In the Time of Antoine Volodine: Unlikely Fables, Literary Dystopias, and Strange Futures

The writer who primarily uses the pseudonym Antoine Volodine for his writing falls neatly into the tradition of writers using multiple pen names. (Think Alice B. Sheldon; think Fernando Pessoa, who coined the concept of the literary heteronym.) The result is a hypnotic array of fictional worlds, many of them fantastic or speculative in nature, that link together as part of an even larger fictional universe. It’s a bold project, and one that balances surreal world-building alongside the creation of new and experimental literary traditions that may only exist in the pages of other novels.

Volodine’s 1998 novel Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11, translated from French into English by J. T. Mahany, is set in a near future in which an oppressive government has taken over and suppressed various cultural activities. The novel chronicles the members, movements, and works of the literati of this society. One of the writers alluded to here is named Manuela Draeger, one of Volodine’s other heteronyms, and in the years after its publication, a number of stories by Draeger have been published. An omnibus edition containing three of them—In the Time of the Blue Ball, North of the Wolverines, and Our Baby Pelicans—was published in an English translation by Brian Evenson by Dorothy, a Publishing Project in 2011. A note from the publisher provides some context: in the world of Volodine’s stories, Draeger is “a librarian in a post-apocalyptic prison camp who invents stories to tell to the children in the camp.” The stories in this volume make no allusion to that aspect of their creation; instead, they stand on their own, parts of a larger literary project that can also be enjoyed as standalone works.

In the Time of the Blue Ball has characteristics of fables: it’s set in a timeless prehistory, and deals with narrative archetypes. But there’s also a literary playfulness there: the first sentence is “The man who invented fire was a woman, actually.” And that continues throughout certain aspects of the setting, which blends aspects of the detective story, talking-animal narratives, and an affably conversational take on metafiction, as this explanation of the story’s setting demonstrates:

That was a long time ago, and even very long ago, when you think about it. During a time when the calendar was divided neither into years, nor into months, nor even into days, but instead into balls of color and into moons. It’s difficult to believe, but that’s how it was. You’d say, for example: at the ninth green ball, we had a dreadful snowstorm.

The books follow the investigations of Bobby Potemkine, a detective in this world both primordial and familiar. The imagery describing his society is as vivid and rich in imagery as anything you might encounter. A bizarre musical instrument called a nanoctiluphe, that’s used in an orchestra of flies, is “bristling with pistons and cranks,” and is “capable of reaching two meters forty-eight in circumference when its rumbling bags are keyed up.” In Potemkine’s world, jellyfish hover in front of buildings, and his dog Djinn has “three white commas on his belly.” These stories are both wryly charming and disarmingly smart, whether one approaches them for whimsical entertainment or for a sort of narrative deconstruction.

Radiant Terminus, the latest novel of Volodine’s to be translated into English—in this case by Jeffrey Zuckerman—opens in a more recognizable setting. (Full disclosure: Zuckerman is a friend.) Its characters live in a shattered society after the fall of the Second Soviet Union; autonomous communities are scattered across the landscape, and radiation has affected the populace in odd ways. The Gramma Udgul, an immortal figure, is unaffected by it, as is Solovyei, the novel’s megalomaniacal antagonist, who explains that “he had descended from a line of Bolshevik shamans and magicians who had continually evolved on the border between life, death, and sleep.” At times, Volodine’s novel echoes Tatyana Tolstaya’s phantasmagorical novel The Slynx, and the book hits plenty of familiar narrative beats: an isolated community giving way to madness, questions of authoritarianism, and struggles for control all abound.

But even in this context, there’s a narrative slipperiness at work. Characters who at first seem to be central to the narrative fall by the wayside, and the nature of time becomes fluid—in one late scene, it’s not clear if one character is experiencing years literally flying by, or simply being tricked into thinking that he’s experiencing something similar. The Gramma Udgul also warns Kronauer, the novel’s de facto protagonist, against wronging any of Solovyei’s daughters, telling him that “[h]e’ll follow you for at least a thousand seven hundred and nine years,” or perhaps “even twice that.”

When Kronauer arrives at the Radiant Terminus kolkhoz (or collective farm), he discovers bizarre devices used to prolong Solovyei’s control over the populace, including an old-fashioned phonograph with vampiric properties. He and the Gramma Udgul also discuss recordings of Solovyei speaking; she refers to them as “vile mutterings. A little like the post-exotic writers, back in the day, during their mystical period.” And again, Volodine’s narrative cycles back in on itself, a nod to the vast and literary continuity established in his earlier works.

Besides Pessoa’s body of work, the closest analogue that comes to mind here is, strangely enough, Rainbow Rowell’s 2015 Carry On, a novel set in a world that she had originally introduced as a fictional setting within her novel Fangirl—but even then, Rowell has stated that she’s “writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series,” but doing so as herself rather than as a fictional author. There’s very little like Volodine’s work being done these days—whether it’s Volodine’s fiction itself or the larger literary project to which it belongs. And while Volodine’s work doesn’t fit in to any particular genre (or lack thereof), the use of fantastical elements, the strange settings, and the fluctuating realism all make for a compelling read.

Anglophone readers have only been exposed to a fraction of Volodine’s considerable bibliography. Both Zuckerman and Mahany have recommended books by Volodine incorporating science fictional elements that haven’t yet been translated into English. An interview that the two translators conducted with Volodine in 2015 suggests the full scope of this project and the works of these authors: “a work of art in prose, consisting of forty-nine volumes.” It’s a bold literary endeavor, but also an incredibly rewarding one to read, with wrinkles, twists, and narrative payoffs in abundance. And while it might resist an easy description, the way that the aspects of this narrative project cascade and build is nothing less than hypnotic, revealing new worlds and new ways of seeing the world.

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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