The most patently sci-fi work of Antoine Volodine's to be translated into English, Radiant Terminus takes place in a Tarkovskian landscape after the fall of the Second Soviet Union. Most of humanity has been destroyed thanks to a number of nuclear meltdowns, but a few communes remain, including one run by Solovyei, a psychotic father with the ability to invade people's dreamsincluding those of his daughtersand torment them for thousands of years.
When a group of damaged individuals seek safety from this nuclear winter in Solovyei's commune, a plot develops to overthrow him, end his reign of mental abuse, and restore humanity.
Fantastical, unsettling, and occasionally funny, Radiant Terminus is a key entry in Volodine's epic literary project thatwith its broad landscape, ambitious vision, and interlocking characters and ideascalls to mind the best of David Mitchell.
Antoine Volodine (a.k.a. Lutz Bassmann, a.k.a. Manuela Draeger) is the primary pseudonym of a French writer who has published more than forty books, over twenty under this name. Seven of his titles are currently available in English translation, including Minor Angels, Bardo or Not Bardo, and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, the Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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About the Author
Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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By Antoine Volodine, Jeffrey Zuckerman
OPEN LETTERCopyright © 2014 Editions du Seuil
All rights reserved.
The wind came toward the plants again and it caressed them with nonchalant strength, it bent them harmoniously and it lay upon them with a purr; then it ran through several more times, and, when it was done with them, their scents sprang back up: savory sage, white sage, absinthe.
The sky was covered with a thin varnish of clouds. Just beyond, the invisible sun shone. It was impossible to look up without being dazzled.
At Kronauer's feet, the dying woman groaned.
— Elli, she sighed.
Her mouth half-opened as if she was about to talk, but she did not say anything.
— Don't worry, Vassia, he said.
Her name was Vassilissa Marachvili.
She was thirty years old.
Two months earlier, she was walking deftly down the streets, skipping, in the capital on the Orbise, and it wasn't uncommon for someone to turn as she passed, because her appearance as a joyful, egalitarian fighter made hearts warm again. The situation was bad. Men needed to see faces like hers, to come close to bodies filled with freshness and life. They smiled, and then they went to the outskirts to be killed on the front lines.
Two months earlier — an eternity. The downfall of the Orbise had happened as predicted, immediately followed by exodus and a completely empty future. The city centers flowed with the blood of reprisals. The barbarians had reclaimed power, just like everywhere else on the planet. Vassilissa Marachvili had wandered with a group of partisans for several days, and then the resistance had dispersed, and then died out. So, with two comrades in disaster — Kronauer and Ilyushenko — she managed to get around the barriers erected by the victors and enter the empty territories. A pathetic fence had forbidden her entrance. She crossed it without the slightest tremor. She would never go back to the other side. There would be no return, and the three of them knew it. They were fully aware that they were trailing the Orbise's decline, that they were sinking with it into the final nightmare. The path would be difficult, that too they knew. They wouldn't meet anyone, and they'd have to depend on their own strength, on what would remain of their own strength before the first burns. The empty areas harbored no fugitives or enemies, the radiation levels were terrifying, they hadn't diminished for decades, and they promised every interloper radiation death and promised nothing else. After having crawled under the second fence's barbed wire, they began to make their way southeast. Forests without animals, steppes, deserted villages, abandoned roads, railroad tracks invaded by plants — nothing they passed unnerved them. The universe vibrated imperceptibly and it was calm. Even the nuclear power plants, which had rendered the subcontinent uninhabitable through their bouts of insanity, even these damaged reactors — sometimes darkened, always silent — seemed harmless, and often, out of defiance, it was those places they chose to bivouac.
They had walked twenty-nine days in all. Very quickly they felt the consequences of radiation exposure. Sickness, weakening, disgust at existence, not to mention vomiting and diarrhea. Then their degradation sped up and the last two weeks were terrible. They kept progressing, but, when they lay down on the ground for the night, they wondered if they weren't already dead. They wondered that without irony. They didn't have any facts for an answer.
