Eccentric tale with a tragic dimension: The Buddha’s Return
Russian writer’s whacky but charming novel has shades of Dostoyevsky
The Buddha’s Return
Gaito Gazdanov, Translated by Bryan Karetnyk
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.
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.