20 June 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Jason Newport on The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, published by Harper Perennial.

Here’s the beginning of Jason’s review:

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the age of fifty.

Loss of life, voluntary or otherwise, permeates Borbély’s writing, evoking a preemptive grief for what must pass away—often violently and suddenly. Yet framing the loss and stitched inextricably through it is all the gusty, aching richness of life lived in spite of its inevitable transience; the animating spirit of its time, for good or ill. This same “epoch-making” quality that author Péter Nádas identifies in Borbély’s poetry was embraced in Borbély’s fiction by the Hungarian public upon the sensational publication of The Dispossessed (2013), Borbély’s first and only novel, which topped the country’s best-books-of-the-year lists and prompted widespread conversation by ruthlessly stripping the mask of collective nostalgia from the brutal face of intractable poverty in rural villages.

For the rest of the review, go here.

20 June 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the age of fifty.

Loss of life, voluntary or otherwise, permeates Borbély’s writing, evoking a preemptive grief for what must pass away—often violently and suddenly. Yet framing the loss and stitched inextricably through it is all the gusty, aching richness of life lived in spite of its inevitable transience; the animating spirit of its time, for good or ill. This same “epoch-making” quality that author Péter Nádas identifies in Borbély’s poetry was embraced in Borbély’s fiction by the Hungarian public upon the sensational publication of The Dispossessed (2013), Borbély’s first and only novel, which topped the country’s best-books-of-the-year lists and prompted widespread conversation by ruthlessly stripping the mask of collective nostalgia from the brutal face of intractable poverty in rural villages.

The last major work published in Borbély’s lifetime, The Dispossessed presents a memory play filled with disjunct scenes of the author’s early childhood in the 1960s in the remote border-village of Túrricse, scenes so scantly fictionalized they might as readily be called memoir. Through the eyes of a small boy, the middle of three children, those scenes reveal a squalid, terrifying life in a close-minded community rife with physical disfigurement and sickness; sunk in prejudice and despair; dominated by cruelty, molestation, violence, and the immanence of death, especially the death of innocent young creatures.

Beaten continually by both their parents, the boy and his elder sister most dread their mother’s moments of suicidal desperation, when the children have to cling to her bodily to keep her from hanging herself in the attic or hurling herself down the well. Their mother, in turn, lives in terror of losing her youngest, an infant boy called the Little One, to any witless accident, as when she catches her kids playing “the cosmonaut game” with plastic bags over their heads, including the baby’s, turning the Little One’s lips “a purplish blue.” Their father’s constant frustration, driving him to drink, is being denied work by the communist collective, ostensibly for past mistakes on the job, actually because unshakeable old gossip deems him the bastard son of a Jew who lived across the road from his well-to-do parents’ house until the murderous roundups during the Second World War. The narrator’s mother sees the fundamental conviction behind the crushing social conformity that makes her husband embarrass himself by drinking every night with men who despise him; it is both her nemesis and her singular hope, and as readers throughout Hungary recognized, it remains almost as pervasively true today as it was fifty years ago:

No one who is born here ever wishes to go anywhere else. No one ever thinks it’s possible to live somewhere else. To raise a family somewhere else. To build a house somewhere else. Far away from the river, where you wouldn’t have to be afraid of the floods every spring. That’s how peasants think.


“But we are not peasants,” the children’s mother insists. “We’re going to leave here.”

Their mother’s view is diametrically opposed by that of their father’s sister, the children’s vibrant Aunt Máli, the most piquant character in the book. Barefoot, dwarfish, two-toothed, and vulgar beyond compare, Máli is a gleeful fixture at funerals, important social occasions where everyone scrutinizes every detail for faults. Untainted by the Jewish question clouding her brother’s fortunes, Máli is a thoroughgoing thing of the village, drowning her secret pains like a bagful of kittens in a river of manic laughter and alcohol.

Appalling as the systemic abuse and dirt-poor conditions are for the family, Borbély freely admits in interviews that they didn’t even have it the worst in the village. That distinction goes to the dark-skinned Roma consigned to dwelling at the far end of Gypsy Row, close to the narrator’s meager home. When outhouses need mucking, the village men disdainfully summon the gentlest of Gypsies, a man named Messiyah, by asking in front of the local tavern, “Has Messiyah left yet?” As rendered in English, the title The Dispossessed refers mainly to the fallen class status of the family, who come from former landowners or “kulaks” on both sides; in Hungarian, Borbély’s title Nincstelenek: Már elment a Mesijás? pointedly pairs the idea of penniless “have-nots” with the critical question of the departure of one whose name deliberately echoes the Messiah. Here, Borbély suggests, is a place even salvation might turn its back on.

Borbély often approaches such moral challenges in mythic or religious guise, particularly in relation to Jewish matters. Here the reflexive hatred of Jews, who loom disproportionately large in the local imagination, even (or especially) in the virtual absence of any Jewish population, turns out to mean more than mere anti-Semitism, lumping together as the villagers do under the catchall word “Jew” anyone with any ambition or means to escape the village’s constraints. In such subconscious manner is the Other-as-Jew regarded as an existential threat to the community, and so roundly cursed at every turn (even using the outhouse is sarcastically called “going to pay the Jew”). Yet it is in a like manner that the children’s mother fights to keep her tenuous dream, her reason to endure, alive:

“Why are we different?” I ask.
“Because we are not from here,” says my mother.
“So does that mean we, too, are Jews?” my sister asks.
“That we will be,” answers my mother.


Both in characters and lack of predictable shape, The Dispossessed owes a fair amount to Chekhov. (Hypochondriac Aunt Máli wears black as if she’s a much older woman; when asked what she’s mourning, she blithely snaps, “My wretched whore life.”) More surprisingly it nods to Vonnegut, too: from the outset, the boy, fascinated with prime numbers, marks each and every encounter with a prime, whether in ages, dates, or quantities, by noting that the number “can’t be divided, only by itself, and one.” So it goes. Yearning for the indivisible is what braces the child; math helps when all else hurts. But another autobiographical novel that The Dispossessed perhaps most echoes in terms of grinding poverty and insurmountable prejudice is The Color of Smoke (1975), Menyhért Lakatos’s bildungsroman of a teenage Roma boy in early 1940s Hungary. Where Lakatos, however, uses earthy adolescent sex and humor to leaven a creeping sense of frailty and doom, Borbély takes a poet’s more lyrical tack, no less raw in language or color, but far lighter in touch, accumulating featherweight scenes to arrive at what Borbély calls, in his phenomenal poetry collection Berlin•Hamlet (also translated by award-winner Ottilie Mulzet), “the non-existent terminus” where art and life meet in transit through time.

In so doing, for all its heartbreak, The Dispossessed avoids the ultimate grimness of later life: in 2000, at Christmastime, Borbély’s aged parents were assaulted by burglars in a home invasion, his mother beaten to death and his father knocked senseless, the assailants never brought to justice. Borbély cast his response to that horrible event in poetry, in Halotti pompa: Szekvenciák (Splendors of Death: Sequences), then cast his mind back further in prose to the shared suffering of those formative years. A trial and a testament, The Dispossessed is also a filial portrait of love and perseverance in the midst of despond, a candlelight faithfully tended against the infinite darkness without.

6 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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 Jarrod Annis of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY.



Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary, New York Review Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 54%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 14%

This was the last collection of poetry completed by Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély before his untimely death in 2014. Part confession, part correspondence, part phantasmagorical travelogue through scenes of collective cultural trauma, Borbély’s poetry is haunting, melancholic, and tender. These poems reach outward, involving the reader both directly and indirectly in an interior journey that jostles between memory, reflection, correspondence and time.

A sense of ending recurs throughout Berlin – Hamlet—the arrival at an end of all things, the inevitability which pervades Borbély’s poems and lives with the reader long after the book has been closed. It is a space created within the reader that Borbély refers to:

Yes, I could express it simply by saying
that our conversation left in me
a vacant space. Since then, every
day contains this space.

Borbély draws readers through his poems in an unwavering trajectory, yet when we reach the other side, we realize that it was merely a phantom hand guiding us, and we miss it.

20 May 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday afternoon, as we were recording Three Percent podcast #99, it was announced that László Krasznahorkai had won the 2015 Man Book International Prize, becoming the only the sixth winner of the biennial award, and the first winner since Ismail Kadare in 2005 who doesn’t write in English.

