Hot on the heels of “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” comes “The Buddha’s Return,” the second novel by Gaito Gazdanov to be published by Pushkin Press. Gazdanov — a White Army soldier in his native Russia who turned to writing while in exile in Paris — once again serves up a deliciously dark and complex tale concerning mistaken identities, moral ambiguities and deep-set yearnings. Although originally published in Russian in 1950, thanks to Gazdanov’s mesmerizing prose and Bryan Karetnyk’s fluid translation the novel feels just as fresh and exciting 65 years on.
Gazdanov’s nameless narrator is a student in Paris who is prone to bizarre out-of-body sensations. One moment he is going about his business in the “real world,” and the next he is hallucinating, transported to an illusory realm where he is no longer in control of his actions. As such, he feels he has lived many different lives.
Gazdanov’s memorable opening scene features the narrator’s feverish recollection of his own death — a terrifying and graphically described plummet from a cliff — “after which I mysteriously continued to survive.”
One of his “morbid, fantastical distortions” involves him killing a man, being arrested and then dealt Kafkaesque justice whereby any attempt on his part to prove his innocence is rendered futile. A second flight of fancy carries him into the arms of a lover — a passionate exchange that is soon exposed as nothing but an empty dream.
Gazdanov constructs a hard quotidian reality to complement his smoke-and-mirrors detours. His narrator befriends Scherbakov, a beggar-turned-millionaire; becomes enchanted and later disgusted by Lida, a singer with a tragic past, and comes to fear Amar, a half-Arab-half-Polish pimp. Then all at once Gazdanov changes gears and cranks up the pace of his narrative: A key character is murdered, his gold Buddha statue stolen; our narrator learns that he will inherit the dead man’s fortune, but also that his fingerprints are all over the crime scene.
This is the kind of puzzle that Gazdanov excels at. In “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf,” the narrator is haunted by a man he thought he had safely killed, whereas the narrator here wonders how he has ended up the prime suspect of a murder inquiry. Suddenly he is jolted from his existential angst and tortuous self-questioning and prompted to clear his name — that is, if he is truly innocent.
When the narrator explains at one point that his “stubborn illness” blurs the border “between reality and abstraction, between deeds and ideas,” we realize that the novel dwells too much on ideas and not enough on deeds. That said, the protagonist’s metaphysical pondering and recurring mental fogs are curiously gripping, and his wistful reminiscences of old flame Catherine turn the novel into a sensual as well as a cerebral affair. If you missed Gazdanov the first time around, “The Buddha’s Return” is as good a place to begin as any.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.