“Last Wolf and Herman” by László Krasznahorkai [Why This Book Should Win]

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Tom Roberge, formerly of New Directions, co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar, and co-host of the Three Percent podcast.


Last Wolf and Herman by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and John Batki (Hungary, New Directions)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 49%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 7%

Now that my conflict of interest stemming from my working relationship with New Directions has officially come to an end, I can finally exploit this platform to advocate for one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors; indeed, he is perhaps the world’s greatest living author. Yes, I feel that strongly about his work. And I’m not alone: two consecutive BTBA jury panels agreed with me, awarding him the 2013 prize for Satantango and the 2014 prize for Seiobo There Below. Which is not to say that I’m here to campaign on behalf this book based on the flimsy argument that since he’s won before, he should win again. For one thing, this isn’t sports, and previous performance is not much of an indication of future success; in fact, his previous wins might work against him, the idea being that maybe it’s time to let someone else get a few moments in the spotlight. Secondly, and piggybacking on the latter part of my first point a bit, I absolutely believe that this book should stand on its own merit, but concurrently believe that it deserves fair adjudication despite its author having won twice before; perhaps I’ve jury-rigged a straw man here for the sake of creating this tabla rasa, but I do feel it’s important, from both sides, to consider this book as seriously as if he’d never won before.

Okay, enough with process and procedure. Let’s move on to the book itself. Or rather, books. This slim volume is actually two novellas, published together because they definitely relate to each other, prey on each other, feed on each other. And yet the styles are distinct. The Last Wolf centers on an ill-cast writer who’s whisked away to a remote part of Spain to document, in a way, the impending extinction of a local breed of wolf. This is classic Krasznahorkai material in the best possible way. And as such, he employs the style he’s perhaps best known for: long, long sentences. In this case the entire 70-page novella is one sentence, the writer’s tale narrated to a bartender, back home, some time after the events he describes. Much has been written about this style, all of it far more intelligent than I could muster here, so I will offer a simple assessment, from the point of view of an entranced reader. The point, if you will, of the style is that the tale itself, the truth at the center of it, the meaning, if there is any, is elusive, and contextual, and impossible to isolate. It must be constantly appended and amended, made clearer, more expansive, more encompassing. The effect, to me at least, is that the story becomes both universal in its impact and nebulous in its essence. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a book.

Here’s just a taste, in which you’ll see that the repeated variations of the details, of the descriptors, seems like he’s grasping for just the right way to explain something, but still coming up short, and finally feeling the need to trudge on with the tale, but feeling trapped by the demands of truth, of specificity. It’s so real and so breathtaking to behold:

. . . it’s just an enormous, mercilessly barren, flat place, with a few small hills generally near the border, horrible dry, the hills bare, the earth dried out, with hardly any people since life was as hard as it could be there, serious poverty, an utterly parched place, why the hell go to Extremadura, when you could come visit us in Barcelona, his two warm-hearted philosophy-loving friends exhorted him, Barcelona being a proper place, but no, her told the barman who was looking cross because, despite having turned down the volume on the cassette-player, he still couldn’t understand what his customer wanted, no, he was going to Extremadura and if there wasn’t much there then it would suit him down to the ground, he wouldn’t look out of place himself, that’s if the invitation was for real, for he was constantly in doubt about everything to the extent that he started worrying about it all over again, looking out at the drug dealers, staring at the floor, at the bar, repeating to himself the word, Extrenadura, then sending another e-mail to which the answer was even plainer than before, and so it must all be true, he told the Hungarian barman, who asked: what is true? at which point he shrugged, saying, never mind, then gestured for another bottle . . .

* * *
In contrast to this, Herman, the second novella, its binary star, is told in a more straightforward style. The titular Herman is a trapper-hunter, hired to rid a town’s forest of its dangerous and “noxious” beasts. In this case it’s best not to give too much more plot away, even if New Directions has no qualms about it; what’s important is that the first half of Herman allows the reader to see Herman’s actions through his own eyes, while the second presents a stranger’s point of view on the same set of actions. There are full stops. Even a few paragraph breaks! So instead Krasznahorkai adopts a style that keeps the real action, the intended goals, the motivations—all of it—lingering just beneath the surface, obscured and opaque. But he also presents the details, the minor progressions, degradations, in minutely composed vignette-sentences that each tell their own small story, one capable of drawing on a range of emotions before ending with a gut punch. For example:

The huge male fox with a thick coat of fur had frozen stiff in a most peculiar pose: his tail, butt, and rear legs had come to rest heavily on the sodden ground, and the two upright curved irons that slammed together to catch him by the neck, crushing it (in a single horrendous instant, as Herman was well aware) also lifted the beast’s upper body and held it in the air; only the head frozen in a snarl and forelegs resting one on the other in a deathly-tame gesture were pointing at the muddy ground, downward, surrendering, conquered.

* * *
Taken together, the novellas represent a powerful overview of the author’s virtuosity, acuity, and mastery over language, along with the translators’ astonishing abilities in terms of transforming what I imagine is very difficult, dense Hungarian into such fluid and striking English. If that’s not what the Best Translated Book Award is meant to honor, than I have been grossly misled.

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