INTERVIEW WITH LE NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR
ABOUT CHAOS BRÛLANT ( BURNING CHAOS )
Translated by Robert G. Margolis
Le Nouvel Observateur: How do you feel after a year deep inside the head of Dominque Strauss-Kahn?
Stéphane Zagdanski: I will not keep from you that 2011 was almost as painful for me as it was for Dominque Strauss-Kahn. As if the title of my novel had decided to turn my existence into a burning chaos. To give you only one example, an enormous fire completely consumed a storage facility in Gagny, in which I had some furniture and, especially, irreplaceable archives. And this is not the worst of what happened to me ! Proof, if such is needed, that certain books magnetize the world around their author, for better as well as for worse.
Advance notice of this novel surprised more than a few people…
For some time I had envisaged writing about Money, about the specie of madness it symbolizes and incites, and especially about its disastrous avatar, contemporary Finance. DSK’s misadventure is only of interest as a symbol of the economic catastrophe which today is swallowing up the entire planet. This, what I call the “genocidal management of the world,” is the real subject of Chaos brûlant. If in 1967 Debord denounced the “merchandise-future” of the world, today it is necessary to evoke the “financial-market-future” of the planet. Then came the DSK affair and its lunatic media coverage, which says a lot about the latest changes in the Society of Spectacle. The extravagant role that Twitter has played, for example. As a result, and out of necessity, examining for myself the mind of DSK, I saw that his life had been organized in a spiral around recurrent cataclysms since the horrifying earthquake in Agadir [Morocco], during his childhood, on February 29, 1960, which he and his family survived.
What part of the novel is fiction and what part of it is non-fiction?
First principal: all of it is public. I do not invent anything about the protagonists’ private lives, even if I give attention to some little known details. Everything is available in biographies, speeches, soundbite compilations, including the often ordurous sayings of Sarkozy which I comedically dramatize. DSK’s fascinating relationship to chess (and hence to failure!) is completely true. It is the same with regard to Benjamin Brafman, DSK’s attorney. The story of his family’s survival of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, his long impassioned talks in synagogues in which he speaks about those who died in the Shoah. No one was interested in this mystical aspect of the “Mob lawyer,” even though it is all plainly discoverable on YouTube. Chaos brûlant is also a novel about the unrestrained, rampant use of the Internet, a main cog in the machine of Spectacle today. As for the portion of it which is fiction, it consists in my mixing it up in the heads — and, we may call it, the madness of the characters. And what better general neighborhood than a psychiatric unit in which to examine the alienation of the world and the lunacy of the puppets who believe they actually govern us!
Have you read l’Enculé (Motherfucker) by Marc-Edouard Nabe, which also is about DSK?
It is a big piece of shit, as its title indicates. The titles of bad books also can be revealing of their destiny. Nabe’s is to be literally fascinated by shit. I know him better than anyone, and especially better than he knows himself. He has never gotten over or forgiven my long, detailed description of him in my novel Pauvre de Gaulle! [Poor de Gaulle!]. In a rage, he burned the unpublished manuscript of his Journal intime [Private Diary], in which I appeared in a flattering light, for we had long been best of friends. My literary portrait of him revealed all his demons against the Jews — and, as a result, against me, whom he regularly insulted in between two gesticulations of narcissistically dilapidated self-promotion. Basically, Nabe is useful only as a burlesque character for a novel. I already have the title for it: Punchinello in a Rut (laughter). But his punishment, for being so poisonously bitter and mean, is that I no longer give any time to his laughable case as the “little buffoon of Venetian comedy,” which is literally what is last name Zannini means.
Your novel had to be reviewed by some quite good lawyers…
It went through several re-readings, in fact. I had to omit several passages which, if there were a lawsuit, would have put us at risk of immediately losing. For instance, I had a minutely detailed, even very poetic, description of DSK’s penis at the moment he thrust it between the lips of Nafissatou Diallo. It was imagined, of course. Now, it would seem, this constitutes a “characteristic attack on his private life.” This is unlikely if we consider that his sex life is not a secret to anyone in the world…And, in principle, I respect the private life. Even if, as The Situationists ironically said: “We ask: “From what is the private life private? Quite simply from life, which is cruelly absent from it.” This fits poor DSK like a glove or, in this case, like a condom…
The narrative of the scene in the Sofitel hotel room had to be a particular concern.
