By Neal Baker
Solo Viola is a work of fiction whose fantasy begins on the front cover. The name Antoine Volodine, supposedly identifying the novel’s author, is in fact an introduction to one of many characters populating the literary world of Volodine’s peculiar brand of science fiction he himself termed “post-exoticism.” Volodine is the primary name used by the Russian-French author of Solo Viola, and it is the name under which he interacts directly with the press and the public. But more than a pseudonym, it is the identity of a kind of spokesperson for several other fictional writers contributing in a variety of ways to a universe of more than 40 novels written over several decades. Lia Swope Mitchell’s translation of Alto Solo, published in French in 1991, offers a look into the earliest days of Volodine’s project.
While the sprawl of post-exoticism can be threatening to a newcomer, Lionel Ruffel helpfully gives Anglophone readers the requisite initiation in his foreword to Solo Viola. The novels are framed as the creations springing from a network of storytellers amid dire circumstances. “Political activists, militants of radical egalitarianism, are imprisoned, nearly or already dead, and are trying to communicate amongst themselves, as if with their last breath” (xiv), Ruffel explains. The stories they tell, as Jeffrey Zuckerman and J. T. Mahany put it in an interview with Volodine in The Paris Review, describe “prisons and Eurasian steppes, interrogations and monologues, walks through the Bardo state, failed revolutions and cataclysms, and humans struggling, in spite of everything, to survive in a world similar to our own.”
Solo Viola is one exhibit in a greater collective expression of a sense of political apocalypse. But even within this complex greater narrative, each work speaks with its own voice to bear a specific message: “(re)reading Solo Viola is first and foremost an encounter with a narrative jewel in its raw, pure state” (xi). Ruffel is correct to point out that in terms of dramatic power, this work stands entirely on its own. In fact, when Solo Viola was published in 1991, post-exoticism had not fully taken shape as the self-contained one-man movement that it is now, but was closer to a nonsense label meant to dispel some of the constraints that genre and categorization placed on the writer, the reader, and the critic. Being new to Volodine’s work myself, I am encountering the novel much as the 1991 reader would have: a compelling tale at the center of a world teeming with intrigue and fantasy the breadth of which is felt if not seen within Solo Viola.
The ability of the novel to evoke an expansive world while remaining concise in its storytelling is one of its most compelling qualities. It is the tale of a defining moment in the lives of its central characters, but it offers a view of a wide world that is fully alive with countless other stories of equal significance. When Volodine frees Aram Bouderbichvili, Matko Amirbekian, and Will MacGrodno from prison on the first page of his work, so too does he set loose the reader on the streets of Chamrouche to mingle with the crowds, to peer in windows, and to wonder about the machinery behind the face of this unfamiliar city. But the view that we get is disorienting—we only just begin to get to know these three characters and their surroundings before being hurled across the city to be introduced to a string quartet, a circus ringleader, a writer, and a dictatorial hopeful, all of whom will have their critical encounter with one another in the second act of the book.
Volodine, in tracing the colliding fates of an armful of individuals, produces the image of an alternate-universe European metropole bustling with life, art, industry, and fear, of which the reader is allowed but a glimpse. In many ways Chamrouche looks like any such city already on our maps. In a similar way could the ugly populism of the Frondists and their larger-than-life demagogue be mistaken for certain ill movements from our own history. At the same time, birds walking upright among humans and immigrants hailing from nations of mustachioed horse thieves offer unexpected speckles of fantasy and create the sense that Solo Viola takes place in a small corner of a universe still to be discovered. What remains unclear (and this is part of the thrill) is the matter of which details belong to the greater “reality” of post-exoticism and which are fabricated by the characters writing the story.
To complicate the matter further, Volodine’s authority is ambiguous—he explicitly disclaims to the reader that his authorship is not absolute. The issue is that the events of Solo Viola implicate another of post-exoticism’s central creative figures, setting up a unique kind of polyphony within the narrative. “The story gets complicated here,” Volodine explains, “because a writer gets mixed up in it, and when he can find nothing good about the world from any perspective, the writer, Iakoub Khadjbakiro, takes his paper and transforms the fabric of truth” (18). Of course, lost within the layers of this constructed world, exactly what an un-tampered-with “truth” would mean is a bit murky.
How these stories end up in writing—and how they end up written in French—is perhaps a puzzle the key to which is hidden deeper within Volodine’s work. The “genre” of post-exoticism is sometimes sold as “a foreign literature written in French,” and it’s true that part of the magic in Solo Viola is that it reads like an import from a place that doesn’t exist. A foreign literature written in French and translated in English turns out to be a wonderful exercise of imagination for the lover of translation. It further complicates the distance that lies between the reader and the characters, their identities, and the sociopolitical struggles that are fully felt but only half-explained. Given the curious nature of the authorship of the book, Lia Swope Mitchell’s involvement in the text becomes warped by fantasy. More than a translator, she begins to appear as a conspirator, a shadowy figure layering yet another veil of fiction over a story coming from a permanent elsewhere.
Volodine, Antoine. Solo Viola. Translated by Lia Swope Mitchell. University of Minnesota Press, 2021.
Neal Baker lives in Austin, Texas where he is pursuing a master’s degree in library science at the University of Texas. He graduated from Oberlin College in 2020 with a major in Comparative Literature and French, and a concentration in literary translation with a focus on comics and film.