JUNE 17, 2015
“WHY SUCH A FRENZY?” This question is asked by “the Blotno,” a celebrity journalist and police collaborator who stalks the margins of Antoine Volodine’s newly translated novel Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. In a proceeding that combines elements of a celebrity interview and an interrogation, Blotno questions a series of prisoners about their literary output, a body of writing they call “post-exoticism.” These prisoners are defeated revolutionaries who have since turned to writing, intransigent combatants in a lost struggle “against the capitalist world and its countless ignominies.” The reporter wants to know why the prisoners have undertaken such a frenzy of invention: new forms, new genres, new literary terms. A similar question might occur to Post-Exoticism’s readers; why this baroque complexity? Even the book’s title displays a tendency toward neologism and paradox, a tendency borne out in the succeeding pages of fractured narrative. So the question isn’t a bad one, despite its being asked by one of the novel’s proxy villains.
You can see why the journalist/collaborator/interrogator in Post-Exoticism starts there. The literary movement called “post-exoticism,” practiced in this novel by a group of imprisoned revolutionaries in a devastated world, fairly bursts with invention: there are dozens of authorial heteronyms that collocate different nationalities and languages (“Roman Nachtigall”; “Türkan Marachvilli”; “Erdogan Mayayo”); fake paratexts such as fictional frontispieces, fictional back matter, and the 11 “lessons” that theorize the movement (and the book one holds in one’s hands); and, above all, myriad newly invented post-exotic literary terms, such as “murmuract” and “narrative apnea” and “reticular progression.” Volodine’s entire body of work evinces this same prolific inventiveness: some 42 books, often in such post-exotic genres as “narracts” and “Shåggas” and “interjoists,” have so far been published under the names Antoine Volodine, Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger, and Elli Kronauer.
But perhaps Blotno’s focus on literary form is too narrow; Post-Exoticism in Ten is not just a flashily structured collection of newly invented forms. A question just as important might be this: How can a literary work that manifestly sympathizes with revolutionaries avoid covertly siding with the state’s power? William Hazlitt asked a similar question about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, with its unmemorable mass of bread rioters and its charismatic, domineering Roman general. Hazlitt concluded that “the language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power.” In our own times, J.M. Coetzee has wrestled with Hazlitt’s problem; in his essay “Into the Dark Chamber: The Writer and the South African State,” Coetzee contemplates the position of the writer vis-à-vis a state that exerts its power through torture, a state that also proscribes the representation of that torture. (This situation is not too difficult to imagine in the United States, where the translation of Post-Exoticism appears on the heels of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture and Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, both heavily redacted.) If a writer tries to defy the state and represent torture’s “dark chamber,” then, asks Coetzee, how can the writer avoid making the torturer into a charismatic figure? A Satanic majesty, a malefic but beguiling intelligence whose very charm announces the writer’s complicity with the state. And how represent the tortured as anything but a martyred body, or even an eroticized one, at once desired and defiled?
Coetzee’s questions matter because Post-Exoticism unfolds as a scene of interrogation, transposed from the torture chamber and into the protocols of journalism. The transposition is only a partial one: the novel is set in a prison’s “high-security sector”; a policeman records the interview; and at one point the proceedings are interrupted while prison guards beat an interviewee/prisoner. If literary virtuosity is necessarily servile to power, as Hazlitt thought, then Post-Exoticism would betray its powerless characters, defeated revolutionaries one and all. They are ordinary militants and sub-proletarians, those whom Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth” and whom this novel variously refers to as “the beggars,” “the tattered and the miserable,” and “the poorest.”
The fictional Blotno, perhaps not unlike some actual journalists and scholars, can understand post-exoticism only as a form of power, to be admired or contested. In this view, the baroque forms of Post-Exoticism were designed to elicit a certain kind of admiring reviewer-ese: “dazzling!” “startling!” “a frenzy of invention!” — or, in the weak approbation that Publishers Weekly gave a recent Volodine novel, “[it] will capture the attention of lovers of lit crit as fiction.” Blotno and his like assume that under all the strange heteronyms and behind all the new genres is some sort of mastermind: a metafictional gamesman and architect of destabilizing incertitudes. As if post-exoticism really were nothing but that gamesman’s elaborate form of wordplay, constructed for “lovers of lit crit” and — as one of the prisoners says — those “in love with a music of the illegible.”[i] The 42 post-exotic books form a remarkable metafictional edifice, but it would be a pity to read past the actual books and toward the assumption that their author wanted only to dazzle us with his power, to strut like a victor on the literary world stage.
