Some Necessary French Pessimism

March 15, 2017 | 10 books mentioned 2 7 min read

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covercoverOver the past few months, bookstores have seen a spike in the sale of dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in January, followed soon after by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Predictably, this news was fox chased by trend piece writers — who then became the target of protesting think piece writers: “Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US” shouted one; “Grave New World: Why “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not the book we need in the Trump era,” claimed another.

covercoverMeanwhile, away from the mud and scrum, in the hothouse of independent publishing, French author Antoine Volodine’s eighth book in English translation, Radiant Terminus, was released by Open Letter. Deftly translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, it’s the first major apocalyptic novel to come out in a year stacked with books in the genre, notably Omar El Akkad’s American War and David Williams’s When the English Fall.

As with most titles without big marketing budgets, Radiant Terminus may struggle to find its way into popular discourse. This is a shame. Not just because it’s the most stylistically courageous, entertaining dystopian novel in recent memory, but because of all possible scenarios leading to our cataclysmic end, the one imagined by Volodine might be among the timeliest. Rather than caused by the direct result of aggression, he envisions the world ruined by a bright idea.

Far in the future — keep following, this shouldn’t take more than a minute — engineers of the Second Soviet Union beat warheads into sizzling fuel rods, transforming their planet into a hive of energy self-sufficient cities, resource extraction centers, and prison camps, each powered by a nuclear reactor. But after generations of implied slack and harmony, the reactors fail, a cascade of nuclear meltdowns follow, and this “project of the century,” born of the purest egalitarian spirit, collapses society. Entire continents become uninhabitable. Dog-headed fascists lunge from their dens. Counter-revolutionary armies raze oblast after irradiated oblast.

It’s here that Radiant Termius begins. And where the fun begins.

Narrowly escaping the fall of the last fortified city, comrade-soldier Kronauer flees into the Siberian taiga. In scenes evoking visions of present-day Chernobyl — birch roots wedging cracks in irradiated concrete, atomic heaps steaming under evergreen canopies — he seeks help from a settlement believed to be across the steppe, within a dark wood.

As if stumbling into a folk tale dreamt by Strugatsky Brothers, the crippled kolkhoz that Kronauer enters is nuclear-powered yet primordial, existing in a fabulist realm between dreams and reality. This community of “Radiant Terminus,” whence the book gets its title, is led by the monstrous Solovyei, “a gigantic muzhik in his Sunday best, with a beard and a wreath of hair sticking out here and there as if run through by an electrical current.” Unfortunately for Kronauer and all those who meet him, Solovyei is a jealous giant, a twisted psychic tyrant. In the words of one victim:

Nobody was permitted to exist in the kolkhoz unless he’d gotten control over them in the heart of their dreams. No one was allowed to struggle in his or her own future unless he was part of it and directing it as he wished.

Rather than fell Kronauer with his axe, Solovyei makes him a prisoner of the communal farm. Expected to work on pain of being cast as a drain on socialist society, Kronauer meets Radiant Terminus’ residents: Solovyei’s three grown daughters, all prey to their father’s incestuous, oneiric violations; a handful of shambling proles; and Gramma Ugdul, the witchy keeper of a radioactive well, two kilometers deep, at the bottom of which lies a reactor in eternal meltdown. Together they join in the endless labor of gathering and “liquidating” irradiated items by hurling them down Ugdul’s abyss.

The book’s heroic narrative progresses with dreamlike logic, leading, as most would expect, to an almost unbearably tense confrontation between Kronauer and Solovyei. What results isn’t an end. Instead, it precipitates a pivot in the narrative — or, better described: a concussive break of the central narrative, cracking the skull of the story, opening a consciousness unable to differentiate between nightmares and waking life, declamations and ramblings, physics and shamanism, she and they, he or I.

coverIf this all seems odd, it is — in the best sense. Part of the joy of the book is the playful seriousness with which Volodine goes about his world building; another is spotting his influences. Samuel Beckett is clearly one. So are the aforementioned Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, perhaps best known for their 1971 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, adapted into the feature film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The nightmarish, irradiated atmosphere of that world — a world in which the most terrifying perils lie unseen, often imperceptible — is reflected in Volodine’s. So too are other fantastic elements, including Solovyei’s psychic projections.

In Radiant Terminus, what Volodine brings to the French — and now, through Zuckerman, to the English — is perspective on a genre that’s refreshingly distinct from the two or three upsetting novels America read in high school. Unlike 1984 or Brave New World, he evokes a post-urban dystopia — a communal, agrarian dystopia, slowly receding into an apocalypse of open steppes and endless woodland. This may seem unprecedented, but not within the Russian tradition.

coverAfter witnessing the Terror Famine of 1932 and 1933, Andrey Platonov wrote The Foundation Pit, a brilliant short novel brought to English by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson in 2009. Unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, it follows a team of rural workers tasked with excavating the foundation of an unimaginably brilliant edifice, a “future building for the proletariat.” With little prospect of seeing the project realized, they spade deeper into the clay, oblivious to the pit’s semblance to a mass grave. Meanwhile, in the village where the workers are barracked, an activist hurries along the process of total collectivization — culminating with the gathering and liquidation of the region’s kulaks.

The satiric atmosphere of The Foundation Pit is so toxic with jargon and slogans that the prose itself mutates; description becomes sooty with language from official mouthpieces: “Most likely the rooks felt like departing ahead of time,” the narrator muses as a worker scans the sky, “in order to survive the organization collective-farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm.” In Radiant Terminus, Solovyei’s psychic intrusion into his subjects’ minds, his joy at “walking supreme throughout [their dreams]” seems only a fantastic reframing of what Platonov’s diggers experience when they return to their barracks, “furnished with a radio … so that during the time of rest each of them might acquire meaning of mass life”:

This oppressed despair of soul from the radio was sometimes more than Zhachev could endure, and, amid the noise of consciousness pouring from the loudspeaker, he would shout out: “Stop that sound! Let me reply to it!”

