Twins on a quest to find the next Dalai Lama

By Quan Barry
302 pages. Books of the Pantheon. 27 dollars.

An imperfect telepathic communication line runs between the twins. They can talk to each other without opening their mouths. At night they eavesdrop on each other’s dreams. The experience between the two was “like the books in a library”. When a couple drinks, the other will feel hungover.

The twins, Mun and Chuluun, were 23 years old in 2015, when Quan Barry’s captivating and sophisticated new novel, her third, came out. Chuluun studied at a Buddhist monastery hidden in the shadow of a volcano in Mongolia. Mun wears Western-style clothes and lives in the capital Ulaanbaatar, where he indulges in technology, tattoos, curses and cigarettes. One of the men was calm and the other was calm. Their strange mental overlap is the source of mutual resentment. Each twin wants the other out of his or her head.

They are brought together when they are tasked with roaming the country to find the next Dalai Lama – the child who will become the face of Tibetan Buddhism after the incumbent’s death. There are three candidates for the brothers to visit: one in the hill country of sub-Siberian, one in the remote western mountainous province and one in the south of the country. Two boys and one girl. Every child, every child is a potential incarnation of the original spiritual leader, who, according to tradition, is next incarnated as the Dalai Lama.

In this sense, the novel takes the familiar form of a quest. Along the way there are accidents, sacrifices, disasters, deaths. There are natural wonders and metaphysical conundrums. There is yak butter.

It turns out that Mun is the incarnation of a historical figure. At the age of 8, he was recognized as the fifth incarnation of Paljor Jamgon, “The Redeemer of the Sound Conch in the Dark.” It’s a long name for a small child. Mun was “discovered” in the distant grasslands in the same way that a future pop star might be discovered on YouTube. He was then ordained at a monastery – somewhat against his will – and shouldered a ton of responsibility. He also has many perks: tutors, private chefs, gifts, private living quarters. The golden cushion cradles his happy butt.

Chuluun, who had also been transferred to the monastery, easily adapted to the habits and limitations of the academy. He enjoys chanting and meditating. Mun doesn’t – he’d rather play the game on horseback than show the unrelenting compassion needed for his position, and his impatience causes whispers to ring out. Some monks question whether Mun deserves his material distinction. One asked a colleague if a mistake had been made – perhaps, he suggested, management had recognized the brother’s mistake as a reincarnation.

In the end – under cloudy initial circumstances – Mun abandoned his cloak and made his way to the city, leaving Chuluun to practice calligraphy and reflect on his feelings of abandonment. When the two are forced to reunite, an impenetrable gulf separates them. Conflict in turn spurs and hinders their journey in a rickety carriage through the grasslands and dunes of Mongolia as they search for the Dalai Lama’s heir.

“When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East” is a stark departure from Barry’s earlier novel, a bleak and crazy film. “We Ride Upon Sticks,” takes place in coastal Massachusetts and involves a field hockey team, witches, underage pheromones, and Emilio Estevez. The new novel focuses on faith, history, language, and longing.

Credit…Jim Barnard

Barry’s constant interest in enchantments is the connective tissue between the two books, but she’s come a long way as a novelist – where “We Ride Upon Sticks” is a game. Lively but somewhat disorganized, this is a dazzling achievement. Form and theme combine in the book to change one’s reading metabolism: The rhythm is more like prayer than prose, and the lifelike plot offers revelation in simple sentences. simple that a skim reader can easily miss.

The novel has formal specials that seem designed to cultivate sanity – and they are. The table of contents does not include chapter titles, but includes nine illustrative icons. Chronological games abound. Phrases that repeat throughout the text. Chuluun’s narration sparkles between multiple time frames. The whole novel is written without using the past tense.

All of this technical magic might make one sound as if Barry had written a grueling book, but reading it requires nothing more than a walk on soft grass. By the way, it reminds me of Ingenious “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke — the only other recent novel that is both a work of philosophy and a mystery. As in “Piranesi”, the mystery here revolves entirely around identity: It’s a who is that more than one whodunit. Is Chuluun as devout as he appears to be? Is his insistence on giving up forever a form of self-deception? How does he know his brother? Or is he himself?

Early in the novel, Chuluun reveals that he and his brother were born with an ao dai – each of their faces covered in a thin layer of amniotic membrane. Another literary buff, David Copperfield, immediately thought of that. There are sweet and surprising echoes of Dickens throughout Barry’s novel. They can be found in the book’s episodic structure and moral intensity; in the narrator’s self-torment; in the Victorian flavor section title. (“A Mixture of Compassion and Anger,” “Disaster!”)

If you’re thinking this adds to the world’s weirdest logic – “A Buddhist sentimental education with stylistic innovation… plus twins!” – You are not wrong. The magic of this novel is its magic. Twins on a quest to find the next Dalai Lama

Fry Electronics Team

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