“’bardo’ (noun) (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life, and manner of, or age at, death.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is simply an extraordinary work of fiction, unlike anything else I have read. The novel starts out with brief passages from two key gentlemen in the “in between” state, reminiscing about how they got there, then switches to passages from various historic publications ostensibly telling the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Will, of typhoid.
The book moves back and forth between historic passages and the bardo activities, including life and death recollections. In this way we learn about the death of Will, the grief of his parents and the struggle President Lincoln felt over the Civil War and resultant loss of life. The historic passages also offer us a glimpse of the differing perspectives on Lincoln as a man, a father and a President.
The passages from the in between state are fascinating. There are so many characters, including former soldiers, former slaves, criminals, young people, old people, religious people, wealthy people, poor people, good people and bad people. They are brought together by the entry of Will, although they are not in agreement about his ultimate disposition. Slaves are brought together with slave owners, wealthy are brought face to face with the poor and the young with the old. They engage in spiritual or perhaps magical activities, flying through the air, becoming one with the living and encountering fantastical obstacles and miracles. There is a sort of dissonance between the grieving perspective of the living and the supernatural aspects of the deceased.
The characters in bardo are all exaggerations of their behaviors in life. In one example a hunter is required to continuously make peace with the animals he killed. “We were as we were!…How could we have been otherwise?…By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do…And then are cruelly punished for it.” Through their stories and their struggles with their in between condition (which few if any of them understand) the reader cannot help but ask what kind of life am I living? How do I choose to make my way and how will I be judged when I am gone?
At the end, some of the characters reflect on the meaning of life and mankind’s ultimate commonality at life’s end. They muse over the importance of that commonality, including empathy and understanding. “At the core of each lay suffering, our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end….We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings–Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”
The first thing I wanted to do when I finished this book was read it again. This one is a must read. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11237739__Slincoln%20in%20the%20bardo__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold