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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Radiant Terminus

Antoine Volodine

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To purchase Radiant Terminus

Title: Radiant Terminus
Author: Antoine Volodine
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 468 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Radiant Terminus - US
Radiant Terminus - UK
Radiant Terminus - Canada
Terminus radieux - Canada
Terminus radieux - France
Terminus radioso - Italia
  • French title: Terminus radieux
  • Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman
  • With a Foreword by Brian Evenson
  • Prix Médicis, 2014

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Our Assessment:

A : absurd, appalling -- and splendid

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
l'Humanité . 9/10/2014 Alain Nicholas
Le Monde . 18/9/2014 Nils C. Ahl
TLS . 26/7/2017 Michael LaPointe
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2017 Rachel S. Cordasco

  From the Reviews:
  • "L'ouvrage peut dès lors se lire comme une fiction politique, un roman d'aventures, une histoire d'amour, voire une fable écologique, tout cela à la fois et bien plus." - Alain Nicholas, L'Humanité

  • "Comme irradié, ce roman mêle paysages et personnages, sujets et objets dans un même récit apparemment classique, où les frontières de la logique et de la perception sont peu à peu abandonnées. (...) L'immense talent d'écrivain d'Antoine Volodine est d'en faire un chemin romanesque aux pierres plates, jointes au millimètre, rectiligne et presque facile." - Nils C. Ahl, Le Monde

  • "Set as it is after the fall of an empire, Radiant Terminus reminds us that, for millions of people, the world is already post-apocalyptic. How else to describe the experiences of those who grew up in the aftermath of Chernobyl, or countless other disasters, upheavals and collapses ? In this sense, the future, too, can only ever be apocalyptic." - Michael LaPointe, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Radiant Terminus is at once a paean to the unquenchable human spirit and a horrific nightmare about a degrading and depressing immortality. (...) By the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve wandered across the bewildering landscape of Volodine’s own mind, and you’ll wonder if he had as much fun with you as Solovyei did with his creations." - Rachel S. Cordasco, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Radiant Terminus is set in a post-apocalyptic future, its terrain the vast expanse of the former Soviet Union -- in this case, also the former Second Soviet Union, as they had another go at it, with even more catastrophic results. The "first serious collapses of the Second Soviet Union" already lie a hundred years in the past, the future that was to be powered by the thousands of nuclear power plants and generators that were built to: "make each production plant, each city neighborhood, each kolkhoz self sufficient" undone because of the inevitable accidents and failures of the generators, rendering huge swaths of irradiated land essentially uninhabitable. Essentially, but not entirely.
       The novel begins with two men and a woman -- Kronauer, Ilyushenko, and Vassilissa Marachvili -- who had been fighting the fascist onslaught in the Orbise, a last remnant of the old regime and civilization, before fleeing as complete collapse threatened. They set out for and entered the true badlands, the "empty territories" (which of course aren't quite that empty) rendered largely uninhabitable by the undiminishing radiation. Theirs is a descent: "into the final nightmare" -- more so than they could imagine.
       As the novel opens, Vassilissa is dying, and the trio have taken cover and are observing a train that has come to a stop nearby. Kronauer eventually goes to get help, reaching the Radiant Terminus of the title, a former kolkhoz (collective farm) in 'the Levanidovo' whose nuclear reactor, decades earlier, had burned up -- and down, its core melting into the earth, leaving a hole some two kilometers deep, into which the remaining inhabitants still regularly make their offerings, feeding it. Radiant Terminus is the domain of Solovyei, rendered immortal and nearly all-powerful by the radiation; certainly near indestructible:

