In 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln lost his twelve-year-old son Willie to typhus. Grieving, Lincoln returns a few times to the grave where his son lies in state. That is the truth. Inspired by this history, George Saunders wrote his novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’.
What Abraham Lincoln means to Americans is not easy for us to understand. He is prominent in every curriculum in every school, his distinctive head is on five-dollar bills, and on his throne in the Lincoln Memorial he stands so high above his countrymen that every visitor is amazed. Stay away from Lincoln, you might think.
But American culture is loud and unpredictable, although absurdity and bigotry are always lurking. In 2012, director Tim Burton came up with ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, an action film in which Lincoln is a cult hero who hunts vampires. In the same year, Steven Spielberg made the drama film ‘Lincoln’, around the year 1863 where the president had to push the Emancipation Act, which ended slavery, through the Senate.
It seems that George Saunders has seen both films, because in his novel he combines the best of two worlds: unrestrained fantasy and harsh reality. He does it in such a surprising and original way that “Lincoln in the Bardo” is the most unusual book you will read this year.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is the world of souls awaiting another existence. Saunders’ bardo also bears a suspicious resemblance to Catholic purgatory, where the souls of the dead are cleansed before going to heaven. But you can also call this bardo a magical theme park, where ghosts take on forms that remind them time and time again of the sins of their lives. Hans Vollman, a typist who married a much younger woman (but never married her), walks with his partner in a perpetual state of excitement. Gay Roger Bevins III – who died after having his wrists amputated, desperate – has several eyes and hands. These compassionate spirits are the main narrators of the book. In the vocal chorus we find the minister who fears the last judgment, the Baron’s couple with charming foul mouths, and poor Eline Traynor, who is tied to a fence and turned into a train. Excuse me? A train car, yes. Why all these disabled creatures still cling to their past lives and refuse to ‘go away’ becomes clear in the book.
Vollman and Bevins find the dead Willie Lincoln as a ghost near the “sick box” (Saunders writes “sick boxes” – kudos to the translators, and not only for this discovery) and consider it their duty to convince the boy that they must. leave the bardo as soon as possible. Stay here: you see what happens, they say, referring to themselves and other sights. But the boy refuses, his father still needs him. After all, he always comes looking for her. From that moment on, the two ghosts do their best to change the father’s mind in their attempt to free the boy to ‘go away’. Among the ghosts (who neither see nor hear) the president is confused, writhing, wrinkled and scarred, as if he were a ghost himself.
‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is a strange and funny book, maybe not to everyone’s taste, but it is also a book full of compassion and depth. It is a novel about mourning, about how people hold on to love when it is already too late. Willie and his father do, and all those scary ghosts. Holding on to love in ignorance when it is no longer possible, that is also a way of defining sadness.
With his short stories, Saunders has already proven himself to be a master at combining the ordinary with the extraordinary. With ‘Lincoln in the bardo’ he takes this mastery to the next level. Crazy or moving, it’s a book you won’t forget either way.
Man Booker Prize 2017
Of the six nominees for the annual Man Booker Prize, the prize for the best English book, which will be released next Tuesday, two are newcomers (Fiona Mozley and Emily Fridlund). Two writers, Ali Smith and Mohsin Hamid, have been nominated before: Smith three times, Hamid once. Paul Auster is now nominated for the first time with ‘4321’, his eighteenth novel, no doubt because the Americans have only been allowed to compete for three years.
George Saunders’ ‘Lincoln in the bardo’, discussed in reverse, has the best chance of winning the prize, according to British bookmakers. If their predictions come true, it will mean an American will win for the second time in a row; last year Paul Beatty won for the satirical novel ‘The Sellout’.
Saunders is also a favorite in critics’ circles, followed by Mohsin Hamid.
The jury includes Nabokov genius Lila Azam Zanganeh and short story writer Sarah Hall, who could give the experimental short story writer, Saunders, an important wind behind.
Four of the six nominated novels have been translated into Dutch. Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and Fiona Mozley’s ‘Elmet’ have not yet been translated.
Lincoln in the bardo
exponent. Harm Damsma and Niek Miedema
Geus; 349 pp. €22.50
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