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.”
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .