Many thanks to those who have allowed me to speak; now I’ll do so.
I’m actually not talking here under my own name. You should perceive and conceive of Antoine Volodine as a collective author, a name that includes the writings, voices, and poems of many other authors. You should think of my physical presence, in front of this microphone, as that of a delegate whose mandate is to represent the others, my colleagues unable to appear in front of you because they’re mentally distant, because they’re imprisoned, or because they’re dead. You should accept my presence here as a spokesperson. As a spokesperson of post-exoticism, which is to say an imaginary literature from elsewhere and headed elsewhere, a literature that insists upon its status as strange and estranged, that insists upon its singularity and refuses all affiliations to any specific and clearly identifiable national literature. I’ll explain all this.
First, I’d like to list some of the authors who I’ll be speaking for tonight. Some have appeared inside texts under the name of Antoine Volodine; some have been characters therein, they have spoken as novelistic characters in their own name or in others’, under their colleagues’ names, or as bare and anonymous voices, as voices stripped of all non-collective identity. Several of these men and women I’ll mention (since, among us, women are numerous and at the forefront), several of them also have a tangible existence as book authors. They’ve authored and continue to author books published the usual way, or contributed to magazines that actually exist in the literary world that you know. All these texts and all these male and female authors are tied to post-exoticism. We constitute a writing community. Here, tonight, when I say ‘I,’ that means ‘we,’ regardless of the words uttered. So I’d like to list some of these essential authors: Ingrid Vogel, Yasar Tarchalski, Lutz Bassmann, Elli Kronauer, Vassilissa Lukaszczyk, Iakoub Khadjbakiro, Jean Vlassenko, Maria Samarkande, Manuela Draeger, Sonia Velasquez, Maria Schnittke, and Maria Schrag. The list could be different and it could be much, much longer. When I say ‘I’ in front of you, that refers to Antoine Volodine as well as all these names. Quite often in the post-exotic universe, the ‘I’ doesn’t have any narcissistic value and doesn’t refer to an entity that is anxiously or delightedly trying to contemplate itself or be publicly contemplated. The ‘I’ exists, but it isn’t self-centered. It’s neutral. It’s collective.
I’ve already, several times now, used the term ‘post-exoticism.’ That’s actually what I’ll be talking about. So that there isn’t any further confusion, I’ll start with the basics, to say as straightforwardly as possible what this term doesn’t refer to. Post-exoticism isn’t a literary ‘ism.’ It’s not a school, nor a style. It’s not an avant-garde movement proclaiming itself in hopes that goodwill and new authors and new voices will flock around its founders. That’s what post-exoticism isn’t. Now let’s see what it claims to be.
The word itself was coined in 1990, after I’d already published four novels at Éditions Denoël and as Éditions de Minuit was getting ready to publish Lisbon, Last Edge. It was coined as a joke, without much thought for the pros and cons of the phrase. At first, it was indeed a teasing joke. It was first and foremost a way to answer the question – ‘Where do you belong?’ – that a reporter from the Nouvel Observateur had just asked me. I thought it obscene the way he was interrogating me. It really did seem to be his own job to figure that out. But at the same time, I definitely knew where I didn’t belong, and I suspected that it was important to declare this difference. So I answered. I explained that my books were outside the conventional categories of existing literature. That they belonged to a trend of literary expression that critics hadn’t really identified just yet. They claimed a marginality, a distance from official centres, norms, styles, a distance from metropolises and dominant cultures, but without claiming a particular identity, without claiming to speak on behalf of a downtrodden minority or a particular national minority. ‘Where do you belong?’ I belong where I write. We belong where we’ve constructed a universe of texts, words, rebellions, images, and fictions. We’re outside. Consciously, completely, and confidently outside. That needs to be said.
The phrase ‘post-exoticism’ was empty. Fundamentally, it didn’t mean anything. We’ve taken control of it, we’ve appropriated it, occupied it, inhabited it, we’ve fashioned it so that it fits us perfectly. Eight years later, a slim book came out from Éditions Gallimard: Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Despite its title, this book isn’t an essay, but a fiction, a pure fiction that dramatises several authors in our community, lets them speak, and shows how post-exoticism is a collective novelistic project, a project that exists in the mistrust and disharmony with the external world, with all the official national literatures, and especially with the real world. The book describes in detail the closed and totalitarian system of post-exotic creation. But what interests us most of all is that it definitively answers the question ‘Where do you belong?’ which had been unclear for a long while. The answer is a place: we’re in prisons, in camps, in maximum-security wings where society isolates its most dangerous criminals. We’re physically imprisoned by walls and psychically imprisoned by insanity, by permanence, and by sensory deprivation. There – in that penal universe at once fictional and absolutely tangible – novelistic works are made that you can now find in bookstores or libraries, bearing the more or less relevant names of Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger, Elli Kronauer, Yasar Tarchalski, or Antoine Volodine. There, the voices of post-exotic authors, narrators, and overnarrators intertwine and self-propagate. All are inmates. Their creative freedom is vast. Their words explore the boundless landscapes of the imagination. But none of them is free.
Often I’m asked to define post-exoticism in a short phrase. They ask me to say everything in a single sentence. I’m happy to answer, but the words change depending on my mood and on the circumstances. In any case, I’m going to give you a few of these little overarching definitions. They’re worth what they’re worth, but at least they have the merit of expanding the scope. And, taken together, they broaden the definition.
So what is post-exoticism?
- A literature of elsewhere, from elsewhere, headed elsewhere.
- An international, cosmopolitan literature with memories rooted deeply in the tragedies of the twentieth century: the wars, revolutions, genocides, and defeats of the twentieth century.
- A foreign literature written in French.
- A literature that thoroughly mixes dreams and politics.
- A trash literature, completely broken from official literature.
- A penal literature of rumination, of mental deviance, and of failure.
- A novelistic project that has something to do with shamanism, with a Bolshevist variant of shamanism.
You can see that what most frequently crops up in these very short and very imperfect summaries is confirmation of a rupture. A rupture with what exists, with tradition, with established aesthetic trends. Confirming this kind of rupture might be tantamount to an avant-garde or sectarian speech, to a challenge. In reality, for post-exotic authors, this rupture isn’t theoretical or even experienced in an avant-garde manner. Male and female post-exotic writers notice their difference but don’t suffer from it and don’t particularly want to either confront or join the official literature surrounding them. In particular, they aren’t trying to insert themselves into existing literature with the avant-garde objective of overhauling it, shifting it, or subverting it. It’s extremely important to underscore this post-exotic stance. Even if they’re aware of what it means to break away, the post-exotic writers peacefully turn away from the literature that flourishes outside their prison. They ignore it and they don’t consider fighting it for even a minute. Nor competing with it. I could go on, of course, but in the end affirming a difference comes down to an objective and disillusioned constant: ‘They’re them. We’re us.’ There’s no fighting reason here. It’s an existential claim. It’s very powerful, but it doesn’t concern itself with imposing or staking its power or its domain in official culture. There’s a self-defence mechanism more than anything in this stance toward literary institutions. Post-exoticism knows it’s strange and foreign, it’s aware of the marginal and even incongruous character of its existence and it simply asks to live according to its own customs and rhythms. This doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable request. Post-exotic culture builds its novelistic objects on the side lines, off the beaten track, far from the mainstream. The image speaks for itself. Beyond the official world, post-exotic literature goes its merry way alone and aimlessly, its only aim being not to die. It’s autonomous and it keeps its own virtues: odd virtues, exotic for those who examine them from the institution, from the mainstream, from national or ethnic standpoints, from those culturally and politically correct international norms. Exotic according to just about all these codes. And at the same time these values, if we consider them from within the literary sphere where they came to fruition, if we consider them from a post-exotic point of view, define a normality, a set of rules, a culture, and a morality that doesn’t seem so exotic and which, on the contrary, constitutes a coherent system of references at the centre of every thought and every word. Post-exotic culture is independent and self-sufficient. It’s implemented in the vacuum of incarceration, of exclusion, of insanity, of agony, and of dreams. It doesn’t need the external world to appear and affirm itself.
