When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, by Quan Barry

Quan Barry’s outstanding new novel, When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, is a perfect example of one of the reasons I read fiction. In this engrossing story, we walk along (sometimes literally) with protagonist Chuluun as he, accompanied by his twin brother, two fellow Gelug Buddhist monks, and a woman servant from a monastery in Ulaanbaatar look for the resurrection of one known as the One for Whom the Sky Never Darkens. It’s a journey full of doubt and questions and dharma and, just maybe, enlightenment. This book is so beautifully written, so realistic and so human, that I was nearly moved to tears by the end.

Twenty-three-year-old Chuluun has lived in a Buddhism monastery in remote Mongolia since he was a child of seven or eight. Chuluun tells us—and shows us in flashbacks—that he ended up at Yatuu Gol because the rinpoche believes that his twin, Mun, is the reincarnation of a great monk known as the Redeemer Who Blows the Conch in the Darkness. Chuluun is scooped up with his brother as the Servant to the Redeemer Who Blows the Conch in the Darkness. Yet, we know from the beginning of the novel that Mun rejected life as a monk and relocated to Ulaanbaatar. Mun’s resistance and occasional disdain for Buddhism becomes an important antithesis to Chuluun’s quest. In Gelug Buddhism, as far as I can, tell, great spiritual people are sometimes reincarnated as tulku. The Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas, and hundreds of others are tulku. When one of these men or women is about to die, they leave clues as to where they will reincarnate. It is up to others to find them. Children believed to be tulku are tested to see how much they remember of their previous incarnations. If they pass, they are folded into Buddhist monastic life. As we see with Mun, it can be a bewildering, frightening, and stressful existence that shouldn’t be foisted onto anyone who doesn’t understand what it means.

Unlike Mun, Chuluun is a believer, although he is wracked with feelings of unworthiness. No matter how hard he strives, Chulunn still feels flashes of sexual desires. He wavers between returning to Yatuu Gol, where he will need to defend his faith and take on the mantle of full priesthood, or giving everything up to live in the secular world. There is a lot of pressure on Chuluun to become a fully-fledged Buddhist monk. Even though this book is set somewhere around 2015 (I think, I’m not sure of the math), Buddhism is only recently emerging into the light after decades of Stalinist repression. Not only is Chuluun fulfilling his own destiny, he’s also a representative of his faith in a newly democratic nation.

Mongolian landscape, 2005
(Image via Wikicommons)

Around all this rich characterization and narrative, Barry draws us a living portrait of rural Mongolia. As Chuluun narrates (all in the present tense, which is an amazing way to incorporate his efforts to live in the present into the text), we visit not only Ulaanbaatar, but the shamanic nomads of Khövsgöl Province, the Muslim eagle hunters of Bayan-Ölgii, and the arid fossil grounds of the Gobi desert as they seek the One For Whom the Sky Never Darkens. Chuluun frequently comments on the eternal sky and the way that the legend of Chinggis Khaan still inhabits the land. He shares stories from his pre-monastery boyhood living in gers with his grandfather, father, and twin and their herds. Although Chuluun might doubt his ability to be a priest and monk, he never doubts that he is Mongolian.

All of the wandering and questioning comes to a head during a sandstorm in the Gobi, in a transcendent moment that left me awestruck. The ending alone is worth the price of admission to When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, but I would’ve loved this book even if it had had a completely different ending. This is a truly magical book that, like few others, offers us an immersive, emotionally honest opportunity to experience someone else’s life.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich

40168569Horsemen of the Sandswritten by Leonid Yuzefovich and translated by Marian Schwartz, contains two novellas. In The Storm, students are treated to a terrible (in content, form, and intent) lecture from a public safety officer while events conspire to bring about what looks like divine retribution for that officer. The longer Horsemen of the Sands is a framed story about a Russian soldier in Mongolia who is treated to possibly tall tales about the notoriously violent and unstable Baron Roman Fyodorovich Ungern-Sternberg. Schwartz’s translation is skillfully done and highly readable.

The Storm begins in a rural classroom somewhere in the Soviet Union. A public safety officer is giving a lecture about road safety, possibly in response to an incident involving one of the student’s fathers. For such a short novella, there are a lot of moving parts—which I love as a fan of books in which random events start to look a lot like fate. As the officer’s lecture continues, the students get increasingly upset. The officer starts making things up to keep their attention as they squirm, to the point where one boy is moved to vomit outside the class. That boy then makes a prayer that the officer will be struck by lightning. Ordinarily, the prayer wouldn’t do anything, but in Yuzefovich’s hands, that prayer left me wondering if what happened was an accident or a sign of something else entirely.

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Ungern-Sternberg in 1921. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me)

Horseman of the Sands is a story within a story. It begins when a Russian soldier meets a Mongolian man whose father and older brother fought for Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a historical figure who led a rogue regiment into the country to…actually, I’m not sure what he was up to because the actual history is just so weird. The Mongolian man offers to give the Russian a gau (protective amulet) allegedly worn by the Baron. The Russian then listens to the Mongolian’s strange tales about the Baron’s apparent imperiousness to bullets, his volatility, and how the Mongolian’s family members were ultimately killed by him. The stories the Mongolian tells make it seem like the Baron is just following his own off-beat drum. The conclusion, however, makes us wonder if there was a cunning sort of method to the man’s madness.

Fate takes a hand in both novellas, either by accident or by apparent design. Not knowing one way or the other provides plenty of food for thought: do the bad guys deserve what happened to them? Are they actually being punished if they don’t know that what they did lead to physical pain? Is a story less powerful if there’s a mundane explanation for seemingly supernatural events? The Storm and Horsemen of the Sands are puzzling in a way that I think could inspire interesting discussion for book groups, especially groups with a philosophical bent.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht

34701167In 1992, South Korean women began a weekly demonstration that lasted more than twenty years. The Wednesday Demonstrations were a demand for an apology and compensation for the treatment of “comfort women“—women who were forced into sexual slavery before and during World War II. White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht, tells the story of two Korean women. One woman, Hana, is captured by a Japanese officer who rapes her and sends her to a brothel in Manchuria. Her younger sister, Emi, attends the Wednesday Demonstrations decades later in an attempt to find out what happened to Hana.

Hana and Emi come from a long line of haenyeo, women who deep dive in the waters off of Jeju Island to feed and support their families. Emi was only a year into her training as a diver, preparing to join her sister and mother, when Hana was spotted in the water by a Japanese corporal one day in 1943. To save her sister from being abducted, Hana lied about being the only girl on the beach. The lie works, but it meant that Hana would experience horrors no one should ever face. The chapters that tell her story are heartbreaking. She struggles with abuse, physical hardship, suicidal thoughts, and the corporal’s delusions that they are in love.

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The Statue of Peace was created to honor and memorialize Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Emi’s chapters, set in 2011, alternate with her sister’s. Emi survived World War II and the Korean War relatively intact. Now she is burdened with survivor’s guilt. She knows the general outlines of what happened to Hana, but she doesn’t know if Hana lived or died. Her children don’t know, and they’re more than a little bewildered by their mother’s actions and obsession with the Wednesday Demonstrations.

Bracht includes an author’s note at the end of White Chrysanthemum that give a bit more historical background on what happened to Korean women during the war and how the Korean and Japanese governments have spared over what should be done for them in the decades since. The author’s note also explains, if readers were not already aware of the history, how her protagonists represent the women themselves and their family members who were left behind to wonder about them ever since. White Chrysanthemum, I think, is extraordinarily articulate in how it deals with the emotional trauma of both women and the people they represent. It is delicate, thoughtful, but packs an emotional wallop that I’m going to be recovering from for a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 30 January 2018.