Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven by Antoine Volodine, et al trans. J. T. Mahany (Open Letter, May 2015) Reviewed by Nicholas Hauck

Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven
by Antoine Volodine, et al
trans. J. T. Mahany
(Open Letter, May 2015)

Reviewed by Nicholas Hauck

In novels, television shows and films, the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genres have become commonplace if not cliché. It is astonishing, then, to discover post-exoticism, an imaginative and refreshing project that provocatively claims “the concentration camp system where we were locked up was egalitarian utopia’s ultimate impregnable fear, the only terrestrial space whose inhabitants were still fighting for a variant of paradise.” In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, we read about the last days of Lutz Bassmann, one of the inhabitants incarcerated in this system. As the last spokesperson of the revolutionary literary movement post-exoticism, he is visited by Blotno and Niouki, two journalists from the outside seeking to document and report on the movement. They soon come to realize however that post-exoticism resists: Bassmann channels the voices of other post-exotic writers, life and death seem to become constructs of the world outside post-exoticism, prison cells add their own voice to the story, and what little information the journalists are able to retrieve is contaminated by a ciphered language of misinformation. All of this seems unreal and hyperreal. But this is a book signed by Antoine Volodine—and this is what we have come to expect of anything bearing his name.

Irreducible to any single literary genre, the Volodinian cosmos is skillfully crafted, fusing elements of science fiction with magical realism and political commentary. It is an unnavigable matrix whose inhuman face is pockmarked by linguistic and narrative black holes, which force the reader to critically rethink the boundaries of literature and language itself. There is an ominous lack of tangible reference to our world, the world outside this cosmos, and in refusing to directly reference our so-called reality, including “our” literary traditions, Antoine Volodine consciously accentuates the radical strangeness of his fictional world, highlighting its independence and its incommensurability with traditions, literary or otherwise. In this hyperfictionalized universe, “the true reader . . . is one of the characters of post-exoticism”; they are ferried elsewhere, towards the boundaries of writing where communication breaks down and language becomes radically other. According to Volodine, the contemporary world is absolutely unstable and dominated by the absence of all hope; this is the source of the radical otherness saturating his work, an absence-as-source, like a negative without referent. We live in this permanent rift, something, he says, that haunts him and drives him to write, to scream, to create something outside and beyond all this.

To write, to scream, to create something “outside and beyond all this” is the post-exotic project where narrator and reader, author and text, real and fictional, and even life and death become amorphous concepts at best, where “there is not the thickness of a piece of cigarette paper between the first-person and others, and hardly any difference between life and death.” If post-exoticism as a project refuses identification with literary tradition, language and communication also consciously refuse to participate in any standard practice that would normally enable and maintain their function. Language does not evaporate into a noncommunicative silence, but rather becomes overloaded with “a process of the literary lie [. . . which] plays with a truth hidden upstream of the text.” Volodine’s language is elaborate, a tactic that camouflages post-exoticism’s message or communication in language itself, so that it cannot be appropriated and to ensure that the message is only received by those sympathetic to the project. Against the hopelessness of this world, post-exoticism’s language revives the silenced voices of the past: the murdered, the imprisoned, those who have lost their voice in the fight. In doing so, it dialogically places hope “upstream” and sends an encoded message in anticipation of it falling on willing and empathic ears.

At stake in Volodine’s work are the expression of resistance—not to something, but in its bare form—and the very possibility of a revolutionary language/literature. Post-exotic narrators must use a completely other “voice”—if this term is still appropriate for describing post-exotic narration—since the speaking I is dissolved into a nebulous networked we composed of spokespeople that have never agreed “to write, to yell, or to say what was expected of us, preferring to invent.” “We,” proclaims one of the said spokespeople, “made our narration walk on transversal roads, we modified the inhuman shrieking in our throats and we turned it into a variation the enemy refused to read and did not even have the desire to decode . . . We have always talked about something else, always.” The use of the pronoun “we” here (and elsewhere in the text) is a subtle invitation to post-exotic ways of thinking and being, to let its cosmos enter our own as radical critique. This “something else” constitutes the delicate fibers zigzagging through the post-exotic cosmos, just keeping it together, while the enemy’s ubiquity poses a constant threat. Who or what is the “enemy”? Readers immersed in post-exoticism feel as though they can offer an answer, but they ultimately cannot because our language, this language, is not the language of post-exoticism; one is tempted to accuse the question itself of being the enemy, the question that, by using language the way it does, imposes a certain discourse of power. Talking about something else then becomes a tactic of misinformation, a disavowal to communicate with and within the official worlds that we expect to find in literature.

Creating a fictional cosmos and empowering it with its own name corresponds to the intent to misinform the enemy and the refusal to accept its world: post-exoticism sounds like a legitimate literary genre hatched by an overzealous scholar all-too-eager to baptize Volodine’s work in the murky waters of academia. We should not take the term post-exoticism, however, as seriously as our straw-man scholar does, or maybe we should take it seriously in a different way, since it is a neologism that really isn’t one: a hybrid mockery that frustrates and evades the very process of labeling and classification. Volodine has repeatedly said that he came up with the term post-exoticism because it sounds really good, it sounds scientific, official. He is able to gather the work under an autogenerative label that has the advantage of being empty and therefore being filled by the texts that will give it meaning. It is a kind of preemptive gesture that saves his oeuvre from the critics while at the same time downplaying his role as Author (he prefers the term “spokesperson”).

But what exactly is post-exoticism, and for whom is Volodine the spokesperson? Dominique Viart has suggested that by combining the prefix “post” and the radical “exoticism,” Volodine operates at the junction of time and space, and thus offers a new map of historical representation, perhaps even a new way of thinking about history and representation. But the very premise of post-exoticism is that it refuses any external categorization, it defines itself from within as an experiment rather than a genre, a project built on the aborted hopes of failed revolution; it is born out of a refusal. Who then are the voices it claims to speak for? If there is an answer to this question, it may be hidden in Volodine’s claim that he practices literature like a martial art, writing foreign literature in French. A literature foreign to its own idiom requires language to counteract itself, or at least lie to itself, and that is what we witness in post-exoticism. Volodine considers his own project as a calculated execution, at once militant but not overtly aggressive, a radical and auto-sacrificial rethinking of the possibility of language’s communication. Post-exotic fiction as such becomes the true spokesperson, speaking to and for the writers of the resistance in a muted code of defiance and survival.

The cast of the post-exotic cosmos includes, among others, writers, visionary shamans, semi-mortal humans, mutants, animals—who are all able to interact with the so-called “human” world—and perhaps most interestingly, the murmuring voices of those who have lost an unnamed revolutionary war, confined to high-security cells in a post-apocalyptic world. These prisoners are the writers in the post-exotic canon, deemed by the enemy as marginal figures or mentally ill. Three (four if we count Volodine himself) post-exotic writers stand out among the rest: Elli Kronauer, Manuela Draeger, and Lutz Bassmann. All three are recurring characters in Volodine’s early work. In 1999 however, the children’s book publisher L’École des loisirs published the first of five books written by Elli Kronauer; in 2002, again at L’École des loisirs, Manuela Draeger’s first book was published—as of this month, there are now a total of thirteen—and finally, in 2008, Lutz Bassmann published his first novel, followed by three more. Not counting a possibly invented translation of Maria Soudayeva’s Slogans, there are now a total of forty-two post-exotic novels published between these four spokespeople.

By publishing under the names of people in the post-exotic cosmos, Volodine reminds us of Pessoa’s multiverse of heteronyms, which the Portuguese writer used throughout his life. Like Pessoa, Volodine prefers the term heteronym to pseudonym since the former underscores the independence of the figure: Lutz Bassmann is a post-exotic spokesperson in his own right, and not a literary trope or mask behind which lurks a conniving Volodine. The post-exotic cosmos truly is radically estranged from our own world, a universe that questions the very idea of voice, of living or real, and the idea of literary agency. When we take into account the fact that “Antoine Volodine” is also a heteronym, identity and identification, the substrata of literature (at least in the Western tradition), are reduced to an empty silence: post-exoticism’s response to culture that has become its own enemy.

How then does one begin to write or think about post-exoticism? Maybe a good place to start would be Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Published in French by Volodine in 1998 and now available to an English audience thanks to J. T. Mahany’s translation, the book, as the title suggests, “explains” post-exoticism. However, those seeking a step-by-step guide to understanding this fictional cosmos will be distracted by the pedagogical promise of the title, which remains unfulfilled. There are, of course, statements throughout the text offering cryptic definitions of what post-exoticism is: “a literature coming from elsewhere and going elsewhere, an alien literature”; it maintains bonds “with magic and theories of magical, shamanic voyage,” and uses notions “such as cyclical fate, non-death death and non-life life, transmigration, and reincarnation”; and has “invented concepts of mute voice, under-narrator, fictive speech, counter-voice, dead voice, sub-realism, polychrony, narrative apnea, etc.,” to name a few. But all of these definitions are enveloped in what Volodine calls post-exoticism’s “limpid hermeticism” formed by a muted collective solitude whose “voice sang in a style totally devoid of incoherence or dependence.” These clues loosely defining post-exoticism become more and more frequent as the text progresses, until, in the last paragraph of Lesson Eleven (the text itself), just before Lesson Ten we read that “post-exoticism ended there.”

