Bardo or not Bardo review: the beautiful, lonely cycle of life

Antoine Volodine’s strange, funny stories explore human existence and death

Bardo or not Bardo
Author: Antoine Volodine, translated by JT Mahany
ISBN-13: 978-1940953335
Publisher: Open Letter
Guideline Price: £10.99

Bardo is, according to Buddhist philosophy, the 49-day period after death and before rebirth, when the soul, if instructed correctly, can avoid rebirth in another form and instead move towards the Clear Light and achieve the peace of avoiding endless life cycles. Around this central scenario, Antoine Volodine writes seven different stories.

His book is a hugely impressive imaginative feat. He creates worlds and atmospheres that are strange and unique yet thoroughly believable: “The indivisible darkness reigned. . . a series of moonrises over the black plains, over the colourless powdery dunes, and moonsets over tarry horizons far removed from compass points. But here, no star.”

Everywhere there are beautiful, evocative descriptions of Buddhist temples, of jungles, and everywhere references to prisons and zoos and asylums – the enclosures of being. There is a sense of continuum, as if the seven stories are one whole story – differences are real yet unreal . . . hard to define . . . different tones and emphasis, yet the same. There is an element of playfulness in this, added to by playfulness with sense of time – in the story Puffky time seems to shrink and expand, aided by descriptions of strange areas and zones. Places and actions are constantly, vividly, set amongst dark expanses of space and time. . . . the void vividly brought to life.

At times it is reminiscent of the visual brilliance of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or cities at night, as seen from a long haul flight, the encircling blackness clearly visible, emphasising the islandness of light, the island states of being.

The fourth story, The Bardo of the Medusa, is laugh-out-loud funny. The year is 1342 and Bogdan Schlumm is performing plays (although he is most probably in some sort of psychiatric institution and it is not 1342). He is performing in the middle of a forest with no audience (in a parody of artistic purity) and as a result he regrets that "only a handful of minor invertebrates, slugs or others, in general devoid of literary savvy, were witness to this brilliant performance".

He plays all the roles himself, hence the Medusa of the title – one body, many heads. This multiplicity of identities is consistent with a post-modern inquiry – post-modern questions of illusionary fixed identities explored through Buddhism’s claims of the illusion of the self.

Different characters with similar names appear through the stories in a sort of reincarnation from story to story and indeed Volodine is one of this novelist’s three pseudonyms. There is the meta-commentary: “Her name, like mine, was Maria Henkel. She was there to describe reality, not to take part in it.”

In a synopsis of one of the plays within a story – The Coal Company – two miners are buried underground, doomed to certain death. They must try to guide a third miner, Yano Waldenberg, who is already dead, through the Bardo. They in turn are instructed by a lama-ist priest, Bandzo Grimm (there is a fantastic anarchic fun to the nomenclature throughout), who has to convince them that engaging in this religious activity will not compromise their anarchist beliefs.

In The Coal Company Yano Waldenberg's legs stick out from a pile of collapsed rock like an inverted Winnie, from Becket's Happy Days. Indeed many of the landscapes and atmospheres are ones that would happily accommodate Beckett characters. Death hangs over all – made as real a presence as the sky over all scenes, over all our lives.

Beckett's work may be looked at as a response to death as a constant fact, an every-minute experience of our lives, as opposed to a mere background phenomenon; and so this book achieves a similar focus. It could have easily been titled Life or not Life, in that it uses the exploration of the Bardo to reflect on our living and to focus on the reality of death. This central comic story acts like a fulcrum for the three stories on either side of it, which mirror each other. Its overtly comic quality is deliberate: humour as a strategy to ward off the terror of death. (The final story involves the suicide of a clown – the phrase "clown carcass" appears – a wonderful summation of this theme). The translation, by JT Mahany, has brilliantly captured the humour.

The book incorporates elements of science fiction, noir, thriller, and post modernism into a unique style that completely transcends its pollinating genres. It is a very funny novel that is at times poetic and moving; at heart a book of ambitious seriousness.Throughout there is reference to political struggle, contrasting it with the aim of non-existence – to literally “give up the struggle”. The opening story has communism and its transition into gangsterism as a backdrop while the last story weaves in background transmissions of Nazism and the Holocaust.

The attempted communication between the living and the dead is central and is echoed and mirrored, by the communications from radio transmissions to the living. In the final chapter, At The Bardo Bar, the characters listen to a Korean music programme. For those in the know it is "now a traditional dance . . . For others, it's just lovely music that can be listened to for hours because it's rhythmic, because it's beautiful, and because they are extremely lonely."

A wonderful book.

Kevin Gildea is a comic, writer and critic.