Antoine Volodine’s superb post-exotic novel Solo Viola imagines a society that’s one step removed from reality. With a narrative spiced up by absurdity and a dead serious message, this is a brisk, engrossing, and phantasmagorical take on tyranny and curbed freedoms.
Taking place over a single day, this timely, universal novel is split into two parts. Its first half plows forward in amusing fits and starts, introducing a host of characters: a trio of paroled prisoners who have good reason to loathe the government; a mercurial viola player, Tchaki; an anthropomorphic bird fleeing the authorities; a rebellious clown; and a horse thief who gets brainwashed by political rhetoric. Looming over them all are the Frondists, the all-seeing and all-knowing ruling party that governs the land with a cruel fist, subjugating minority groups like the negs. When Tchaki’s string quartet schedules a recital featuring pieces by neg composers, it sets off a devastating chain of events. These are chronicled in the story’s second half, which is told from the point of view of Iakoub, a writer who himself specializes in the post-exotic.
Volodine’s arch, knowing prose chronicles a world that’s a fun house mirror image of our own, where hygiene patrols stamp out dissents, chance encounters between characters lead to comedy and calamity, and the political powers-that-be ally themselves with a local carnival for a rally that’s fitting in its buffoonishness. By its second half, the novel moves beyond satire into tragedy: Tchaki’s concert is interrupted by Frondist sympathizers, and all the narrative threads converge in a violent climax that ups the narrative intensity to a fever pitch.
Haunting and elegiac, Solo Viola has its share of whimsy, but it’s all in service of an earnest meditation on the dangers of fascism that lingers long after the story is concluded.
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