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

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser