When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry


I was loaned this book by Will who said there are references to Buddhism in it. I have since learned that Quan Barry is a poet and novelist and teaches at the University of Wisconsin. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the US.

Set in Mongolia in the present, the story is told by Chuluun, a young Buddhist monk who, with his twin brother Mun, entered the monastery when they were eight years old. Mun, though he entered the monastery as a reincarnated leader, has left and works in the capital Ulaanbaatar leading tourists throughout the country.

Chuluun has been sent by the monastery leader to locate the next incarnation of great spiritual leaders. In his first encounter in the outside world, though he has never played pool, he runs the table until he hits the cue ball off the table, giving his opponent a win. This is the first of Chuluun’s many adventures. When he wonders how he will make progress on his quest, he recalls that the Buddha says when the only hope is a boat, and there is no boat, I will be the boat.

He teams up with Mun and others and they travel throughout Mongolia looking for the three children. For me the joy of the book is becoming acquainted with Mongolia, where, as Mun reminds Chuluun “we are all Chinggis Khaan’s wandering descendants, every last one of us.” A brief recounting of the various encounters would strip them of their beauty. I will note the past tense is oddly missing throughout the book.

Near the end of their searching, they drive to Burkhan Khaldun (or “God Mountain) in northeastern Mongolia, where Genghis Khan was born and died. He lived from perhaps as early as 1155 and died in 1227 and united the various tribes in the area and became the founder of the Mongolian Empire which eventually included large parts of China and Central Asia. God Mountain was always a prohibited area for Mongolians, to keep the final resting place of Ghengis Khan secret.

Stories come down through the generations that a funeral cortege of more than a thousand warriors accompany the Khaan’s body to its final resting place. Allegedly four hundred workers are used to cover the tracks made by this great host. In turn, these four hundred workers are killed in order to maintain the secret of where the Khaan is laid to rest. Legend has it that the killers of these four hundred are then themselves killed, and so on, ad nauseam, killers killing killers killing killers….More than seven hundred years after his death, the Soviets are still afraid of the Khan and his lasting influence on his people. When they come to power, they take over the Great Taboo and rename it the Forbidden Zone.

As Will said, there are many references to Buddhism throughout the book. After the mission is completed, here’s one of Chaluun’s musings:

Let me die tomorrow and never be reborn. I am ready to take my vows to renounce the world. My doubts remain, but now I recognize that they are part of the path. I must let my doubts enter me the way one might welcome a stranger into a hut on the edge of a forest. When the stranger arrives, one does not ask the guest why they exist or what their purpose is. One simply sits and listens without judgment or striving. I seek nothing. I am nothing. There is only refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, in the sangha. There is only refuge in wisdom, compassion, and goodness. There is only refuge in the way things are.

Quan Barry,  When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East, Vintage, 2023, 320 pages. Available in the public library.

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