Bardo or Not Bardo, by Antoine Volodine

Antoine Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo (translated by J.T. Mahany) is another book for the “what the fuck did I just read?” files. The summary on Goodreads makes sense: seven chapters show seven different characters (many of them named Schlumm) fail to achieve enlightenment while traveling through bardo and end up being reincarnated back on earth. I was initially attracted to this book because the review I read said this book was a humorous take on characters struggling in bardo; I was hoping for something a bit like Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job or Secondhand Souls. This book is nothing like Moore’s work. It’s too weird and disjointed for comfortable reading. There were some parts that made me chuckle, but mostly this book just bewildered me.

Bardo, to briefly define it, is a period of 49 days after death. Buddhists have that long to come to terms with their death and exit the cycle of rebirth or get reincarnated. The Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Death contains instructions that are to be read to the dying and already dead so that they can avoid the demons that might distract them from enlightenment. This book is repeated to characters throughout Bardo or Not Bardo, but they usually fail to hear or understand it. In my favorite vignette, the recently dead can hear his lama reading it, but ignores the advice to try and stay in bardo and avoid the whole nirvana/rebirth rat race.

I suspect I would have to know a lot more about bardo, the Bardo Thodol, and Buddhism in order to glean the full meaning from this collection of linked vignettes. There were parts where I was pretty sure I understood what was going on. Most of the time, I was just rolling with whatever Volodine was putting on the page and hoping that it would eventually make some sense.


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