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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Solo Viola

Antoine Volodine

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To purchase Solo Viola

Title: Solo Viola
Author: Antoine Volodine
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 99 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Solo Viola - US
Solo Viola - UK
Solo Viola - Canada
Alto solo - Canada
Alto solo - France
Alto solo - Deutschland
Solo de viola - España
directly from: University of Minnesota Press
  • French title: Alto solo
  • Translated by Lia Swope Mitchell
  • With a Foreword by Lionel Ruffel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative take on contemporary totalitarianism

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Solo Viola opens:

     This is the story of a man. Of two men. Actually, three.
       In fact, the short novel continues to snowball: we're soon told: "This is also the story of a bird", then: "but in fact, this is the story of two birds", then: "This is also the story of a clown" -- and it doesn't end there. Eventually:
     The story gets complicated here, because a writer gets mixed up in it, and when he can find nothing good about the world from any perspective, thewriter, Iakoub Khadjbakiro, takes his paper and transforms the fabric of truth.
       Of course, a writer has been mixed up in all this from the start, the actual author -- whose method seems similar to Khadjbakiro's:
     In his books, Iakoub Khadjbakiro's usual process was to replace the hideousness of current events with his own absurd images. His own partial hallucinations, both troubled and troubling. Most of the time, although obviously not always, he obeyed the rules of logic. He depicted the contemporary world, he reflected his personal experience in his words, he examined his generation, how they had sabotaged themselves by giving up and letting go.
       Solo Viola is set in totalitarian Chamrouche, the state in the hands of the Frondists who: "controlled the show from behind the scenes", with puppet-parties only nominally in charge. The Frondists are led by Balynt Zagoebel -- "the most solid, the most shrewd, the least susceptible to pity, of all the cogs in the totalitarian machinery".
       Solo Viola has three parts, the first and second set in the afternoon and evening, respectively, of 27 May; a short third part, an epilogue of sorts, is set a month later, on the morning of 27 June. The novel opens with three men being released from prison -- conditionally, but still surprisingly, "for lack of space rather than good behavior". They are significant figures in the story, and their reïntroduction into society helps give a picture of this still-increasingly totalitarian world. Among their encounters as they proceed through the day is one with a cellist who invites them to a concert that the string quartet he is part of will be giving that evening; the music they will be performing is by composers hated by the regime, denounced as degenerate.
       In the second part of the novel the narrative switches to the first person, offering less sweep but also a much more focused intensity, especially as events close in on this narrator. The action centers around the evening's concert, which the regime and especially Balynt Zagoebel go to great (and in part quite creative) lengths to undermine, a disturbing picture of totalitarianism slowly turning the screws. The final section, taking place a month later, presents a small slice of the aftermath, focused on the cellist and the writer.
       Solo Viola is thickly populated, including by many groupings, such as the former prisoners, the string quartet -- which includes the solo violist of the title --, circus folk, and, of course, the Frondists. The significant figures extend beyond the human, too: "This is also the story of a bird", and birds and flight, as symbols of freedom, figure prominently in the tale -- not least in their opposition to the Frondists; indeed, year's earlier: "Balynt Zagoebel's wife and son fall in an ambush, pecked to death by birds".
       If the first part of the novel is dominated by small groupings, the second, around the planned concert, is a mass-scene, pitting, essentially individuals against crowd -- Balynt Zagoebel the exception, as manipulator of the crowd beholden to him, its head rather than a separate entity. Volodine's depicts the dangers of mass-populism, where: "A mysterious collective impulse activates minds and steers them toward the worst"; the echoes of Nazi methods and excess come to mind first, but his vision sadly extends far beyond it to much resembling more contemporary scenes.
       It's a neat, dark little novel, and particularly good at depicting the hopefulness of resistance while also acknowledging how much is so easily and readily crushed. The experience is much as how Volodine describes that of reading his fictional author's work:
     Reading one of Iakoub Khadjbakiro's novels often means traveling with no safety equipment, in grave danger, across the hauntings and shamings of our time, into the heart of what other people repress and deny. Into the heart of Chamrouche's bad dreams.
       It's a worthwhile journey; Solo Viola is a fine small piece and example of Volodine's larger post-exotic project.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 June 2021

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Solo Viola: Reviews: Other books by Antoine Volodine under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Antoine Volodine was born in 1950.

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© 2021 the complete review

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