Adopting his graceful gait, Safronov would immediately advance forward.

“Comrade Zhachev, that’s more than enough…It’s time to subordinate yourself entirely to the directive work of the leadership.”

This same imperative hits Kronauer when he first steps into the boundary of Radiant Terminus, halting at the sound of a piercing whistle. Hands over his ears, he looks to his guide, one of Solovyei’s subordinated daughters.

Her eyes were obstinately focused on the tips of her boots, as if she didn’t want to watch what was happening.

—It’s nothing, she said finally. We’re in one of Solovyei’s dreams. He’s not happy that you’re here with me.

Kronauer walked up to Samiya Schmidt and looked at her, aghast. He kept his ears covered and he found it necessary to talk loudly to make himself heard.

Within the communities of both novels, truth is subservient to the barreling pace of activity: neither Solovyei nor the unseen spirit of Stalin would pause to consider the objection to a posited statement: in company, with frenetic movement and reprisals, they act as their will dictates; in seclusion, behind doors barred to dissent, they recuse themselves from question. Unlike the urban 1984 and Brave New World, where rigid control is needed to maintain the hard science fiction of the state, the rural setting of these two microcosmic dystopias can tolerate facts that counter its leaders. They’re simply ignored or dismissed, brushed away by hapless followers. Existing within a cycle of work and days, the power of these tyrants becomes as intemperate and natural to them as the weather — even, to some, as entertaining.

All considered, it wouldn’t be wrong to view the kolkhoz of Radiant Terminus as reconstruction of the village of The Foundation Pit. Stolen from the Russian, charged with psychosis, radiation, and incest, Volodine rebuilt it slat by slat, hut by hut, within a darker world.

In his foreword to the novel, Brian Evanson reminds us that Radiant Terminus is just one book in a forty-nine volume set that, when complete, will form Volodine’s ambitious, interconnected “post-exoticist” project. “One of the key features of [his] work,” Evanson explains, “comes in the echoes that operate both within individual books and between books.” Certainly, within the book’s last quarter, these echoes rebound — becoming as taxing on the reader as they are to Volodine’s characters:

—It’s just repetition, Noumak Ashariyev insisted. It’s hell.

—It’s not just hell, Matthias Boyol corrected. It’s more that we’re within a dream that we can’t understand the mechanisms of. We’re inside, and we don’t have any way of getting out.

coverLong after the point is taken, the book persists, nearly to the point of page-flipping exhaustion — the same exhaustion that meets every reader of Bouvard and Pécuchet — but it would be cruel to dismiss Radiant Terminus on this charge.

In truth, to be fair — what other conclusion could we expect? “Death occurs,” John Berger wrote, “when life has no scrap to defend.”

At the end of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as either implied by or explicitly stated in their respective appendices, future academics discover the texts or recordings that form the books’ core narratives. But in Radiant Terminus, in a future irreversibly collapsed from the start, there are no academics — only snow, steppes, a shamble of survivors, “existences wasted and millennia gone for nothing.” Without the ability to rebuild civilization, the novel, its world, and its world’s inhabitants lose common language and temporality: overcast months become years, years become decades, decades become “one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six years or more.” As humanity atomizes and recedes, surrounded by Platonov’s “universal enduring existence,” its narrative deltas into a frozen sea.

As Ben Ehrenreich wrote in his exploration of Volodine’s “post-exoticist” project for The Nation, “this, you’ll remember, is literature of defeat”; Radiant Terminus offers nothing in the way of hope. But perhaps an injection of French pessimism is warranted — overdue for those who still assume the spirit of humanism to be indomitable. Volodine reminds us of a truth we can easily forget, distracted, as we often are, by the luxuries of technology and moral outrage: namely, that the civilization we’ve inherited is an heirloom so terribly precious, at risk of shattering into one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six irreparable pieces, yet in constant motion — passed and plundered from generation to generation, hand to shaking hand. At the height of the Cold War, in his speech to the Swedish Academy, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the massive upheaval of Western society is “approaching that point beyond which the system becomes metastable and must fall.” Over the decades that followed, most considered his prediction delusional. Today, to many, it seems less so.

Future scholars may agree or disagree, but only in the chance they exist. As Radiant Terminus demonstrates, Kafka’s axe — the axe of a book that can split the frozen sea — is useless without the knowledge to wield it as a tool. Present circumstances considered, the thought alone makes Orwell and Atwood seem cheery.

's writing has appeared in One Story, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. In 2016, he founded the Woodbridge Farm Writers Retreat. Follow him at @grantcmunroe.

2 comments:

  1. …hmmmm, compared to “Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11” this novel has more of a trudging pace; also, i find Volodine’s fundamental themes somehow much more intriguingly elaborated in PE10-11 because more succinct and illustrated by more diverse episodes and characters… or perhaps this is the bias of reading one in ENG and the other in the original…. anyway, PE10-11 has a distinctly more experimental elaboration to it, imo

  2. I thought this novel was brilliant and wonderful and yet I couldn’t quite finish it (or, at least, haven’t finished it yet). Volodine’s novel “Bardo, or Not Bardo” took on a similar blending of reality and dream, and I thought it more explicitly addressed it’s request of the reader to make a determination between life and afterlife, fiction and reality. Plus, it’s a lot shorter, which is sometimes a relief with such excellent but difficult material.

    I was discussing “Radiant Terminus” with a friend last week and lamenting my shame at not having completed it. He said that when one buys a lush wine-infused camembert, it doesn’t mean you don’t love it if you don’t consume the entire thing.

    I haven’t read “Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11” but do plan on getting to it soon.

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