If we want to reflect on post-exoticism’s values, we can choose between two viewpoints: the first tries to read, analyse, discover, and love or hate post-exoticism from an official perspective. It’s an analytical method that, on principle, assumes that there is a centre and a periphery, and which naturally tries to show the strangeness of post-exoticism, its marginality. The second chooses to look at post-exoticism from the inside, without worrying about the rest. It privileges immersion within the texts, accepts self-referentiality, and ignores the external world. This second viewpoint, which is a reading choice, goes hand in hand with the literary process that the post-exotic writers have taken up. It intelligently joins the narrators, male and female, of their novels, and their characters, as well as the readers and listeners that they put in action. This second viewpoint brings forth what post-exotic writers call ‘sympathising’ writers.
Sympathising. The words make sense, and now I can touch on one of our fundamental values: a political dimension is systematically associated with our way of speaking. The totality of the post-exotic novelistic edifice, but also each development, each poetic articulation, each turn of phrase, is stamped with the seal of politics. In other words, our political obsession is never dormant at any point while writing. Over the three or four thousand pages that we’ve published today, readers can point to many different styles, but I believe that they’d have trouble finding the slightest ideological contradiction. Different pages may be baroque, fantastical, lyrical, screams, or whispers, but every one of them obeys a single and unified vision of society and history. Whatever the genre, whether the purest or basest realism or fantasy, whether the tone is funnier or more serious, no post-exotic voice deviates from a philosophical extremism, a philosophy based on insurrection and egalitarianism. This ideological unity is intentional; this philosophy wasn’t conjured up haphazardly. The post-exotic community is rooted in a very specific and radical activist nexus. Several men and women, after years of urban guerrilla warfare, violence, and struggling, met each other in the same prison. They were defeated, they had been tried and, in any case, sentenced, they had been permanently barred from external life and reality. Cloistered in individual cells, they communicated with each other by tapping on the pipes and walls, or whispering through the door hatches or the space beneath the door. Any other physical contact was impossible. In this way, they created a vocal and intellectual network. This network was polyphonic, but thoroughly solidified by shared experience and shared perspective on history and humanity’s fate. These men and women didn’t denounce any part of the anarcho-communist, libertarian, violently anti-capitalist, and anti-colonialist ideology that led them to prison. They didn’t deviate. They remembered, they stayed faithful. That’s why, in all the works that were collectively created, not one sentence is apolitical. Not a single phrase could have escaped their collective ideological vigilance. Their stories are in a totalitarian system seen as normal, inside which each individual feels comfortable. Their stories are in a system where self-censorship has been so thoroughly internalised that it can’t be distinguished from free speech. When language emerges in these conditions, words and the unsaid both have weight.
Now I’m coming back to the word ‘sympathising,’ which I’ve been using this whole time. It hasn’t been used without an ulterior motive. For those who remember the seventies, this word has some overtones, especially in its German version: Sympathisant. It recalls Germany’s urban guerilla warfare and it was used for police and media propaganda to describe each individual that, within a large enough group, might support or even just approve of the Baader-Meinhof Group, the Rote Armee Fraktion. Using this term again colours the whole post-exotic edifice, its creative practice as well as its reception, with a particularly political slant. It stirs up memories of a radical and violent dissent, with a tough, small core surrounded by concentric circles, with a militant or sympathetic base. The reference to seventies-era Germany isn’t an exclusive one, but it’s natural for post-exotic writers. It’s part of their culture. It befits their fiery criticism of contemporary society, a criticism that remains constantly relevant, and their subversive political and militaristic vision of the world and of human history. Their generation was thoroughly steeped in this revolutionary experience. This isn’t a generation we can be ashamed of. If we took a headcount of active revolutionary groups throughout the world during the sixties and seventies, we’d have a considerable army, ideologically diverse enough to include several contradictory schools of thought, but fundamentally unified behind a common loathing for wealthy people, public figures, executioners, capitalists, and those responsible for misfortune. In this idealised transnational army from the East and the West – essentially internationalist – in this army that was crushed, forgotten, and vanquished everywhere, we can find the post-exotic writers, and it was in this army that they recruited their greatest poets.
