20 March 14 | Monica Carter

Judge Daniel Medin hands over the reins to Madeleine LaRue, Social Media Manager for Music and Literature.

If, on the one hand, the BTBA aims to bring attention to a neglected work of international fiction, then I’m afraid Seiobo There Below is a poor candidate. Neither the book nor its author, László Krasznahorkai, suffers from a lack of attention; on the contrary, Krasznahorkai is increasingly hailed as one of the most masterful writers of our time. His 1985 work Satantango won the BTBA last year, and generated such excitement that any subsequent book of his was all but guaranteed a place on this year’s shortlist. But if, on the other hand, we wish to use the BTBA to indicate that we have recognized great literature — and I mean truly great, of the kind we all secretly yearn for and yet find so few examples of — then there is no choice but Seiobo There Below.

It is better than Satantango. It is better than nearly everything.

Krasznahorkai, like Beckett, writes like a pilgrim whose temple has been destroyed, who owns nothing but the bruises on his feet. To our astonishment, he shows us that the concerns we thought we had left behind — how to make art as an offering and a plea to the gods, for example — are in fact terribly modern. As we journey through the seventeen chapters of Seiobo There Below — each of which displays remarkable erudition, pathos, and humor — we come to understand the urgency of our spiritual predicament, the poverty and despair that we have chosen and that is beyond our power to undo.

But even there at the edge of the apocalypse, Krasznahorkai offers us two beaten pearls of hope. The first is that the goddess herself, Seiobo, does indeed come down to earth, not to an individual, but to a performance, where everyone is together; the Buddha, too, appears in a crowded room. We are worth very little, but we are not always alone. The second is the very book in our hands, this beautiful text that is itself a kind of prayer, straining toward its breaking point as it reaches for something beyond itself.

Seiobo There Below would have presented challenges to the most skilled of translators, and even under Ottilie Mulzet’s expert hand, the novel barely fits in English — but this is only because it barely fits in language at all. Seiobo There Below is certainly one of the most unwieldy and important books of our young century; its success or failure to win literary prizes will do nothing to change that. But there is not a prize we could offer of which it would be unworthy.

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