Sunday
Jan132013

We Monks and Soldiers

By Lutz Bassmann


 

University of Nebraska Press
September 2012
978-0803239913

Reviewed by a Collective in Support of the Imprisoned Grand-Jury Resisters Matt Duran, KteeO Olejnik, and Maddy Pfeiffer


 

Partway through We Monks and Soldiers, in a story titled "A Backup Proletarian Universe," a character named Monge abruptly realizes that he has been granted another past and another life. Via dreams and shamanic chants, Monge has been sent into a new reality, the "backup proletarian universe." Here the facts of Monge's former life are as if tilted and rearranged: names recur, attached to different people than before; a companion in the former life has become a rival in the new one; and Monge's former world, a "hell ruled by assassins and capitalism," has given way to a world in which a barely extant Party has suffered disastrous defeats, one after another, though some few revolutionaries remain. Monge's second reality soon displaces the first, but for a brief time he is aware of both. Lutz Bassmann has structured Monge's story in a rare and striking way, and it is a structure that informs the entire book: the differing realities are not in opposition, nor are they arranged hierarchically as fiction and metafiction or reality and illusion. We are not presented with a logic of the double, nor yet with the kind of metafiction that ascends neatly up a hierarchy of levels, from least to most "meta." Instead, Bassmann's fictional worlds echo one another anarchically, and with a profound plangency.

We Monks and Soldiers is not a novel, although it has a distinct and even circular unity. The book begins with an introit—a "constant drumming" that falls silent for the duration of the text, lending the book the iterative aspect of a rite or recitation—and the book ends when the drums begin again. In between are seven fictions (neither chapters nor short stories), set against a backdrop of the slow and violent departure of humans from the face of this earth. It goes hard for the humans, this matter of leaving the world forever, and all seven fictions concern someone who assists during or at least attends the last days: an individual's last days, or the last days of humanity as such. But "last-ness" is a vexed category in We Monks and Soldiers; it could also be said that every time, what's at stake in these fictions is not the last day but what comes after: after the future, after the too-brief victory and subsequent degeneration of world revolution, after the collapse of belief in the meaning of religious rites, and even after death, in a shadowy world that is perhaps no longer a world. In particular, the "monks and soldiers" of the book's title[1] are aware that they have survived the decay of their purpose. The monks were trained in a faith they no longer exactly profess, but they remain ethically bound to those who wander in vagabondage after death. The soldiers (revolutionaries, activists, and operatives) know that world revolution and the egalitarian society it ushered in have been defeated, but they find in that defeat no reason to repent. All seven fictions are meticulously structured so that pairs of tales and names and incidents echo one another, as do photographs, incantations, dreams, lives, deaths, and worlds. It is not possible for a single character to be "the protagonist" of such a varied work, but it is worth staying with Monge's story just a while longer, because Monge's experience is paradigmatic for We Monks and Soldiers as a whole.

Consider the moment Monge meets his lover for the "first" time (for the first time in the book we're reading, though of course in Monge's new reality she has been with him for many years already). At this point, nothing would be more customary than for fiction to evoke either the dizzying symmetries of alienation or the opposition between reality and illusion; recall the urgent necessity of uncovering the true identity of the false wife in Total Recall. In contrast, here is Bassmann's Monge, at the hinge-point between one reality and another, or rather, already sliding into the second reality:

I remember, he thought.

And he did, in fact, remember everything. Everything that bound him to this new earthly existence, this new only earthly existence. Everything he'd ever experienced—here, in this life he'd led here. It was unexpected and sudden, but he'd instantly inherited a long personal history, alongside which lingered a few traces of dreams that just barely belonged to him, fleeting images whose link with the real had been broken over the past couple of seconds. Now he was aware of having come to this street by natural means, by a route that had nothing to do with this black space of whispers and dreams, or with a shamanic or exotic mission, or something more irrational still. He had in his head the last vestiges of slumber, the strange echo of a magical sentence—"Only those I love, only those I love, listen!"—and the idea that in the distance men and women were squatting in prayer, in delirium, or in prisons, and thinking of him with the hope that all would go well; but all that was even now disappearing behind the crystal clear memories of this one earthly existence. His existence. He felt within him an almost infinite mass of buried memories, lying at the ready, asking only to be summoned up to complete or refine his understanding of himself. I'm not a stranger here, he remembered. I don't come from some other place. I've lived on this earth since the day I was born. I'm forty-nine years old. I know this woman. I know her, and I'm in love with her.

In contact with a new reality, Monge does not experience alienation, but perfect hypermnesia, a rush of recognition, and a feeling of true and tender affection. There is no need for Monge to fight his way through the illusory veil of this second existence and back to the real one (though this is the narrative arc for any number of futuristic fictions). Of course, Monge himself weights the two realities differently (the one he's in now is real to him), but for the reader, for whom "now" always means both the past tense of narration and the present moment of this reading (this recitation of We Monks and Soldiers, now, between two briefly interrupted sessions of "constant drumming")—for that reader, there is a plangency in the fading of Monge's memory. The reader still barely remembers—as Monge himself is already forgetting—that the new universe is one into which Monge was sent on a mission of desperate importance to those who "were squatting in prayer, in delirium, or in prisons, and thinking of him with the hope that all would go well." The reader can still vaguely recall that Monge's route into the new world had everything to do with "this black space of whispers and dreams." But the reader retains these echoes only a little while longer than does Monge; largely confined to Monge's focalizing awareness, and disoriented by the strangeness of this entire story, a reader cannot know exactly what Monge's mission was or what it would mean for him to succeed. Everything in both Monge's realities is strange to a reader from our world: soldier-shamans, black space, the magical sentence, "Only those I love, listen!"; and, in Monge's next reality, the "Kovarskists," whoever they are, and the imperialist war against "the Orbise," whatever that is.[2] It is all so strange. (But one understands at once, without any effortful decoding, that only the enemy uses the label "Kovarskist," that the death of Kovarski was terrible and unjust, and that one sides with the Orbise, even without knowing what it names.) What the vantage point of reading grants the reader is not more knowledge than Monge has (if anything, we have less; we can only read about Monge's perfect hypermnesia, not experience it ourselves). The reader's slightly longer retention of these echoes grants her an intense experience of being a sympathizer.

"Sympathizer" perhaps comes across as an obscure or imprecise critical term; in fact, we're adopting it from a writer closely related to Bassmann, the contemporary French novelist Antoine Volodine. Volodine has said of his own writing something that could just as well apply to Bassmann's:

I wrote for readers whom I imagine, in principle, as friends or accomplices, for readers who are 'sympathizers' (this is the term used by the German police and the press to characterize those likely to appreciate the rhetoric and actions of the Rote Armee Fraktion in the early 1970s. My narrators always address themselves, over the heads of the police who force them to speak, to listeners who are friends and accomplices, real or imaginary.

Monge's "magical sentence," an incantation he has been instructed to repeat throughout his mission, is just such an address to sympathizers: "Only those I love, listen!" In compressed form, this incantation expresses the entire narrative poetics of We Monks and Soldiers. On the one hand, the book that is recited in the silence between two bouts of drumming addresses itself to sympathizers, to those who would find no great exaggeration in a description of the world as "ruled by assassins and capitalism." The text is narrated to a narratee who would concur, with Monge, that "Even in a flawed or degenerate form, a proletarian universe could only be better." And yet, on the other hand, Monge's assertion that "a proletarian universe could only be better" is relayed to us in fiction, and thus not without irony. It's a delicate irony, and a rare one in the republic of letters; fiction has had a difficult time representing revolutionary political passion as anything other than doomed or ridiculous. Maybe only Andrei Platonov's depiction of the strangely disappointing execution of the bourgeoisie in the novel Tchevengur achieves something similar. In both Platonov and Bassmann, the longing for a proletarian universe is not ironized to the point of destruction.[3] The "backup proletarian universe" may be fictional, but it is not false.

Bassmann is both a fictional author of and a fictional character in Volodine's 1998 novel Le post-exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze. That novel took the form of an extended explication of an imaginary dissident literary movement called "post-exoticism," a fictional movement which Volodine has nonetheless realized in print, in the thirty-nine books that preceded and followed the publication of Le post-exotisme. Some were published under the name Antoine Volodine (itself a pseudonym); others have appeared under Volodine's heteronyms Manuela Draeger, Elli Kronauer, and Lutz Bassmann. There are stylistic differences among the four writers, and they are not writing the linear chronicle of just one fictional world (the post-exotic works are not a series); nonetheless, it is evident that all four writers are engaged in the same vast project.

We Monks and Soldiers stands on its own; somewhat like Monge, a reader who plunges into a post-exotic world for the very first time already has all she needs. No one has to be schooled in the arcana of post-exoticism to see that We Monks and Soldiers is a gorgeously patterned and deeply moving work. And, conversely, familiarity with the immense and jagged edifice of post-exoticism does nothing to lessen its strangeness. Encountering post-exoticism for the first or the nth time is still an experience of attending raptly to the brief, fraught appearance of beings from another world.

Despite the autonomy of We Monks and Soldiers, its further post-exotic context is illuminating. Almost fifteen years into the post-exotic project,[4] the novel Le post-exotisme undertook to fictionally describe that project, though its terms were apparently fanciful ones. Le post-exotisme delineated such imaginary post-exotic genres as the "Shågga," the "narrat," the "murmurat," and the "entrevoûtes"—the book examined all this while also narrating the tale of an imprisoned dissident, one Lutz Bassmann. In turn, in a fictional paratext at the end of Le post-exotisme, in a bewildering list of 343 books "by the same author," which are nonetheless attributed to 72 different imaginary writers, Lutz Bassmann is cited as the author of no fewer than nineteen fictional, non-extant post-exotic works, among them Un clown en peluche (in the post-exotic genre romånce), Savoir croupir, savoir ne pas croupir (genre: narrats poetiques), and La parfaite poussiere (genre: entrevoûtes). Before Volodine published Le post-exotisme, his books were labeled novels and they bore his signature; after Le post-exotisme, books by various other post-exotic writers, with Volodine's invented genre designations on their frontispieces, also began to appear (in print, for reals). Most remarkable of all, these later post-exotic works rigorously conform to and expand on those apparently so factitious, apparently so lightheartedly invented fictional genres. We Monks and Soldiers belongs to the post-exotic genre of the entrevoûtes

An entrevoûte in its original form, according the explication in Le post-exotisme, comprises a pair of texts, a "novelle" and its "annex" or "response." Entrevoûtes, though, always appear as collections of pairs, as a series of echoes.[5] Le post-exotisme never defines the paired entrevoûtes in the vocabulary of doubles or reflection; instead, Le post-exotisme describes the entrevoûtes as forming a circular structure, "a simple and solid curvature" which "opens onto infinity." This accords with what we pointed out about Monge's two realities at the beginning of this essay: they aren't arranged hierarchically or as doubles: a Monge and an anti-Monge, reality and illusion. And somehow the fact of fictionality is essential to the effect of Monge's echoing worlds, is even essential to creating the sympathizer it addresses. Our byline has lent this review a certain political earnestness, we don't deny that, maybe even an overly pious closeness to dissidents fictional and real, but we don't mistake We Monks and Soldiers for a work of rhetoric. The book makes no case for revolution; neither is it a code that could be reliably back-masked to reveal the minimum program for a renewed Party. It is fiction. And yet all the post-exotic works together are perhaps an "annex" or "response" to the real, just as one entrevoûte comprises a "novelle" and its annex. If so, the post-exotic works are an annex that forms a circular unity with our world, in the manner of the entrevoûtes. Which means that the "fact" of their fictionality may one day find itself undone.

According to Le post-exotisme, to read a collection of entrevoûtes is to find oneself

entre soi, far from the loquacious dogs, the propagandists, the amusers of millionaires. The literary field of the entrevoûtes opens onto infinity: it becomes a destination, a harbor for the narrator, a land of exile for the reader, of tranquil exile, out of reach of the enemy, as if forever out of reach of the enemy.

All the sorrow and irony of this tranquil exile seem dependent on the "as if" in the statement "as if forever out of reach of the enemy." The "as if" is the mode of fiction. The French title of "A Backup Proletarian Universe" is "Un univers prolétarien de secours," literally "aid," as in first-aid. But the aid that fiction (any fiction) proffers is strangely inoperative; stranger still, by not making a distinction between dreams and waking, between one world and another, post-exotic fiction seems always on the verge of undoing the distinction between the real and the fictional, the very distinction that seems to have set it all in motion. We Monks and Soldiers would be only another entry in the lonely crowded post-apocalyptic genre if it did not also lend its readers this peculiar and ambiguous form of aid, this tranquil fictional exile: too ironized to be dogmatic, too profoundly moving to be nothing but irony, and strangely activated in the fictional though not false mode of its address.

 

Postscript on the Op

Early reviews of We Monks and Soldiers have mentioned its "terse" and "spare" prose. But We Monks and Soldiers is not only terse; such reviews appear to be generalizing from the book's opening section, the noir-ish first-person narration of "An Exorcism Beside the Sea." To do this is to ignore all the other narrative styles of We Monks and Soldiers: the Vladimir-and-Estragon comedy of Monge and Fuchs's journey; the frequent slippages between first and third person, as well as between naming and anonymity; the elegy of the section titled "Forgetting"; the expansion of the iterative possibilities of narrative in the twice-narrated "Tong Fong" sections and in the late-Beckett circularity of "The Dive"; and the several, Blanchotian evocations of dark space folding in on itself amid the heat of flames unseen in "Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel." The mistake isn't only in ignoring all these other styles; it's also in not noticing what the "terse" prose of the opening section actually does.