Their greatest poets. Because we are here in a poetic world. I’m not giving a talk about guerrilla warfare and the far left here; I’m describing a fictional world. The secretly locked-up detainees, horrifically killed one by one, condemned to continual degradation and insanity, using the poetic word to transform reality and to make something bearable out of it. In solitude, their sole weapons being whispers, groans of agony, and punches on iron doors, these men and women constructed a parallel world. At every hour of day and night, they made their contribution to this edifice. These people haven’t broken with the convictions of their youth, these are people who renounce nothing, who refuse to imagine renunciation or repentance. These are also people with a rich experience of what happened. They have become part of a tradition of militant revolution rooted a century earlier, with terrorist assassins and the Russian populists’ anti-czarist kamikaze attacks. And even if these detained writers and poets experienced the stalemates of army action, they still have nostalgia for it, and they don’t attribute too great a value to words. On the contrary, it’s clear when we hear or read them, that they believe, more than anything, in the absolute pointlessness of every word. For example, here’s what the narrator Breughel says at the beginning of Inner Harbour:
The mouth quivers. He didn’t want to talk anymore. He’d have liked to join the shadows and not have to describe the shadows. Best would be to lie down in amnesia, on the fringe of reality, eyes half-closed, and stay this way to the last breath, mummified under a murky film of murky consciousness and silence. But, unfortunately, he can’t be quiet.
On this principle, which makes poetic balance difficult, the books’ diction took shape. Unfortunately I won’t have time to look here at what this implies about the forms these books have taken. So I won’t talk about form, but about content. This lack of faith in words has an effect on the themes and tones of several books. The post-exotic lyricists have reluctantly constructed their own survival universe, outside life, outside history, with images, anecdotes, dreams, and memories. The quotation you’ve just heard very clearly illustrates their state of mind at the moment when creation happens. Scepticism, distance, and self-deprecation combine with exhaustion and lethargy, and particularly a deep uncertainty that there is any advantage to speaking rather than being quiet. Post-exotic heroes often echo their creators’ mood. Not just Breughel of Inner Harbour but Dondog or Schlumm in Dondog or Lutz Bassmann in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, or several of the characters in Minor Angels, reluctant to speak and even reluctant to finish their sentences. These are exhausted figures between life and death. In addition to claiming strangeness, cultural distance, and a militant posture, there’s the temptation of silence. Post-exotic poetry plays with the idea of its suicide because it resonates in the most extreme penal contexts: no visitors, no contact with the external world, solitude, violence. For the post-exotic creators, the ordinary is absolutely vile, and it opens onto an unremittingly gloomy present, compounded by a hopeless future. It’s not out of this present that these stories and images have been invented. The two unique sources of poetic creation are dreams and memory. The real world, the actual world doesn’t provide anything for the poet, other than the deplorable geometry of its bare walls. There’s nothing in observing the present that would feed a typical narrative adventure. Fantasies, dreams, and especially rumination over the past and the past in general are the necessary materials for any post-exotic narrative.
