László Krasznahorkai after receiving the Man Booker International Award. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Man Booker winner László Krasznahorkai is not “difficult” – only defiant

Seiobo There Below, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, is László Krasznahorkai's most recent novel in English.

Seiobo There Below
László Krasznahorkai. Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Tuskar Rock, 464pp, £16.99

In bookish anglophone circles, the awarding of a major literary prize to an author who writes in a language other than English usually provokes a sort of guilty classroom shuffling. The swotty few seize the opportunity to parade their recondite expertise, while everybody else tries desperately to catch up. Last month, the Man Booker ­International Prize, awarded biennially for a body of work in English or English translation, was given to the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose considerable oeuvre is currently represented in English by just five titles (further translations are in progress).

Asked which of his books he would recommend to new readers, Krasznahorkai replied with wry forbearance that he wouldn’t recommend a particular title; instead, he advised anyone who hadn’t read his work to go out, “sit . . . by the side of a brook, with nothing to do . . . They will eventually meet someone who has already read my books.”

Most people who have read his fiction invoke the names of Gogol, Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett. Krasznahorkai has said that his literary hero is Kafka. The word “difficult” often recurs in discussions of his writing – generally as a term of approbation.

A page of text by Krasznahorkai undoubtedly has an alarming aspect. Commas and semicolons abound but full stops are rare, as are paragraphs. His translator, the poet George Szirtes, refers to the novelist’s “slow lava flow of  narrative, a vast black river of type”. The relentless, almost maniacal quality of page upon page of uninterrupted print reflects the insistent quality of the narrative, in which frantic internal monologue hints at imminent revelations both banal and abysmal.

Krasznahorkai’s first novel, Satantango (1985), is set in a decaying village visited by a charismatic apparition whom the villagers believed to be dead. The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) concerns the appearance in a provincial Hungarian town of a mysterious travelling circus, whose only attraction is a vast preserved whale. In War and War (1999), written while Krasznahorkai was staying in New York with the poet Allen Ginsberg, a middle-aged Hungarian archivist discovers a manuscript of, he believes, transcendent significance. Its peculiar quality – ­“reality reflected to the point of madness . . . the engraving by sheer manic repetition of the matter into the imagination” – echoes the lambent iterations of Krasznahorkai’s own strange and beautiful prose.

The epigraph of Seiobo There Below – “Either it’s night, or we don’t need light” – comes, approximately, from Thelonious Monk via Thomas Pynchon, who used a variant of the line as the epigraph for his novel Against the Day (2006). Light as a source of torment as well as illumination, both practical and metaphorical, is a constant in the volume’s 17 linked stories, which are numbered according to the mathematical Fibonacci sequence connected with the natural world (the cover design is an illustration of H Vogel’s 1979 model for the pattern of florets in a sunflower), and the golden ratio in geometry and art.

Krasznahorkai has lived in both Japan and China, and their landscapes and artistic sensibility haunt this fiction, beautifully translated by Ottilie Mulzet. The first ­story, “Kamo-Hunter”, is an incantatory account of a white stork fishing in the Kamo River, which runs through Kyoto, “the City of Infinite Demeanour, the Tribunal of those Condemned to Correct Behaviour”. The disjunctions between the painstaking ­practice of those who make art and the tense aspiration and avid yearning of its consumers are delineated here with a bleak comic tenderness.

In every narrative, a gaze predominates. It might be the “infinite suggestion of one immortal gaze”, captured by a sculptor in the figure of a Buddha removed for restoration from a Zen monastery. It might be the flickering eyelids of a painting of the dead Christ sought by a troubled tourist in Venice, who regards the picture under the suspicious scrutiny of a museum guard without knowing “that for him there would never be any exit from this building, not ever”. It might be the sun-bedazzled eyes of a visitor to the Acropolis who cannot see the wonder he has come to admire, or the burning eyes of a mysterious, shabby visitor to a Romanian artistic colony who secretly works on a subterranean vision of hell.

The idea of hell roils beneath exquisitely detailed accounts of artistic endeavour: the sizing of panels in Perugino’s workshop; a Noh actor’s preparation for his role; the ­felling of cypress trees for a Shinto shrine. The beleaguered Venetian tourist opens a newspaper to read a headline reporting that Pope Benedict has announced that hell is a physical place, not “a kind of metaphor”.

Krasznahorkai’s final story, a dark counterpoint to the pale serenity of the stork in the Kamo, describes the screaming bronze creatures with bulging, clouded eyes that guard the millennia-old graves of the Shang emperors, reminding us of the “dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall devour us as well”. Yet the fine detail of these captivating pages (not “difficult” to read at all, merely requiring a certain concentrated submission to their rhythms) contains not the vulgar promise of redemption but the defiant flicker of art that endures. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Show Hide image

For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood