For some books, much is revealed by what the characters eat. The cuisine in Minor Angels is awful but oddly alluring, a gustatory gateway into the post-cataclysmic desperation of the characters. Imagine the flavors of rotten cabbage, gray apples, seagull tartare, and several milks, including ewe’s, mare’s and camel’s. In one of the few moments of true grotesquerie, a woman, “glistening… smooth and fat,” sits motionless, waiting to be force-fed by her sons for “cannibalistic purposes.” These tastes and images define Antoine Volodine’s thirteenth book, a novel that runs on big, sprawling ideas, as steadily conveyed by sensory perceptions.
A catastrophic revolution, something involving camps, uprooted the world of Minor Angels and only a hardy few survived. In this vulnerable state, capitalism wormed back in, agitating several old women in a nursing home. The women, apparently immortal, fashion a grandson in hopes that he will banish capitalism forever. Constructed out of rags and lint, ripened in moonlight, and then incubated in the warmth of the old women’s bodies, the embryo—named Will Scheidmann—is entertained with fairy tales and Marxist classics.
After birth, Scheidmann flings himself through an open window into the Siberian taiga. Desperate to connect with the masses, he instead finds cities with “a handful of ruined men and women… lying slack in a deep spiritual lethargy.” He reinstates capitalism, but with allegedly disastrous consequences. His furious grandmothers drag him to a remote space “not far from the center of the world” for a tribunal. Rifles trained, they discuss whether Scheidmann wouldn’t be better used as an archive for their fading memories. Eager to comply and forestall execution, he recites a “narract” a day. In an introduction to the French edition of Minor Angels,Volodine (a French writer of Slavic origins) explains the invented word as “a novelistic snapshot… forever oscillating between memory and reality… a short musical piece whose principal reason for being is its music, but also where those I love can rest for a moment before setting off once again on their journey towards nothingness.”
These forty-nine narracts comprise the book, each one telling something of a minor angel, a figment of the collective memory of who’s left—the immortal women, Scheidmann, animals, even the last representative of the capitalist underworld. Hardly definitive in a classic sense, the moments captured are disjointed but fluid. The prose proceeds haltingly, awkward and chunky, but also rich. When a relatively crisp vision emerges, like this description of a storm, “The air was full of mauve depths, now and then shot through with slow, snaking bolts of lightning, hairy, sluggish sparks, marble-like veins of ozone,” it feels like a miracle.
But the sticky, amber-like language preserves oneiric visions—bears giving birth, a mouse dropped into a speeding car, a man ashamed after ejaculating in his sleep. Sex provides no outlet here; it’s always a metaphorical and spiritual dead-end. In a world where the super-elderly threaten capitalism, this impotence makes sense. There are few connections, only the wonder of disconnects. No promises of regeneration, only aborted attempts. Volodine isn’t afraid to tangle animate and inanimate spirits, or thwart expectations. He delights in breaking down our well-honed meters of what’s supposed to happen. It is out of the shambles of these once-easy relationships that Minor Angels really soars.