French Author Antoine Volodine's "Bardo or Not Bardo"
This article is part of a series of profiles of the ten Francophone authors who have been long-listed for the Albertine Prize.
“One Volodine can hide many others,” a French magazine once wrote about the author Antoine Volodine, who writes under at least four names. Volodine was born in Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy and taught Russian for fifteen years before turning to literature. He has said that literature is akin to a martial art for him, and that he tries to write in French as if it were translated literature.
Volodine’s twenty books have been published under names including Manuela Drager, Elli Kronauer and Lutz Bassmann. Over the years he has built up a community of personas who, by their own account, are part of a “post-exoticism” writing movement, allowing Volodine to express himself in multiple voices—indeed, in interviews he sometimes refers to himself in the collective “we”. Most of the time Volodine and his other selves describe a post-apocalyptic world in which its rebellious narrators have been arrested. This system of multiple writers was crystallized, Volodine said in an interview, with the publication in 1998 of his polyphonic book le Postexotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze, (Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven) authored by an entire group of writers. Borodine’s stories, as he told two of his translators, “take place in the ruins of war, after the disasters of ethnic cleansings, after failed revolutions, atrocious counterrevolutions, in societies where violence, social injustice, and capricious masters hold sway. Our characters escape that by taking refuge within insanity or within dreams or within death or within a mixture of all three.”
Luckily for the reader, black humor, and often slapstick, permeate his novels and it is perhaps in Bardo not Bardo, translated by J.T. Mahany, (who also translated Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven) that the author’s sense of burlesque is at its apogee. Volodine has imagined for us what might happen in the afterlife. He takes the Tibetan Buddhist religion as a starting point, and more specifically the Bardo Thödol, known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in which the Bardo is an undefined place where the dead are in a holding pattern for 49 days until they are either reincarnated or reach enlightenment, or Nirvana—the latter, of course, is smiled upon rather than jumping back into the cycle of life and death once again. But Volodine’s dead continue to be revolutionaries in death as in life, and are hilariously deaf to the words of wisdom and self reflection imparted to them by a lama. Rather than going towards the Clear Light, and the destruction of their ego, Volodine’s dead are disobedient, individualistic and anarchic—deliverance is not to be found so easily…