Book Review: Antoine Volodine’s “Bardo or Not Bardo” — Seriously Spoofing the Afterlife

One reads this strangely engaging book, like Volodine’s others, with a sort of knitted-brow amusement.

By John Taylor

Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine. Translated by J. T. Mahany. Open Letter, 165 pp., $13.95.


In my earlier article about Antoine Volodine for The Arts Fuse, I defined this French writer’s “vast, baffling, haunting fictional world” as consisting of some 40-odd titles published by “Volodine” (b. 1950), whose name is actually a pseudonym, and by at least three other heteronyms, Manuela Draeger, Lutz Bassmann, and Elli Kronauer. “About half of these books are written for young people,” I added, “while some twenty others are, to use Volodine’s own ‘post-exotic’ terms, shaggås, romånces, novelles, interjoists, murmuracts, and narracts.”

Here we go again with Bardo or Not Bardo. It is a heady sequence of seven interconnected “novelles”(?) in J. T. Mahany’s fine translation. In case you’re wondering, the French title is also Bardo or Not Bardo and the French original was published in 2004 by the Éditions du Seuil. And in case you’re still wondering, the title, in its droll Hamletian formulation, refers to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thodol), though probably not also to Brigitte Bardot. (Yet no options should be dismissed out of hand when reading Volodine.) Regarding the Tibetan connection, the word “bardo” refers to an “intermediate state” between life and death (and death and life).
Early in the book, the term is explained by way of a radio report given by Mario Schmunck, the “special envoy for the Off-Shore-Info Broadcast”:

“We are currently in the Bardo. What is the Bardo? It’s not easy to define without resorting to complete nonsense. Since I’m addressing non-specialists, I’ll simplify. Let’s say that it’s a world before life and after death. It’s a floating state in which those who have just died awaken. A state or a world. Floating, either way.” […]

“At the moment, it’s very dark,” says Mario Schmunck. “There’s neither up no down, left nor right, nor any measurable flow of time. […] People starting their walk through the Bardo. […] Him, for example. This man here, this freshly deceased man is named Glouchenko. He can’t see a thing. He’s moving slowly, cautiously, through the shadows, but he’s a bit clumsy, and keeps bumping into obstacles…”

This “Bardo” limbo state is also “a part of the world,” as Schmunck specifies, and it is certainly pertinent to a narrative that opens with the execution of the main character, Kominform. He has been shot behind the library of the Lamaist Monastery of the Flaming Lotus. Also called Abram Schlumm and Tarchal Schlumm, Kominform is a “radical egalitarian” who is “pursued by police worldwide ever since the world became exclusively capitalist” and who has sought asylum in the monastery.

The word “Kominform” means, of course, the Soviet-dominated organization (1947-1956) of European Communist Parties founded by Stalin; and  journalist Mario Schmunck works, conspicuously, for Off-Shore-Info. As elsewhere in Volodine’s extensive oeuvre, “dissidents” like Kominform are not anti-communists persecuted by communist regimes, as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during long periods of the twentieth century, but rather “post-exotic” communist-like writers who are hunted down because of their anti-capitalist ideas and publications, as well as their occasional anarchistic or terrorist activities.

Now that these narrative ground rules have been reiterated, please do not think that Bardo or Not Bardo is essentially a political tract directed against contemporary capitalism. Volodine’s writing is much subtler, much droller, much more intricate and much less graspable than facile protest prose or poetry. The author constantly plays with literary genres, including dissident literature, science fiction, thrillers, mystery novels, and academic criticism. Bardo or Not Bardo especially parodies The Book of the Dead. Readers knowledgeable about Tibetan Buddhism will find numerous parallels, including the existence of “seven” stories. Some Buddhist schools notably hold that the intermediate Bardo state lasts “seven times seven days,” that is forty-nine days. Some and perhaps all the characters in the book are in fact “floating in the Bardo,” as is stated at one point.

Moreover, the overarching “plot” — if that’s the word — linking the seven stories involves questioning of one’s very desire for reincarnation; that is, one’s resolve to exist (again). This is the “to be or not to be” dilemma implicit in the jocular title. Rather poignant emotions stem from the discouragement of some characters, even if their avowals still have the tip of Volodine’s tongue in their cheek. “It’s unbearable, really,” complains a character named Schmollowski, “to have be reborn. To have to reintroduce yourself to the world of prisons, asylums, rich people, and spiders.”

Photo: EditionsVerdier

Author Antoine Volodine — One reads this strangely engaging book, like his others, with a sort of knitted-brow amusement. Photo: EditionsVerdier.

One moving passage stages a scene between Schlumm and Puffky, two characters who recall Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

At present, there were few notable differences between Schlumm and Puffky. Schlumm had aged, his shoes had split apart, his clothes and even his skin had taken on the indistinctly ragged hue that without fail betrays the inhabitant of inescapable tunnels, the guest of what Tibetans, in their fictions, call the intermediary world, claiming, quite wrongly, that it is enough to wander there for forty-nine days to be reborn in the hereafter or beyond. Schlumm was now huddling against Puffky, as if Puffky had always been his best friend. He was no longer holding onto his legs. The heat of the space had defeated him, as well as the appalling idea that there was no womb at the cellar’s end, and so no hope of getting out. Whatever the length of eternity might be, he was going to have to get through it with Puffky, without being reborn and without understanding a thing, grasping at echoes he would have to pretend to identify and adopt and love like they came from his own head.

Doesn’t that last sentence sum up what life can seem to be like? Having to get along with others, for a very long time, and without understanding a thing in our midst? With Bardo or Not Bardo, Volodine has produced another serious spoof on “the principle of verisimilitude on which it is customary to lay every narrative murmur.” One reads this strangely engaging book, like his others, with a sort of knitted-brow amusement. Mixed with one’s chuckles is the uncomfortable feeling that the parallel netherworlds he describes so memorably perhaps accurately define the genuine “outskirts,” in our real world, “where the human subconscious hates to venture.”

Originally from Des Moines, John Taylor has lived in France since 1977. He is the author of the three-volume collection of essays, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction Publishers), and has translated books by many French and Francophone poets, including Philippe Jaccottet, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, Jacques Dupin, Georges Perros, and José-Flore Tappy. Forthcoming from Seagull Books is his translation of Pierre Chappuis’s Like Bits of Wind. John Taylor’s website.

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