Vassilissa Marachvili fell into something that barely resembled life. Exhaustion had carved her features; the radioactive dust had attacked her body. She had more and more trouble talking. She couldn't keep going.
Kronauer leaned over her and walked his hand over her forehead. He didn't know how to soothe her. He pressed at the sweat that was seeping from the ends of her eyebrows, and then he set to disentangling the black strands of hair stuck to her feverish skin. A few hairs stayed between his fingers. It had started falling out.
Then he got up and looked around the countryside again.
The panorama had something immortal about it. The immensity of the sky overpowered the immensity of the meadow. They were on a small hill and they could see far. Iron tracks cut the image in two. The land had once been covered with wheat, but over the course of time it had returned to the wilderness of prehistoric grains and mutant plants. Four hundred meters from the spot where Kronauer was hiding, at the bottom of the slope, the rails went along the ruins of a former sovkhoz. On the place that, fifty years ago, had been the heart of a communal village, agricultural facilities had endured the assaults of time. Dormitories, pigsties, or warehouses had collapsed upon themselves. Only the nuclear power plant and a massive doorway were still upright. Above the pharaonic pillars, a symbol and a name could be made out: "Red Star." The same name was inscribed on the small power plant, half worn away but still legible. Around the buildings intended for habitation, roads and paths etched geometric residue. A flood of ryegrass and shrubs had ended up dissolving the original tar layer.
A bit earlier on, a train had appeared on the edge of the horizon. It was so unexpected that they had first thought they were experiencing a collective delirium on their deathbeds, only to realize that they weren't dreaming. They cautiously hid themselves in the plants, Vassilissa Marachvili stretched out on a bed of crackling stalks. The convoy slid slowly into the meadow, going from the north directly to its mysterious destination, but instead of continuing its route it rolled to a stop just before the starred door, right by a building that would, in the heyday of the sovkhoz's splendor, have housed a poultry farm.
The train braked, like a boat docking, without any metallic screeching, and for a protracted minute, the diesel motor wheezed softly. Apparently a freight train or a transport for troops or prisoners. A locomotive, four windowless cars, all dilapidated and dirty. Minutes went by: three, then five, then a few more. Nobody appeared. The engineer was nowhere to be seen.
Above the steppe the sky glittered. A uniformly and magnificently gray vault. Clouds, warm air, and plants all bore witness to the fact that the humans had no place here, and yet they made people want to fill their lungs and sing hymns to nature, to its inexhaustible force, and to its beauty. From time to time, flocks of crows flew over the dark strip that marked the beginning of the taiga. They went northwest and disappeared somewhere above this universe of black trees where men seemed even more unwelcome than in the steppe.
The forest, Kronauer thought. All right for a short trip, so long as we stick to the edges. But once we go deep within, there's no longer any northeast or southwest. Directions don't exist anymore, we'll have to make do with a world of wolves, of bears, and mushrooms, and we won't make our way out again, even when we walk in a straight line for hundreds of kilometers. He was already imagining the first rows of trees, and he quickly saw the gloomy thicknesses, the dead pines, fallen to their natural death thirty or forty years earlier, blackened with moss but resistant to rot. His parents had escaped camps and gotten lost there, in the taiga, and they had disappeared there. He couldn't think of the forest without recalling the tragic image of this man and this woman whom he had never known. Ever since he had been old enough to think of them, he had imagined them as a pair of nomads, forever neither alive nor dead — just lost. Don't make the same mistake they did, he thought. The taiga can't be a refuge, an alternative to death or the camps. It's vastnesses where man has no place. There's only shadow and bad encounters. Unless we're animals, we can't live in there.
He took a few seconds before abandoning the idea. Then he came back to the steppe that was rippling once more under a gust of wind. He saw the stopped train again, and, above the world, the cloudy and infinite sky.
The diesel motor wasn't groaning anymore.
The dying woman moaned again.
With his too-hot and too-long felt coat, ill-suited to the weather, his too-big boots, and his head shorn of hair that wouldn't grow again, Kronauer looks like many of us — I mean that at first glance he looks like a corpse or a soldier from the civil war, running away without having won a single victory, an exhausted and suspicious-looking and strung-out man.