Post-exoticism announces itself in these books as a literature of the defeated. “Once again the revolution was dead,” begins Volodine’s 1994 novel Naming the Jungle; “After the Defeat,” is the title of the first section of his 1997 novel Nuit blanche en Balkhyrie. The prisoner-writers in Post-Exoticism in Ten are defeated revolutionaries whose writing is scorned, risible, scarcely extant: texts tapped on the bars of prison cells; novels murmured for dead or absent auditors. The defeated post-exotics do not “speak truth to power,” nor do they write compensatory fictions in which the revolution is victorious at last. Rather than compensating for revolution’s defeat, post-exotic writing doubles for it — the literary project, too, is a failure. Post-Exoticism in Ten begins as the last post-exotic narrator, one Lutz Bassmann, is dying, and it ends just as Bassmann sighs out the very last post-exotic book, Return to the Tar, a murmured book that “rang so feebly […] for nothing.” All post-exotic voices raise the clamor of insurrection, but they raise it elsewhere than at the barricades; they raise it in literature, in a domain of weakness, passivity, and disaster.
As Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, “it is in the nature of the defeated to appear, in their impotence, irrelevant, eccentric, derisory.” Post-exoticism’s voices of the defeated appear, however derisorily, in a frenzy of literary prowess: a heteronymic dazzlement, an exuberant display of literary invention. Consider, for instance, Post-Exoticism in Ten’s eccentric discourse on something it calls la flambulance. This portmanteau word describes a trick method of flaming ambulation, a method the prisoner Wolfgang Gardel discovers he can use for psychic transmigration and for “the petrification of time.” It is a striking image, but it is more than that. We are told that Gardel makes his discovery in the course of “immolating himself” in his cell. From the first, without requiring any effortful decoding, this airy metaphysical description of time’s “petrified duration” is also a record of violence. The fictional Gardel aflame in his cell cannot help but remind readers of such actual self-immolations as that of the Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức in 1963 and the Czech student Jan Palach in 1969. And although Lesson 2 describes Gardel’s act as “the displacement of the self in fire” — as if Gardel’s soul calmly walked abroad, strolling through the aether — a later passage in the book bluntly refers to Gardel’s “suicide.” Soon a prisoner named Ellen Dawkes raves to her interrogator/interviewer about a situation like the infamous “Todesnacht” in Stammheim prison in 1977: Dawkes says that some of the post-exotics are being executed in staged suicides, by methods that these closely guarded prisoners cannot have arranged for themselves, including, in Dawkes’s shouted words, “suicide by jerrican!” — that is, suicide by gasoline can, by self-immolation.
None of this means that Post-Exoticism in Ten can be reduced to a coded insurrectionary message. Gardel’s suicide (or transmigration) is not just a bit of decorative dross, a filigreed literary disguise that can be dispensed with as soon as we descry the historical figures of Baader and Ensslin, or Quảng Đức and Palach. For one thing, the exercise of finding historical referents for “flambulance” is potentially infinite, and could stretch back at least as far as the burning of the Litovsky prison in St. Petersburg in 1917, and forward in time to the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2010. And yet, however numerous the political resonances, their multiplicity does not mean that they cancel one another out; the significance of Gardel’s act cannot be restricted to its formal inventiveness (the neologism “flambulance”) or to its imagery of astral-oneiric travel (“migration from one body to another,” in Gardel’s words).
It is in this light — in the blaze that pours from Wolfgang Gardel’s prison cell — that we ought to view post-exoticism’s frenzy of forms. The fifth lesson of Post-Exoticism in Ten is entitled “Let’s Talk about Something Else”; in it, we learn that the post-exotics have a method of evading interrogation. Their evasion functions, not by silence, but by a stream of useless narratives. The post-exotics have drowned out “the listening capacity of our torturers” with “false childhood memories, unusable biographies, nesting stories.” They “have inserted accounts of dreams where our interlocutors wanted confessions.” In a metafictional move that turns post-exoticism inside out, all these dream-accounts and fabricated memories and nesting stories turn out to be nothing other than that frenzy of literary forms we have come to know as post-exoticism. Rather than supply the answers demanded by “the enemy,” the post-exotics have “adopt[ed] a formalist point of view, literary in excess.”
