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

Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.