Bardo or Not Bardo [Excerpt]
In support of Antoine Volodine as our featured “Author of the Month,” throughout the day we’ll be posting excerpts from the three books of his Open Letter has already published. (Next week we’ll run excerpts from forthcoming ones . . . )
Next up is Bardo or Not Bardo, translated from the French by J.T. Mahany.
Remember, if you use the code VOLODINE at checkout, you can get 30% off of all Volodine books. (Offer valid until midnight 1/31/2019.)
Brass horns. They can send a very deep note over an enormous distance, across the valley when there are mountains and a valley, when there is a rocky landscape, full of abrupt fractures and sparse grasses. That’s what we hear first. Lamaist, Tibetan horns. That’s how the book begins. It’s an unusual sound, but one heeded without reserve. Straightaway we know that this vibration is a part of ordinary life and death. We like it immediately. It invades the world, the body’s bones, flesh and images and even the dead mired in the body’s folds, and it is soothing. That is what the first, the very first, sound is like. Soon after, a collective murmur arises. It spreads nearby, as if it were taking place within an assembly more interested in long prayers than anecdotes or pointless narrations. The voices are indecipherable. A ceremony is underway, in a language that does not seem to be our own. In any case, we understand it a bit less than our own.
Then comes a silence.
This happens several times: horns thunder, voices blend into an incomprehensible address, then comes a silence.
I then hear the voice of the soldier Glouchenko, and this music, these noises, diminish. Soon they stop entirely.
“Is someone there?” Glouchenko asks. “Did someone say something?” (Silence.) “What are those . . .”
He gropes around, an iron cup scrapes on a shelf and topples over into the void. It clatters violently against the ground.
“They’ve cut off the power, the bastards.” (Silence.) “Hey! Is anyone there?”
No answer. Absolute darkness surrounds Glouchenko. So thick, so black, it feels like ink running through your fingers. Glouchenko doesn’t dare move. He’s never felt at ease in the dark, he’s a little potbellied, not very skilled with his body, he’s afraid of causing a disaster. He wipes his moist hands on his pants.
The chorus of murmurs picks back up. It’d be difficult to determine its point of origin, where in space. It is simply there, in the background to the dark. One voice is now detaching itself from the rest, becoming more distinct. The language hasn’t changed: still more foreign than our own.
I don’t think I can say I recognize this voice, since it has been depersonalized by the demands of the ritual, and flattened by its journey through the dark space. Despite all that, some of its inflections might remind me of something. A long time ago, I met a man who wished to dedicate himself to the exploration of magical universes. That man’s name was Schmunck, like mine, with a different first name than my own, Baabar. My first name is Mario, but that’s not important. Let’s say that the voice I’m identifying here is Schmunck’s. So as not to complicate the story, we’ll say that I recognize it. It’s a solemn, controlled voice, like those that frequently resonate in monastery meditation rooms.
“Oh noble son,” the officiant says, “you who are named Glouchenko, the time has come for you to find the Way into the Light. Your breathing has just ceased, your body has already begun to cool. In the life you have left behind, you received a military education, since you were an artilleryman, but you also received a religious education, long ago when you were infatuated with Buddhism. You spent several months in an ashram and were told many times about the Clear Light. Now that you are currently neither living nor dead, wandering through the Bardo, which is to say the world that serves as a link between life and rebirth, you will come into contact with the Clear Light.
“Come to your senses, noble son, you who are named Glouchenko. Remember the lessons the priests passed on to you. Prepare yourself. I am here to help you. I am the monk speaking into your cadaver’s ear. I am going to guide you to your confrontation with the Clear Light. You are now going to find yourself with a choice: turn to enlightenment and become Buddha, like many brave souls before you, or pursue the foolish and painful wandering of the living, who travel ceaselessly from birth to death, then from death to rebirth, without consolation or respite . . .”
“What the . . .” Glouchenko says.
In the established silence, he cautiously advances two or three steps. He has no landmarks, save for the iron cup that fell in front of him earlier. The cup bumps against his foot. It gives him some small confidence. He pushes it as he moves.
“There’s a guy talking somewhere in the dark,” he states.
The cup rolls. It slips out of his reach. He shuffles carefully right and left, but can’t find it. He’s lost the cup. He stops walking.
“Hey, talking guy!” he shouts. “Show yourself! Did you turn off the dorm lights? Well? I can’t see a thing, it’s darker than night in here . . .” (Silence.) “And what’s this cadaver business you keep talking about? I heard you mention a cadaver. I’m not deaf. What’s with this cadaver and Clear Light business, huh?” (Silence.) “Hey, boys! Where’d you all go? Hey! Where’d you all go, you lousy . . .” (Silence.)
Glouchenko has come to a halt. He is not normally a cowardly sort, but he is disoriented, and afraid of bumping into an obstacle, or being swallowed by a hole again. By an ordinary hole or an abyss.
“Or maybe,” he mutters, “there’s been a short circuit, and the lazy slobs are pretending to sleep so they won’t have to go down to the basement. Hey, guy who was talking a minute ago, would it kill you to go change the fuses? Are you pretending to be asleep now too?” (Silence.) “Fine. I get it. Glouchenko has to take care of it himself.”
He starts walking again. If we listen, we can recreate his slow exploration of the dark. He collides with an obstacle. He lets out an exclamation of pain. He mutters.
“Dammit,” he says. “You really can’t see anything. Finding the meter’s not going to be easy. There must be an electric meter near a door or in the basements. A circuit breaker. Gotta find a door, to start. A door or some stairs.”
In the distance, the splendid lamaist horns sound out. The officiant’s voice follows. It is suddenly clear and distinct, going straight into the skull as if it sprung directly from memory.
“Oh noble son, Glouchenko,” says Schmunck. “I repeat this into your cadaver’s ear, I will not stop repeating it over the next few days, before a photograph of you, or your clothes once your body has been taken away, or a chair in which you used to sit: the time has come for you to find the Way into the Light.”
Schmunck’s profound bass begins to grow weaker.
The speech is becoming an unintelligible rumination.
“I can’t find a thing,” Glouchenko complains. “No doors, no stairs . . .”
I suppose Glouchenko advances by groping at the space in front of him. That doesn’t stop collisions. He bumps into things standing in his way that had gone undetected by his hands. Low pieces of furniture, stools-turned-nightstands. Sometimes he snags objects by accident. The objects fall and break.These incidents exasperate him.
“What is this place?” he grumbles. “The walls don’t have windows. Those jerks must’ve moved me while I was sleeping. They took me out of the hospital dormitory, they moved me here, to this . . . I can’t figure out what this place is . . . They must have waited for me to start snoring, I mean I am a pretty heavy sleeper . . . Good job, boys! That’s a smart prank!” (Silence.) “Unbelievable how dark it is!” (Silence.) “They’ve been hiding somewhere the whole time . . . They’re watching me, laughing quietly, those idiots . . .”
“So you think this is funny?”