It is a poor sort of book review that quotes a novel’s own theory about itself, all the while proffering it as the reviewer’s insight (Perhaps post-exoticism is especially conducive to this trammeling quandary, in which a reviewer cannot be sure whether they are inside or outside the mise-en-abyme.) But this novel employs still more arts of evasion than the ones outlined in Lesson Five. Not only has confession been replaced by fabulation, and the torturer by the reporter — the novel also deliberately withholds narrative attention from the ruling class’s proxies, their guards and policemen and reporters; in short, the narrator refuses to attend to these characters. Of Blotno, the narrator tersely remarks that he “feel[s] powerless to describe his physical attributes.” The same holds true for Blotno’s colleague, the reporter Niouki, about whom the narrator cannot be bothered to say much more than that she was somewhat “less nonexistent in my memory” than Blotno. Likewise, in the scene in which Post-Exoticism in Ten comes closest to dramatizing torture, the guards who beat a prisoner are represented solely by the word “clubs,”[ii] and the guard who orders the beating makes almost no impression on the narrator: “I no longer remember the name of that man, Batyrzian or Kotter, or Otchaptenko, or Müller. Let’s say it was Müller. Dimitri or John.”
The guards are minor characters, but their importance is further downplayed on principle. “The masters are never shown,” says Antoine Volodine in an interview about post-exoticism filmed in 2010. “Personally — and for Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger, it’s the same — it would pain us terribly if, thanks to our art, the masters were granted existence.”[iii] Post-exoticism sees to it that those in power — whom post-exoticism variously calls ceux qui gouvernent la planète, les hauts responsables du malheur, and les assassins des millions — stay well out of sight.
Lately there is something of a boom in English translations of Volodine and his other authorial personae. The first handful appeared slowly, beginning two decades ago with Linda Coverdale’s Naming the Jungle (New Press, 1996). The years since then have seen publication of the two best post-exotic translations yet, Jordan Stump’s Minor Angels and Brian Evenson’s In the Time of the Blue Ball. They have been joined by this year’s Post-Exoticism in Ten and last year’s Writers (Dalkey Archive), and soon there will be more. Open Letter Books already has Volodine’s most recent novel, Terminus radieux, under contract; a smattering of shorter pieces have come out in journals recently; and the back matter for Post-Exoticism in Ten announces that its translator, J.T. Mahany, is translating several other Volodine books.
Still, why this book, now? Its ironic premise — that it explains post-exoticism — may have been an enticement for Open Letter, a way of getting out ahead of the coming boom. But the reader who comes to this book hoping to find a theoretical key to the oeuvre will be at least partially disappointed.
The designation “post-exoticism” began as something of a spoof on Volodine’s part. Like the prisoners’ evasive answers in Post-Exoticism in Ten, this made-up term was initially a way for Volodine to deflect the questions of journalists who were asking him how and where to situate his oeuvre. Among Volodine’s anecdotes about the origins of the term “post-exoticism,” there is at least one in which he says the term he initially proposed was “post-exotic anarchism.” It’s almost a pity he later dropped the political inflection; to English ears, the prefix “post-” sometimes has the sound of an exhausted witticism.
If the name “post-exotic anarchism” had stuck, it would not indicate the authors’ or the characters’ adherence to a strictly delimited, 19th- and 20th-century offshoot of communism, some amalgam of Kropotkin and Proudhon.[iv] Volodine has elsewhere stated that “the post-exotic community is rooted in a very specific and radical militant nexus,” but this fictional militancy is strange: it includes the rebels who vociferate against the moon in Writers; the anti-unguent primitivists in Herbes et golems; and the ex-assassins turned shamanic operatives in We Monks and Soldiers. Even though Volodine has said the post-exotic “philosophy of extremism” is “not conjured up haphazardly” in his novels, it is hard to be certain that we and the post-exotics mean exactly the same things by the term anarchism.
The whole oeuvre is, however, anarchically decentered. The works form neither a series nor a cycle; there is not even a persistent setting or chronology to unify this comédie post-humaine. Even “the post-exotics” themselves maintain an ex-centric, almost insignificant position within the stories. Post-Exoticism in Ten contains frequent references to the early struggles of the post-exotics, all that they did before prison. These brief evocations of their intransigent dissidence and their desperately fought battles are among the most moving passages — but it’s not as though the other books narrate, blow by blow, what is evoked only in passing in Post-Exoticism in Ten. Even in the more lush and extravagant post-exotic books (Songes de Mevlido, or Terminus radieux), the most important events are never recounted, arriving only in fragments. Far from being an explanatory key of some other, fuller narrative, Post-Exoticism in Ten is one post-exotic book among others; haunting and strange and beautiful as the others, but not their key.
