Title: Lincoln In The Bardo
Writer: George Saunders
Publishing House: Bloomsbury Publishing
Date of Publication: February 8th 2018 (first published February 14th 2017)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’My mother, I said. My father. They will come shortly. To collect me’’
Death is a cruel, cynical visitor. Sometimes invited, others unexpected, many more anticipated. Death is blind to age, race, religion, kindness or evilness. He does not discriminate, he takes everyone. He is the one certain thing in the life of every living creature. An unavoidable, unquestionable snatcher. However, don’t we all desire to know what happens next? Perhaps, this is what makes us so afraid, the fear of being lost forever. Whatever it may await, I hope it will be better than the Bardo. A state where souls that haven’t been set free linger, awaiting the next spirit to join their nightmarish Chorus. The Limbo, devoid of everything. A place visited by no God, no Devil. A battlefield, a community whose agony and frustration mirrors the society of the living.
This is where Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s son, finds himself shortly after he dies of a visceral fever. It is said that the great President would visit his child for many days, holding him and thus chaining him to a state where Willie cannot move on, keeping his soul in captivity. Saunders creates this monumental, extraordinary work around this incident and through Lincoln’s devastation, Willie’s uncertainty and confusion and the despair of all the trapped souls that become our guides in this horrifying journey, he weaves a tale of death, love and remembrance. I won’t comment on this experimental style, the theatrical format and the extraordinary ability to create a unique language for each narrator. For me, these elements aren’t important. What is important is the wealth of themes and issues that make the novel one of the most bizarre and fascinating experiences in the life of the reader.
‘’Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening.’’
If I had to choose the one thing that made this novel so powerful, it would have to be the crystal clear way in which Saunders depicts the human soul in its kindest and worst aspects. This was obvious in the various views on Abraham Lincoln expressed by the spirits and by the extracts of the press in the era of the Civil War. Demons who desired to keep people chained because they had a different skin colour regarded him as a murderer who dragged their precious sons to war. But they said nothing of the dead sons of their ‘’property’’, the raped women, the absolute loss of any trace of human dignity they inflicted on others in their bloody plantations. As we travel through the Bardo, in the chapters that describe the various stages of Willie’s wandering, we see a nation divided by conflicting aspirations and expectations. We see the souls of criminals, prostitutes, noble born people who have come to realize that Death isn’t particularly dazzled by wealth and status. Their pain, despair and struggle for acceptance echo the universe of the living. The two realms are hardly different and while the pitiful ghosts battle with themselves to retain some sort of human identity, they also battle with each other because old habits die hard, if at all. In most of the characters, the difference to their breathing counterparts is little, they hardly regret their faults, all too eager to put the blame on someone else and lure Willie into their cold company.
Saunders writes a sublime elegy of the tremendous, frightening impact of a child’s death on the surviving family. It is a tragedy beyond words, a catastrophe that we don’t even dare to picture in our minds. The grief of good President Abraham is devastating to read, the pain of Mrs Lincoln tears through the soul. Girls that didn’t have the chance to live their love, young men who died on the battlefield, a priest who tried to fulfill his mission as best as he could, a young woman who was raped repeatedly by her master. There is so much pain and yet, the message never becomes dark or pessimistic. Even in the most brutal moments, a glimpse of hope shines through to remind us that, perhaps, if we really try to come together, to respect each other, a better world might become possible. This was Lincoln’s vision, a vision that has been viciously massacred by the majority of the presidents who have occupied the White House in recent History….Not to mention the state the world has found itself today…
Many things have been said about Lincoln In The Bardo. Some may consider it verbose, pretentious, illogical. That is understandable. Not every book is for every reader. For me, this is one of the very finest moments in Literature. Not because it won the Man Booker Prize. Many winners have come and gone and I found them mediocre, forgettable. Not because of the experimental style. Many books have served this technique well, many more will do so in the future. Technicalities don’t matter. It is a masterpiece because it pays homage to the struggles and seemingly futile causes that helped made this Creation a more tolerable place to inhabit. It is a masterpiece because it is written by an author who dived deep into the human soul, found the finest and the worst in all of us and created a tale that is ferocious, sad, haunting, generous, hopeful, tender and fragile. It’s not an easy read but who wants an easy read, anyway?
‘’If I could confer with him, I know he would approve; would tell me it is right that I should go, and come back no more. He was such a noble spirit. His heart loved goodness most.’’