Bardo or Not Bardo  by  Antoine Volodine  translated by  J.T. Mahany  (Open Letter, April 2016)  Reviewed by  Jon Bartlett

Bardo or Not Bardo
by Antoine Volodine
translated by J.T. Mahany
(Open Letter, April 2016)

Reviewed by Jon Bartlett

There is an assassin on a train at the beginning of “Schlumm,” the third story or vignette in Antoine Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo. On the surface, the set-up is familiar, almost hackneyed; the narrator is forced into a car by his agency, called “the Organization,” without any directions other than to send “a man back into the nothingness whence he came,” and he is sickened to “have to take out someone the same age as me and whose fate, deep down, could be compared from beginning to end with my own.” The killer identifies with the victim, and the stage is set for their struggle to the death.

But the narrator is unable to deny that he suffers from “identity problems”; he is unsure of who he is, and at first yields to the suggestion his intended victim Ingo Schlumm makes, that his name is actually Puffky. Later, the assassin insists that his name is not Puffky, but is rather Schlumm: Djonny Schlumm. The narrator has come unstuck not only from any assured selfhood, but also from any grounding in time or place. He mistrusts the scenery that spools by outside the train’s window, preferring to focus on the dried chewing gum, the dust and hair accumulated on the floor of the car. Hours pass between snatches of dialogue delivered by the rivals. The reader may wonder how these interactions could cohere into an authentic exchange in reality. The narrator, however, appears unconcerned: “It’s one of our hierarchy’s techniques, it rests on the conviction that, with each one of us perpetually lost in our own existence, there is no need to know where one is really going, especially when the vehicle in which one’s work will be carried out is being driven by someone else.”

By the story’s end, Schlumm has killed Puffky. Or Puffky has killed Schlumm. Alternately, Puffky and Schlumm may be the same person, one who “was doing research into the loss of individuality during the forty-nine days of death, the feeling of splitting in two that contaminates one’s journey through the first few hells.” For, true to its title, each of the seven related stories in Volodine’s novel may or may not take place in the Bardo, Tibetan Buddhism’s conception of the seven-week journey that all beings take between death and rebirth. In an interview with The Paris Review, Volodine discussed his admiration for the Bardo Thödol, the text meant to guide the deceased through the Bardo, noting that,

Although we don’t appropriate its religious folklore or mystique, we see in it an immense poetic space. Our characters are quite often dead from the first page of the books in which they appear, which is why they cross the fiction like the dead cross the undefined space-time that follows their mortal passing. In theory, after death one enters the Bardo, where there is no longer calm or agitation, up or down, hot or cold, reality or dream, memory or invention. Opposites cancel each other out.

As it happens, the rivals Schlumm and Puffky cancel each other out more than once in Bardo or Not Bardo. In a later story, titled “Puffky,” Schlumm willingly enters the Bardo, on a mission to gather intelligence on Puffky’s research into “the black space,” and the “length of the journey preceding rebirth.” The reader doesn’t know whether this is the same Schlumm—Schlumm is a common surname in Volodine’s fiction, and is ubiquitous in Bardo or Not Bardo—or the same Puffky. Identities dissolve, but missions, ideologies, and desires persist and repeatedly clash, their agonists sharing family resemblances, in life and eternally afterwards.

Placing his stories in the Bardo is not the only way that Volodine disorients the reader. Notions of stable narrators, or indeed authors, are also done away with in his fictional world. Volodine’s use of the pronoun “we” to describe his authorial persona above is telling, as “Antoine Volodine” is merely one of several heteronyms narrating the stories that form the writer’s body of work. These heteronyms all represent egalitarian revolutionaries imprisoned in concentration camps or asylums, and are all writers in indeterminate places and epochs. Volodine has published books under the names “Antoine Volodine,” “Manuela Draeger,” “Lutz Bassman,” and “Elli Kronauer,” but this set of names expands exponentially even when an author or narrator is named or otherwise identified, as oftentimes that identity will shift or change. (The Elli Kronauer mentioned on the first page of Radiant Terminus, for example, is not the author Elli Kronauer who has actually published five books of byliny in French.) We are to understand that the stories being told are passed around between these and other prisoners: through the walls of their cells, in smuggled samizdat, in published but pitifully neglected texts, at times through telepathy reminiscent of the mental time travel in Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée. This oral or written literature, distinct from any known literary tradition, is called “post-exoticism” by Volodine. These are collective stories, told and retold in a polyphonic fashion. In his essay “Post-Exotic Novels, Nȯvelles, and Novelists,” Volodine embraces the confusion this causes: “Who's talking? The question makes us smile. We half-shrug noncommittally. A few seconds of embarrassed silence go by. Because at the heart of it all, we're not very sure of the answer.” Any individual authorial identity is sublimated into the collective revolutionary continuum, much like each individual is gradually subsumed and rebirthed in the Bardo.

The very books we are reading, then, are examples of these smuggled texts; these are stories written not only by but for other post-exotic writers. Volodine asserts in “Post-Exotic Novels, Nȯvelles, and Novelists” that “our heroes are deeply integrated into the world around them and only talk to themselves and their kind.” We, as readers placed outside this hermetic fictional universe, are forced to forever feel as though we are playing catch-up. In Volodine’s 1998 novel Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, the persona called Iakoub Khadjbakiro explains it like this:

The true reader of the post-exotic romånce is one of the characters of post-exoticism. No author forgets that readers exterior to post-exoticism, exterior to the high-security sector . . . can venture into the post-exotic sphere. It is a perilous journey for them, with no chance of rescue, in the middle of obsessions and shames that none of their certainties at departure will help them to surmount. We see to it that they are welcomed into the closed world of the text and that they learn how to visit it without losing their sense of self.

Rather than alienating the reader, Volodine’s characterization of his real-life readers as “exterior” to his output creates, at least for me, a compulsion to keep reading and rereading his work. Not only can it feel like an exhilaratingly illicit activity, but as Volodine’s considerable oeuvre slowly trickles into English translation, different facets of his grand post-exotic enterprise cast new light on the works already available. References to the Bardo permeate post-exotic literature, but Bardo or Not Bardo’s explicit focus on this phenomenon, its peculiar Volodinian logic, its potential snares and confusions, illuminate the ten or so post-exotic texts already translated into English.

However, as uncertainties about author, about audience, about setting and character accumulate, it is possible for the overly rational or punctilious reader to feel lost while reading Volodine. Nowhere else in recent literature has John Keats’ celebrated notion of Negative Capability, which he defined as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” been more pronounced in the skills of a writer, or more required in the habits of readers. Keats, in his ability to inhabit mindsets and experiences foreign to him, was very much in thrall to Shakespeare; Keats admired Hazlitt’s assertion that Shakespeare was “the least of an egoist that it was possible to be.” Volodine’s success in dispersing his ego is estimable, as demonstrated by his ability to write in the style of several different personas, from the perspective of women, to write for children, and in his descriptions of animal or animal-humanoid consciousness. The mutability of identity is key to his project. In “Post-Exotic Novels, Nȯvelles, and Novelists,” Volodine describes his writing as “somewhat shamanic or bardic, and in this word, ‘bardic,’ we hear both the musical recitation of the bard and the nearness of the floating world of the Bardo. And by using the English title Bardo or Not Bardo for his original French edition, Volodine adds to these two connotations of the word “bard” the protean qualities of the Bard of Avon.

For the reader willing to take Volodine on his own terms, to follow the desires of his characters, whether real or dreamt, whether in life or in death, to their fatalistic ends, the pleasures are great and the humor is plenty. The sense of crossed wires, of failures to communicate, permeate Bardo or Not Bardo. The majority of its stories describe farcical situations where those in the Bardo, in this spiritual state between death and rebirth, either misunderstand their condition, strive to subvert its laws, or are misguided by the inept or malicious officiants charged with reading to them passages from the Bardo Thödol in order to guide the deceased away from the cycle of rebirth and toward enlightenment, or the Clear Light. The intrusion of the market also repeatedly threatens to debase this ostensibly spiritual journey. In “Dadokian,” the narrator archly highlights the presence of joss money around officiant Jeremiah Schlumm, allowing the dead to purchase essential comforts in the afterlife, but also “anything frivolous they happen to find on sale.” In “Puffky,” another Schlumm remarks on the dissonance between his theoretical Bardic studies and his actual experience in the Bardo in a manner not unlike that of a dissatisfied customer, complaining, “I was told there’d be colored visions.”

In “Glouchenko,” the protagonist is a soldier who refuses to believe that he has died. Fumbling in the pitch-darkness of the Bardo, confusedly calling out to the unrecognized officiant reading to him from the Bardo Thödol as “talking guy,” Glouchenko wastes his forty-nine days searching the inky blackness for a circuit breaker, feeling for nonexistent doors, and haughtily suspecting that he is the victim of a practical joke at the hands of his fellow soldiers. The officiant exclaims that, “This dead man, instead of preparing for his encounter with the Clear Light, is looking for a light switch!” A distinctly Beckettian episode finds Glouchenko answering what he thinks is a telephone, and speaking with Babloïev, a comrade whose death Glouchenko had witnessed before his own. The two men speak through this imagined telephone, when they are in fact meters away from one another in the Bardo. Eventually, the confusion, bleakness, and emptiness of the Bardo suddenly blooms into powerfully vivid imagery as Glouchenko, nearing the end of his journey, approaches a vision of copulating monkeys, the site and instance of his impending re-conception:

The clamors and hot silences, the jingling of drops on black puddles, the monkeys’ racket in the high branches, the dripping forest ambiance, the smells of wild beasts, of rotting wood, the mustiness of drey, the rasps of scales and chitin on everything, the vapors rising from the mud, the shrill grunts and juices of coitus, the odor of anthills. All of this surrounds Glouchenko.

