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.
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.