Let’s pause for a moment on this idea of the past as it appears in the post-exotic community. We’re looking back at exclusion, at ideological and military defeat, at the destruction of every hope. Whatever the personalities of those who speak these books, and whatever the books’ subjects, our voices are united by this same backwards gaze. Of course, each of us has his or her own experience of the resistance, of the revolutionary war, of propaganda, of being arrested, of trials. And each of us has his or her own way of rendering that. But the past that we keep referring to is collective. The memory in which our stories are rooted is collective. That memory is of our political and military experience, but also beyond that, the memory of the twentieth century’s horrors, and the great black book of failure, which hasn’t been shut today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In all our failures, in all the failures of those who gave themselves the task of ending unhappiness forever. And there, because we’re unhappy and horrified, we have to be absolutely clear. Claiming a particular identity, ethnicity, or nationalism is completely foreign to post-exotic writers. The only two identities that they recognise, and which they don’t even brandish with much passion, are on the one hand their genetic affiliation with the human species, and on the other hand, their geographic affiliation with planet Earth. I’ve already said it today, but I think it’s best to keep underscoring that. Our history of defeat and battle has no banner other than a red one, or a black one, or red and black, and our culture isn’t that of a specific people or continent. The historical world we refer to is that of the twentieth century in general; the historical field our memory traverses isn’t limited to the West and the Northern Atlantic, but covers the entire globe. Because they physically belong to a historical continuity, because they were players in the twentieth century, and because they keep a radical internationalist ideology aflame in their hearts, the post-exotic writers feel entitled to come and go among all continents, among all the sites of suffering and death where twentieth-century humanity failed to do justice to its own species. Out of ideological sympathy, out of poetic delegation, out of empathy, they feel entitled to establish a continuity between them and the other unfortunate fighters of the twentieth century. The collective memory they dip into isn’t limited to the immediate memories of their generation, and it has no borders. It’s Mongolian, Jewish, Russian, as well as Quechuan, Udmurt, Chinese, or Berber. Of course, the historical foundation on which post-exotic writers build their stories is often jealously claimed by this people or that people. It’s understandable, but we don’t look at it that way. We don’t feel excluded from any misfortune. Our historical material is that of all humans without distinction, an undifferentiated mixture that blends several eras, several wars, uncountable wars, genocides, aborted or crushed or betrayed revolutions. In spite of their solitude, the post-exotic writers plunge naturally into the universe of victims and the vanquished, and they presume that during this plunge nobody will claim the authority to ask them about their passport or the colour of their skin. Their investigations have led them to the heart of human disaster, to other prisons, to camps, to the battlegrounds, to the disorder of civil populations being terrorised by the militia and the mafia, to the silence of boneyards. The words they adopt are those of martyred human animals, of corpses, of outcasts. Which also explains why the characters and heroes of their novels, drawn from this historical basis, tend to have an Untermensch’s view of themselves, of the world, and of human history. In the novelistic and poetic world of post-exoticism, the twentieth century is therefore present at every moment, bruised, deeply internalized, but also reimagined and reconstructed. After all, the universal memory of misfortune hasn’t been salvaged to shore up purportedly historical novels, much less to forge a false connection to the literature of witness. It’s presented within a fiction where territorial and temporal markers have been intentionally distorted or erased. It’s the reader’s responsibility to use his or her own personal memory to determine which particular tragedy concerns them more than others and will feed his or her disgust, fear, and pity.
This is how ‘the camp,’ which is the central locale for several published novels (such as White Night in Balkhyria, View Over the Boneyard, and Dondog) takes on a post-exotic dimension that universalises immediately identifiable characters and makes a fundamental component of the twentieth century, a background of death that relentlessly follows human fate in the twentieth century. This is also how ‘instruction’ and ‘interrogation’ become the driving force of the story and how the relationship between the ‘interrogator’ and the ‘interrogated’ steers all post-exotic dialogue, such as in Ritual of Contempt, Inner Harbour, or Naming the Jungle, just to mention a few. But these books are miles away from a literature of witness. These words are in visionary fiction, in fantasy, in a fantastical rewriting of collective memory, but at the same time, the narrative doesn’t turn a cold eye on tragedy and misfortune. In an inartificial way, the narrative voice comes from within the camp. As they are fundamentally prisoners for eternity, the post-exotic writers have no difficulty embodying themselves in losers and entering the dream-world of victims. They effortlessly give birth to prison fictions. They feel empowered to develop camp stories, a camp humour, to explore the camps they never knew directly but which they knew and know intimately, on authority, with empathy, through incarnation. They don’t have to worry about legitimacy. They don’t hesitate to invent fictitious prison systems or revisit real or imaginary concentration camps. Because they’ve fought against those responsible for their misfortune, they’ve given themselves the freedom to dream about misfortune and to bring about the invented voices of misfortune.
