Book Review

Antoine Volodine’s comic novel Bardo or Not Bardo is named after the Bardo Thodol, which is commonly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This religious text is meant to guide the souls of the deceased toward enlightenment or a higher reincarnation. Volodine’s novel is set in a world of political totalitarianism and a Buddhist cabal which seeks to enforce religious conformity.

In the nine sections of the novel, Volodine shows how his characters fail to maneuver through the Tibetan afterlife, called the bardo, because of forces arrayed against them.In the first chapter a murder has taken place adjacent to the hen house of a Lamaist monastery. The murdered man’s name is Kominform, and he is found by Drumbog, a monk. Drumbog asks Kominform, who is just clinging to life, who shot him. He is told “old colleagues of mine . . . converts . . . they work for the mafia now, for the billionaires in power . . . social democrats and the nouveau riche and the like.” Kominform is a hunted communist, “a radical egalitarian, pursued by police worldwide ever since the world became exclusively capitalist.” His assassins were in hot pursuit and finally found their target at the monastery of the Flaming Lotus.

A colorful parade of characters arrives, trying to either help or hinder Kominform’s journey through Buddhist purgatory. People use Kominform’s death to express their own political, spiritual, or religious philosophies. All the while Drumbog, the monk, struggles to keep Kominform’s flickering soul steady so he can guide it to a higher incarnation. Despite the monk’s repeating lines from the Bardo Thodol into Kominform’s ears, his soul is distracted by earthly concerns, and he returns to the earth as a firefly.

In another vignette, a man named Glouchenko, a soldier, dies, but is unsure of his state. An unknown voice reads from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but Glouchenko is not aware that he is dead. Instead, he thinks he is in a dark storage space. All the while an announcer, aware of Glouchenko’s plight, provides a running commentary on his situation. Glouchenko is so distracted that he is enticed by a vision of “a couple of copulating monkeys. . . . He likes these monkeys; he suddenly feels powerfully attracted to them. He is filled with an urgent desire to be their son.” Glouchenko is overwhelmed, surrounded by the “shrill grunts and juices of coitus.” The announcer keeps track of the action, proclaiming that “he’s drawn like a magnet to the womb. . . . He’s walking toward it excitedly.” Glouchenko merges with the monkeys, and he “exists absolutely no longer. He is going to get to live again.” This time he won’t live as a person, but as a monkey. He has flubbed his chance at a superior reincarnation.

In Volodine’s world, the Bardo Thodol has firm control over society. There is a mysterious cabal, known as the “Organization,” that attempts to maintain the purity of the Buddhist purgatory. With its far-reaching and extralegal powers, the Organization does all it can to quash dissent. It pursues Puffky, a character with heterodox notions who denounces the whole Buddhist system, stressing the “ugliness of transmigration . . . the uselessness of prayer during the journey, the ineffectualness of religious knowledge. . . . And finally, the infinitesimal odds against anyone being reborn.” The Organization attempts to punish Puffky for his heresy.

Another association actively promotes the work of the monks. A Buddhist functionary named Jeremiah Schlumm, “a Buddhist lama from the Association of Red Bonnets Anonymous, a tantric mutual aid organization,” is commanded to chant the Bardo Thodol to a man named Schmollowski who, although not a Buddhist, read the text of the Bardo Thodol during his long years as a political prisoner. The lama talks to the dead prisoner, explaining that:

Twelve days ago, you exhaled your last breath in cell 2518, which was your home for three decades. . . . Every morning . . . I open the file the Association gives to me, and I speak to the photograph of you, the only one the Association possesses, where you can be seen handcuffed between two policemen.

Jeremiah reminds Schmollowski that he spent the thirty years in his cell like a mendicant, except for those moments when “guards would push door 2518 open to beat you and subject you to mock executions.” The monk also reminds Schmollowski that now that he is dead, “the world of egalitarian struggle, with its prisons and its innumerable defeats, this world is no more.” Despite Jeremiah’s diligence, Schmollowski is no more focused on spiritual guidance than Volodine’s other characters. Schmollowski, in fact, has been negligent about the status of his soul for some time. Jeremiah reproaches him:

Last week . . . the peaceful divinities presented themselves to you one after the other. And instead of dissolving into them to become a Buddha, you continued roaming around the bardo like a frightened animal.

Jeremiah’s charge is apt and can be leveled against all the characters in Bardo or Not Bardo. Flesh and its pleasures draw the dead away from enlightenment. They cannot become spiritual beings, but are doomed to return to a world of “prisons, asylums, rich people and spiders.” In fact, rather than a place of healing, Volodine depicts the bardo as an asylum for lost souls. So despite the title, this novel is distinctly “not bardo.” People’s souls are irrevocably damaged. In the end, this forces souls to return, once again, to the world of pain and suffering that hurt them in the first place.

Volodine’s novel is energetic, offbeat, fast-paced, and shows an off-kilter sense of humor. He writes with a comic purpose, populating his world with strange characters and inexplicable events and outcomes. This is a novel which places the absurd nature of life and death at the very epicenter of the human experience, and it is here that the novel achieves its pinnacle. There is no easy way out of pain and suffering in the world of Bardo or Not Bardo. Human frailty, weakness, and lack of resolve follow us even after we have cast off our fragile bodies. Volodine paints a clear picture of his vision of our physical and spiritual predicament in this well-crafted novel.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel and short stories.