It, especially, was quite amusing to write. But I tried to remain impartial, thus the novel contains two strictly different versions: the one a rape, which is Nafissatou Diallo’s version, and the other an assignation between consenting adults which went bad, which is DSK’s version. Here again, either one writes all of it or one writes nothing, and thus as much as censures one’s own book. Even the lawyers in the end had to admit the profoundly literary dimension of Chaos brûlant, including the descriptions of the “real” scenes, which, in the final analysis, are only hallucinations experienced by my schizophrenic narrator.
The character of the madman—was it to protect yourself?
On the contrary, I can even say that I invented it in order to test and to endanger my own mental health. In fact, while writing, I did not think at all about readers’ reactions. I laughed a lot, and it seems to me it cannot be denied that Chaos brûlant is the funniest novel among this year’s somber selection of Rentrée Literature… It happened that I was in Montreal, in April 2010, to give a talk on Franz Kafka, and one morning I saw, passing by in the street, a guy tattooed head to foot with a skeleton. I was amazed by this demonstration of incarnate nihilism, gallantly proclaimed, inked into the skin itself. I immediately took out my notebook, resolving that he would find his way into one of my novels. Now, while I did invent the sad adventures of Bag ‘O Bones — my narrator who also is tattooed head to foot with a skeleton, the guy from Montreal was discovered by Lady Gaga, appeared in one of her videos, and in no time at all ended up becoming world famous! He made commercials, marched in parades, went on television, was seen everywhere…It is another sign, like the fire in the furniture storage facility, that certain novels possess a kabbalistically efficacious influence on reality. A true book foments the world. This could be a Hassidic saying!
To come back to the scene in the Sofitel hotel room, you explain the variations in Nafissatou Diallo’s version as due to a “Peul Uncertainty Principle.” What do you mean by this?
Getting myself into the head of Nafissatou Diallo, and thus into Peul culture, its language, its beliefs, its sayings, confirmed for me the great spiritual nobility of speech which is current throughout Africa. When an African tells you about something, whatever it is, he does not “report” it; he recreates it. It is a form of improvisation, like in jazz whose living wellsprings, as you know, are African. If you ask a Peul the same question twenty times, you will get twenty different responses. Nafissatou Diallo came late to the West; she does not see nor does she speak about the world as an American. It may be that she was raped, but her characteristically Peul rapport with the spoken word fundamentally disserved her, because she was facing New York City cops who, when they ask you what you were doing between 12 and 12:36 PM, do not allow any embellishment to the answer.
Your depiction of DSK revolves around an earthquake from which he escaped, while a child, in Agadir [Morocco].
On February 29, 1960, the town is destroyed in a few seconds; thousands are dead, but the Kahn family — Dominque, his parents, his sister and his brother survive. My idea is that the earthquake in Agadir at once devastated him and gave him his foundation; an earthquake, lasting ten or twelve seconds, during which man-made constructions, some of them several centuries old, completely collapse. Moreover, this happened in the final minutes of February 29, a phantom day which then disappears from the calendar for three years. Whence my idea that on this day a dybbuk, a kind of demon in the Jewish tradition, possessed little Dominique Now, the Jewish texts say, when a dybbuk takes possession of a human being, it makes him “mad, irrational, vicious, corrupt”: a perfect metaphor for the prevailing neoliberalism!
You say that DSK “carries the earthquake (seism) within him.”
Confronted at the age of ten years with an experience of the violent, sudden swallowing-up of Time, DSK desires only to flee and to enjoy sensual pleasures; the two attitudes amount to one and the same. The greatest thoughts of the 20th century consist in meditating on the relationship between Being and Time, and in Judaism too this is a millennial primordial question. Now, DSK is a fugitive sensualist, who fears nothing so much as the passage of time. Both through his IMF “master of the world” lifestyle—his incessant zig-zagging across the entire planet, the mollifying and vacuous speeches which mean nothing and change nothing, and through his neurotic passion for the latest technologies, constantly exchanging one for another. Someone who owns seven cell phones and sleeps with his Ipad is not in the ideal spiritual position to mediate on Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. But this consubstantial impatience is also a sign he is haunted about the earthquake and by the earthquake. If we follow his career, each time he attains the summit, everything falls apart at his feet. The National Students’ Mutual of France imbroglio, the Jean-Claude Méry tape, Piroska Nagy [with whom DSK had an affair], Nafissatou Diallo… Most extravagant is that he starts over each time…then plunges back into the same behavior. On the morning of May 14, 2011, he was still regarded as the smartest man in the world, the chess master who always sees fifteen moves in advance of his opponents…Then he slips in a puddle of sperm just two steps away from the Élysée! Even admitting that the hotel housekeeper was consenting, he had to be nearly as stupid as George Bush Jr., to let himself go like that, when there is such paucity of a sense of political strategy. Essentially, DSK showed himself that day to be “as cunt as a dick.” I very much like this typical french slang phrase, a bit vulgar certainly, but which shows respect for the parity of the genitals. DSK is so literally influenced by catastrophe that his libido itself is cataclysmic. In contrast, he responds superlatively in real earthquake situations: he did wonders after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in just a few hours; even if, alas, the usual Third World corruption swallowed up all that money. Again, an abyss devouring its own emptiness…
You show him to be a man absent from himself. In the Sofitel hotel room, he asks Nafissatou Diallo: “Do you know who I am?”
Yes, which is logical since what he constantly flees from, into luxure, is first of all himself. When he declaims: “Do you know who I am?” to the hotel housekeeper, no doubt he means: “Don’t be afraid. I am a powerful man; you won’t lose your job.” Now, extraordinarily, this is a sentence spoken by King Lear, who also loses everything through a sentimental blindness, and who asks the question: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
In your novel, we meet Bobby Fischer, the pathologically anti-Semitic chess champion. Can the media hysteria surrounding the DSK Affair be explained by a revival of a fantasy about the Jews?
I do not think so, even if all anti-Semites saw in it the confirmation of their most rot-infested convictions. These certified imbeciles would see the machinations of Jews in the eruption of a volcano in Iceland. In reality, the global fascination with DSK’s personal disaster is explained by the fact that he is the embodiment of our time, mixing Sex, Politics, Economy, the Media and the most banal human destitution. With regard to Bobby Fischer, it did not interest me to get inside the confused and paranoid mind of an anti-Semite, even one who is an admitted neo-Nazi, no matter who it is. Anti-Semites are all, without exception, of a boring, tedious perfectly sheep-like uniformity. There is nothing much new from Haman to Ahmadinejad, not to mention the French “anti-Zionists” who believe themselves to be very subversive while they trot out the same several centuries old crap. Bobby Fischer’s case is distinctive, and therefore interesting, for several reasons. First because he was as absolutely a genius at chess as he was psychotic in life. After all, besides Voltaire, Dostoevsky and Céline, there are not that many genius anti-Semites. The other reason, sad and touching, is that Bobby Fischer was as Jewish as DSK or myself!
Nicolas Sarkozy appears in the novel. For a long time, DSK was presented as an antidote to ‘Sarkozysm,’ but you seem to think the two men have something in common.
Yes, starting with the fact they both are “handled”, that is manipulated, by spokespeople, the famous spin-doctors, who are nothing but mythomaniacs: compulsive-liars-for-hire. Today this is required for any politician whatsoever. When a politician answer “yes” to a reporter, there is a spin-doctor behind him who tells him how to put together the letters Y-E-S. Whatever one may think of de Gaulle — and God knows I have little sympathy for him! — he was a crafty man still nourished by classical rhetoric. And besides, de Gaulle had one undeniable quality: he had contempt for money. We cannot say as much for Sarkozy or DSK. They are not men inhabited by the Word; they are puppets of Number. Their language is the moronic gurgles and belches of Financial Markets: “AAA, BBB, CCC”…Hence it is most logical that Sarkozy, who expresses himself like a crude street peddler, once declared the French AAA rating a “national treasure” and classic novel La princesse de Clèves devoid of all interest!
