An Excerpt from Bardo or Not Bardo
By Antoine Volodine
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 under- stand 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 deter- mine 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 Bud- dhism. 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
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?"
I didn't respond, but, to tell the truth, I didn't think it was terribly funny. A little, certainly, but not terribly so. If I had had the chance to exchange a few words with Glouchenko, I would have preferred to reason with him without laughing in his face. I would have tried to make him admit that he was not the victim of a joke by his barrack mates, and that the situation was, at heart, much more serious. But, restricted to my role as an outside commentator, I had no way to make myself heard to him. Any communication between us was out of the question. I could certainly establish audible contacts, but not with him. Only with the manager of Studio One-Five-Zero-Nine. We spoke to each other over the radio when the waves transmitted.
I was on duty. I'm a reporter. I get sent to places my colleagues don't want to go, in general from fear of boredom rather than misfortune or death. I'm the youngest, so it's normal for me to get the drudgework. And now I've been assigned to report on the Bardo. I'm not complaining. The management decides where I'll go, and I obey. Everything must be explored, so that the radio public is not ignorant of any of the strange nooks and crannies in the world. On my professional license, there is my name, Mario Schmunck, followed by a mention of my grandiloquent way of thinking. Mario Schmunck, special correspondent. They could have simply written that I'm a journalist.
"Are you receiving me?" I said. "Hello, can you hear me? Am I on air?"
Before my departure, I'd been set up with a device in my ear, and another in my mouth, near my uvula, supposedly so it wouldn't get in the way. Communicating was a nuisance. It lacked power, parasites often made it inaudible. The Bardo is a part of the world, but wonders of technology don't work in it. Since I'd arrived, my wireless systems had been malfunctioning.
"Hello?" I repeated. "Studio One-Five-Zero-Nine, can you hear me?"
I got a response.
"Good," I said. "I'll start then. Four, three, two, one, hello. Mario Schmunck here, special envoy for the Off-Shore-Info Broadcast. I've been asked to do a report on what's going on here." (A pause.) "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 nor down, left nor right, nor any measurable flow of time. In any case, that's the first impression people have of it. People starting their walk through the Bardo." (A pause.) "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. He's already knocked over a stool, banged into a crate serving as a nightstand. He destabilized a shelf with a swing of his shoulder. He's basically blind. Now, he's heading toward a military trunk heaped with utensils and tableware. He's going right over it. He's going to trample it head-on."
The impact is violent. Some of the tableware is dashed to the ground. The aluminum dishes bounce and roll away.
"Dammit dammit shit goddammit!" Glouchenko shouts.
Several fragile objects are in pieces. Vials, phials. Medical equipment. Glouchenko howls. He's hurt himself, the shadows annoy him.
"He's back in the thick of it," Mario Schmunck comments. "He hit his right knee and toppled over, his arms swinging through the void. He's hurt. It'd be better if he just stood still, but the darkness puts him on edge, so he's agitated. He hopes he can find the basement. He'd like to place his hand on a circuit breaker, flip a switch, and get the power back on. So he started looking for a stairwell, some sort of passage down to the cellar. He has hardly any doubts about where he is. He's certain he's in a hospital dormitory or barracks. Barracks because he comes from a military universe, he was a second-class artilleryman before his death, he'd been sent to the equatorial front to civilize the Indian populations still hostile to the market economy. A hospital because his life ended in a medical post... in a nameless village, invisible in the forest... Anyway. Moving on. This Glouchenko doesn't think for a second he's nowhere, and that he's just begun his journey through the Bardo. He's convinced there's a power outage. He doesn't understand that he's dead."
Glouchenko makes his way through the scattered objects. Not incautiously, he shuffles his feet on the ground as he walks. He doesn't have shoes, he is wary of glass shards, he doesn't lift his legs. A metal plate accompanies him for a meter. He's not walking on a wood floor. In any case, there aren't any creaking boards.
"He doesn't understand that he's dead, no, not at all," Mario Schmunck insists. "Like most of us, such a thought doesn't even occur to him. The information has been given to him, however. He receives advice and explanations from a man speaking to him from the world of the living." (A pause.) "You know, it seems quite simple, from the outside looking in, to pay attention to what a monk is murmuring in your cadaver's ear. But in fact, no, it's not so simple. You keep on. You imagine you're in the dark, you're still alive, and you're the victim of a bad prank. You refuse to believe the evidence."
Glouchenko is obviously hesitating in the darkness. His steps are heavy. You can easily imagine his clumsy movements, his crude, almost animal, stature, his absence of grace.
"He's like a deaf man being serenaded with patience and compassion," Mario Schmunck comments. "This dead man, instead of preparing for his encounter with the Clear Light, is looking for a light switch! He keeps his hands on the wall as he walks, his only thought getting down to the basement. His name is Glouchenko, he is thirty-five years old, he led a normal life..."
Far away, the Tibetan horns trumpet anew, and, much closer, a gong tolls. It emits a melodious, prolonged note. A superb note. It would make anyone want to join a monastery to hear it again, at any hour, day or night.
During this time, the special correspondent consults his file on Glouchenko. He turns the pages of a spiral notebook. Details abound, like in a police dossier. Mario Schmunck came prepared.
"I'll summarize Glouchenko's life," Mario Schmunck announces. "Primary school, professional school, military service..."
The paper swishes as the journalist wields it.
"I'm just going to skim through this," says Mario Schmunck. "Obviously, I'll have to pass over some details... Delivery driver after the army... Buddhism attracts him momentarily... He pursues an education in a lamasery for eleven months, as if he were destined to become a monk, then gives it up... Often changed jobs between twenty-two and twenty-five... Duck killer on a duck farm... Gang of friends... Bad crowds... Dropout laborers, subversive groups... Radical propaganda, egalitarist speeches... Participates in a supposedly revolutionary heist... Eight years of reeducation with a strict diet... Prisoner's medal for an endurance competition... New gang of friends from the camps... Social reintegration... Chicken killer on a chicken farm... Then he forgets all that, he enlists in Auxiliary Forces... He's sent to export democracy to an equatorial district... Forests, swamps, creeper vines, giant centipedes, malaria, Cocambo Indians to subdue... In reality, he doesn't have the time to get to know the country, or murder a single indigenous person. Just arrived at base camp, he helps unload a seaplane... A supply crate explodes... Biological weapons, apparently... Glouchenko catches a deadly plague... It was thought he had been vaccinated before leaving, but he hadn't. And then, yesterday, he died..." (A pause.) "A completely unremarkable life... Short, mediocre, incoherent..."
I don't consider it useful to always say what I think, because it's often shocking.
But I say this.
"A shit life," I say.
A pause. Distant horns.
Translated from the French by J. T. Mahany.
Excerpted by permission from Bardo or Not Bardo, published by Open Letter.
Published April 16th, 2016
Antoine Volodine is the primary pseudonym of a French writer who has published 20 books under this name, several of which are available in English translation, including Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (also available from Open Letter) and Minor Angels. He has published 22 other books under the names Lutz Bassmann (We Monks & Soldiers) and Manuela Draeger (In the Time of the Blue Ball). Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the "post-exoticism" writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements. Together, these works constitute one of the most inventive, ambitious projects of contemporary writing.