In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Gaito Gazdanov isolates the physical and psychological; he leaves his characters stranded in a half-reality, a philosophical dream of their own creation; and asks searching questions about what it means to be alive and conscious of one’s inner life. In The Buddha’s Return, he takes that discombobulation to its extreme – the unnamed narrator who drifts through the novel in a fog of uncertainty, suffers a kind of sporadic delirium which sees him slip constantly from reality into incredibly vivid, nightmarish constructs. These waking dreams almost always involve the narrator punishing himself in some way – the opening words of the novel, for instance, are “I died”; and later he finds himself a prisoner of a fictional state, accused of a crime he didn’t commit but cannot deny in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare (and neatly foreshadowing the second half of the novel). The fiction is as convincing as reality, and as the reader you have to try to follow the narrative thread like a trail of breadcrumbs through the narrator’s consciousness. It is very unusual, and despite being so fragmentary in some ways, incredibly gripping.
The central premise is that the narrator is imprisoned for killing a friend of his – a wealthy man called Pavel Alexandrovich, whom the narrator first met when Pavel was still a beggar on the streets of Paris. The one thing that offers the narrator some hope is that as well as killing Pavel, the murderer stole a golden statue of Buddha from Pavel’s apartment – a crime which the narrator could not have committed. In that sense this is, as is The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, an accomplished thriller, and it certainly has the pace and intrigue of a great piece of crime fiction. However that plot also functions as a vehicle allowing the narrator, and therefore Gazdanov, to explore issues of identity; alienation; loneliness; the power of our fictional inner lives; and a kind of social justice. The idea of justice in particular figures large here – both in the criminal sense, and with regard to a kind of broader social consciousness. The narrator is imprisoned by two justice systems in this novel – one fictional, and the other real – and in both cases he is urged to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, in order to satisfy the requirements of a monstrous judiciary. As a fictional interrogator tells him:
They will sentence you and adopt punitive measures – not because you’re guilty and it has been proven, but because this is how they understand the task of the Central Judiciary. Objection is unfavourable and punishable in principle. To argue with the law is a crime against the state, as is to doubt its inerrancy.
When the legal system itself is so caught up with such corkscrewing levels of bureaucracy, what hope is there for the individual? The narrator is entirely alone in Paris – friendless, but for the enigmatic Pavel – and as such, wholly at the whim of the state. Indeed the entire cast of the novel is made up of foreigners, beggars, and prostitutes – everyone playing the hand life has dealt them, trying to surviving in what can often be an anarchic, unkind world. It’s a feeling of separation and unreality that feels very timely as we debate privacy laws, immigration, and live in dissonance with the natural world. Indeed in a novel that relies so much on mirroring, chance connections and repetition, there are only really two moments in which a genuine human connection is either promised or realised – the first being the conversation between the narrator and Pavel shortly before Pavel’s death, and the second offering a ray of hope at the end of the novel, as the narrator rediscovers the importance of a lost love. It’s comforting that even in a novel which is distinguished by their absence, mutual understanding and love are what the narrator finds himself striving for.
The Buddha’s Return is at heart a very European novel, which draws on the work of writers like Freud, Proust and Schnitzler (and of course, Dostoevsky) whilst being very critical of the continent’s history and class system. (As Pavel says at one point, “Here, every stone is dripped in blood. Wars, revolutions, barricades, crimes, despotic regimes, inquisitions, famine, devastation, and this whole historical gallery of horrors...” Europe, like the narrator’s internal life, is full of monsters.) Managing to combine pace, great sensory detail and an ongoing psychological examination of his character, Gazdanov has achieved something very special. A novel like Rogue Male owes a debt, I think, to The Buddha’s Return – it’s a real feat to combine suspense and psychological analysis with such flair.