He sits on the balls of his feet in order to stay unnoticed. The plants come up to his shoulders, but as he squats down they close over his head. He has spent his childhood in orphanages, in urban zones, far away from meadows and, theoretically, he ought not to know the names of the plants surrounding him right then. But a woman had given him some knowledge of botany, a woman expert in plant nomenclature, and, out of nostalgia for this dead lover, he gazes thoughtfully at the steppe grasses, focusing on whether they have ears, oval leaves, lyrate leaves, whether they grow in bulbs or rhizomes. After examining them, he labels them. Downwind and nearby great ogronts, clumps of kvoina, zabakulians, septentrines, Jeanne-of-the-Communists, foxbarrens, and aldousses are whispering.
Now he watches the bottom of the hill, less than half a kilometer off. The bustle isn't great. The engineer has gone out along the locomotive — an engine manufactured at the beginning of the Second Soviet Union — but he has gone down the small steps and, after having walked about twenty meters in the grass, he has lain down on the ground. And there, he has clearly already fallen asleep or passed out.
Then the cars' doors had opened one by one.
Soldiers had come out of the second and third cars. Foot soldiers in rags, walking and gesturing like drunk or sick men. Kronauer counted four. After taking several staggering steps, they leaned against the wood door, their heads lolling or turned toward the clouds. Barely moving, not talking. Then they passed around a cigarette. Once the tobacco was used up, three of the men dragged themselves back to their respective cars. The fourth went off to satisfy his natural urge. He's descended about twenty meters down the path into a huge thicket of sage. The growth swallowed him up completely. He hasn't reappeared since.
It seems like the convoy has come to a halt in front of the ruins of the Red Star, as if it was an important railroad stop or even a station where passengers had planned to embark or debark. The locomotive motor has been switched off, and nothing suggests that the conductor will start it again anytime soon.
— Maybe they're out of fuel, Ilyushenko suggests.
Ilyushenko, Kronauer, and Vassilissa Marachvili composed a harmonious trio, bound together by durable ties that felt much like old, unbreakable sentiments of camaraderie. But when they came into the empty lands together for a communal march toward death, they had only known each other for a few days. More specifically, Kronauer was a new figure to Ilyushenko and Vassilissa Marachvili. Given the circumstances of the Orbise's fall, forty-eight hours was certainly as good as a year, and several days a full decade. When they snuck under the barbed-wire fence of no return, it was as if they had lived together a long time and shared everything — joys and regrets, beliefs, disillusionments, and fights for egalitarianism. The Orbise's last redoubts had been taken by the enemy and they had ended up together in a small rearguard formation taking in survivors who still wanted to fight. Unfortunately, their commander had gone crazy and, after a week of hiding, the formation was no longer what they had hoped it would be when they had joined it. Their group was no longer the germ of a future resistance army, but rather an assortment of disoriented deserters, driven toward nothingness by a suicidal visionary. The commander apparently wanted to recapture the Orbise by calling on demonic, alien, and kamikaze forces. They moved around the capital's periphery without any strategy, submitting to his senseless but iron will. The commander gave absurd orders, sent men on suicide bombings where there were no victims aside from civilians and themselves. When he pointed his gun at a recalcitrant man, rebels disarmed him and then shot him before heading off in all directions. Kronauer, Vassilissa Marachvili, and Ilyushenko hadn't shirked when they had to fire at their leader, but after doing justice, they said good-bye to their futures and went toward the irradiated no-man's-lands, the empty territories, far from enemies and far from any hope.
