'Lincoln in the Bardo': A tale of death and beyond
New Delhi: Set over the course of a single night, Folio prize-winning author George Saunders' new novel captures the grief of Abraham Lincoln over the death of his 11-year-old son Willie while the Civil War raged on in the United States of America.
"Lincoln in the Bardo" notes that Abraham Lincoln often visited the crypt where his third son William Wallace Lincoln was buried, after succumbing, most likely, to typhoid fever on February 20, 1862.
Saunders draws from this seed of historical fact to base his novel dealing with death, limbo and what awaits 'beyond'. 'Bardo', in Tibetan Buddhism, is 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. The book draws a parallel between the lives of Willie's ghost, that is caught in this limbo, and a similar uncertain state of Lincoln, after the boy's death.
While Willie lingers in this state along with the other ghosts, unable to move forward, his father languishes in his own bardo, grieving the loss of a favourite son and having to steer a country faced with war, while coming to terms with the finality of what has happened.
"No doubt you are feeling a certain pull?... An urge? To go? Somewhere? More comfortable?" the ghosts ask the young Willie.
"The young are not meant to tarry," says the ghost of Roger Bevins III, referring to the duration a child lasts in this state.
However, desperate to be reunited with his father, Willie is reluctant to leave the 'bardo'. He replies, "My father was here and has promised to return, the boy said. I am trying to last." The major chunk of characters in the novel are ghosts waiting in this liminal state, reliving their deaths and rambling tales of how their lives would have been had it not been cut short.
Dominated by the stories of these ghosts, Saunders plays with the form of the novel, which begins as a series of quotes from reporters' notebooks, eyewitness accounts, historians using original sources, and what seems like Civil War-era gossip magazines, describing an 1862 White House party which a thousand or more people attended.
A mixture of real-life sources as well as some fictional quotes, some of these accounts are excerpts of historical texts regarding Lincoln's behaviour and suffering, others are letters sent to the President regarding the War from grieving parents. "The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world," reads one of the archival accounts describing the Lincoln's state following Willie's death.
The accounts intersperse the graveyard chatter of the ghosts, intertwining fact and fiction. The graveyard babbling, often endless, bawdy and even vulgar, also gives the reader glimpses of race tension in the war-fraught country.
"And many was the time I pounded my lust out in the Night to good Result; pounding my good Wife or, if she was indisposed, pounding my SHARDS, whom I called SHARDS, for they were, indeed, dark as Night, unto so many SHARDS of COAL..." according to a lieutenant Cecil Stone's account.
Set in a Dante-esque milieu, with the dead and living occupying centerstage, Saunders' novel paints a picture of loss and the pain of waiting, for the living and the deceased. One such suffering was of Willie's mother who appears to be in denial of her child's death. "Where was her boy? she kept asking. Where was he? Couldn't someone find him, bring him to her at once? Mustn't he yet be somewhere?" says a maid's account talking about Willie's mother.
This state of waiting for the next stage, locked in a state of 'nothingness' is also how the bereaved President is described. The portrayal of the President prostrated with grief, putting his presidential duties to the background, is one that contradicts conventional narratives of how a state leader, that too one faced with a war, must behave.
Saunders captures Lincoln's grief most poignantly: "'I had thought not to come here again'. Thus thought Mr Lincoln. 'Yet here I am. One last look'."
His reluctance to leave the remains of his beloved son clashes with the stoic image a president at the helm of a country heading into war must have. The over 300-page novel published by Bloomsbury, is a confrontation with the mysterious beyond the inevitable death, a question that has haunted humankind, and the way death can bring even the head of a nation to his knees.