He always recovers. He hasn't been dead or alive since he was born. The radiation doesn't do anything to him.
       One man remembers Solovyei as: "The necromancer of the steppes", summing him up as:
This awful kolkhoz matchmaker, this reviver of cadavers, this horrible shadow, this giant impervious to radiation, this shamanic authority from nowhere, this president of nothing, this vampire in the form of a kulak, this strange man sitting on a stool, this abuser, this dominating man, this sleazy man, this unsettling man, this nuclear-reactor creature, this godless and lordless hypnotizer, this manipulator, this monster belonging to who knows what stinking category.
       As Kronauer recovers - to the limited extent possible -- in Radiant Terminus, Solovyei sets out to recover his comrades -- but Kronauer is told it wasn't possible, there was no one there. In fact, Solovyei did recover Vassilissa -- and has secreted her away, working on reviving her: the radiation kills, but it also allows for a state of survival, a 'bardo', an intermediate stage between life and death to which many of those still stumbling about have been condemned.
       Ilyushenko, meanwhile, joined those on the train, and the novel largely shifts back and forth between those two locales: the static Levanidovo, and the nearly constantly on the move train. Both worlds seem beyond the bounds of familiar reality (or physics and physiology, etc.).
       As Ilyushenko comes to realize about the train:
     We never fill it up with fuel, Ilyushenko suddenly thought. We never stock up. We go on as if we were outside reality. The locomotive could keep going like this for years.
       Some of those aboard do die along the way, but many ... well: "They aren't all dead, but claiming they're alive would be a bit much."
       Some individuals, however, are apparently of a different order, a different nature: Solovyei's one-time common-law wife, with whom he is reunited in Radiant Terminus, Gramma Udgulm, the feeder of the nuclear pit and a Soviet hero, for one -- but especially Solovyei himself:
What's for sure is that he was the complete master of Radiant Terminus. Nobody was permitted to exist in the kolkhoz unless he'd gotten control over them in the heart of their dreams. No one was allowed to struggle in his or her own future unless he was part of it and directing it as he wished. He transformed everyone ito something like puppets, and, so as not to be bored, he created puppets that resisted him or who could deceive him or cause problems, but, in the end, he was the one with the final say on everything. Radiant Terminus wasn't really a kolkhoz, it was more a theater to keep him from spending eternity yawning and waiting for the world to break down and, for those who lived in the village, it was a filthy dream they could never escape.
       He is particularly (and dangerously overly) protective of his three daughters, but even they recognize his (abuse of) power; as the middle one notes:
     — It's just theatrics, Myriam Umarik said. It's just a dream. His head skewered or not, doesn't matter. We're all neither dead nor living in Radiant Terminus. We're all bits of Solovyei's dreams. We're all ends and pieces of dreams or poems in his head. What we do to him doesn't matter to him. What Samiya Schmidt did to him that night is like a scene from a book. It doesn't count for anything. It's nothing. It'll pass.
       Solovyei's powers -- and designs -- allow for almost no free will, but his control isn't absolute -- or at least isn't implemented absolutely. Certainly, illusions of free will remain, and there are those who escape from his tightest grip -- but even beyond his more direct reach freedom is something of an illusion in this real-life (or what passes for life ...) nether-world. All are cursed -- some overtly, like the man Solovyei released to wander with tantalizing snatches of his memories, but never enough specificity (such as the name of his beloved) to allow any real satisfaction. Doom hangs over everyone and everything -- all the darker for the absence of easy finality: death -- the only true release -- comes to some, but many linger on and on and on in their bland misery.
       Radiant Terminus is also a novel of terrible violations. Solovyei's mind-games are intimate, personal violations of the worst sort, and Radiant Terminus includes several disturbingly vivid depictions of rape, both physical and metaphysical; some of these are truly shocking. Almost all those in these irradiated territories are terribly weak, and necessarily passive; fighting back is rarely possible, and a tired fatalism rules -- though there are occasional acts of unexpected physical violence. Most of the characters are the playthings of Solovyei -- but he plays like a cruel god with them ('as flies to wanton boys' comes to mind, in this very Lear-ish novel), on a long, long leash.
       Relatively little happens in Radiant Terminus. Weak, ill, passive, the characters rarely are able to rouse themselves to action. Indeed, much of the description involves their struggles with the most basic actions. Yet there are also grand, epic struggles and confrontations; there is true drama to the story, both in individual scenes and in the greater whole.