From the judges:

In László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, a sinister circus has put a massive taxidermic specimen, a whole whale, Leviathan itself, on display in a country town. Violence soon erupts, and the book as a whole could be described as a vision, satirical and prophetic, of the dark historical province that goes by the name of Western Civilisation. Here, however, as throughout Krasznahorkai’s work, what strikes the reader above all are the extraordinary sentences, sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths, their tone switching from solemn to madcap to quizzical to desolate as they go their wayward way; epic sentences that, like a lint roll, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things as they accumulate inexorably into paragraphs that are as monumental as they are scabrous and musical.

And Marina Warner:

László Krasznahorkai is a visionary writer of extraordinary intensity and vocal range who captures the texture of present day existence in scenes that are terrifying, strange, appallingly comic, and often shatteringly beautiful. The Melancholy of Resistance, Satantango and Seiobo There Below are magnificent works of deep imagination and complex passions, in which the human comedy verges painfully onto transcendence. Krasznahorkai, who writes in Hungarian, has been superbly served by his translators, George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet.

My favorite part of the official press release has to be this paragraph:

Krasznahorkai and his translator George Szirtes were longlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Satantango and Krasznahorkai has won the Best Translated Book Award in the US two years in a row, in 2013 for Satantango and in 2014 for Seiobo There Below.

Go BTBA!

For winning the award, Krasznahorkai will receive £60,000, and he “has chosen to split the £15,000 translator’s prize between two translators, George Szirtes (who translated Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance) and Ottilie Mulzet (who translated Seiobo There Below).”

If you’re not already a Krasznahorkai fan and reader, you can find out more about all of his works via Scott Esposito’s Guide for the Perplexed and Fascinated.

29 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After winning the Best Translated Book Award for the second year in a row, László Krasznahorkai stopped by the New Directions offices and made a short acceptance speech.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

László Krasznahorkai becomes the first repeat winner, and Elisa Biagini and her three translators take home the poetry award in this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

After much deliberation, Seiobo There Below, Krasznahorkai’s follow-up to last year’s BTBA winner, Satantango, won the 2014 BTBA for Fiction. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and published by New Directions, the jury praised this novel for its breadth, stating “out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history.”

The jury also named two runners-up: The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray and published by Yale University Press; and A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter, and published by Other Press.

On the poetry side of things, this year’s winner is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions.

According to the jury, “from the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both ‘guest’ and ‘host’). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to ‘attend and rediscover’ the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, ‘the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.’”

The two poetry runners-up are Claude Royet-Journoud’s Four Elemental Bodies, translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, published by Burning Deck, and Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, and published by BOA Editions.

As in recent years, thanks to Amazon.com’s giving program, $20,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the winning authors and translators.

Krasznahorkai is the first author—or translator—to win the prize more than once. His novel Satantango, translated by Georges Szirtes and also published by New Directions, won last spring. Seiobo There Below is the sixth of his works to appear in English, the others being Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, Animalinside, and The Bill.

The Guest in the Wood is the first collection of Elisa Biagini’s poetry to appear in English translation, despite her reputation in her home country of Italy. In addition to writing poetry in both Italian and English, Biagini is a translator herself, having translated Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and others into Italian. She also edited an anthology of contemporary American poetry.

This is the seventh iteration of the Best Translated Book Awards, which launched at the University of Rochester in the winter of 2007. Over the past seven years, the prize has brought attention to hundreds of stellar works of literature in translation published by dozens of presses. Earlier this month, at the London Book Fair, the BTBA received the “International Literary Translation Initiative Prize” as part of the inaugural International Book Industry Excellence Awards.

To celebrate this year’s winners and the award itself, all supporters of international literature are invited to The Brooklyneer (220 West Houston, NYC) from 6pm-9pm on Friday, May 2nd for drinks and appetizers. This event is open to the public.

The nine judges who made up this year’s fiction committee are: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books.

And the five poets and translators who made up the poetry committee are: Stefania Heim, Bill Martin, Rebecca McKay, Daniele Pantano, and Anna Rosenwong.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.

We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history. The book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.

As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:

We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.

We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.

15 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

All 25 titles on the 2014 Fiction Longlist are spectacular, so I’m sure this was a pretty brutal decision making process. Anyway, here are your final ten books:

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)

6 January 14 | Chad W. Post |

The new issue of The White Review is incredibly stacked. There’s an interview with Vladimir Sorokin. A piece by Enrique Vila-Matas. Poems by Gerður Kristný. Art by Mark Mulroney (we used to drink together and go to Rochester Red Wings games!).

But if that’s not enough, or, if you’re too cheap to spend the £14.99 (UK) / £18.99 (Rest of World) (which, to be honest, is pretty steep given the awful exchange rate . . . I could buy a hundred sandwiches for the cost of a subscription), you should definitely check out all the free online content.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Vertical Motion by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (You can buy the entire collection here.);

  • To Kill a Dog by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Lanctot;

  • The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet;

  • The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke;

  • Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu;

  • Leg over Leg by Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

I don’t need Bookish’s algorithm to state that if you check out all of those samples, you’ll find at least one book that you’ll want to read.

26 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by P.T. Smith on László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, from New Directions.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or didacticism. His novel is an insistence that the rapturous does exist, can be met, and that, although there are great risks in receiving or creating such an experience, it is something humans should not forget to strive for. For Krasznahorkai, that something is to help keep this focus on a single theme from drowning the reader; it is an endless theme, with infinite variations. This is seen even in the structure of the novel—a series of stories that are plot- and character-wise independent from each other—numbered by the Fibonacci sequence, suggesting that each builds off the one preceding it and that this building can continue endlessly, and is a naturally occurring beauty.

Reading a single chapter is a rewarding and complete experience in itself and tells the story of some encounter, or missed encounter in a few cases, with a work of art—whether it be a mask, dance, statue, painting, architecture—that surpasses the mundane and comprehensible experiences that make up the vast majority of our lives. None is dependent on the one before or the one after, but there is that sequence, and a pattern of reoccurrences—hand gestures, eyes opening and closing, mirrors helping someone try to comprehend a whole work—while each takes on an entirely different perspective from which to glimpse the spiritual. Time is no barrier: some encounters are set hundreds of years ago, some in an unnamed time, in the future; location is also not a barrier, as the encounters are set all over the world, with Kyoto as the beating heart that is returned to again and again. The fact that no place or time is less fully realized than another is a major accomplishment.

For the rest of the review, go “here:“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=8742.

26 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or didacticism. His novel is an insistence that the rapturous does exist, can be met, and that, although there are great risks in receiving or creating such an experience, it is something humans should not forget to strive for. For Krasznahorkai, that something is to help keep this focus on a single theme from drowning the reader; it is an endless theme, with infinite variations. This is seen even in the structure of the novel—a series of stories that are plot- and character-wise independent from each other—numbered by the Fibonacci sequence, suggesting that each builds off the one preceding it and that this building can continue endlessly, and is a naturally occurring beauty.

Reading a single chapter is a rewarding and complete experience in itself and tells the story of some encounter, or missed encounter in a few cases, with a work of art—whether it be a mask, dance, statue, painting, architecture—that surpasses the mundane and comprehensible experiences that make up the vast majority of our lives. None is dependent on the one before or the one after, but there is that sequence, and a pattern of reoccurrences—hand gestures, eyes opening and closing, mirrors helping someone try to comprehend a whole work—while each takes on an entirely different perspective from which to glimpse the spiritual. Time is no barrier: some encounters are set hundreds of years ago, some in an unnamed time, in the future; location is also not a barrier, as the encounters are set all over the world, with Kyoto as the beating heart that is returned to again and again. The fact that no place or time is less fully realized than another is a major accomplishment.

The characters that each chapter centers on also vary wildly. While some are calm, passive, many are barely able to contain themselves, though it isn’t always clear if their agitated, anxious states are natural to them or comes from their approach to the immanent; some are creators, others are seekers, and not always intentionally. The differences aren’t simply for variety, to keep a reader from drifting into boredom. It instead expresses that there is no essential nature that someone can lack that will prevent them from the rapturous encounter. We meet a man who “could not even pronounce the word miracle,” yet who experiences one nevertheless; we have a Bernhardian madman, giving a “lecture” that becomes a rant that exhausts his audience, raging against everything that is not or has damaged his sublime, the Baroque. That the sublime is open to all does not mean, however, that all approaches to art will be successful.

