Albertine Prize Winning Title: Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine

April 12, 2017 | By FRENCH CULTURE BOOKS
Bardo or not Bardo has won the inaugural Albertine Prize, a reader's choice award for best contemporary French fiction in English translation. One of the funniest installments in Antoine Volodine's acclaimed post-apocalyptic series, Bardo or Not Bardo consists of seven vignettes set in a universe of failed revolutions, radical shamanism, and off-kilter nomenclature. In each one, a newly dead character bungles his way through the Tibetan afterlife, or Bardo, failing to achieve enlightenment, while the living make a similar mess of things. Translated by J.T. Mahany (Open Letter Books). 
 
An Excerpt from Bardo or not Bardo 

“Could I get another caffeine, Yasar?”

Freek is sitting on a stool at the bar. He is the sole client. At a glance it is apparent that he is lacking something human. For an Untermensch, he is very handsome, but his body emanates an impression of anomaly. An undefinable touch of abnormality pushes him back into the outskirts where the human subconscious hates to venture. He knows this, he tries hard not to let it bother him, but he suffers from it. It doesn’t make his relations with others any easier. When he speaks, his voice is often filled with emotion, like with all hypersensitive individuals. It is emotional and very slightly weird, as well.

The bartender halts his wiping. He thumps the percolator’s coffee filter on a drawer, he screws it back on, clutching it tightly, he slides the drawer back without closing it, he presses the hot water button. His movements are calm. His entire person inspires trust.

“This is your fourth cup, Freek,” he says. “It’s going to make you sick.”

“Don’t need to sleep,” Freek explains. “Have to go back to the zoo. The animals are waiting for me. Have to talk to them. They’re anxious, they’re not sleeping. They’re afraid of dying.”

“Ah,” says Yasar.

“I have to reassure them,” Freek continues after a silence. “They’ve smelled death’s odor. They’re afraid of dying like the clown, like the yak.”

Yasar has turned back around. Now, he is placing a bowl of piping hot caffeine in front of Freek. Freek thanks him.

“What clown?” Yasar asks. “A clown died at the zoo? Tell me about it, Freek.”

“No, the yak is the one who’s dying. I need to go to the zoo because of him. The yak is old and sick. The veterinarian came, he said he still had a day or two. This is the yak’s final night. It’s happening, in a zoo. The bars protect, but they don’t stop death.”

Freek pauses. Facing Yasar, who is friendly with him, he doesn’t have too many problems expressing himself. It’s even the opposite: he seems unable to keep himself from speaking. He dunks his lips in the too-hot caffeine, then revives his talking points.

            “The animals are sad behind the gates,” he says. “And sadness is very tiring. They’re in a safe place, they’re protected, but they grow old just as fast as if they were free, exposed to danger. The yak’s gotten old. He’s been feeling very unwell. The nearby animals are worried, they can smell death’s odor. The veterinarian arrives. He says that the yak only has a day or two left. He says this in front of the yak as if the yak were deaf. He takes out a syringe, he injects useless vaccines against old age and death. Then he leaves. It’s night. The smells spread. In their cages, the animals breathe in the smells. It scares them. I have to go and console them. None of the animals can sleep in the zoo at night. They need someone by their side. My words reassure them. The yak needs someone by his side too, to talk to him and help him get through the night. I need to talk to the yak if he’s struggling against death, or even if he’s already stopped breathing.”

            In the neighboring room, a bell rings, a very solemn voice pronounces syllables incomprehensible to those who have not mastered Liturgical Tibetan. Then it stops and, coming from a transistor located behind the bartender, there is a Korean melody. It’s a tune sung when worn out, when fate has been unfavorable and it’s hard to find the necessary energy to go on. A woman adjusts her despair with the violence specific to pansori singers, a violence devoid of any whining, then the chorus picks back up and gives it a more lively coloration, as if the intervention of the collectivity had diverted the sorrow toward new reasons to fight together and endure.

“Excuse me, Freek,” the bartender says. “I’ll get back to this in a bit. You said something about a clown.”

“Yes,” says Freek. “Furthermore, that’s what’s got the animals frightened horribly. After closing time, the clown that was found in the raptor exhibit. The clown’s cadaver. That’s keeping them from sleeping too. The clown’s remains in the cage. Smells are stronger in the dark. The animals breathe them in. All the animals in the zoo. They grow restless, they’re afraid. They turn in circles or shrink into corners. They think about the yak, about death, about old age. They think about the clown. I have to go back to the zoo to calm them down. So they’ll be taken by sleep and forget.”