“We must try to see one another in this way.”
– roger bevins iii
“As suffering, limited beings- “
– hans vollman
“Perennially outmatched by circumstances, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”
– roger bevins iii
This novel is so strange in the way it’s told, so utterly unprecedented and special, I think one either loves it or hates it. It won the Man Booker prize in 2017, one of the most prestigious literature prizes of England and thus has been much talked about.
There’s no way around it; at first, I as a reader was thoroughly confused and struggled with the format of the book because it’s so avant-garde; the whole of it is written in quotations.
The novel deals with the death of 11 year old Willie Lincoln, son of the 16th president of the United States of America. The boy’s death, and the whole of Lincoln’s presidency is a historical fact and consequently, there are many books to be cited from. That’s the historically correct part. And then there are the other parts, the ones set in the ”bardo” which is a concept taken out of the Tibetan Book of Death. A “bardo”, per definition, is the state between two different stages of perception; for example waking and dreaming or, as in this book, living and dying. In the novel, it’s a place, a different dimension of the graveyard in Washington where Willie lies in a crypt. It is filled with a chorus of voices, all lingering in this place of not-quite-there and not-quite-gone because they have some unresolved business within their minds or hearts. And amidst all them, an eleven year old boy arrives, desperate for his father to come see him. These chapters in the bardo are also told by citations, led by mr. bevins iii and mr. vollman, two ghosts completely made up by the author.
From this set-up, Saunders spins a tale at times deeply moving, at times tragically shrill in its randomness and new-ageness. Sometimes there are seemingly unrelated trains of thoughts of one of the many characters; one gets to know their fates and the reason for their death, but only with time we get to understand the reasons for their lingering, their grappling, their aversion to leaving this place. Each of the characters has his own beautiful, lonely, funny, heart-breaking story to tell. Through some of these characters, Saunders also managed to touch upon the historical oppression of the Black population and civil war, as the book is set during the American Civil War and thus also deals with the South’s unwillingness to abolish slavery.
Another thing made possible only by this way of telling a story in citations, is that it makes the reader realise how completely diverging accounts of times past can be, and how memories can be bloated and blurred over the course of a lifetime. Saunders cleverly amassed descriptions of the same thing, say Lincoln’s eyes, for example, and put them all next to each other. And almost every single one tells a different story. It’s fascinating to see how people see things differently, judge them differently and remember them differently, too.
This book is beautiful. Not in a pathetic, overbearing way which insists on its own tragedy and beauty and sadness, but in a way that rings with truth when it uses obscene language and unheard of images to talk about loss and life and the beauty that is to be found in the small things.