Why You Should Read Krasznahorkai

László Krasznahorkai is one of the giants of contemporary Hungarian Literature. He recently won the 2014 Best Translated Book Award, making him the first author in history to receive the honour two years in a row. Included below are a few reasons why he is not to be missed, as well as a brief introduction to his oeuvre.
One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.

This is the first sentence from the first novel by László Krasznahorkai, as translated into English by George Szirtes. The name of the chapter is "News of Their Coming" and the book is called Satantango. From the above sentence, chapter title, and the name of the book alone, a reader new to Kraznahorkai's work should get some sense of the thematic/stylistic preoccupations for which the author is known. The "mercilessly long autumn rains" and "cracked and saline soil" evoke a ruthless rural setting poised on collapse. The "stinking yellow seas of mud" that "render footpaths impassable and put the town beyond reach" exacerbate the sense of alienation and dread, hinting at an isolation and remoteness that is purgatorial and absolute, while "Futaki woke to hear bells" hones in on a single figure within all that rich, grey, painterly despair, the bells tolling through the wasteland and signifying - what? An omen? The possibility of redemption? The end of the world? Futaki's madness? Whatever the case, having already at this stage glimpsed  something harrowing and uncanny, the reader has to pause and collect herself for the journey ahead. It will be strange, grotesque, and occasionally comic. It will try their patience and force them to reexamine their notions of literary ambition and scale. It will be something entirely special and they will understand immediately why Susan Sontag calls Kraznahorkai "The Hungarian Master of the apocalypse." 

Five of Kraznahorkai's books have been translated into English to date: The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, Animalinside, Satantango, and Seiobo There Below. The most recent of them, Seiobo There Below (New Directions, 2013), winner of the 2014 Best Translated Book Award, is an interesting book in that it challenges assumptions as to what many think of as the author's governing subject matter: doom-laden rural Hungary. Drawing from Japanese mythology and ranging in settings as disparate as Kyoto to Greece, Seiobo explores, according to the BTBA jury, the "consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history." Throughout the novel, the Japanese goddess Seiobo returns to mortal realms, searching for and inspiring in the lives of artists throughout the ages some redemptive, paradisaical moment of beauty within the profane. 

Approximately a month ago we ran a feature for the BTBA longlist, in which we posted a representative, aphoristic, or in some way iconic  sentence from each title on the longslist. The sentence from Seiobo, chosen by New Directions' Declan Spring, contains a description of an "Ooshirosagi" bird fishing by the water, and the passage contains a near-transcendentalist sentiment that may surprise fans of the feverish, prophetic Hungarian master:

A bird fishing in the water: to an indifferent bystander, if he were to notice, perhaps that is all he would see—he would, however, not just have to notice but would have to know in the widening comprehension of the first glance, at least to know and to see just how much this motionless bird, fishing there in between grassy islets of the shallow water, how much this bird was accursedly superfluous; indeed he would have to be conscious, immediately conscious, of how much this enormous snow-white dignified creature is defenseless—because it was superfluous and defenseless, yes, and as so often, the one satisfactorily accounted for the other, namely its superfluity made it defenseless and its defenselessness made it superfluous: a defenseless and superfluous sublimity. . .

Krasznahorkai is also an ardent collaborator, and some of his best work has been in film and mixed-media. Among his most distinguished collaborators are the cult-director Béla Tarr and the acclaimed German visual artist Max Neumann. Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies is based on The Melancholy of Resistance and his notorious adaptation of Satantango clocks in at a grueling 432 minutes. Kraznahorkai writes Tarr's screenplays, and the apocalyptic vision of the former, the long uninterrupted takes and stark black-and-white cinematography of the latter, and the introspective and cathartic chamber music of Mihály Víg combine to create some of the most uncompromisingly bleak, demanding, and moving films ever made. 2011's The Turin Horse depicts a few days in the life of a father and daughter in denial about the imminence of the apocalypse, who myopically persist in their dead-end rituals and foolish hopes despite the barren, inhospitable landscape and encroaching dark that is inexorably extinguishing them. It is one of the greatest achievements of avant-garde film in this young 21st century.

Conversely, the ratio of landscape to human being is inverted in the surreal and occasionally macabre art of painter Max Neumann, in which ghostly silhouettes and distorted humanoid shapes are foregrounded against largely monochromatic and abstract backgrounds. Neumann's singular work, which recalls by degrees everything from Francis Bacon, Antonin Artaud, and Japanese animation, brings out a different side of Krasznahorkai, as testified by the collaborative Animalinside, beautifully published by Sylph Editions. In this haunting work, Krasznahorkai responds to 14 different artworks depicting a deformed, tortured creature with texts that seem to inhabit the consciousness of Neumann's monstrous creature from within and without. 

The venerable Music & Literature's Spring 2013 Krasznahorkai/Tarr/Neumann issue, featuring work and commentary by Krasznahorkai as well as from his closest collaborators, devoted translators, and most rigorous critics is surely the best place to enter the universe of this contemporary master, while Scott Esposito's handy Krasznahorkai: A Guide for the Perplexed and Fascinated provides a concise and thorough introduction to the man's novels and various, multifaceted projects. These resources, and the peerless novels themselves, confirm Colm Tóibín's assertion that "Krasznahorkai is alone among European novelists now in his intensity and originality" and "[o]ne of the most mysterious artists now at work."


Jesse Eckerlin is a publicity assistant and bookseller at Biblioasis. He published a poetry chapbook with Frog Hollow Press in 2012 called We Are Not the Bereaved

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