Eccentric tale with a tragic dimension: The Buddha’s Return

Russian writer’s whacky but charming novel has shades of Dostoyevsky

Offbeat appeal: Gaito Gazdanov

Offbeat appeal: Gaito Gazdanov

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
The Buddha’s Return


Gaito Gazdanov, Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Pushkin Press

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It is all made a bit too easy. With the narrator’s opening statement: “I died. I have searched long and hard for the right words to describe what happened, and, convinced that none of the usual, familiar terms will do, have finally settled on one associated with what seems the least imprecise of realms: death.”

He, or rather the author, Russian émigré writer Gaito Gazdanov (1903-1971), then elaborates, albeit slightly: “I died in the month of June at night, during one of my first years abroad.” Vague, dangerously given to wordy speeches and slightly unhinged, the narrator then begins to describe, at length, falling, with the lucid exactness associated with nightmares.

After such a theatrical introduction something of a story begins to emerge. The narrator is a student, and it seems possible that Gazdanov may be about to offer a variation of Crime and Punishment, if only as a homage of sorts. Yet although the Dostoyevsky-like intensity is quickly abandoned for a more coolly conversational tone – this student is living in Paris, and his most pressing problem is a tendency towards bizarre fits – the presence of the earlier Russian master lingers in a suitably eccentric way, as this is an eccentric novel.

The Buddha’s Return was originally published in instalments between 1949 and 1950, in a New York-based Russian-language journal; Gazdanov was denied publication in Russia. This edition comes within a year of the acclaimed version of Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, also translated by Bryan Karetnyk.

It is exciting, although The Buddha’s Return is nowhere near as good as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. It is far more loose, at times even hastily executed, and fails to make as effective a use of Gazdanov’s desperate experiences as a boy soldier during the Russian Civil War. That said, it has an offbeat appeal and flashes of black humour.

There is a powerful sequence about midway through when the narrator appears to collapse in thrall to what he refers to as a visual memory:

“Before my eyes appeared the two glass circles of my field binoculars, through which I found myself observing a cavalry attack bearing down upon us – that is, my comrades and me – during the war in Russia. I could see the cavalrymen approaching in close formation, the rapid, rhythmic undulation of this live mass of horses and riders; watching with baited breath, unable to tear myself away, it revealed the seemingly irresistible power of youth and muscle . . . With a feeling of profound pity I took the binoculars away from my eyes, for the riders were already two hundred metres away and at any moment artillery and dozens of machine guns would open fire on them. Moments later waves of them would be mown down, and on the scorched grass of the rolling field would lie only corpses and the dying.”

Dramatic yes, if somewhat gratuitous.The narrator, still a student in Paris, has been out for the evening in the company of an older man to whom he had given a small amount of cash, some two years previously, when the then stranger was begging. But all that changed when the man’s older brother, a wealthy businessman died, leaving his riches to him. The older man is enjoying his new comfort but has remained philosophical. It is this quality that runs through the narrative.

However erratic the narrator appears – and he is erratic – he is presented as an intellectual, or at the very least, a functioning thinker, not really a man of action. When he is arrested for murder, the police investigator interrogating him remarks on the notes for an essay that the suspect had been writing on the Thirty Years War: “I must say, however, that I completely disagree with your conclusions, and in particular your appraisal of Richelieu.” It’s that kind of novel.