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

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

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
The Buddha’s Return


Gaito Gazdanov, Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Pushkin Press

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Another policeman, Inspector Prunier, admits to being far more interested in zoology. “He went into a veritable lyric ecstasy when he began on Australian fauna.”

The arrests sequences each have a touch of Kafka about them. Gazdanov presents Pavel Alexandrovich, the one-time beggar, as an individual possessed of a soul. He and the narrator, having formed a friendship, begin to meet regularly and engage in metaphysical discussions.

“Just think” says Pavel to the narrator one night, “here [Paris], every stone is dripped in blood. Wars, revolutions, barricades, crimes, despotic regimes, inquisitions, famine, devastation and this whole historical gallery of horrors . . . Europe is like a murderer, haunted by bloody visions and remorse, just waiting for even more state-led crimes.”

Their conversation is ordered and deliberate, contrasting with the abandon of the narrator’s visions.

Pavel, who also experienced war in Russia, had been an officer. He is drawn to Buddhism, hence the Buddha of the title. His Buddha statue is standing not sitting, and the narrator is struck by its expression of “austere ecstasy. . . I just kept staring at it, unable to tear myself away, forgetting where I was.” This sense of dislocation pursues the narrator throughout; it is as if he is living in an alternative world slightly beyond the story, which may well be Gazdanov’s intention.

A bizarre trio has formed around the newly wealthy man which includes a young woman with a dangerous past. The story romps along, readable and enjoyable, if very obviously written in instalments. It suffers by comparison to The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, with its greater cohesion and psychological thrust, in which the narrator is haunted by his wartime guilt.

Gaito Gazdanov, who wrote more than 50 books, few of which have yet been translated into English, is a fascinating writer; his personal story led him to Paris, after his father and both his sisters died. Born in St Petersburg, he had moved to Siberia and later the Ukraine with his widowed mother. He had, as mentioned, fought in the Civil War. On arriving in France he tried to study by day and work at his writing, while driving a taxi by night.

Whereas his near-contemporary Nabokov, whom he reviewed, moved on to the United States and became a major presence in US fiction, Gazdanov remained in Europe and was limited to being published in émigré journals. He eventually moved to Munich and presented a literary programme on Radio Liberty, a station apparently funded by the CIA. He died in 1971 and is buried in Paris.

The Buddha’s Return has a tragic dimension – that of the vivid images of war as well as the cynical murder, which is perpetrated off-stage. Gazdanov, presenting his narrator as a flawed – if likeable – and decidedly nonheroic character who gains materially from the crime, then sets him off on the trail of the girlfriend he had abandoned three years earlier. At her former dwelling he is greeted by a well-briefed older woman who asks: “Are you the lunatic?”

Slight, overwritten The Buddha’s Return lacks a true sense of purpose, yet it has its moments and a certain whacky charm.