7 May 2015

Antoine Volodine: Bardo or not Bardo (2004)

Antoine Volodine – who had a Russian grandmother and has translated some Russian books is often mentioned in the same context as Fernando Pessoa because of his heteronyms: Elli Kronauer, Manuela Draeger and Lutz Bassmann. In 1987 his Rituel du mépris – published the previous year – won the Grand Prix de la science-fiction française, although Volodine has been eager to dissociate himself from any literary genre. He calls his writing 'post-exotique', and far from associating with Pessoa, whose voices are distinct stylistically and in terms of genre, Volodine's voices – while different from each other – say the same thing but at different moments.

This is my first Volodine book, so I can't possibly hope to understand what this very prolific writer is trying to do. But I appreciate first of all the playfulness of the title Bardo or not bardo, the French title of his book which obviously alludes to Shakespeare's internationally known line from his character Hamlet's soliloquy 'To be or not to be', and of course a second allusion is to the 'Bard' himself.

Bardo or not bardo is in seven sections, none of which is so much sequentially as thematically linked: 'Bardo' refers to the em>Bardo Thödol, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, according to which the newly dead spend forty-nine days in a kind of limbo. That is seven weeks, to which the seven sections of the books relate, after which they will enter the womb of a person or an animal and become reincarnated, or (ideally) they will have lost their individuality, their ego, and attained nirvana.

The trouble – or the fun, and Volodine's book is nothing if not funny – is that in the writer's political wasteland the communists, anarchists, bankers, murders and other criminals refuse to play the game and choose to adopt another incarnation, thus rebelling against the lamas' wishes for extreme self-negation.

Reincarnation as a human is not so easy to attain, and Glouchenko – in denial of his death – is compelled when the time comes to re-enter life as a monkey: not anything like as bad as becoming a spider like Dadokian. Oddly, there is something of the Beckettian in this world where ex-long-term convicts and ex-mental patients meet – dead, in the Bardo before coming to life again as something horrific, although the burlesque easily wins over any existential anguish. And something else that's odd: Volodine sounds like a drug. But he hasn't exactly got me hooked yet.

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