It goes without saying that we could keep talking. About misfortune, about the preponderance of camps in living history, and about the generation of refugee camps that is, chronologically speaking, that of the post-exotic writers. The generation of refugee camps is our own; it has succeeded the generation of extermination camps and work camps. We can also look more deeply at this phenomenon of empathy, of physical substitution, of embodiment, all of which is inseparable from post-exotic novelistic creation. I only have a few minutes left, and I’d just like, for now, to reflect a bit on this plunge into the other, on this incarnation that occurs so frequently over the course of the literary process and within the images and the tales that we combine to make books. This incarnation is linked to the word, to the invocation, to solitude, to fear, to a space of darkness and craziness present within us. This incarnation is shamanic.
It may seem paradoxical to bring in shamanism just as we’ve sketched the silhouettes of men and women who haven’t broken with materialism and atheism. Magic and the supernatural shouldn’t have any place in their poetic universe, and yet in our fictions we often come across shamans and magical spaces. We find them all the time, actually. People move from dream to dream, for example in Comparative Biography of Jorian Murgrave or Minor Angels. People inhabit and animate the bodies of other people, as in Dondog. In nearly all these texts, the narrators’ voices blend with those of the dead. The emergence of images is often prompted by the hypnotic repetition of drumming, or of improvised percussion, as in White Night in Balkhyria, Bardo or Not Bardo, or Dondog. Even when the drums fall silent, there’s a shamanic presence. I’m thinking of a book by Lutz Bassmann, We Monks and Soldiers, and the instructions that precede the first sentence: ‘Constant drumming. Silence during the text.’ In this obsessive shamanic presence, we can see a poetic dream, but it’s far more than that. Shamanism is a fundamental dimension and premise of post-exoticism. More than anything, it guides, authorises, and organises the word.
The post-exotic writers aren’t healers or mystics, which is why their shamanism bears little similarity to the sort that anthropologists and folklorists have observed. We don’t see trances, we don’t dance, we don’t tinkle bells, and we don’t wear feathers or animal paws around our bellies. But we love this idea and it’s always been part of our culture. Partly because we immediately feel close to people that practice shamanism and who have been victimised by colonisation, who have suffered being viciously downtrodden: American Indians, Siberian peoples, Tibetans. Also partly because the shaman, with his words, with his screams and his dreams, does exactly what we’re doing: he leaves the natural world, he reaches a different world, he travels, he dramatises his trip, he incarnates himself. He deconstructs the natural world and, with the natural world’s fragments, he reconstructs a strange hereafter that he moves to, outside time, outside space, and outside the divide between life and death. It’s precisely in that frame of a plunge of this sort that our books are created. All speech is, for us, a plunge into an altered state of consciousness, into a floating world, into a strange hereafter where we are both creators and creatures. For folkloric shamans, it’s a way toward a black space where there is no longer a difference between animals and humans, between near and far, between inside and outside walls or barbed-wire fences, between immobility and movement, between memory and dream. For the post-exotic poets, it’s a way toward fiction, where there is no longer a difference between truth and lies. The universe they enter is a shamanic black space where their voices are born, gain strength, and intertwine. Everyone here is dead. Everyone here is alive.
There you have it. In the name of my male and female colleagues, detained behind real and imaginary bars, already dead or, like us, still waiting, I thank you for having the patience to listen to me.
This piece was first broadcast as a radio essay on France Culture on 30 July, 2006. Subsequently published in 9 leçons de littérature (Thierry Magnier, 2007), and online by Éditions Verdier.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature magazine and a translator from French, most recently of Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017). Along with serving on the 2016 jury for the PEN Translation Prize, his writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, the New Republic, and Vice.