Ever goofy, ever surreal French novelist Volodine (Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, 2015, etc.) rewrites the rules of Tibetan Buddhism, using characters that might have been drafted from the second string of Waiting for Godot.
Bardo, as Laurie Anderson’s recent film Heart of a Dog reminds us, is a kind of limbo where the dead await reincarnation for seven weeks, a place where nothing much happens while the soul gathers its wits and chooses its next earthly vehicle. Volodine turns this on its head: plenty happens, even if the departed can’t quite suss it out. “The Bardo,” says one Babloïev by way of helpful explanation to the recently dead Glouchenko. “The intermediary world. We’re going to float and walk around here for forty-nine days.” Unimpressed, Glouchenko, apparently a devotee of slang, replies, “Cut the crap. You’re barking up the wrong tree if you think you can just jerk me around.” It turns out, as another intermediary, Mario Schmunk, notes, that poor Glouchenko has been dead for four weeks and, thick as he is, still hasn’t gotten around to realizing it, prompting a mysterious voice to cut through the fog: “It is high time that you liberate yourself, Glouchenko! Make an effort, Glouchenko!” Glouchenko is not an effortful fellow, though, which may just get him reborn as a monkey. Neither are some of the other denizens of the Bardo, some of whom take Bardo as an excuse to have a nice nap. In this vignette-layered novel, Volodine explores a fruitful premise throughout, namely, that if some of our lives are thoughtlessly lived and some of our deaths downright embarrassing, why should not death be thoughtless and shameface-making? Just ask Big Grümscher and Little Blumschi, “the kings of laughter,” clowns who aren’t laughing so much now that the monks are shouting out sutras from the Book of the Dead….
Funny, humane, and sympathetic to the silly creatures we humans are. The Dalai Lama himself would probably approve.