Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming: dense world-building that glitters with comic detail

Set in an imaginary, provincial Hungarian city, this novel is peopled with figures as busy and distinctive as those of a painting by Bruegel.

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“Well and so here we are again, back with fear, because gigantic tomes should be written about that, a new Bible, new Testaments, but nobody has written these, there were incidental murmurs here and there, as is customary with epoch-making thinkers, but I feel strongly the absence of the great fundamental works – the new Principia, the new Divina Commedia, and so on – and everyone should feel their absence.” Thus the Professor, a world authority on mosses and one of the principal protagonists of László Krasznahorkai’s gigantic tome, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, reflects on the meaning of existence in the waiting room of a Hungarian railway station.

In a recent interview, Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, said of his latest novel, “I always wanted to write just one book. I wasn’t satisfied with the first, and that’s why I wrote the second. I wasn’t satisfied with the second, so I wrote the third, and so on. Now, with Baron, I can close this story… Satantango, Melancholy, War and War, and Baron. This is my one book.”

Baron is set in a provincial Hungarian city whose sense of identity is both grandiose and fretful. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of its foundation, the city’s dignitaries plan to honour its most distinguished resident, the Professor, with civic celebrations including a performance of the “world-famous Satantango”. But as the novel opens, the Professor is embroiled in scandal. Overwhelmed with accidie, he takes solitary refuge in a wasteland outside the city, known as the Thorn Bush. Here he is pursued by a young woman who has summoned a large media presence to witness her claim to be his abandoned daughter. His explosive reaction draws the support of a group of biker vigilantes, the Local Force.

As the Professor withdraws from the city, his fellow protagonist, the Baron, advances upon it. Having left Hungary as a young man, he has spent most of his life in Argentina, until his gambling addiction prompted his family to repatriate him. The civic officials, convinced that the returning aristocrat will be a generous benefactor, plan an elaborate welcome ceremony, including a rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” by the local women’s choir, and a surprise reunion with his lost love, Marietta.

Krasznahorkai prefaces his novel with a Warning, in which a demonic impresario harangues a group of musicians about a forthcoming production: “What awaited them now was suffering, bitter, exhausting and torturous work.” At various points in the novel, this satanic figure seems to reappear, always in a silent convoy of gleaming vehicles. Each appearance presages a momentary dislocation of the town’s reality: a sense of paralysing fear that concludes in  violence, chaos and eventual immolation – the only survivor an orphan known as the Idiot Child, who croons an incendiary ditty over the smouldering ruins of the city.

Krasznahorkai has been described as a “master of apocalypse”, his work compared with that of Dostoevsky, Gogol and Melville – all of which tends to enhance the reputation of his writing as stupendous, rather than approachable. Then there is his punctuation, which he deploys as sparingly as some precious condiment (he has observed that the full stop “doesn’t belong to human beings, it belongs to God”). The visual effect of the novel’s 558 densely type-packed pages is as rebarbative as the thickets of prickles that surround the enchanted castles of fairy tales.

Yet enter the thicket, and the prickles begin to retreat. The narrative unfolds in the voices of innumerable townspeople, shifting without warning from one to another. But Krasznahorkai is a pungent delineator of character, and the landscape of his imaginary city is peopled with figures as busy and distinctive as those of a painting by Bruegel. While the novel energetically pursues Krasznahorkai’s habitual themes – disorder, spiritual drought, the impossibility of meaning in the absence of God – it does so in a tone that glitters with comic detail.

At the heart of the novel the Professor delivers a 14-page philosophical monologue that sets out the work’s credo (or non-credo). Only as he concludes is it revealed that his audience is a small stray dog whose tail is “cheerfully wagging”. Meanwhile the Baron, whose Savile Row wardrobe is lovingly detailed, wears a broad-brimmed yellow hat, irresistibly reminiscent of the headgear of Edward Lear’s Quangle Wangle (whose gentle melancholy the Baron shares). There is a vignette of the current Pope; elsewhere the Professor’s housekeeper, Auntie Ibolyka, offers an excellent recipe for Linzer torte.

Baron is not bedtime reading: you need your wits about you. At one point in Ottilie Mulzet’s tirelessly virtuosic translation, a chunk from the Annals of Tacitus appears, in Latin. This is a novel that demands much of its readers, and gives much in return. In an era glutted with fiction as vapid and insubstantial as a Krispy Kreme doughnut, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the real Linzer torte. 

Jane Shilling’s books include “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage)

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming
László Krasznahorkai, trs by Ottilie Mulzet
Serpent’s Tail, 558pp, £20

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 appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question