Seiobo There Below is full of contradictions and the necessity of opposing forces. As Krasznahorkai presents it, two key pairs to both the creation of art and the experience of it are effort and surrender, and knowing and not knowing. Both sides are necessary in the creation of the true work of art, but finding balance is a constant adjustment, not a straight line to walk, but rather like canoeing to an island across the currents of a great lake. Creating the works of art in each chapter takes great effort and care, but too much and the balance is lost. Mistakes are allowed, even necessary because then grace can take over. A Buddhist abbot worries and stresses and relentlessly practices with his monks to prepare for a ceremony to return a restored Amida Buddha statue to its place, but in the end, admits:

Exalted Buddha, how fallible they were, how unworthy, how many mistakes, how many errors, how many times they faltered in the texts, how often the great drum beat at the wrong time, and above all how many wrong steps before the alter, how much uncertainty and how many were perplexed, and they could not free themselves, and all the same, they did it, they were capable of that much, they had not fallen short of their abilities . . .

If human effort were enough, then the accomplishment, the experience, would never surpass the mundane. And it is not only in the art that surrender is necessary, that its value is seen in an experience. A isolated carver of Noh masks goes on a bike ride, straining up hills, sweaty and tired, “but then comes the downward run, and the wondrous, the inexpressible tranquility of the forest, its refreshing beauty, its inconceivable monumentality.” This effort cannot be desirous, however: “. . . his own experience taught him that if there is within him the desire to create an exquisite mask, then he will unavoidably and unconditionally create the ugliest mask possible.” The protagonist who has the greatest desire for his personal sublime misses it entirely, is blinded by it because he did not approach it without desire, and ultimately meets a tragic end.

Throughout each chapter, the approach that matters most is one of great concentration, to put all of one’s focus into looking at a painting, the detail in the surfaces of the walls of the Alhambra, or into carving a mask, mixing a paint. There are always the distractions of the world, currents against an individual, and Krasznahorkai compels us to find a way of escaping it, of being within a moment, across from an object of grace and beauty.

Getting to that moment means approaching understanding, but only approaching; this understanding is separate from gathering knowledge in the pursuit of certainty. Many of the works of art in Seiobo There Below are surrounded by uncertainty or dispute about their creators. Scholars argue over the true painter, and more than once, when fact and evidence provide an answer, their disappointment in being wrong, or in the painter being a “nobody” instead of a famous talent, leaves them never coming close to truly experiencing the painting. The one who does experience the height of the power of the artwork never seeks such certainty, only recognition of the work itself. We as readers, however, are privileged, and are told the stories behind some of the paintings; we are allowed to understand more, to know more, without risking beauty, because we are not desirous for each work in themselves, but instead meeting the whole spiritual plane they are each breaching.

One of the wonderful contradictions of the novel is that as he is warning us against having too much faith in knowledge, Lázló Krasznahorkai’s knowledge is terrifying. To truly experience an artwork, someone shouldn’t be bothered by having no knowledge of who created it. To accomplish this, Krasznahorkai writes from a nearly omniscient perspective: the narrator explains in detail, naming each tool used in the original language (the specific terms and titles seem endless), how to prepare a painting in 1500, both the science and ritual of how a statue is renovated in 2050, how to carve a Noh mask, and so on. It creates the sense that the narrator couldn’t possibly be an earthly man; not only could no one know so much, but it’s been made obvious that such clear and complete knowledge would cut off the rapturous instead of expanding and sharing it. Trickily, however, there are still unknowns, not pieces held back, but things even this narrator does not know, and those moments are filled with even greater awe, as when we explore the Alhambra together.

This companionship is another contradiction of Seiobo There Below. Like the chapters of the book themselves, humans throughout the book are isolated, self-contained, but at the same time, most of the works described arise when those discrete people work together. The story of disciples splitting the work with a master, or being involved in a key part of the process, is told again and again, even as the disciples are also a source of risk and agitation for the master. In “Il Ritorno in Preguia,” a master who has lost commitment to his work only regains it after his “most faithful disciple” spends his nights thinking and dreaming of the secrets of the colors of his master’s paints, and later goes on to mix those paints, which contain a uniqueness that gives the master’s art its essence.

