In Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf the narrator reads an exact account of an event in his own life written from the point of view of the only other witness, a man he believed dead. Such double lives are everywhere in The Buddha’s Return (translated again by Bryan Karetnyk), with each character having experienced some transformative event much like Wolf’s apparent demise. For the narrator, like Wolf, his journey begins with death: “I died,” the novel opens, with the narrator going on to describe plummeting to his death as the branch to which he finds himself clinging breaks (a literal cliff-hanger).
“Such was my recollection of death, after which I mysteriously continued to survive, if I am to assume I remained myself.”
So powerful is the illusion of his death, that the narrator becomes convinced of the illusory nature of reality afterwards:
“I could now sense the strange illusoriness of my own life everywhere – an illusoriness that was many-layered and inescapable…For me the world consisted of objects and sensations that I recognised – as if I had experienced them all long ago and only now were they coming back to me, like a dream lost in time.”
One of Gazdanov’s purposes is to use the novel itself to make the reader feel likewise, taking the narrator down a dark alley where he is attacked and, in defending himself, kills his assailant. This crime sees him imprisoned, not in France where he resides, but in some unrecognised foreign country – this, too, seems to be an “attack of mental illness.” Strangely, it also foreshadows the novel’s main event, the murder of the narrator’s friend, Pavel Alexandrovich.
Alexandrovich’s two lives form a more coherent whole. The narrator first meets him when he is begging for money, giving him a generous ten francs – a fact that explains Alexandrovich’s desire to befriend him when he inherits his estranged brother’s wealth. More than once, the rich Pavel is not recognised by those who knew the poor Pavel, suggesting that in some way he is not the same man. He is murdered and a golden statue of the Buddha is stolen. The narrator is the prime suspect: the last person to see him alive and the man to which he leaves everything – and, once again, he is imprisoned. If the Buddha can be found, however, his innocence can be proven.
The Buddha, of course, is deliberately chosen as the novel’s McGuffin to suggest the illusory nature of truth in the novel’s philosophical heart while at the same time representing the search for a different kind of truth in the crime fiction narrative. Just as in The Spectre of Alexander Wolf Gazdanov superficially uses the thriller format, here he uses the whodunit, with the investigation of the crime taking second place to the novel’s philosophical investigations.
While imprisoned, the narrator considers other possible suspects: Alexandrovich’s mistress, Lida, and her Tunisian lover, Amar (her time in Tunisia is Lida’s other life). Though clearly incriminating them would be in his interest, he remains doubtful:
“The first hypothesis to enter my head was that Amar was the murderer. But I failed to see why he would do this. There could be no question of jealousy.”
The narrator retains his equanimity while the crime narrative follows through to its conclusion, but the novel’s conclusion turns to an old love affair, a woman he promised to return to “as soon as the clarity of your mind is no longer obscured.” She, too, is now leading a new life, as the narrator also promises to do:
“From the next day onward I began a new life, completely different from the one I had been leading until now.”
The Buddha’s Return is a novel about chance and change, about facing fate without expecting to understand or reason with it. Its main character is neither a hero nor a villain. It’s a more frustrating novel than The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, but, for that very reason, makes Gazdanov a more interesting writer.