Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bruno Portier's "The Flawless Place Between": Book Review

This novel dramatizes the bardo passages from death into afterlife and then rebirth from the teachings known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Bruno Portier, a documentarian turned ethnologist, tells a tale both straightforwardly linear in some sections, and post-modern in its cyclical and fragmented structure in its middle sections, as the protagonist Anne's fate after a motorbike goes off of a cliff in the Himalayas leads to her own entrance into the worlds beyond.

Gregory Norminton translates Bardo, Le Passage, from 2009 fluidly. It's noteworthy that the title in the original implies the French audience may be familiar with this term already, while the English-language audience encounters a more poetic evocation of the "place between." The version's not quite flawless. A few glitches remain, one in the footnoting and a couple in botched phrasing. But overall, this imaginatively depicts what happens to Anne before the accident and after. Interspersed we find the plight of her lover, Evan, and the intervention for the couple by Tsepel. As a Tibetan, this old man speaks aloud to Anne the text of the Bardo Thödol Chenmo, the "liberation by hearing in the after-death transition" meant to liberate the departed one's entanglement from the mental projections that keep one locked in the cycle of death, liminality, and rebirth.

This review will not give away much more, as the chapters following the bardos of the moment of death, of reality, and of rebirth possess inherent fascination and uncertainty of what will happen next remains this novel's strength. Portier enters the last beats of the heart and the first glow of the womb with equal imagination. Relationships past and present emerge little by little, revisited and revised as their repetition sharpens their meaning for the one caught up in the passages beyond this life.

Portier's patterns reminded me of the 2010 film by French-Argentinian director Gasper Nöe, Enter the Void. This presents a bolder, rawer vision compared to Portier's, yet readers of this poignant story may be prepared better for the raw depictions of this cinematic assault which takes one into similar spiritual terrain. Fans of that daring depiction of the bardo stages may compare the gentler, quieter upheavals undergone by the book's similarly distraught and confused characters, as death descends.

The book offers a brief introduction summing up the TBoD  and a short bibliography. It needed more inclusions. I'd add to the Fremantle-Trungpa and Thurman translations and Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying of the Bardo Thödol the full edition of liberation teachings composed by Padmasambhava, revealed by Terton Karma Lingpa, translated by Gyurme Dorje, edited for Penguin by Graham Coleman and Thupten Jingpa as The Tibetan Book of the Dead: the First Complete Translation. Also, for beginners, I recommend a handsome version by Martin Boord and Stephen Hodge, The Illustrated Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Reference Manual for the Soul. Finally, Richard Gere's audiobook recital of the Fremantle-Trungpa can be an appropriate way to listen to the teachings, in the way closest to that of Tsepel within the action of this thoughtful novel.

Putting these esoteric and challenging manuals of advice into a short, vivid tale represents a fine endeavor to widen their impact. An author's note mentions that Portier is working on a sequel. I look forward to it. (Amazon US--and British--8-3-12)

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