All of these ideas, convictions, and contradictions are expressed in Krasznahorkai’s famously long, comma- and semicolon-filled sentences. It is not style for the sake of style or distinctiveness, however. The breathlessness, the repetitions, the changes of tone, the move from clarity to confusion, all in the space of paragraph-long sentences, bring to life the very experiences described. Agitation and wonder in a character’s being is not something we are just told, but we something we are brought within. Translator Ottilie Mulzet does a remarkable job of abandoning the English sentence structure, but not its sense or beauty to render this book into English. She finds Krasznahorkai’s personal grammar and brings it into English.

Seiobo There Below, both beautiful and intensely focused on the experience of the beautiful, seeks a connection with a spiritual plane neither centered on religious disctinctions, nor disparaging of them. The chapter on a Buddhist statue begins with an epitaph praising Christ. Portrayals of Christ and Buddha are both brought to life with eyes that move, that are somewhere between the endless cycle of opening and closing. That back and forth movenment between the opposites of opened and closed, with a middle ground where, when frozen in a painting or statute, the direction is impossible to discern, again reminds us of contradictions forming a whole. Christ and Buddha may be brought to life, but so may a demon who will “do harm”; in another chapter, a man barely grasping his sanity buys a knife. So Seiobo There Below is not only in praise of the beautiful, but insists on the existence of the terrifying paired with it. Fulfillment and emptiness are both present in the experience of rapture and the return to the mundane, and this is both a warning and a calling. Even if we do not create a demon, we, like a man before a painting of Christ, are left trying to understand a beauty and a sorrow “for creating, for existence, for being, for time, for suffering and for passion, for birth and destruction.”

17 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s installment in The Guardian‘s series of short stories from Eastern Europe is ‘Something Is Burning Outside’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Krasznahorkai, whose Melancholy of Resistance and War & War are both amazing and both in print from New Directions (with Satan Tango forthcoming . . . sometime), is one of Hungary’s most important, and stylistically interesting, contemporary writers.

This story—which is set at an artists’ retreat—is different in tone than the two translated novels, but is compelling in the way that all of Krasznahorkai’s fiction is compelling. And Ottilie Mulzet’s translation reads well. Here’s the opening:

Saint Anna Lake is a dead lake formed inside a crater, lying at an elevation of around 950 metres, and of a nearly astonishingly regular circular form. It is filled with rainwater: the only fish to live in it is the catfish. The bears, if they come to drink, use different paths from the humans when they saunter down from the pine-clad forests. There is a section on the further side, less frequently visited, which consists of a flat, swampy marshland: today, a path of wooden planks meanders across the marsh. It is called the Moss Lake. As for the water, rumour has it that it never freezes over; in the middle, it is always warm. The crater has been dead for millennia, as have the waters of the lake. For the most part, a great silence weighs upon the land.

It is ideal, as one of the organizers remarked to the first-day arrivals as he showed them around – ideal for reflection, as well as for refreshing strolls, which no one forgot, taking good advantage of the proximity of the camp to the highest mountain, known as the Thousand-Metre Peak; thus in both directions – up to the top of the peak, down from the peak! – the foot traffic was fairly dense: dense, but in no way did that signify that even more feverish efforts were not taking place simultaneously in the camp below; time, as was its wont, wore on, and ever more feverishly, as the creative ideas, originally conceived for this site, took shape and in imagination reached their final form; everyone by then having already settled into their allotted space, subsequently furnished and fixed up by their own hands, most obtaining a private room in the main building, but there were also those who withdrew into a log hut, or a shed long since fallen into disuse; three moved up into the enormous attic of the house that served as the camp’s focal point, each one partitioning off separate spaces for themselves – and this, by the way, was the one great necessity for all: to be alone while working; everyone demanded tranquillity, undisturbed and untroubled, and that was how they set to their work, and that was just how the days passed, largely in work, with a smaller share allotted to walks, a pleasant dip in the lake, the meals and the evening sound of singing around the campfire, accompanied by home-made fruit brandy.

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