The officiant laments that Glouchenko “doesn’t understand any of what’s happening.” Glouchenko’s inability to recognize his situation results in powerlessness over his fate.

Some wanderers in the Bardo try to subvert its laws; the pair in “Dadokian” are all too aware of, as a narrator in a different story puts it, “how stupid it is to fight and struggle to be reborn, only to die once again.” They wish to avoid re-entering “the world of prisons, asylums, rich people, and spiders,” but also want to hold on to their identities instead of obliterating them in the Clear Light. Dadokian and Schmollowski try to find a way to hide in the Bardo, to ignore their well-meaning officiants and surpass the prescribed forty-nine days. In desiring to live in the Bardo’s undefined darkness indefinitely, Dadokian wants something that Volodine persistently underscores the impossibility of finding: “a pretty little historyless corner.” Identities may perish in the Bardo, but material conditions appear to be eternal.

While officiants typically attempt to steer those in the Bardo away from reincarnation and toward the Clear Light (or at least away from rebirth into a lower lifeform), human failures and fallibility often corrupt the experiences of those in the intermediate state. One episode in “The Jellyfish Bardo,” itself a mise en abyme in which post-exotic playwright Bogdan Schlumm’s Bardic works are summarized, contains a further layer of complexity: two deceased miners in the Bardo are asked by their officiant to recite the Bardo Thödol to yet another man, who appears to be crushed under rocks. They begin enthusiastically, but this doesn’t last; “They start to despise the solicitude with which Waldenberg must be addressed, all the pomp and circumstance rolled out just to save him.” Envy turns to somnolent apathy, and their reading of the Bardo Thödol tapers off, leaving all three men rudderless in the Bardo. Another story recounted in “The Jellyfish Bardo” describes the intentional hijacking of the officiant’s role in guiding a dead person toward the Clear Light. Rape victim Verena Lang encounters the cadaver of Hoïgo Iougorovski, the man who attacked her, while beside his body a cassette plays the voice of a lama reading from the Bardo Thödol. Lang and her friend who is entrusted to guard the body both sabotage the reading; Lang torments the rapist, vowing that he “will know neither awakening, nor deliverance, nor rebirth.” The poetic justice of the attacked exacting revenge on her attacker in his afterlife is complicated, however, when the narrator posits that “it’s unclear if the two women haven’t actually fallen into a demonic universe where they must accompany the dead man or those like him in eternal castigation.” The episode highlights the sobering suggestion that, in Volodine’s universe and in our own, our transgressions, our injuries, and our resentments outlive us, or that it is through their continuance that we essentially continue living.

In “Last Stand Before the Bardo,” a former revolutionary named Strohbusch who now works for what is variously described as “the mafia,” “billionaires in power,” “social democrats,” and “the nouveau riche,” is goaded by a monk to care for the revolutionary proletarian Kominform, a man Strohbusch meant to interrogate, but who was mistakenly shot by one of his agents. Strohbusch is sent to retrieve the monk’s copy of the Bardo Thödol from his library, but, unable to read Tibetan, he returns with a cookbook and an anthology of surrealist writings. Making do with these reading materials, Strohbusch begins by reading a darkly humorous passage from the cookbook, a recipe for chicken that calls for “murdered chicken, preferably already plucked and eviscerated.” The recipe advises the cook to “attack its cadaver, cut off the joints, slit the body with scissors,” and eventually “wait for the ruined muscles and epidermis to change color in the fire.” Bewildered by this satirical vegetarian tract—or devious memento mori—Strohbusch reads from the surrealist collection, narrating nonsensical exquisite corpses into the dying man’s ear.

This is not the only time the concept of the exquisite corpse is invoked in Bardo or Not Bardo; in the story “Puffky,” Schlumm and Puffky conceive of the officiant’s voice reading to their corpses as a dimly glowing jukebox. The jukebox’s stories, lessons, and stage plays are interrupted by the occasional “daydream.” The machine “muttered exquisite corpses, producing surrealist sayings.” The exquisite corpse, a form of collectively composed writing where each participant is aware only of what came before their contribution, not what will come after, is a fitting metaphor for the experiences of the characters’ life cycles in Volodine’s post-exotic world. As characters struggle to resist the incarceration of capitalist oppression, before and even after death, their stories are picked up and retold, and their endeavors are rehearsed, narrated, and renewed by others. The prisoners and inmates of post-exoticism are never free, but they are never alone, at least in their literature: they quite literally finish one another’s sentences.

