Detective drama Dostoevsky-style

A review of The Buddha’s Return, by Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karentnyk. The existentialist fiction of this 1920s Russian émigré speaks to our time

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

The Buddha’s Return Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karentnyk

Pushkin Press, pp.220, £12, ISBN: 9781782270591

In the world of Gaito Gazdanov, a Russian émigré soldier turned taxi driver who began writing fiction in the 1920s, doublings abound, though their meanings are rarely resolved. As with his great contemporary Nabokov, this hall-of-mirrors effect provides a pleasant means of exploring the fragmentary and illusory self.

But it is Dostoevsky, and his novel The Double, that really loom larger here than Nabokov. Gazdanov shares Dostoevsky’s penetrating psychological insight, and is drawn to characters in the midst of a breakdown. While Gazdanov seems in thrall to these vastly different novelists, he has his own utterly distinctive voice.

First published in 1950, The Buddha’s Return is a deceptively slight novel, narrated by a student plagued by hallucinatory waking dreams (described as ‘excruciating deliriums’) which call into question his responsibility for his actions. It opens with our (unnamed) narrator remembering his imagined death as he scaled, and then tumbled from, a sheer cliff edge. There is much vivid sensory detail here, from the flash of a lizard’s tail across the branch he has clung to to the ‘insistent melodiousness’ of a buzzing bumblebee.

The unsettling thing about the scene becomes not so much the drop itself but the haunting potency of the memory. And so we are introduced to some of the novel’s main concerns: namely the narrator’s deepening isolation and corkscrewing consciousness. It’s a set-piece that demonstrates Gazdanov’s ability to use a cliffhanger framing (literally, in this case) to venture into existential terrain.

This scene also presages a second death: the violent murder of the billionaire Pavel Alexandrovich. He has previously befriended the narrator, and they share some of the novel’s rare moments of connection, in conversations that range from literature to religion, as they are watched over by a statue of the golden Buddha (with upraised arms and an expression of ‘austere ecstasy’).

This talisman disappears on the night of the murder and becomes the MacGuffin that drives the second half of the novel. Another doubling occurs when our narrator is suspected — for the second time — of a crime of which he believes himself innocent, the trauma of police procedure and legalese partially paralysing his troubled consciousness.

While the narrative is rooted in the historic present, what’s striking about Gazdanov’s fiction is how it transcends the mid-20th-century émigré tradition, and poses prescient questions about the fracturing of identity. This novel seems to pre-empt the ‘abstract unease’ — to borrow a phrase from its own pages — of the Cold War era and the diplomatic ice age that followed, right up to the present, with our new online identities.

But Gazdanov does capture some unexpected — if fleeting — joys too, as when our narrator recovers from a fit on hearing the strains of the Unfinished Symphony and is returned to the scene of the concert hall in an ‘illusory victory of memory and imagination over reality and perception.’

There are many similarities between Buddha and Gazdanov’s previous novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf — again deftly translated by Karetnyk and republished last year to critical acclaim. Another unnamed narrator, once a soldier, is haunted by his memory of killing in battle a man mounted on a stately white horse, only to find such a scene precisely described in an English short story. When he attempts to track down its author, he is confused by many varying accounts of his character — and the real person turns out to be even more paradoxical.

Having read these two novels in succession, I was struck by how the thriller-like framing of Spectre seemed tested to extremes in Buddha, with Gazdanov at times allowing the chaotic inner world of his narrator to subsume external action, earning his work comparisons with Proust.Another telling crossover between the two novels is the way in which each protagonist is returned most vividly to the external world during sex — though in Buddha sadly even that turns out to be illusory.

Pushkin Press is to be congratulated on reviving an author who is as relevant now as ever. Both these fine novels offer gripping detective drama, while also engaging with questions of consciousness and self that cannot be resolved by simply foiling a killer.

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