And yet, DSK, this man sensitive to seismic activity is among those who did not see the financial earthquake coming…
Yes, for, to put it bluntly, it is an Abyss which has become the other face of the world. DSK is merely a straw man of neo-liberalism. He is not in the least the bogglingly brilliant economist that the spin-doctors complacently describe him to be. He has never produced anything; we are still waiting for his Nobel Prize that he vainly predicted for himself in his twenties to his school friends. He is merely a classical Keynesian-Schumpeterian; any first year Economics professor knows as much as he does. Basically, he is a phony for whom, in the proper sense of the verb, words count for nothing. He is not inhabited by the Word — which is the contrary to Nafissatou Diallo. From this point of view, spiritually, he is not much of a Jew. One has to choose between studying the Torah and getting it on with prostitutes all the time! His last speeches as head of the I.M.F are ridiculous stupidities. He spent his time saying that everything is getting better, that the global governance will take care of everything, that he is optimistic about Greece, etc. This is not even cynicism; he just doesn’t give a shit. His desire is elsewhere, in his passion for chess or in his texting: “I am bringing a petite to tour the Vienna clubs.”
“An Abyss which has become the other face of the world.” What do you mean by this?
This is the main theme of Chaos brûlant: Finance is not a corrupt part of modern society: it is the whole society. It represents the insane and dehumanized other-side of the world, which today has taken possession of the entire planet. Its reign is one of devastation, the reason for which I evoke a “catastrocracy” in Chaos brûlant. This catastrocracy, which combines Economy, Propaganda, Crime and Technique, was not born yesterday. It clawed its way into the 20th century with the great mass murders, already connected to the 1929 Crash (without which Hitler undoubtedly would never have seized power), computer-aided mass murder, as is revealed by IBM having its first machines in the Nazi extermination camps. I tell about all this in Chaos brûlant, which concludes with the humorous episode in which “Watson,” the latest IBM super-computer tyrannically seizes power at an I.M.F. cocktail party. Now, this “Watson” super-computer was recently acquired for a small fortune by—I’ll give you one guess—Citigroup, the largest financial institution in the world. Which is as much as to say that the Greeks, and ourselves along with them, have not seen the last of their trouble from it. Goldman Sachs’ lackeys will make them pay by hammering them with non-referendums guised in a fabrication of “democracy”. In this way do the demagogic rationales of politicians serve only to mask a domination more tyrannical than all the human despotisms ever to have arisen thus far. Humanity today is completely under the control of this nihilism unleashed by Finance. There always has been a close relationship between domination and devastation. There is little doubt about this after the Nazis, Stalinism and Maoism, but neither Hitler nor Stalin had the means to melt the Ice Shelf and materially put the Earth in peril. Since Marx we have known that the capitalist empire is coming to its end. What we did not know is that it would take the planet down with it in its own shipwreck, and especially that this empire coming to its end would be not so much America as it is that gigantic open air prison, whose polluter-guards are seated on a colossal heap of dollars, known as China.
Lastly, what do you think about DSK? In your novel there is a feeling of both pity and hostility…
He does not interest me as human being, unlike Bobby Fischer, for example, who could administer a good beating in chess in less time than is needed for a premature ejaculator to ruin his reputation… For me, DSK is a collection of sentences, of situations, of reflections. He is only the logo of neoliberalism. That he is also a public figure, there is nothing I can do about that. I did not stick my nose into his private life. It is he who invited himself into mine with his grotesque ejaculation in front of the world. In any event, I do not feel any hostility toward him. He is from now on one of my characters, hence my creature. As for the real DSK: may his sperm rest in peace.
Interview by David Caviglioli.
Translated by Robert G. Margolis
 Stéphane Zagdanski puns here on échecs and échec, the French words for, respectively, chess and failure (translator’s note).
 L’Enculé includes the word cul, ass; trou du cul is French for asshole (translator’s note).
 To which the Fool replies: “Lear’s shadow.” (translator’s note).
 Used here as a demeaning word for a young woman (translator’s note).