The post-exotic boom has increased the number and variety of Volodine’s translators. Jordan Stump is a professor of French and a translator of many contemporary French writers; Brian Evenson, in addition to having done other French translations, is an accomplished writer of fiction. Recently, The Quarterly Conversation published a harsh review of Katina Rogers’s translation of Volodine’s Writers; reviewer Jacob Siefring criticized Rogers for smoothing out the “lexical strangeness” of Volodine’s prose. It is true that, as Siefring notes, Volodine has stated that a tenet of post-exoticism is to “write a foreign literature in French.” Post-Exoticism in Ten’s translator, J.T. Mahany, has been careful with Volodine’s neologisms. The post-exotic genre of the “entrevoûtes” has for its name a neologism that evokes the “between” of “entre” as well as “vault” (voûte) and “enchant” (envoûter); Mahany’s word “interjoists” is apt, and he has preserved its echoes in translating Volodine’s other unusual terms “intersailing” (entrevolguement) and “vault swelling” (houle de voûte).[v] But many of Mahany’s more quotidian translation choices seem less careful: “dissent” for dissidence; “our spokespeople” for nos interlocuteurs. “Spokesperson” (porte-parole) is a post-exotic term of art; in interviews, Volodine refers himself a post-exotic spokesperson rather than an author. And the post-exotics are not just dissenters but dissidents, for whom the matter of who speaks and how (prise de la parole) has political implications: a vast gulf separates the post-exotics’ own spokespeople from the enemy interlocutors who elicit their speech.
Of all the fantastical elements of Post-Exoticism in Ten — Gardel’s transmigration in flames; the opera-loving bird-gods Moyocoatzin and Mlatelpopec; and all the post-exotic shamans and magicians and necromancers, “the full gallery of those privileged to overcome eternity and overstep the threshold of reality and death” — surely the most unrealistic is the suggestion that a band of prisoners could successfully evade their torturers, year upon year, by making up fictions, neither giving their captors the truth they want, nor proffering plausible lies, but confecting “nesting stories” and substituting “accounts of dreams where [their] interlocutors wanted confessions.” I don’t subscribe to the cynical truism — actually a falsehood — that under torture “everyone talks.” Not everyone yields to torture. Jean Moulin, to take just one example, kept silent about his fellow Resistance fighters when he was tortured. It might be possible to lie to one’s tortures so volubly that the falsehoods grow as lengthy as the post-exotic oeuvre, and so skillfully that the torturers can glean nothing of value (although social mapping or Freudian slips would seem bound to yield up something useful). Still, lying is within the conceptual framework of torture. But the post-exotics neither lie nor confess. Instead, they produce post-exotic literature — a literature “written by hand or learned by heart and recited, as the administration through the years would sometimes forbid us any paper.” The post-exotics’ reply to their torturers — the fictive memories, the elaborate lists of names of imaginary plants, and above all the frenzy of newly invented literary genres — all this is the realized dream of a language situated elsewhere than the true and the false. As the post-exotics themselves say, post-exoticism comes “from elsewhere.” It is a language that originates elsewhere than in the confessing prisoner and it is addressed to someone other than the torturers, even though the torturers and the police will necessarily overhear it.[vi] The name for such a language is fiction.
Among the devastating psychological effects of having talked under torture is the knowledge that one has betrayed comrades and endangered innocents. There is also the terrible flattening of one’s own language under torture: everything comes forth at once, the useless and the useful, the secret and the known, all disgorged as one substance. Like a gout of liquid, or a howling sound. The post-exotics refuse to submit under torture: “we have not given the enemy […] any detail.” But in Lesson Five, when Ellen Dawkes says, “we did not falter when we were hurt” and “we have not yelled our disarray on every pitch,” is there not at least a hint of denegation? Perhaps post-exotic speech — that which always fictively “talks about something else” — also redeems those who faltered and cried out, those whose language was, even for one moment, degraded into the indifference of a scream. The ceaseless differentiations of post-exoticism — the names, the lists, the genres — are not just an obsession with literary novelty; they are also an elaborately differentiated language that resists torture’s inarticulate cry.
We could call such a post-exotic language angelic, this speech that redeems the ones who faltered. But any discussion of post-exoticism’s angelic register must also consider Yasar Tarchalski’s discourse, in Lesson Nine, on “one of our entry-level intellectual gifts”: atheism. The post-exotics are “atheistic technicians […] strangers to every religious community.” Nonetheless, as Tarchalski says, “an acute religiosity haunts [post-exotic] fictions.” The post-exotics transmigrate and they halt time’s duration; they commune with the dead and they recite the Bardo Thodol (although they strip it of “every truly Buddhist dimension” and remake it according to “our own individual and collective sensibilities”). Post-exoticism has its own heretical pantheon, but its angels are “hierarchically dilapidated” ones — minor angels, to use the title of Volodine’s 1999 novel.
Post-exoticism has tried to solve the problem of torture’s “dark chamber” by keeping the torturers in shadow, and yet it has also made that chamber its locus classicus. One of the narrators remarks that in post-exoticism’s golden age, the post-exotic writers increasingly set their fictions only in prison, almost without reference to a world outside; they “no longer harbored the least nostalgia for the flip side of the fictional setting.”[vii] So it is no exaggeration when one of the post-exotics describes the prison as the last remnant of utopia: “We came to realize that the concentrationary system we were locked up in was the final, impregnable redoubt of egalitarian utopia, the one place on earth where the inhabitants still struggled for a kind of paradise.” Mahany has here that the prison was “the final, impregnable fear,” and it is true that in English as in French, the verb “redoubt” (redouter) means “to fear.” But the noun “redoubt” (la redoute) is unconnected to that verb; in both English and French, this “redoubt” comes from the Italian ridotto, primarily meaning a fortress, but also having the now-obsolete meanings of a masked ball and a place for gambling and dancing. We do not know whether Volodine intended these more obscure meanings of “redoubt.” Still, the high-security sector of Post-Exoticism in Ten, where the prisoners fabulate their texts in this last struggle for a variant of paradise, is at once a fortress and a dancehall, a stronghold and a ballroom.[viii]
Early on, in Lesson Two, we meet the creatures Moyocoatzin and Mlatelpopec, who have the names of ancient gods and the attributes of both humans and birds. They have learned to use “flambulance” for their own aesthetic pleasure; they wield the power to “stagnate time” and they mean to spend eternity in flames, listening to their favorite opera records. Their idyll is crashed by the militant Gardel, who gets on their astral channel to issue a call to arms. But the semi-human bird-gods “do not want their music storehold to become a center for international subversion, the calls for revolt carried on the voices of the singers whom they adore.” In the book-within-the-book that tells the story of Gardel and Moyocoatzin and Mlatelpopec, the conflict between revolution and beauty seems insoluble. In the novel Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, in a carceral redoubt that is both fortress and dancehall, the post-exotics speak a language that harmonizes the aria with the call to arms. A language of minor angels.
[i] Translation modified. Throughout the rest of this essay, I have frequently modified the translation.
[ii] les matraques: “Sometime around the middle of May 1968 […] the policeman’s club or matraque had become for the insurgents in the streets a pure synecdoche for the State” (Kristin Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives, p. 27).
[iii] At about 2:40: “Jamais les maitres ne sont présentés … Personnellement, et puis, pour Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger, c’est la même chose, ça nous dérangerait énormément de faire de l’art…ou permettre les maitres à exister, grâce à notre art.” Ellipses represent pauses in the original.
[iv] There are only a few explicitly anarchist characters scattered throughout the books of Volodine et al: the two anarchists who mangle a recitation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo; and possibly Natacha Woo and Linda Grimm, militant factory workers in Lutz Bassmann’s We Monks and Soldiers. At a stretch, one could include the several post-exotic characters who are said to be “assassins of the assassins,” a designation that resonates with certain anarchist tactics in the Spanish Civil War.
[v] For this discussion of “intersailing” and “vault swelling,” I am indebted to Mahany for sharing with me his MA thesis in literary translation.
[vi] Volodine: “My narrators always address themselves, over the heads of the police who force them to speak, to listeners who are friends and accomplices, real or imaginary.” Interview by Jean-Didier Wagneur, in SubStance, issue 101.
[vii] In the original: “personnages et narrateurs ne nourissaient plus aucune nostalgie envers l’envers du décor.” The phrase l’envers du décor is telling; the narrators of golden-age post-exoticism are indifferent to the back of the stage-set, the reverse side of the fiction: what we used to call le hors-texte.
[viii] “Fear” does not make sense here. As with the paradoxical “Éloges des camps” [In Praise of the Camps] in Volodine’s recent novel Terminus radieux, egalitarian utopia finds in the concentrationary system its last stronghold, not its last fear.