Chuluun, a young Tibetan Buddhist monk in present-day Mongolia and the protagonist of “When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East,” has two weeks to find the reincarnation of a tulku, an enlightened teacher. He’s asked to do this not because he’s uniquely qualified to identify the child who is destined to help carry on his faith, but because he has “indomitable patience.”
Chuluun has cultivated this patience by dealing with his twin brother, Mun, the reincarnation of a different tulku, who renounced his vows a little over a year before. These days, Mun has flowing long hair and a tattoo, is a pro at pool, smokes cigarettes, and works as a tour guide in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. He and Chuluun have been estranged since he left the monastery, but in this engrossing new novel, they team up with three others for a journey across Mongolia in search of the enlightened child.
Author Quan Barry is a poet and novelist who was born in Saigon and raised in Danvers. “When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East” is her third novel, and although it’s a sharp departure from “We Ride Upon Sticks,” a novel about a field hockey team from Barry’s hometown that turns to witchcraft to help them win games, its unconventional storytelling and fantastical elements will appeal to fans of Barry’s other books.
The novel is set in July 2015, but Chuluun narrates events from his childhood and even from history in the present tense, reinforcing his belief that “in the universe’s eternal calendar, it is always now.” As the novel unfolds, we watch him struggle with his faith and attempt to reconnect with his brother.
The twins can read each other’s thoughts and feel sensations in each other’s bodies. Early on, Chuluun nearly beats an opponent at pool by channeling his brother’s consciousness. It is the first game of pool he has ever played. Despite this, the twins’ motivations and back story are largely a mystery to each other initially.
In the group’s quest to evaluate potential candidates for the reincarnation, they search among different groups with varying religious beliefs: the Reindeer People of the northernmost province, a clan of Eagle Hunters in the Altai Mountains, and American paleontologists in the Gobi Desert. Barry showcases the diversity of cultures and traditions within Mongolia and weaves in relevant historical context, such as the long-term impact of the Soviet Union on present-day Mongolia, to help readers understand their significance.
Barry clearly devoted a lot of time to researching Mongolia and Buddhism in the process of drafting this novel. She sprinkles Mongolian words throughout “When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East,” and sometimes the words aren’t translated, but they can usually be deduced by the context. Through her characterization of Chuluun, Barry challenges stereotypes of Buddhist monks that readers may carry. These monks use smartphones and iPads. “Many of us are on Facebook,” Chuluun says. His character humanizes a perspective that is often ignored or distorted by Western popular culture.
But at times, this material feels inorganic — expository insertions for the benefit of a Western audience more fitting for a memoir than the narration of a novel. Chuluun explains that Mongolia is “a country twice the size of the American state of Texas” where it often snows, and that many Asians are born with Mongolian blue spots which typically disappear before they turn 5. These explanatory moments are somewhat distracting and make it difficult to settle into the story.
The pacing, explanations, and setup of the book make readers feel as if they are taking a whirlwind tour of Mongolia complete with introductions to traditional food and dress, elucidations of modern-day regional politics, and even commentary on how tourists shift traditions. Readers will come away with perspectives on issues such as Chinese involvement in Buddhism that they may not have considered, and the novel raises interesting questions about faith, doubt, and who we believe ourselves to be. But, as is the case with tourism, it is unclear how much this perspective is itself distorted by the fact that it was written with an English-speaking, Western audience in mind.
Still, how many novels set in contemporary Mongolia are available to English-speaking readers? At its heart, “When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East” asks questions fundamental to the human experience that will resonate regardless of the reader’s familiarity with Mongolia, and it’s bound to be beloved by book clubs. Barry’s tale can serve as a jumping off point for readers to learn more and see Chuluun and his companions as fellow complex human beings. Even if it’s just the fact that they’re on Facebook too.
WHEN I’M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST
By Quan Barry
Pantheon, 320 pages, $27
Serena Puang is a freelance writer and the incoming arts/living intern at the Boston Globe.