The curious structure of the text complements both the hermetic quality of the lessons and the interrupted or suspended nature of post-exotic discourse. Ten lessons are distributed throughout the narrative of Lesson Eleven, punctuating an oral history of post-exoticism with lists, examples of sub-genres, and anecdotes of some of the movement’s events. Lessons One, Seven, and Ten for example offer lists of “Fragmentary Inventory of Deceased Dissidents,” “Specific Terms” (a lesson signed Lutz Bassmann), and no less than 343* entries under “By the Same Author, in the Same Collection.” Lessons Three, Four, and Six offer explanations of three post-exotic subgenres: the Shaggå (signed by Ingrid Vogel), the Romånce (signed by Iakoub Khadjbakiro), and Novelles or Interjoists (signed by Erdogan Mayayo). These three lessons offer more detailed explanations of post-exotic texts: the Shaggå “seems to address a reader who is in close ideological and cultural connivance with the author [. . . but] the text delivers no significant message. The only thing communicated is the form of the message it could have taken if it had been transmitted and encrypted”; the literary domain of Novelles or Interjoists “opens onto the infinite: it becomes a travel destination, a haven for the narrator, a land of exile, tranquil exile, for the reader, out of the enemy’s reach, forever out the enemy’s reach.” All post-exotic texts have in common “a record of difference with the outside,” a will “to accentuate the gap with the real world,” yet like all borders and identities in the post-exotic cosmos, the defining boundaries of these genres are vague and easily traversed.

As such, we read in Lesson Four that the Romånce “rests entirely on a conception of opposites where opposites merge [. . . and] the logic of non-opposition of opposites has always marked post-exotic thought.” Lesson Four is the most detailed of the ten lessons. It outlines seven qualities particular to the Romånce genre: Unity of Blood, Non-Repentance of the Narrator, Death of the Narrator, Non-Opposition of Opposites, Formalism, Orality, and finally Presence of the Reader. We learn that while it is similar to the novel, the abovementioned traits distinguish the Romånce from novelistic texts. In addition to the admittedly pedagogical mood of Lesson Four, Lesson Two (“Maria Clementi’s ‘Minor Angels,’ romånce, 1977”) summarizes an important post-exotic romånce. Unlike Lesson Four, however—which is the most lesson-like of the ten and as such can be read and understood more directly that the others—Lesson Two hurls the reader into the delightfully disorienting reality of post-exoticism. Readers familiar with his oeuvre will recall that Des anges mineurs was published by Volodine in 1999 (and published in English as Minor Angels in 2004), one year after the initial French publication of Post-exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze. The lesson becomes a paradigm, and the fallout of post-exotic spokesperson-ship begins to radiate on the entire project: the published works, the unpublished ones, and the ones that are too far removed from our reality to be published but exist nonetheless, thoroughly immersed in their own world. During this lesson we sense (or at least begin to dream) what is at stake in post-exoticism and by extension in the possibility of literature:

a vocal distortion and the confusion in the actual name of the givers and takers of speech. Behind the book’s author, spokesperson, and signatory, and behind the voice of the narrator or narrators staged in the book, one must replace an overnarrator who voluntarily erases himself and who, in a process of intimate camaraderie, forces his voice and thought to reproduce the melodic contour of a disappeared voice and thought. Thus comes this insistence of the narrator to pretend he is already dead: perhaps this is the sole literary lie onto which he can hold without unease.

This is one of the reasons why, as previously mentioned, post-exoticism “ended there” (near the end of “body” of the text—Lesson Eleven—before the “catalog” of Lesson Ten); “there” is where Lutz Bassmann dies. In fact the space of Lesson Eleven is circumscribed by this event, since the book opens by discussing Bassmann’s death, which blends into the shadowy (im)mortal inhuman cosmos of post-exoticism where is it “difficult to establish a border between the sounds of water made by the deluge, Bassmann’s death rattles made by Bassmann, and the simulacrums of memory made by the photographs of those who had been our overnarrators.” Lesson Eleven, and with it post-exoticism, “ends” because Bassmann was the last spokesperson, as we learn early on in the book. However the text itself ends with the following: “There was no longer a single spokesperson to come after. So I am the one who  ”. Ending the text with a narrative “I” affirming its singular being seems to side with and ratify post-exoticism’s enemy; the following emptiness, however, (no period nor ellipses after “who”) reemphasizes both the impossibility of identifying or characterizing the narrator and the inability/unwillingness of post-exoticism to disclose what it can and will do.