Ilyushenko. A tanned fortysomething, faithful like us to the party since his adolescence, and also enthusiastic enough during his membership in the Komsomol to have a crest with a sickle, a hammer, and a rifle and rising sun in the background tattooed on his neck. The crest had been burned into his skin by an artist no doubt equally as enthusiastic, but who hadn't mastered his art, so that the drawing didn't seem to refer to the culture of the proletarian revolution — it looked like a tangled mess on which a sort of spider sat. Ilyushenko had been forced to carry this ruined image upon his neck, but he hid it under his shirt collar or a scarf. In an encyclopedia of capitalist universes, he had seen reproductions of punk tattoos with tarantulas and repulsive webs and, even though these were images from a world destroyed two hundred years earlier, he didn't want to be mistaken for having nostalgia for neo-fascist nihilism. He was a man of average height, with robust muscles, who didn't like idle talk and knew how to fight. He had formerly been a truck driver, then he had been a garbage collector, then, when the Orbise's future had taken a bad turn, he had fought for three years with the famous Ninth Division, first as a mechanic and then as a member of the tank crew and now, as the commune of the Orbise had given up the ghost, he was in old rags and depressed, thereby resembling everyone else in that part of the world and even elsewhere.
— Give me the binoculars, Kronauer demanded and held out his hand.
The binoculars had been taken from the commander after the discomfiting firing-squad episode. He'd had to scrub the glass to get rid of the organic debris — a yellowish chunk, some dried blood.
Now Kronauer looked through the lenses and he felt on his nose the thing bringing back so many memories of wounded bodies and military insanity. In the foreground, the convoy had taken on troubling colors: camouflage green, dusty brown, dark rust. The focus knob had been damaged and he couldn't zoom in on any faces — besides, there weren't any faces visible right then. Once again, no bodies were visible. The ones who were lying or sitting amid the great ogronts and kvoinas hadn't gotten up. The others didn't even lift their heads in the doorframes. He could make out a pair of legs in the shadow of a car, but that was it.
— If they don't have diesel fuel, I wonder where they're going to find more, Ilyushenko said, kneeling next to Kronauer. I'd be surprised if there was any left in the sovkhoz.
By Kronauer's right leg, the dying woman moaned.
Around the train the plants rippled once again, the degenerate rye, and then became calm. A clump of whitish plumes was still moving around by itself, as if it had a life of its own. Some Jeanne-of-the-Communists.
— Eh, Kronauer said. Who knows what's going on in their heads.
Ilyushenko motioned uncomprehendingly. He shook his head, sat on the ground, and didn't pay any more attention to what was happening down below.
They didn't move for a while, invisible within their hideaway of long leaves and stalks, which had started turning yellow and even black in the wake of the first night frosts. About fifteen meters off, a mass of plants spiced the air. Vornies-cinq-miseres, Kronauer thought. Mixed with bouralayans, caincers. A bit closer there were mint-scented sarviettes.
The dying woman was reinvigorated by these scents, got up on her elbow, and touched Kronauer's calf.
— Did they get out of the train? she asked.
Vassilissa Marachvili was a brave girl and although her friends had taken turns carrying her on their backs for more than a week, they had never felt like they were weighed down by a weakling. She was impervious to pain and she accepted adversity gracefully. When they had to eliminate their crazy commander, for example, she didn't bat an eye as she joined the firing squad. And when they'd entered the world that nuclear accidents had made unlivable for ten millennia to come, she had put on a brave face despite the bleak prospect. Nobody had heard her prophesying any horrors that might await them. And later on, when radiation's earliest ravages had started to do her in, she hadn't complained. On the contrary, she had laughed with them, with Kronauer and Ilyushenko, once it was clear that all three of them were coming apart, physically and mentally, and that they were headed toward their ends. Her two comrades admired her refusal to consider everything a tragedy, even the defeat, even their impending doom, and they felt a mute but great tenderness for her. She was naturally happy; she had lived that way for thirty years — obstinate but also wryly detached — no matter the circumstances. After high school, she had worked at a brasserie in the capital, and then joined a gang of robbers, then enlisted in a She-Wolves regiment battling for the Orbise's survival. And now she was sick; she was vomiting blood and didn't have any more strength.
Excerpted from Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, Jeffrey Zuckerman. Copyright © 2014 Editions du Seuil. Excerpted by permission of OPEN LETTER.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contentspart one KOLKHOZ, 5,
part two ODE TO THE CAMPS, 129,
part three AMOK, 243,
part four TAIGA, 347,