Over at the Quarterly Conversation, David Auerbach discusses the work of Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai:
In the post-war years, many European authors, especially those from Communist states, engaged in surrealism, parable, and allegory as a way of containing the mid-century chaos that spilled over from the war, where the psychology and rationality of modernism no longer seemed capable of fighting the irrationality of Nazism and Communism. While there have been some stunning works by Ludvik Vaculik (The Guinea Pigs)1, Bohumil Hrabal (I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude), Imre Kertész (Detective Story, Liquidation), and others, this general approach has more frequently produced limp sentimentality and disposable weirdness (Milan Kundera and Victor Pelevin, spring to mind). Within their own works, Günter Grass and Ismail Kadare have met with both success and disaster plowing this field.
It is Krasznahorkai who has, to my knowledge, engaged in the deepest investigation of how these metaphorical understandings are formed, how they succeed, and, most importantly, how they fail. Like Kertész at his best, he questions the process of making meaning.
Beginning with Satantango in 1985, Krasznahorkai has written, along with stories and scripts, at least half a dozen novels. Only two of these, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War and War (1999), have been published in English (in translations by George Szirtes), though further efforts are currently afoot.
On Melancholy of Resistance (which is an amazing book):
In outline, The Melancholy of Resistance is the story of the visit of a carnival to a small Hungarian town. The carnival brings its two main attractions, “The biggest whale in the world” held dead and preserved in a trailer, and The Prince, a chirruping demagogue who ominously speaks through his interpreting “factotum” and foments mass riots. After great violence The Prince’s followers are eventually subdued, and after the departure of the carnival a new order is established by the tyrannical Mrs. Eszter, who has placed the town under martial law.
And War and War:
In War and War, the misfit archivist Korin finds that space as he attempts to translate and publish online a mysterious manuscript that describes four distraught men traveling through different historical eras and locales. They repeatedly encounter a nemesis figure named Mastemann, another figure like Mrs. Eszter who seeks a new world order where “money and all that stems from it would no longer be dependent on an external reality, but on intellect alone.” He is always wrong, of course: the 16th-century Genoa that he lives in and extols would lose half its population to plague in the following century and suffer permanent decline thereafter. Mastemann’s efforts become just another form of war against the uncontrollable terror of which Blumenberg speaks.
As Korin recounts the manuscript’s story to his translator, it becomes evident that he has been pulled into a space halfway between mythical history and the present day. It has sensitized him to, well, something. He sees the skyscrapers of New York as ziggurats, towers of Babel. The effects are not salutary; he becomes unable to cope with the contemporary world around him, even as he fails to comprehend the import of the manuscript.
This is a really interesting article that’s definitely worth reading. (There’s a lot more in there than simple descriptions of the two translated books.) Which comes as no surprise—I know David personally, and he may well be the most avid (and intelligent) Krasznahorkai fan in the world.
1 Soon to be reprinted by Open Letter
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