Portrait – 6th April, 2004

László Krasznahorkai


Portrait–6th April, 2004


László Krasznahorkai's books contain a deeper knowledge about the fine structure of the ever darkening world and its laws that have been invalidated in our modern world.

He has won considerable acclaim not only in Hungary but also in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, France, Great Britain, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. One of his novels, A Théseus-általános won an award for the best book of the year in Germany in 1993.

László Krasznahorkai was born in 1954, and lives in Pilisszentlászló, a little village deep in the Pilis hills north-east of Budapest, except when he is travelling around the world.

Krasznahorkai's fame has also spread to the English-speaking world following the enthusiastic reception of The Melancholy of Resistance (1999). Both W. G. Sebald and Susan Sontag have praised it highly.

It is hard to place Krasznahorkai's prose within any contemporary literary group. In his epic world he describes outsiders who live at the edge of society, the "other" figures of our culture. The writer himself represents a disquieting other voice among contemporary literary streams. His well-meaning protagonists are doomed to fall and  are related to the emblematic losers of the 20th century. These men dressed in greatcoats recall Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Beckett. But Krasznahorkai is no imitator, his genius for making the metaphysical material and the material metaphysical is entirely his own.

Fiction and experience are integrated in this sad knowledge, imbued with a quiet melancholy and lively humour. His protagonists live in the atmosphere of an indefinite but all-pervading threat. This atmosphere surrounds them like a mist, but otherwise the description of the surroundings is very precise in details. "The reader is forced to make himself 'at home' in the fictive rooms, corridors, courts, without knowing the wider perspective and having the strange feeling that he is at home, but he has no idea where. The ideas of alienation and familiarity merge into one another and the natural difference between them becomes doubtful." (Edit Zsadányi) The reader has an elementary experience of losing the ground from under his feet. Thus, with the "death of God", Man did not lose the sky above his head, but rather the ground has slept from under his feet.

Krasznahorkai is an apocalyptic writer in the sense that he is the chronicler of a doomed world - the plot of all his novels take place in the last days before the end of the world, in the instantaneous silence, the hush before the storm. But there is no relief, "since it is all useless anyway, everything is getting ruined by itself..." as he says in his second novel, The Melancholy of Resistance.

His first novel Sátántangó (Satan's Tango, 1985) is one of the most important Hungarian novels of the 1980s. Satan's Tango is the panorama of absolute desperation, it even attempts to knock down the last bastions of negative metaphysics. It is a novel about a dark and entirely hopeless world, a complex and depressing narrative about dreams, fantasies, the unbearable reality and the human condition. Its helpless characters are waiting in vain even for an apocalypse, since even the idea of a dreadful end would be too consoling.

"Satan's Tango is a kind of perpetuum mobile, a mode of being that is expressed through a chain of delusions and humiliations, for which no one is responsible, but which has nevertheless come to be and bears the burden of various beliefs, hopes and of self-deception. ... An oppressing book, yet one that breathes with real life: a living being, like any real great work of fiction." (Péter Balassa)

The tremendous influence of the novel is due to the fact that Krasznahorkai is a past master at alloying concrete, sensuous descriptions with universal, metaphysical ideas. Krasznahorkai's style also gives voice to the desperate human fates formulated in the novel. The far-reaching system of his complex sentences hinders the reader's orientation and makes any transparency impossible. In 1990 the German translation of the novel by Hans Skirecki made quite a stir.

In Az ellenállás melankóliája (The Melancholy of Resistance, 1989) a circus arrives in a remote little town with a stuffed whale. Soon rumours begin to circulate that the circus folk have sinister intentions. The frightened citizens cling to any manifestation of order they can find. This story analyzes a transfer of power which holds no promise of liberation or a better life of anyone. Krasznahorkai's long sentences are like slowly but surely advancing black lava, inevitably progressing towards tragedy. Yet The Melancholy of Resistance is well thought over, mysteriously compelling and humorous. "Would that the release of his other works in English might proceed just as inexorably" - Paul McRandle wrote in a review.

Az urgai fogoly (The Prisoner of Urga, 1992) is his third and most personal novel - a subjective travelogue between Urga (Ulan Bator) and Beijing, and the narrator's quick return to Hungary. The two central episodes of the story (the performance of a Chinese opera and the narrator's long illness) take place in China - they represent another level of the story, concentrating on love and death.

A Théseus-általános (The Theseus Universal, 1993) has the subtitle Secret Academic Lectures. These orations are delivered by a nameless man to an unspecified audience. The topic of the three lectures is sadness, revolt and property, respectively. He talks about these topics in abstract academic terminology, but keeps digressing into his own fantasies and childhood memories. In the second lecture it turns out that he is actually the prisoner of paramilitary police. The novel experiments with order and chaos, abstraction and naturalistic detail; and expounds Krasznahorkai's characteristic theme: "the aversion from the alarming quality of a world without ideals, the impossibility to cross those ten metres between a man and another, and again that compassion and solidarity which imbue the stories contained in these three lectures with the melody of understanding and groundless love". (Tibor Keresztury)

The publication of Háború és háború (War and War, 1999) started some time before the actual publication in book form; as the author says, "I was determined to send a message to my kind, lonely, weary and sensitive readers, namely that the work in progress was/would be about them. I began to publish single sentences at a time in three carefully chosen periodicals, and in doing so I wanted to send a signal to those readers who I thought would recognise that the sentences were intended for them. I had no message for readers who were not kind, not lonely, not weary nor sensitive, and I never will have."

These single sentences ultimately ran to a pamphlet-worth of material, which was published in 1998 under the title Megjött Ézsaiás (Isaiah Has Come). The author originally wanted to deliver it to his friends personally, but in the end it came out via the usual book retailing channels, although in terms of publicity it was a very low-key event.

War and War tells the story of the strange adventures or the obsession of a rural archivist in long and convoluted compound sentences. Dr György Korim, who works in the archives of a small town, one day finds a mysterious typescript. There is no clue who its author was, when or where it was written, or for what purpose. Korim reads it through in one sitting and decides that "he must do something", that this document should not go back into the archives, but forward into immortality where it belongs. Breaking all ties with his family and workplace, he sells everything he owns and sets off like a sleepwalker for "the epicentre of the world", New York, where he intends to type the text of the manuscript into a computer and puts it on the world-wide web, which he considers to be a safer medium than anything else for something eternal. As for this wonderful manuscript, it is about five men who appear at different times and places in history. Four of them are companions and friends, good, kind men who always appear together, while the fifth one, Mastemann, is some kind of an enemy, a demonic figure, and his appearance always presages something dreadful. "The manuscript seems to be a sacred text, a divine proclamation that Korim's human words can never reproduce, because the reader could never see the original text, only hear about it in reported speech as Korim interprets it to a Puerto Rican girl, who of course has no idea of what he is talking about, and in the occasional "quotes" of  the narrator who informs us of what Korim taps into the laptop."  (Miklós Györffy)

After rescuing the manusript and taking it to "heaven", Korim becomes entranced by a photo of a work of art representing an Eskimo igloo, and goes to visit the museum in Schauffhausen (Switzerland) where the original is kept. Here we lose sight of him, but his story does not end there, since the author intended his tale to continue in real life.

The writer made a CD-ROM for those who want to get acquainted with the whole work called War and War, because, as he says, only this CD includes the whole relevant material. Krasznahorkai says that this work contains four chapters: the sentences in the periodicals, the book Isaiah Has Come, the novel War and War, and the fourth chapter is about what happened in reality. The final wish of the protagonist is that the last sentence of the novel should be written on a commemorative plaque and should be placed on the wall of that museum in Schaffhausen. It is about how a fictitious figure, György Korim can  break through the borders of fiction. One can find these four chapters on the CD-ROM in a chronological order, but it adds something else to it. It introduces a new character who unintentionally starts to destroy what is written down. A booklet was also published with the CD-ROM, containing additional photos and texts.

If you visit the homepage (www.warandwar.com) in reality, you no longer find Korim's manuscript there, only a short message.

Északról hegy, Délrol tó, Nyugatról utak, Keletrol folyó (To the North A Mountain, to the South a Lake, to the West Roads, to the East a River, 2003): "I've been wanting to write a novel devoid of human characters for years. Now this is it" - Krasznahorkai said about his latest novel.

In 2003 László Krasznahorkai came out with a book that is also special in appearence. The words that make up the long title are arranged on the cover in a form reminiscent of a Japanese ink drawing. The book opens with chapter two. The blurb informs us that "there is no first chapter in this novel. There exists a first chapter, but not in the novel. It is in a different space, and each sentence in this novel takes its strength from this other space." The novel is based on the esoteric and philosophical ideas as well as the precise and exquisite description of the material culture - architecture, garden-making, plants, etc. - of the ancient Japanese. "The setting is Japan, the protagonist - this term here denotes a shadow only, a void, the place of the protagonist - is "Prince Genji's grandson", but its real protagonist is a deserted, ruined Buddhist monastery in Kyoto. Prince Genji's grandson is a "grandson", a descendant of an ancient culture, embodying the continuity of tradition, or, more precisely, of a confidence in tradition."[V1]  (Miklós Györffy) He arrives in Kyoto by the ultramodern Keihan express train. But has he really arrived? Because in the eighth chapter we read that no one had either alighted or boarded the train at the mentioned spot. Prince Genji's grandson is in search of a garden that he first glimpsed in an illustrated book called One Hundred Beautiful Gardens and was captivated by immediately. The classical literary topos of the garden is interpreted in Krasznahorkai's narrative as an oriental symbol of ultimate truth, or perhaps redemption. The garden exists, it is described in Krasznahorkai's book in detail, but Man is too imperfect to see it. This novel is a purely metaphysical, spiritual journey and an effort to clear up the image of beauty and simplicity in this "rotten world".

Krasznahorkai is also noted for his screenwriting collaboration with director Béla Tarr on the films Kárhozat (Damnation, 1987), and two films based on Krasznahorkai's novel, the seven-and-a-half hour Sátántangó (Satan's Tango, 1994) and Werckmeister-harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2001), based on The Melancholy of Resistance.

Péter Pál Tóth

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