The narrator (or, if we are to believe the book’s title page, narrators) of the text tells the account of Bassmann’s last days in the high-security sector where he has been incarcerated for twenty-seven years after, like all members of post-exoticism, having lost the fight against and being caught by the enemy. There are a few passages in the book where one gleans a sense of the political slant of the post-exotic project, where the enemy (everything not sympathetic to the project) is a greasy cruel totalitarian system, the outside where barbarism has “triumphed on every level”: the environmental devastation, genocides and wars that have marked the history of the twentieth century. But perhaps what post-exoticism is trying to say is that the reactions against these atrocities result in their own kind of barbarism as well; we need, therefore, to rethink reactionary and ultimately binary responses. The inside/outside binary presented in the text did not always exist; there was a time when, “facing the essentially bipedal and essentially murderous population completely enchanted by capitalist bestiality, we [post-exotic writers] felt like bipeds and murderers, but also foreigners.” Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven relates the radicalization of this binary felt by post-exotic writers: the metamorphosis or involuntary leap from a foreigner identifying with the inside, to a radical outsider (the post-exotic as such) exiled to an extreme inside (high-security incarceration). This is the unspeakable rift where the post-exotic cosmos takes shape. While Bassmann, as spokesperson, is completely foreign, other, and radically outside of the enemy’s ways of being, language, and communication, he is now interned inside the very nucleus of the mechanism itself. The irony of the situation is underscored by Niouki and Blotno, two journalists who visit the high-security sector in an attempt to understand post-exoticism first hand, while it is still possible. Unsurprisingly, the journalists’ attempts to receive or translate into their own discourse an answer to the question what is post-exoticism? fails. The question is, after all, “an insolent question, very unwelcome on the day of Bassmann’s death.” What is the answer, then? Let us not be journalists and instead try to think differently, as the text would want, about literature. If there shouldn’t be a question, there is definitely no answer, and that’s the point: only post-exoticism can “understand” post-exoticism. We—that is we as readers—can’t help but feel a bit guilty, or at least complicit in the insolence, due to our search for an explanation.

The stakes of insider-outsider game are exponentially raised when we read that “the concentration camp system where we [Bassmann et al] were locked up was . . . the only terrestrial space whose inhabitants were still fighting for a variant of paradise.” The fight is determined, stubborn to the point of coerced suicide; there is no escape because the outside is death. The setting and circumstance of Bassmann’s incarceration recall Kafka, but on ketamine. This seeps into the language of the text as well, since “we [post-exotic spokespeople] 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.” Sections of the text itself seem to use a language that abides by this proclamation of refusal, suggesting that perhaps the enemy is out here, among the readers. Accordingly, sentences throughout the text break off as if incapable of or unwilling to say more: “sympathizers, on the outside, have not . . .” or “there is no lack of examples, he said. Often . . .”

In his translation, Mahany conveys the incapable-unwilling hybrid of post-exotic language. He should also be commended for the English versions of difficult terms not found outside the post-exotic cosmos; post-exotic communication’s impasse has been dizzyingly translated into English, and this is exciting. The prospect of more to come excites as well. Volodine’s latest novel Terminus radieux was recognized in France last year with prestigious Prix Medicis. This will surely attract more national and international attention to his ambitious, lively project; a project that is one of the most stimulating in publishing today. Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven introduces readers to “the terminal rumblings, the ultimate punctuated throaty rasps of post-exoticism”; we must remember however that in this cosmos, the terminus is where everything starts. Determinedly, post-exoticism gently destroys preconceived foundations of what literature is and what it could be, and, like a revolutionary lover we didn’t know we had from a forgotten time to come, slides in like something so foreign it might just be real.

 

Nicholas Hauck is a PhD candidate in the Department of French at the University of Toronto, where he is writing a dissertation on translations of human experience in post-WW2 French poetry. He is the author of Walter Benjamin: un essai (Editions Semaphore, 2015) and co-editor of the online journal Modern Horizons.

 

* 7³ = 7x7x7 = 343. I would like to thank Eric Chevrette from the Department of French at the University of Toronto for bringing my attention to this element of Volodine’s oeuvre, among many others. The number 7 occupies an important place in the Bardo Thödol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), an important reference for Volodine.