Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels and the Generative Faculty of Hopelessness
by Antoine Volodine
University of Nebraska Press, 2008
166 pages / $19.95 Buy from University of Nebraska Press or Amazon
When I think about different world cataclysms (cataclysmic for the human species, anyway)—natural disaster, famine, nuclear fallout, genocide, slavery—the idea usually resides in some abstract part of my brain. In any event, it’s usually nicely framed. It seems there are few reasons to feel immediately concerned by the prospect of a major disaster. I’m living in a home, and a country, and a relatively safe historical moment for people in my demographic. Even those of us who discuss the possibilities from a privileged historical and socioeconomic position usually reserve real urgency—the material kind—for a later, never-to-arrive date. That’s probably a fair position to take for the time being for people like us, even if it is cynical and myopic. But if you’re interested in writing Marxist post-apocalyptic fiction, or if you want to make people feel immediately concerned about the ahistorical reality of humanity’s failure, which usually presents itself at the bleak and neglected margins of the event horizon (which is temporal as well as spatial), then it would seem to be of the greatest importance to make that reality feel both immediate and visceral. In Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels we find ourselves thrown into a strange world composed of forty-nine short stories, which Volodine calls “narracts.” The novel takes place in the centuries-old wake of an apocalyptic event, after the rise and fall of Communism. In this world, Volodine’s characters (which feel more like ghosts, fading into and out of identity with one another and even with the author—who contains many of his own pseudonymous creations) are left to cope with the aftermath. While the event that led the world and its forty-nine survivors to their current condition is never precisely or definitively articulated in the text—something to do with nuclear fission, maybe?—it becomes clear that the mysterious narrators of Minor Angels are coping in very real, strange, and uncanny ways with the fallout of the disaster which is humanity at large. In this way Volodine makes the wages of his text boldly universal while we, the readers, are left to sift through the wreckage of the disaster.
In the twenty-second of Volodine’s narracts, the text performs a metafictional gesture that goes beyond our typical understanding of the metafictional impulse as a reflexive act. Narrated by Nayadja Aghatourane, we soon learn that the text’s relationship to the world outside its borders is much more complicated, interesting, and affective than that:
Twenty-one, and soon twenty-two strange narracts, no more than one each day, composed by Will Scheidmann in your presence, and when I say Will Scheidmann I am of course thinking of myself. (68)
So if we map it out, the narrator of this narract is telling the reader that her act of narration is in fact being narrated by Will Scheidmann, and that this is all being done in the presence of a “you.” And then we can’t forget the image of Volodine himself sitting down to write his forty-nine narracts, “no more than one each day.” The reason this metafictional impulse reads differently than something we might have seen in a story twenty or thirty years ago is that the reflexive act isn’t presented as an event to be discovered but as something taken for granted, an inexorable, omnipresent reality that is always at work in the text.
On the most basic narrative level, while living in a nursing home Will Scheidmann’s witch- and fury-like grandmothers have created Scheidmann through an act of magic in the hope that he’ll save the world from destruction. Instead of doing this Scheidmann eventually restores the fundamental dynamics of the capitalist system, to the detriment of the world at large. As punishment for his decision to reestablish the capitalist order, Scheidmann is sentenced to death by firing squad, but at the last instant, with their guns drawn, the grandmothers change their mind. Rather than executing him for his crime, Scheidmann’s grandmothers listen to Scheidmann as he recites the forty-nine narracts that make up the entire text of Minor Angels. This makes the grandmothers the subjects of the second person narration quoted above. So, when the “when I say Will Scheidmann I am of course thinking of myself” moment arrives (and moments of destabilized and disseminated identities like this—both human and non-human in nature—are profuse throughout the forty-nine narracts of Minor Angels), it isn’t just another transparent reflexive meta-textual moment at play. In a way it’s actually the opposite. It’s the text’s refusal to recognize its creator. It’s a deflection or déplacement of the narrator, the arranger, the author. The text tells us, and I paraphrase: “It isn’t me who’s writing this. It’s her. No, it’s him. No, it’s him.” The text never stops pointing fingers. The text is a refusal, a coping mechanism. And if we can agree on this point then it starts to look like the whole of Minor Angels is a kind of diary of coping mechanisms, written within a historical reality from which the bleak end is always already playing itself out.
As the twenty-second narract continues, it’s hard not to see the world described as our own. The walls are down, but it’s as though there’s no one there to see what has been left:
I would have liked someone to speak to me of the men and women I’d told of, [I would have liked them to say to me]: ‘We also belong to the dying humanity you describe, we too have come to this point, to these final moments of dispersion and nonexistence,’ or else ‘You were right to show how the joy of remaking the world has been stolen away from us forever.’ But there was no on whispering beside me, no one encouraging me to continue. I was alone, and suddenly began to regret it.’ (69)
Is this a story about the bleak end of humanity and its world, or is it about the deep solitude and loneliness of one anachronistic person, or is it about the end of literature and of the generative act of creation itself? We ask ourselves the question, and the answer has to be “Yes.”
May 30th, 2014 / 10:00 am