Lutz Bassmann is not Lutz Bassmann. That is to say, Bassmann is not a flesh and blood author who needs sleep and food and who makes semi-regular bowel movements. Lutz Bassmann isn’t real. He’s an imaginary author invented by the French writer Antoine Volodine, who is, we can only assume, a real-life being who actually does eat snacks, go to the bathroom, and write books.
To understand the intention behind We Monks & Soldiers, we must also understand why Volodine would create a work of fiction written by a work of fiction. What does this extra layer of guise add to the book itself? It is a method that calls to mind some of the playfully Dadaist identities assumed by Bob Dylan, like “Jack Frost” or “Sergei Petrov,” co-writer of the movie Masked And Anonymous, in which Bob Dylan stars as “Jack Fate,” who, of course, is really Bob Dylan. Volodine, too, keeps a stable of fictitious writers, each with his or her own interests, flaws, and voices. But more than just an empty accumulation of artifice, the method seems to be a way to emphasize the freedom of uncertainty, and it’s a move that fits thematically with the collection.
Weighing in at under 200 pages, We Monks & Soldiers is a slim book. And it’s better that way. Composed of seven interconnected stories, the work combines nebulous atmospherics with taut, professional control. It begins with the story of an errant monk, dispatched to exorcise spirits from an abandoned beachside home. But when things begin to go wrong (or do they?), Bassmann simply moves on to the next story. In this short time, however, Bassmann establishes some very important themes that will carry through the rest of the book.
One of these themes is ambiguity. We’re not exactly sure what sort of world the monk is living in. It’s not the same world that we live in, but it does rhyme with it. There are roads and beachfront property, for instance, but there’s also a sad sense of monotonous detachment that marks Bassmann’s world as being entirely its own. As the monk says when introducing himself to the reader, “Let’s call me Schwahn. Names and nicknames make useful labels, but they don’t tell you much. There’s more or less nothing behind them.” Of course, this is a clever nod towards the Volodine/Bassmann authorship, but it is also a fundamental pronouncement on ambiguity. In fact, it’s an ambiguous statement about ambiguity.
Mood is also important to the collection. The mechanics of creating mood depend upon the author keeping a fully realized world, complete with a cohesive emotional timbre, in her mind. Everything that happens has to participate in this new reality, and when the author mentions characters or locations, their relationships to each other, however disjointed, must be communicated without being made explicit. In We Monks & Soldiers, this reality is one of loss, desolation, confusion, and despair. There is a sense that civilization has ended, and the best we can hope for is gloom.
Gloom may not seem like a common mood for us, here, but for Bassmann’s characters, it is the atmosphere of broken worlds, an ever present fact of reality. It is the mood of the spy who finds himself on the coast of a dingy, vaguely East Asian town for unknown purposes. It is the mood of political radicals using strange mantras to will new realities into existence. And it’s certainly the mood that reverberates as the monk at the beginning of the book undertakes his strange rituals.
Ambiguity and gloom blend in this collection of stories to work the reader into a wonderful confusion. But it’s a useful confusion, one that expresses something fundamentally true about the world. And to add a bit to it, Volodine isn’t a real name either.