‘Mongolia’ by David Mitchell

Perhaps cheating – this is a chapter from Mitchell’s debut novel, Ghostwritten, but it works as a standalone story, I think, as do all the chapters in this book, each of which takes place in a different setting, with meaningful links between them. I’m drawn to fiction that deploys fantastical elements to explore big questions – what is the self, e.g., and are we capable of true transformation – and this piece does that and is also just a great adventure story. Its narrator, a “non-corporeal entity” that can transmigrate from one host to another, read their thoughts, learn their language, and sometimes manipulate their behavior, allows Mitchell access to a range of minds, from that of a Danish backpacker to a Mongolian KGB agent to a fetus about to be born. The entity relishes its powers but longs to understand its origins. Was it once human? Could it be human again? Would it even want to trade its freedom and immortality to be embodied as a living person? These questions are resolved movingly by the end. 

from Ghostwritten, Hodder & Stoughton, 1999

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