Almost alone among post-exotic characters, the quasi-anonymous first-person narrator of "An Exorcism Beside the Sea" is a little bit fat. It's a rare trait in post-exoticism on the whole (where the fare tends to be limited to a little fermented yak milk and even less pemmican), and it's rare in We Monks and Soldiers: not only are pickings slim in the last days, but monks and soldiers are ascetics.[6] Still, the first-person narrator of "An Exorcism Beside the Sea"—a monk-soldier—spends more than a few lines commenting on his own large size. "That's the one detail that might, if need be, distinguish me amid a group of monks, prisoners, or soldiers," says the narrator, before going on to remark that others have "the same failing" and that this description is more or less just a useful one, as if the image he's just given us were merely accidental.

Is it an accident that Bassmann's monk-soldier shares the characteristic of being fat with Dashiell Hammett's nameless Continental Op? More importantly, Bassmann's monk-soldier Jean Schwahn (but even his name, Schwahn tells us, is just an accident; he might have called himself anything) —Schwahn shares with Hammett's Op the "terse" narrative habit of telling us everything he does but nothing he thinks. The Op's first-person narration pulled the trick of seeming to let the reader in on everything—what the Op drank, where he went, who he saw—while actually concealing until the end his most important thoughts about the case. That style is now so much a part of noir-ese that we accept it even from detective-narrators who have no interesting thoughts to conceal, whose narratives really are just "terse" and "spare" accounts of drinks drunk and people shot. Bassmann's Schwahn, though, is not one of these.

Schwahn comes to the seaside to "exorcise" some of the newly deceased, to persuade them to leave this earth and these bodies to which they uselessly cling, to persuade them not only with rites and incantations but also with incendiary grenades and a Yarygin pistol. Like many characters in We Monks and Soldiers, Schwahn has come here to do a job he's done before. When he reveals, in a late, Op-style admission toward the end of the tale that something profound and sad binds him to one of these newly dead, what is created is not a solution to the mystery—that's what the Op would have given us—but a deepening of the mystery. We're not talking about "backstory"—it's not some fact that's revealed or even only partly revealed. What Jean Schwahn reveals is the fictional nature of what matters most, and the anonymity of those closest to us. He does this by naming the newly dead; he gives them contingent names, fictional ones, as accidental as his own. Schwahn names one of the dead "Mariya Schwahn," but as if in quotation marks, as if in the fictional mode of the as if. The newly dead appear to Jean Schwahn as he to them, as fictional characters do to us: suffering beings from distant worlds, whose brief appearance we can only attend.

 


 

[1] The French title is Avec les moines-soldats, "With the Monk-Soldiers," and alongside monks and soldiers one often finds such crossed forms in this book: dissident monks, shamanic soldiers, monk-soldiers. Still, Jordan Stump's excellent translation is excellent in this instance, too: the phrase "we monks and soldiers" occurs in the book's first section, and the English title captures the solidarity implied in the French one. Additionally, the authors would like to thank Jordan Stump for his generous correspondence about We Monks and Soldiers.

[2]  The Orbise is a river in France, but Monge's world cannot be France, not exactly, and the book deploys the name "Orbise" as if it designated a region or even an organization; even this proper noun is disorienting.

[3] But neither can the fictional revolution compensate for the real, defeated one. The unrepentant dissident Linda Woo, in Antoine Volodine's novel Écrivains, recites a tale ironic enough to make this astute comparison of fiction and reality: "Crushed and condemned…the post-exotic writers persisted in existing, in the isolation of high-security prisons and in the definitive, monastic enclosure of death… Their memory became a collection of dreams. Their murmurs ending up fashioning books, collective books without a clearly claimed author. They set about ruminating on unachieved promises and they invented worlds in which the failure was just as systematic and bitter as in what you call the real world." (p 35-36, emphasis ours.)

[4] The term post-exoticism came into circulation well after the publication of Volodine's first novel; the term was initially almost a joke, a flippant answer to an interviewer who asked Volodine to situate his work in a wider literary context. Even so, the unity of Volodine's prismatic, multi-authored work is astonishing. Everything is there in the first novel, the stunning Biographie comparée de Jorian Murgrave (published in 1985). It is as though an introit had been sounded in 1985, and, for all post-exoticism's multiplicity, we seem still to be witnessing a single, ceaseless performance.

[5] In consultation with Volodine, Jordan Stump has translated the neologism "entrevoûtes" as "archode" (i.e., "arch-ode"). This retains the architectural connotation of the actual French verb entrevoûter, as well as the poetic "ode," though the connotation of "arch" in the sense of "first" or "principal" seems infelicitous.

[6] If there is an exemplarily post-exotic stance toward gustation, it might be that of Meyerberh in Biographie comparée de Jorian Murgrave, who is said to be "one of those people capable of depriving themselves of nourishment for days and days, and even for weeks."