       Much of the novel -- which is divided into four parts -- takes place over a relatively short period of time (to the extent that time is perceivable in this other-world), and there is an arc of action centered on Kronauer: him leaving his two companions, spending time in Radiant Terminus, escaping (he spends time on the train as well), and then meeting his fate ("where Solovyei had predicted") -- though not yet with finality, as it turns out. But this is also a novel that, after staggering along fairly predictably -- time-unfolding-wise at least -- casually leaps forward:
• Then, like it or not, a hole of seven centuries.
       Yes, most of the final section takes places many centuries later, with the passage of yet another century or two barely causing a ripple any longer. This is, in fact, a thousand-year epic. The ravages of time do catch up with the remaining characters, and the locale. The nuclear pit doesn't remain unchanging, species that had thrived disappear, and even Gramma Udgulm begins to show some real signs of wear and tear. Among those remaining are Solovyei's three daughters, each terribly damaged in their own way, who reunite and find resolutions. Yet at the conclusion there are some still left, still "waiting for the end".
       The narrative occasionally slips into the first person, allowing for the individual, inside perspective -- but almost as if that too were too much to bear, too obviously like the overt control Solovyei so easily exerts, the bulk of the novel has the narrator omniscient. Of course, in a novel dealing so much with free will, and with the idea of being-in-the-character's-heads and controlling them, the question of authorship -- of control -- is always a prominent one. So also, one of Solovyei's daughters seeks a hold in writing, in trying to recall books she had read -- a struggle, both because of her difficulties in recalling the texts, as well as, eventually, being able to 'write' them (in some of Volodine's most impressive scenes).
       Texts are important: the train has its own library and there is considerable -- though often frustrated -- reading in the novel. Political correctness matters to many of the characters -- ideology must be upheld -- and many books that don't pass muster go up in flames. Amusingly, creator Volodine, himself famously heteronymic (i.e. inhabiting multiple (creator-)identities), playfully name-checks -- and consigns to the flames -- some of his alter egos here, too: Manuela Draeger's Herbes et golems (e.g.) and a book by Ellen Dawkes, one of the authors featured in Volodine's Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven are among the post-exotic works that go up in flames in the novel. Among the most significant authors is the (fictional) Maria Kwoll, militantly anti-male (whose theories about male sexuality seem, however, to be borne out by the casual rape-culture that seems prevalent in many of these parts).
       Radiant Terminus is classically epic: Shakespearean, Tolstoyan. Appropriately, Hannko Vogulian, Solovyei's oldest daughter, and the one who takes to (re)writing, is left as "the last living being to have any poetic activity" -- yet as such she is character who seems almost Homeric: a bard shaping an epic memory-tale, recounted rather than recorded. (Hers is also post-exotic work, down to the formal constraints: "she persisted in dividing her books into forty-nine chapters or even three hundred forty-three parts" -- just as, readers will note, Volodine has in Radiant Terminus.)
       Volodine's novel isn't so much an end-of-times dystopia of the dime-a-dozen sort found nowadays (catastrophe, apocalypse, bla bla bla), as a philosophical-literary exploration of the literal, at-infinity end of times. And it's a great success as such. No small part of that is due to tone and voice, a register captured just right in Jeffrey Zuckerman's translation.
       In its detail, Radiant Terminus is arguably dreary and bleak, and the novel is certainly long -- but, in fact, it is thoroughly engaging, the stories unfolding, and dosed out, at the perfect pace, making for actual suspense, even beyond the constantly intellectually intriguing premises. And while an all-powerful character like Solovyei can be difficult to handle (or, for readers, to put up with ...), Volodine deftly employs the puppet-master-man.
       This does seem likely to be the sort of book that not all readers will take to: some presumably want more action in their dystopian nightmare-visions (though Radiant Terminus is certainly vivid enough in those), some will be annoyed by Solovyei's powers (as if authors didn't always have the same complete and, whenever they want, arbitrary control over fiction-actions ...), and there will be readers for whom the violation scenes (and themes) will be too disturbing. Yet despite any possible objections, it's hard not to see Radiant Terminus as a truly grand work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 April 2017

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Radiant Terminus: Reviews: Other books by Antoine Volodine under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review
  • Other books from Open Letter under review

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About the Author:

       French author Antoine Volodine was born in 1950.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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