurd. A Russian-French novelist, his works are self-conscious, within a frenetic tradition half-jokingly called “post-exotic.”
Solo Viola, translated by Lia Swope Mitchell and published by Univocal Books, arrives clearly within this tradition.
In the world of Solo Viola, the city of Chamrouche is dominated by the fascist Frondists.
Like the brutalist Krug of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, the Frondists target difference. And their strategy is heartbreakingly familiar to the world of 2021. Frondists moved from “bigoted tirades stigmatizing the ragged enemies in the poor countries,” to “internal enemies, no less ragged, had multiplied underground in the stronghold of Chamrouche. It was time for radical cleansing…” As the Frondists move within the state and without, they issue pardons, and “decrees to poison their successors.”
The Frondists target racial differences. There are racialized castes persecuted within the Frondist society. And the language of these racial differences comes across in a sadly familiar slur.
But the Frontdists don’t stop there. In this novel, there are animals living within society as another persecuted caste. And, in a post-exotic flourish, differences across species lines are politicized. In Solo Viola, birds have personhood.
The Frondists move as an angry mob, “a mysterious collective impulse activates..” them, “and steers them toward the worst.”
Originally published in 1991, Solo Viola anticipated many of the themes Volodine would develop over the next three decades. It’s a novel with many clear modernist antecedents, articulated in a post-exotic voice.
There is the writer character, Iakoub Khadjbakiro, that employed the post-exotic:
“[he] included vast oneiric parts of the universe in his analysis of things. Onto his portraits of men and women he grafted somnambulatory behaviors, nocturnal modes of thought. He gave his characters whimsical nearly mad schemes… [he] seemed to work in abstract phantasmagoria, but suddenly his exotic parallel worlds would coincide with something buried in some random person’s unconscious mind. Suddenly that reader would emerge from the subterranean levels of mirage and onto the main square of the capital. In the middle of Chamrouche, with its busy, banal everyday life, and along with the thousand-year-old- cancers still active in everyone, that reder would see ancient barbarisms, ancient regressions. Exotic is the term applied to aberrant, yet fundamental, particles of matter.”
Solo Viola is the story of three prisoners, a horse thief, a circus strong-man, and a former bird.
The horse thief, Matko Amirbekian, has come to the center of the territory from the provinces. And his brother, a swarthy rustler is a Don Juan to the peasant women; yet, reviled by the hygenical terrorism of the Frondists. His unshaven mustache a sign of traditional rebellion and virility. These details perfectly situated Volodine’s project within the historical “modern.” Volodine presents a familiar paradox between the intersection of futurism, tradition, and authority. In literature, the modern authoritarian state seeks to embody both folk tradition and futurism. The avant-garde responds with various strategies, including the romantic bandit, another persistent archetype.
Within modernism, feats of personal strength at a carnival often fall within the vitalist tradition. While magicians seek obscure wells of power for floating tables and bloodless dichotomies, the strong man that bent bars and escaped chains relied on human rigor.
This archetype is an unmistakable idealism for Volodine, and when Aram Bouderbichvili was arrested for wrestling and paralyzing a Frodnist thug, it’s hard not to clap your hands for the embedded commentary on the latent power of the proletariat.
The circus provides a persistent and coherent intensifier within the avant-garde tradition. For many authors, poets, filmmakers, musicians, and artists, the circus becomes an ethic unto itself.
Bouderbichvili occupies an archetype within an important lineage. There’s Fellini’s La Strada; Jodorowsky’s Albina and the Dog Man; Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, Out 1, and Around a Small Mountain; and most relevantly Zulawski’s The Most Important Thing is to Love, The Public Woman, and On the Silver Globe.
Of all forebears, Zulawski has an outsized influence on Volodine. For Zulawski, the circus troupe was a symbol of commentary and irreverence. Including the circus troupe in a film or novel, allows an enclosed paratext to exist besides the text. The circus celebrates irreverence, interpretation, parody, satire, exaggeration, and rebellion in the face of doctrine. Zulawski included a troupe in his science fiction epic On the Silver Globe to parody the establishment of a cultural doctrine in real-time as it emerged. His Szamanka makes the explicit connection between shamanism and science fiction space travel, teleportation, and time travel that Volodine also explores within Radiant Terminus.
In Solo Viola, the circus represents one of the clearest ethics within the historical avant-garde.
There is a clown afraid of death, he is chased by an executioner on stage,
“He trips and falls before this colleague, who threatens him with a giant cardboard axe… behind him an executioner bellows and scamper safer him in oversized shoes. The victim does a perfect imitation of panic.”
“I will therefore, postulate as a principle that in the dream world we do not fly because we have wings; rather, we think we have wings because we have flown. Wings are a consequence. The principle of oneiric flight goes deeper. Dynamic aerial imagination must rediscover this principle.”
Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams
“I remember daydreams of being a dancer and being able to leap higher than anyone thought was humanly possible.”
Joe Brainard, I Remember
If strength and vitality is one possible idealism within Solo Viola, flight and the personhood of birds might be another.
Volodine is an expert at naming a conceit without overexplaining. Simply put, some people are birds. Or birds are people within this universe. And this thrilling sleight of hand introduces several neat metaphors. The first describes the question of treatment to non-human animals. In her 2019 title, When Animals Speak: Toward an Interspecies Democracy, Eva Meijer outlined the importance of not just increasing the freedom of non-human animals separately from humans. But fundamentally the ethical imperative of increasing the freedom for non-human animals within social relations with humans. This means greater listening. And better protections for the rights of non-human animals are explicit within human systems. For the Frondists, birds cannot be a part of society. Through this conceit, Volodine imagines a world where birds can exist co-equally. Where authoritarian domination is less terrible.
The second gift of birds within Solo Viola is the blessed memory of flight. The titular Solo Viola of Tchaki Estherkhan of a stringed quartet.
During her solo she thinks of the memories shared with her by a former lover, a bird named Kirghyl Karakassian.
“When they lay soft and warm, stretched out beside each other… he told her about the country where he had spent his childhood, a moor broken by mountains and peaked by cliffs…With him she contemplated the blue curls of blue lava; past the dark stumps of chimneys, she admired the burning turquoise lakes. After the music came an infinite silence… she followed the blue birds that soared soundlessly above blue prairies, and blue mists.”
The former bird, the prisoner, Will MacGrono, imagines rejoining his flock. Rebelling against the Frondists.
He was arrested for posting leaflets with the clown:
“Outside the poorly lit circle of their encampment. Together they stole across dark landscapes and trash heaps, into sleepy neighborhoods, into streets smothering under dim silence. They took advantage of broken street lights. On utility poles, bus stops, and telephone booths, they posted signs that summarized in a few words their opinions of the party, the hygiene patrols, Frondism in general and it’s leaders in particular.”
As a post-exotic text, the tension persists between the oneiric, the fleeting idealism, memories, childhood stories, the buoyancy of the absurd, against the interrogation of a damning authority.
As in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, the principals within Solo Viola voice their rebellion in conversation with an inquisitor. They speak against brutalism as the vice tightens. It is a text designed to withstand an interrogation room. This book is published by Univocal Books, a series with the University of Minnesota Press. A series with an emphasis on clear-eyed texts of contemporary philosophy. Volodine’s post-exoticism deploys strategies for survival and reclamation. Through his dark ciphers, he finds a guiding light.
Solo Viola: A Post-Exotic Novel
By Antoine Volodine Translated by Lia Swope Mitchell
University of Minnesota Press
Published May 11, 2021
Joseph Houlihan lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.