It’s hard to believe Quan Barry’s When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East comes on the heels of We Ride Upon Sticks, her dense but accomplished 2020 novel starring a Salem, Massachusetts, high school field hockey team who dabble in the dark arts to finally start winning games. Set in 1989, it’s a teen movie in book form, needing only a Winona Ryder voiceover to solidify its place in that clique. But Barry has made a hard pivot here, going from the spirit realm to the spiritual, and effortlessly at that.
This new book is set in Mongolia, a country geographically cradled by two superpowers, Russia to the north and China to the south. One half of a set of twins, Chuluun, is a novice monk at Yatuugiin Gol, a monastery that subscribes to the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, best known to most Westerners as the one associated with the Dalai Lama. In the novel, it’s the summer of 2015 and Chuluun is only a couple of months away from being a novice no longer; he’s due to take his 253 vows, pledging himself to the Dharma and becoming fully ordained. But he has his doubts about being worthy of the honor.
Fatefully, three days after he privately puts these worries down on paper, Chuluun is summoned by his teacher, the Rinpoche, and told to go on a mission to seek out a specific tulku, or a reincarnation of a great lama. He will be looking for the “One for Whom the Sky Never Darkens,” a child who is destined to be the next great leader of the faith:
From what I am told by the Rinpoche at Yatuu Gol, it is urgent we find this reincarnation. Already a search is conducted in Tibet that lasts two years, the monks working secretly with the help of the local people, but something goes awry and now the monks are missing. If the child is not found soon, it could be difficult for him to acclimate to his new life. There is much hope surrounding this reincarnation. The child must learn to speak English. He must be well versed in western ways if he is to one day become the face of Tibetan Buddhism. There is a growing fear that the Chinese might anoint a reincarnation once the Dalai Lama passes, thus installing a puppet as the leader of the Tibetan people. Should His Holiness’s reincarnation be politicized following His death, our faith requires a new leader, one the Chinese do not anticipate.
Given these political overtones, it’s no small mission—a mere novice like Chuluun couldn’t be expected to go alone. A small group will later accompany him, but first he must fetch his twin brother Muunokhoi (nicknamed “Mun”) from Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital. Throughout the book we gradually learn the backstory of the twins: how they were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the folding of its southern, tightly controlled replica, The Mongolian People’s Republic, in 1992. They lived with their herder family until the beginning of the new millennium, when a monastery was reestablished in the area after a long period of forced atheism under the Soviets. The boys moved there after Mun himself was recognized as a reincarnation and named the “Redeemer Who Sounds the Conch in the Darkness,” skipping the novice stage and immediately taking on a spiritual burden far more mature than his eight years. Though Chuluun is not a tulku, he is considered part of his brother—the Buddhists believe they are two halves of one whole—and so he, too, went to live at the newly-established Yatuu Gol.
For reasons only briefly alluded to early on, Mun left the monastery and renounced his vows more than a year before the novel’s events. Chuluun hasn’t seen his brother since, yet Mun, living a faster, urban lifestyle and working as a travel guide for tourists, somehow knows his brother is coming. This is when we learn the siblings share an unexplainable connection, one much deeper and more mystical than the typical twin bond. They can read each other’s minds, take on each other’s pain, and communicate silently. They’ve formed methods of keeping boundaries around private thoughts and experiences, but often they have trouble determining where one of them ends and the other begins. It’s unclear if the Buddhists know about this strange link between them, but Chuluun knows in his bones he can’t take on the journey to meet the reincarnation candidates without his brother. Perhaps it takes a tulku to search for a tulku.
They may be on the same mental wavelength, but the two young men couldn’t be more different. They are “separate planets,” Chuluun observes with his typical cosmic imagery, “each with our own atmosphere and our own natural wonders.” Even the meanings of their names underscore their polarity: In Mongolian, Chuluun means “stone” and Muunokhoi means “vicious dog.” If Chuluun is steady while his brother is wild, is he supposed to be the stake and chain, holding his brother in place?
The twins, with their opposite natures, are themselves a kind of reincarnation, being born at the start of a new era for the country and its return to Buddhism. When he is told he is a reincarnation of a great lama at age eight, Mun is a young boy who discovers that he has an old soul that once didn’t belong to him, likely a terrifying thing for a child to learn. He is a symbol of Mongolia in When I’m Gone Look for Me in the East—a country born anew, but with a legacy that tethers it to the past.
The sooty thumbprint of the Soviet Union still stamps modern Mongolia. Many of its citizens live with traumatic memories of the purges when Stalin’s paranoia and lunacy rippled across the continent. Government officials have since revealed terrifying statistics, claiming that over 20,000 lives were lost in merely the first 18 months of the purges that began in Mongolia in 1937. As the deputy speaker of parliament said in 1997, on the 60th anniversary of the massacre’s start, “there is no family, no clan, no kin, no part in Mongolia that did not lose someone in the purges.”
Mongolians were not allowed to be Buddhist during this period and were closely watched over by the notoriously atheist Soviets. Not even Russian Orthodox Christians in Russia were allowed to practice their faith: Saint Petersburg’s prickly gumdrop-domed Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood became a vegetable warehouse after World War II, a fact that became the punchline of many dark jokes at the time. In Mongolia, Buddhists were forced out of monasteries and left to die, and all citizens were deprived of their ability to take pride in their nation’s history:
During the Soviet era, the government tries to suppress the memory and achievements of Chinggis Khaan, claiming he is a monstrous overlord. The Soviets are afraid that the memory of the Khaan might lead to the destruction of their union. If Mongolian national pride is allowed to be fed by the accomplishments of Chinggis Khaan, the people of Mongolia might rise up and throw the Soviets out, sending a signal to Russia’s other satellites that it’s open season on Moscow.
History lessons like this one are frequent throughout the novel, which is told entirely in the present tense as Chuluun either reflects on or is taught more about the history of the nation as he travels across it. The mini-lectures betray Barry’s awareness of her reader, likely uninformed on the nuances of Mongolian history, but they add substantial depth, especially as she places the reader on the breathtaking and terrifying expanse of the Mongolian steppe. “The distances are staggering. It could take you an hour to drive to a spot on the edge of the horizon, yet that spot feels like it’s just within reach,” Barry writes. “This is what it means to live on the steppe. There are no walls between you and nature. You are nature.” How couldn’t someone—a monk or otherwise—contemplate the universe in a place like this?
That’s precisely what Chuluun does throughout this adventure, which doubles as a spiritual and emotional journey. Many of his aforementioned doubts stem from his total seclusion from the world outside the monastery. “I want to drink deeply of this world with both hands before I renounce it,” he thinks early in the novel. No one journey can present a traveler with everything the world has to offer; few of Chuluun’s cravings are completely satisfied by the book’s end, but what the group experiences— namely, a vicious sandstorm that has deadly consequences—assures him of his path and gives him a sense of peace about his brother’s choices, however divergent from his own.
Though this abrupt moment of clarity doesn’t feel entirely earned and the ending feels rushed, When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East is a journey worth taking. The writing is simple but powerful, like a proverb. Many small observations will stop readers in their tracks to contemplate the myriad meanings behind them, and the vistas described as the group crosses Mongolia are arresting. As Chuluun observes late in the novel, “The Altai Mountains loom a day and a half behind us, a line of black teeth still visible on the edge of the world. We are headed into the southern reaches of the country, into the endless ocean of sand and bone, to see the final candidate.” It’s what you would expect from a novel starring a young Buddhist monk: a peaceful and edifying story that can be endlessly mined for deeper meaning.
What may be most impressive about this book, in addition to the substantial research done to make it feel so lifelike, is the demonstration of Quan Barry’s range. She only reveals herself as the author of this book’s predecessor—that 80s romp saturated with pop culture—in the descriptions of Mun’s rock band T-shirts, hilariously but subtly connected to the story at hand. Like the twins at its center, When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East couldn’t be more different from her last novel, making it all the more exciting to ponder what she’ll do next.