Perhaps this is why Volodine’s fictional world depends so heavily upon books; the only knowledge we have of this cosmos is mediated through the post-exotic corpus of literature. That literature is always in limited circulation. In fact, it is often described as virtually unread.

One of Volodine’s enduring themes is the difficulty of communicating through literature, the struggle for writers to find a readership, and the faith—or delusion—required for one to write at all. In “The Jellyfish Bardo,” this reads like a satire of the paltry audiences for even the most self-assured fine literature, and inability of artists to effectively navigate the commercial landscape. Playwright and actor Bogdan Schlumm, for whom “the absence of spectators was a phenomenon with which [he] had always coexisted peacefully,” makes an uncharacteristic effort to draw an audience to his outdoor, one-man performance. First, the writer hand-copies fliers, but neglects to include the dates of the event. Then, Schlumm distributes these eighteen or nineteen handbills by throwing them out of the window of his concentration camp dormitory. The next day, when he is only able to recover eleven of these, he surmises that some of them were surely scooped up by “interested people.” Schlumm takes the remainder of the soggy documents, crumples them up, and throws them into windows of the dormitory, later figuring that “the information had circulated, undeniably.” After this ridiculous attempt at self-promotion, Schlumm works himself up in anticipation of a large audience only to find himself performing to trees and birds, “hence his great bitterness.” Still, the actor’s faith in his purpose surpasses all evidence of apparent failure; after a performance in front of absolutely no one, Schlumm gloats over the quality of his acting, imagining that “he may have even gotten his message across.”

Antoine Volodine may finally be getting his message across to the English speaking world. After Linda Coverdale’s translation of Naming the Jungle was published in 1996, and Jordan Stump’s translation of the essential Minor Angels was published in 2004, new translations of Volodine’s body of work are increasingly trickling in via independent presses. From 1985 to the present, Volodine has published something above 40 post-exotic works, and has stated that the oeuvre will be complete when he has written forty-nine (the number of days one walks in the Bardo). Only about a quarter of these texts are currently translated into English, and J.T. Mahany’s rendering of Bardo or Not Bardo adds important dimensions to our understanding of Volodine’s project. That is not to say that this translation is without its flaws, some of which are put into relief when comparing Mahany’s translation of the “Schlumm” story with Brian Evenson’s 2010 rendering of the same. Across several texts and translators, Volodine’s prose retains a certain directness, but also at times an elegantly poetic concision. That directness is necessary, considering the deliberate, disorienting ambiguity of several post-exotic narrative elements. Therefore, for instance, when Schlumm uses a toe to activate a ventilator on the train, and Mahany translates this as, “the vent went off,” the reader may find himself re-reading in case he has misunderstood—after all, the ventilator appeared to already be off. If we are questioning elements of reality, of time and of space in the story, our awareness is keyed to noticing any anomalies in the minutia of the text. Evenson’s more direct, “the ventilator started” leaves us in no doubt about the rudiments of the action in the story, and frees us up to enjoy doubting more big-picture elements. In terms of Volodine’s poetic concision, a fair part of the language of Bardo or Not Bardo is of a piece with the rest of Volodine’s translated work. This, however, makes what strike me as occasional lapses in style or tone stick out more apparently. There is a clunkiness to Mahany’s sentence, “The scenery went by indistinctly behind the window,” especially when compared to the subtle musicality of Evenson’s “The countryside unscrolled vaguely behind the window.” Egregious lapses in taste are rare, but it is unfortunate that, when Volodine often chooses arcane terminology, the uncharacteristically modern colloquial expression, “That’s not how I roll,” attributed to Strohbusch in “Last Stand Before the Bardo,” occurs early enough in Bardo or Not Bardo to potentially skew expectations about the tonal palette of the text.

Bardo or Not Bardo greatly expands our perspective on Antoine Volodine’s fictional world. As a stand-alone novel or collection of thematically connected stories, the work is enjoyable and often hilarious. Taken as a piece of a slowly expanding whole, it is indispensable, opening up new insights into the post-exotic universe. Bardo or Not Bardo is a decent place to start reading Volodine, but true satisfaction will come from discovering what these texts have to say in communication with his others, in English, in French, and in a language and realm not yet accessible to mainstream readers.


Jon Bartlett is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has previously written for BookForum.


Banner photo by Philip Deslippe.