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A Conversation with Antoine Volodine

 

Andrew Wilson

Art by Billy Jacobs

 
 

Towards the end of July, in the midst of a Parisian heat wave, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Antoine Volodine to discuss his work. We began by talking about his novel, Lisbon, Last Frontier, in part because Evergreen Review had just published my translation of the opening chapter. But like Volodine's writing more generally, the conversation soon branched out, rhizome like, to include the many facets of the post-exotic universe that he, along with his fellow travellers—Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger and Eli Kronauer—has been describing in detail for the past thirty years. Our conversation touched upon hope and hopelessness, the history of the Baader-Meinhoff Group, and of course the nature of post-exoticism.

Antoine Volodine is the primary pseudonym of a French writer who has published more than twenty books under this name. He also writes under the heteronyms Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger and Eli Kronauer. His latest book, Frères sorcières, has just been published in France. The interview was conducted in French; my questions as well as Antoine Volodine's responses were translated by me into English.

Andrew Wilson: The main story line of Lisbon, Last Frontier (Éditions de Minuit, 1990) takes place in Lisbon, Portugal, towards the end of the 1970s. For me, the presence of these geographic and temporal markers is a bit of an exception in your work. Usually, you prefer to invent or construct your own geographic and temporal markers, instead of relying on real dates and places. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of Lisbon, Last Frontier?

Antoine Volodine: First of all, Lisbon, Last Frontier is also set in an imaginary time and place. In the book Ingrid Vogel invents an entire literature of an imaginary period called the Renaissance. And that, for me, is the principal thing: these writings that are given to the reader to decrypt, to analyze, at the same time as they are given to the narrators, writings where Ingrid Vogel tries to comment upon, or not comment upon, the imaginary content which relates to a very precise contemporary historical reality.

AW: But there is still the frame story of Ingrid and Kurt, set in Lisbon, that is found in the first chapter, and throughout...

AV: Yes, I'm coming to that, we'll talk about that, but I wanted to say that this imaginary literature, this anthology of imaginary literature found in Lisbon, Last Frontier is something I wrote before I started publishing. I wrote it in the 1970s—those texts already existed. And that is part of the way we work, which you can see throughout our 30 years of writing. I mean the way in which our books use texts that already exist to create a kind of intertextuality, to bring into existence new texts that didn't exist before.
But yes, Lisbon, Last Frontier is also anchored in a reality, a reality that is moreover explicitly named, and which was for me, and still is, very powerful. I'm referring to what gets called red terrorism, the Baader-Meinhof Group, the Red Army Fraction, as well as the repression against the RAF, which was carried out by the BKA, the German police service, and which led to the arrest of numerous militants. All of this is completely present in the book. I wanted to give an important place to this repression in the novel, because Ingrid is theoretically a member of the RAF. And this is very linked to what will become the heart of post-exoticism: I mean the way in which prisoners recount, write books from their prison cells, books that will then in turn be transmitted by others, by spokespersons. And Ingrid Vogel is the archetype of these prisoners. She shows up again in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (Open Letter Books, 2015); she is one of the authors of the book.

AW: The characters in the book can also be authors…

AV: Yes, they can become character-authors who, in turn, can become Katalina Raspe (a character in Lisbon, Last Frontier), who then can become etc., etc.

AW: Thus, you like to blur the boundaries between characters, narrators and post-exotic writers.

AV: Yes, it's completely natural for post-exotic works to be marked by this complete porousness between writers, narrators, overnarrators and characters. In Lisbon, Last Frontier that's something new. In the previous books, the voices were intermingled; there was this blurring of the boundaries between narrator, character and overnarrator, but here the idea of presenting the works of these writers who are being hunted down, who are going to be killed, and then taking over from them, taking their place, taking on their names as a kind of homage to them, that's new in Lisbon, Last Frontier. Katalina Raspe and Ingrid Vogel are perhaps already dead; but they are constantly being reborn by way of literature, by way of the voices of others who pay tribute to them. So, there is this idea of inheritance, but it isn't exclusively literary, it's ideological, political. Lisbon, Last Frontier is, in fact, a very political book.
On the one hand, the book takes place in Lisbon because it's set after the expulsion of the RAF from Germany, and so it could only take place on the extreme margins of Europe. But there are also autobiographical reasons, because post-exoticism is, in fact, always autobiographical. For instance, I know Lisbon quite well. I lived there right after the 25th of April Revolution, and I experienced, first hand, the Lisbon of 74-75, when, as if overnight, the country fell into a situation of dual power. I'm using dual power in the Marxist-Leninist sense, as existed in February 1917 in Russia, where you have a political/administrative power that is in collapse, alongside the embryos of another kind of power; if you will, soviets of soldiers, of workers and peasants, that are just coming into existence. I experienced that Portugal first hand, and though it later fell into what you might call normality, I continue to have great sympathy for it. So, it's completely logical that Ingrid Vogel, who is an RAF militant, would find herself in Portugal, and be in contact there with the revolutionaries of the period. And it's also my affection for this moment in history that appears in the book. You can actually put a date on it, and that is almost unheard of in my books. It takes place after the fall of 1977, right after what I would call the assassination of Andreas Baader in his prison cell, in Stammheim prison.

 
 

AW: I wanted to ask you if post-exoticism for you simply means anti-exoticism or, if not, is there a form of exoticism that still interests you?

AV: Well, I'm going to repeat something that I've said before: that in the beginning the term post-exoticism was coined absolutely by accident. It was something that became filled in over time. It was a kind of empty concept that became filled in as the work progressed, filled in with the references, the explanations offered in the texts, through parataxis if you will. At first, there was something in the books, but it didn't have a name, and then very quickly, by chance, but really by chance, the word post-exoticism came to me and it seemed right. So, I adopted it and expanded it further, and now it's here to stay, since academics and critics have taken it up. And I think it's quite good as a term. The only thing I'd say is that it's maybe too bad that it ends in "ism," since it emerged around the time of post-modernism. For academics, who need boxes to put things in, post-exoticism is too often taken to be a kind of abstract thought or theory, when really it has to do only with what's found in the post-exotic works that characterize it. It doesn't refer to some grand theory, and personally, I'm not at all inclined towards theorizing. And now I've forgotten your question... What was it again?

AW: Is post-exoticism simply anti-exoticism?

AV: Yes, what's important in post-exoticism is that it does away with exoticism. You suggested anti-exoticism, and it could just as well have been anti-exoticism, in as much as what characterizes exoticism is the absolute distinction between the metropolis and the margin, between the center and the periphery. With exoticism, there is an interest in the margins--the writer lives on the margins--but it's all for the sake of the center. In exoticism, one describes the margins with ideas that come from the center, whereas in our books, the characters—who are dying, or perhaps already dead, who are birds, or animals, or insane—have no center, or rather it is their margin that is the center—the center no longer exists. For us, mental derangement doesn't refer to a discourse of normality outside of it. In the books, it is present, and it is the center, it is what's creating the world. In Lisbon, Last Frontier, it's Ingrid Vogel who creates the world. The reader might think she's completely mad, schizophrenic, paranoid, but, in fact, the book never refers to an outside normality, from which one could judge Ingrid's experience. Yes, the book enters her imaginary; yes, it creates imaginary spaces for her to inhabit, but it never refers to a normality outside of her. And it's through this precise mechanism that the books are on the margins, in the dustbin (to borrow an expression from Lisbon, Last Frontier); it's in this way that they are dustbin literature, a literature from elsewhere, and that's what comes into being with post-exoticism. That's what's important I think: a literature that doesn't refer to normality, that doesn't refer to the center. In that sense it's more anti-exoticism... but of course I'm not going to change it now. It's too late; it's post-exoticism until the end!

AW: I was thinking that, in the case of exoticism, there is still this notion of the foreign, and that for you, as well, the idea of the foreign is absolutely crucial.

AV: Yes, because it's abroad that the books take place, it's abroad that the characters live, in a foreign place that almost always is not locatable on a map, or in history….
I don't reject exoticism. For me, it's not even a question….and that's because the center from which the books speak is an imaginary site, for example ,the prison described in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, and the characters, the narrators, are constantly referring to this imaginary site. In other words, yes, there is a center, but that center is the foreign.


“The characters we stage are beyond the notion of suicide. They don't feel this need to liberate themselves from life, because often they are already dead, which could be seen as an optimistic trait of post-exoticism.”

 

AW: I also wanted to ask you about hope and hopelessness. For me, it's often hard to separate hopelessness from hope in your books. I'm thinking of Alto Solo (Éditions de Minuit, 1991), which ends with a defenestration. But since the character who jumps out the window is part of a kind of racial sub-group, referred to as birds, the reader can wonder if this "defenestration" isn't also the freeing of a bird.

AV: Yes, the book Alto Solo ends with a scene of suicide, a defenestration, but at the same time it's indeed a scene of flight. And it's quite exceptional that you see a suicide in a post-exotic story. It's true that at the end of Lisbon, Last Frontier, Ingrid and Kurt talk about swimming out to sea until they drown. Maybe it has to do with the period in which these books were written, since Lisbon, Last Frontier and Alto Solo came right after one another. But in general, the characters we stage—because it's not just me, there are several authors—these characters are beyond the notion of suicide. They don't feel this need to liberate themselves from life, because often they are already dead, which could be seen as an optimistic trait of post-exoticism. The idea of killing oneself, of dying, no longer exists…. Death no longer exists. What awaits, and lasts for a very long time, is an interminable extinction, but as far as death or the profound despair implied in choosing to die, that no longer exists for our characters. At the same time, they have even more despair, they have other despairs, but this despair is qualified by a permanent false hope that is ideological in nature; it is nuanced by a religious repetition, like a mantra made up of the political terminology of a radiant future—the terminology of egalitarianism and the magnificent success of humanity. Still, in many of the books—in Radiant Terminus (Open Letter Books, 2016), in Minor Angels (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), and others--humanity is in the process of dying out or no longer exists. And the hope that is present, for example, in the radical, leftist, egalitarian discourse of the books is a hope that isn't even theoretical; it's existence is more poetical or religious, and this particular religion—not withstanding that my characters are hardly religious—is a religion of words, of speech. It's a religion composed of verbal automatisms, as a way to permanently live with hope. In some extreme cases, in certain books like Mevlido's Dreams (Seuil, 2007) or in Lutz Bassmann's works, for instance in We Monks and Soldiers (University of Nebraska, 2012), there is the hope that humanity will disappear, but that humanism will continue to exist, taken up by the spiders that survive humans. It's a kind of gallows humor, of course, but it also exists in Lisbon, Last Frontier, where there is this imaginary period called the Renaissance, in which creatures speak in the name of humanism, in the name of the human, and are organized in a very bizarre way. And where anyone who reflects on this question is hunted down mercilessly: the writers, the critics, who are trying to tell the truth in their tales, that humanity no longer exists. And all the while there is this "hope," in parentheses, this black humor, this gallows humor that says, 'ok, humanity is going to die out, but there will still be something that exists after, and this something will be marked by the idea of humanism.' The spiders will claim the mantle of humanism.

AW: If I understand you correctly, that means there is a link between this imaginary Renaissance in Lisbon, Last Frontier and the Renaissance that everyone is familiar with, as the birthplace of European humanism.

AV: Yes, the name was chosen with that in mind, but it's also rebirth, reappearance. It's the idea that after the end something exists again. It's the mechanism of the bardo, if you like, where after death, there is still a step, there is still an existence. Death is an end to life, but it's not an end to existence. And so one continues to exist, just in another way, and perhaps that is where you can see evidence of hope in post-exoticism. But, at the same time, there is this profound despair, which comes from the realization that humanity is on the road to ruin, the realization that history has not managed to bring about egalitarianism, has not managed to produce a beautiful planet in which intelligence, fraternity and freedom are the defining characteristics, and has instead given birth to what we see today, which is, in our opinion, slated for disaster, headed for extinction. And for that reason there is despair. There is this despair that comes from the analysis of the way things are, but at the same time the characters in Radiant Terminus, or the characters of Lutz Bassmann, are all hanging on to a political mantra that says, even still, we are headed towards a radiant future—that's it, the future is radiant! In Lutz Bassmann's Eagles Stink (Éditions Verdier, 2010), there is a strange political demonstration where one person is chosen at random to represent the revolution. He is all alone, with everyone around him screaming at him, making fun of him, and he's ridiculous, but he marches in the midst of it all, and he's very proud.

AW: I have the impression, especially in the United States, that people tend to think of your books as dystopian… And yet for me, there is also a utopian element to your work…

AV: Yes, I agree. On several occasions, I've been invited to participate in panel discussions on the topic of dystopia and, I have to admit, it's not something I particularly like, because the whole notion of dystopia is very vague and covers too much territory. Sure, one can think of post-exoticism as dystopian, why not. But, at the same time, it's important to say that post-exoticism doesn't function at all like the great works of dystopian literature, like 1984, for example, because it's not in any way a critique of a totalitarian system. It's a critique of humanity; it's the critique of all of human history, and not just of the various totalitarianisms.

AW: In a speech you gave at the Bibliotèque Nationale, you talk about your childhood writings, or what you wrote as a teenager, and you say that you never showed these writings to anyone, that you were writing only for what you call a minuscule audience, made up only of yourself. Could you talk a bit about this period of your life?

AV: Well, before I was ever published--and I wasn't published until I was 34 or 35 years old, and by that point I'd been writing since I could form letters on a page, so by that point, I'd written an enormous number of texts that were never published--these were things I'd written in my youth…They were principally concerned with the imaginary; they weren't at all about anything realistic. They were purely about creating worlds, about giving vent to the imagination. These texts were never published--they were more rough drafts anyway--and very few of them were turned into published texts, very few of them. One exception is the anthology of the Renaissance in Lisbon, Last Frontier, the book that Ingrid Vogel is working on, with these strange literary forms like the Shaggå, with its seven parts, all exactly the same length, and ending in a commentary. I'd already written that part; I'd already invented this genre, the Shaggå, which at that point was a genre belonging to this fictional Renaissance, to this imagined 2nd century, but which became, after the fact, a post-exotic genre. So again, there is this idea of inheritance, but here it's a secret inheritance. Another instance is a text from my childhood that was published in a chapter of Writers (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015). In that chapter, a little boy, who barely knows how to write, suddenly starts writing a story called "Begin-ing," and he starts writing almost in a fever state, and that is one hundred percent autobiographical.

AW: How old were you when you wrote that?

AV: I was five years old, and that story, called "Begin-ing," I miraculously kept it all these years, and that's how I was able to put it in Writers. And, first of all, I have to say that the whole thing is quite mysterious, even for me. That a little boy, five years old, in effect, me, wrote this story, giving it a title, numbering the paragraphs in his school notebook, 1,2,3, with his pencil, telling this story in a kind of trance, as though overcome by a fever… The teacher saw me there writing and left me alone, and I stayed there writing all during recess, and didn't go outside. I stayed inside, writing this story, and what's extraordinary is that it's entirely post-exotic. In it, there are these ants that are also creatures from outer space, in part because it was the 1950s and flying saucers were the thing, but still creatures from space who are, at the same time, animals, ants. They were these strange green and red ants, and the story involved the massacre of a village of children, and it was told from the point of view of one of the children who had escaped into the forest but had witnessed the slaughter. This child, this little boy or little girl, tells the story, and so you have an overnarrator, a narrator and a witness. There is this overlapping of narration, this story within a story that is, moreover, in all of my books, and so to find it there, at the very beginning, in this first text, makes me quite proud, so much so I had to put it in Writers.

AW: That's a very beautiful story.

AV: For me, it's almost like magic...