The Buddha’s Return by Gaito Gazdanov

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Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Following the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, many of that country’s beleaguered citizens escaped abroad, setting up émigré communities in cities like Berlin and Paris. One such escapee was Gaito Gazdanov.

Born in St. Petersburg of Ossetian heritage, after fighting for the (losing) White Army, Gazdanov made his way to Paris where he initially took a variety of jobs, from working on car production lines to washing locomotives, via a spell as a tramp. However, he eventually found a niche as one of the city’s night time taxi drivers, which also allowed him time enough to become a writer.

Acclaimed by Maxim Gorky during his lifetime, some of Gazdanov’s works were translated into English in the 1950s. However, he seemed to slip out of sight and of course as an émigré his works were not available in Russia. But since the fall of Communism, his books have become acclaimed in his home country and so we’re very lucky that his works are now being brought to us in lovely sparkly new translations by the wonderful Pushkin Press!

The Buddha’s Return is the second volume of Gazdanov’s work they’ve brought out (the first being the well-received The Spectre of Alexander Wolf); and like the earlier book, much of it takes place in the émigré community of Paris. The (unnamed) narrator is a penniless student, struggling through his studies while dealing with the constant hallucinations which break into his everyday life when he least expects it. An act of kindness to a beggar in the Jardin du Luxembourg has unexpected repercussions; his path crosses with a fellow Russian exile, Pavel Alexandrovich, who’s now a millionaire; he also mixes with the rather dubious family and friends of the millionaire’s mistress; there is a murder and a missing Buddha, and the narrator (and often the reader!) slips between reality and fantasy without always being sure which is which.

I’ve seen Gazdanov’s works described as “metaphysical thrillers” and that’s quite a good tag to put on them. Certainly, the opening few pages throw the reader right in at the deep end, with the narrator in the midst of a humdinger of a hallucination! These recur throughout the book, and allow the student to muse on the past, his life in Russia, his life in exile, what is reality and what is not. Pavel Alexandrovich is prone to musing as well, and through his connections with a more impoverished Parisian world, we get to encounter the seamier side of life in exile, amongst pimps and prostitutes, thieves and murderers.

And there is also a lost love, Catherine – dropped in quite casually at first, but gaining importance as the story progresses. The narrator has abandoned her because of his mental state, but constantly harks back to her, finding no other woman to compare. As the murder investigation progresses, and the student is suspected of the crime, we begin to wonder if he really is guilty or if he’s simply experiencing more dream-like states.

Early events are mirrored by later ones, and it starts to seem as if all the hallucinations have some kind of symbolism; fate and predestination are recurrent themes in Gazdanov’s work. At times, there are hints of Kafka and also of Soviet bureaucracy, reflected in the narrator’s encounters with authority. But the resolution is satisfying and there is a sense of moving on and leaving behind a nightmarish phase of one’s life.

On the evidence of the two volumes so far put out by Pushkin Press, Gazdanov is a remarkably good writer. The story here is gripping from start to finish and his prose is quite beautiful and hypnotic.

I withdrew from the window. The pianola mercilessly went on playing one aria after the next. I felt as if I were venturing deeper and deeper into some vague mental fog. I tried to envisage everything my mind could envelope in the most comprehensive terms possible – the world as it was right now: the dark sky above Paris, its enormous expanse, thousands upon thousands of kilometres of ocean, the dawn over Melbourne, late evening in Moscow, the rushing of sea foam along the shorts of Greece, the midday heat in the Bay of Bengal, the diaphanous movement of the air across the earth, and time’s unstoppable march into the past.

The portrait painted of émigré Paris, with its lost souls and its men made good, is vivid and fascinating and feels remarkably authentic; this is no doubt due to Gazdanov’s experience as a taxi driver, during which time he must have witnessed all kinds of Parisian life. And it’s worth remembering that he lost many of his family members as a young man, during the various wars and revolutions he witnessed, so it’s not surprising that death is never far away in Gazdanov’s works.

Gaito Gazdanov has for too long been one of émigré Russian literature’s best kept secrets, known mainly to Russian speakers and those who knew about the limited number of English translations published. So kudos are definitely due to Pushkin Press for making this intriguing and absorbing book available. A simple resume of plots and characters can never do justice to the depth and complexity of a writer like this; if you have a love of thought-provoking, intricately plotted and stimulating literature, I would simply recommend that you read him yourself.

And the Buddha of the title? Well, let’s just say that it’s return is quite important to the plot!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has a rather tenuous grip on reality at the best of times!

Gaito Gazdanov, The Buddha’s Return (Pushkin Press: London, 2014). 9781782270591, 220pp, paperback.

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