Between East & West

The popularity of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, this year’s Man Booker International Prize winner, and his position in Hungarian prose and the world of culture are unique, and his work engenders new forms of creativity.

Published : Sep 02, 2015 12:30 IST

Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

“... he immediately knew, immediately grasped that he was caught in a trap, when arriving after a cruel train journey he managed to get himself transported by the bony tuktuk driver in spite of the latter’s schemes to the Asi Ghat, he immediately realized that this should not have happened because he saw the Ganges.”

-- Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Drop of Water

IN Drop of Water , the protagonist of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s story is looking for a connection with the Whole and feels trapped and cheated when he reaches the ghats in Varanasi. In the collection The World Goes On (2013) where Drop of Water was published, Krasznahorkai explores the meaning of culture in institutions and isolated spots of the world in regional and global senses. Culture and its varied forms are a compensation for the absence of the understanding the Whole. This is a dominant aspect of his work.

Hungarians have been obsessed for over two hundred years by the idea that they have a great poetry and literature that cannot be translated into any foreign language. This sense of isolation and deep-seated belief that they cannot be understood was first shattered by the Nobel Prize awarded to Imre Kertesz in 2002 and by the Man Booker Prize awarded to Laszlo Krasznahorkai this year, 2015. The irony of the two prizes is that both Krasznahorkai and Kertesz write prose in sentences which express conditions, considerations and circumstances, sentences which demonstrate that narration itself requires circumspect thought, sentences which either suck in the reader in the vortex of the text and turn them into Krasznahorkai-Kertesz enthusiasts or turn them away.

The Man Booker Prize and the Man Booker International Prize were united in 2005 and since then it has been awarded every two years. Ismail Kadare, the Albanian writer, was awarded first, but between Kadare and Krasznahorkai the prize winners all wrote in English. This year readers of Amitav Ghosh were disappointed that he did not get the prize for Flood of Fire . Marina Warner’s statement for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize justified why fiction written in a foreign language got the prize. “Possessing a world language can make us oddly provincial in outlook,” she said and also stressed that more translations were needed: “The more works make the passage into English, the better will be the results, as one instrument picks up from another to create that region’s music, as it sounds when played in English”. Data reveal that “less than 3 per cent of the U.K.’s literary publishing output every year consists of translated literary work”. The transformation of the Man Booker International Prize to the Man Booker Independent and Foreign Fiction Prize announced in July 2015, with the prize to be awarded from 2016 every year and the prize money divided equally between author and translator, shows that Warner’s statement was accepted.

The popularity of Krasznahorkai and his position in Hungarian prose and the world of culture are unique. Krasznahorkai’s first novel, Satantango , created a sensation in 1985. It was published in Hungary one year before two similarly path-breaking novels, Peter Esterhazy’s Introduction to Literature (1986) and Peter Nadas’s A Book of Memories (1986), two novels that changed the course of Hungarian literature. The motto of Satantango , “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it”, is a reference to Kafka’s Castle and condenses the plot of the novel: the inhabitants in a small settlement— a former mechanic, a doctor, a school director—live on temporary work, or no work, waiting for a change that could stop their degradation or would make it possible to start a new life elsewhere.

Satantango takes place in the area between the East and the West in the buffer zone of Europe where miracles and redeemers are expected. It is the Great Hungarian Plain, the contemporary version of the wasteland or “magyar ugar” that the poet Endre Ady depicted in 1906 as “the rank and ancient land”.

In the novel both Futaki, the unemployed mechanic, and the doctor keep hearing the distant boom of a bell to discover that the sound of the bell comes from a chapel where a lunatic tramp strikes it. The expectation of the miracle is also true of Krasznahorkai’s second novel, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), where the miracle arrives in the form of a giant whale displayed by a circus with its strange characters the Prince and the Director of the Circus. The Prince, a dwarf, incites the crowds who invade and overrun the city and attack public institutions and private homes.

One of the victims of the attacks is Janos Valuska, the main character of the novel, who is carried by the crowd to the location of the attacks. His simplicity, purity and enthusiasm relate him to Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s Idiot .

Krasznahorkai’s novels before the political changes in East Europe in 1989 and after them deal with characters and issues that question accepted interpretations about the transformation. Even though he wrote about poverty and decline in the 1980s, he was highly critical of the complete acceptance of neocapitalism. He said that with “the failure of communism, Marxist philosophy and leftist thought even the last hope seems to be lost to counter the— metaphorically said—disgusting features of present-day world, which we have known about for the last hundred and fifty years”. Krasznahorkai also added that he realised that East European poverty was a form of life that existed globally.

In the novels written after the changes, The Prisoner of Urga (1992), War and War (1999), From North by Hill , from South by Lake , from West By Paths , f rom East by River (2003) and Destruction and Grief under the Sky (2004), new geo-cultural spaces open up. Destruction and miracle, the two elements of Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance continue in Krasznahorkai’s later work connected to China and Japan. The destruction unleashed by capitalism and globalisation is by a contrasted miracle, the insulated spots of culture and beauty.

Though his work was labelled as “visionary” at the Man Booker Prize distribution ceremony, Krasznahorkai is a romantic anti-capitalist of the age of globalisation who examines what happens to various forms of art and culture at the time of globalisation.

The Prisoner of Urga , Krasznahorkai’s first book after the changes of 1989, is the narrative of a journey from the capital of Mongolia (formerly Ulan-Bator renamed Urga) and back. It was a turning point in his work and it came as a shock to Krasznahorkai’s readers and critics.

In an interview with Gabor Forkoli, Krasznahorkai said about these novels: “After my first two books everybody expected that from now on rain will keep on pouring and drunken peasants will ramble about in the Great Hungarian Plain in my novels.... I grew up in a place in Hungary which was bricked up towards the East. Everybody looked towards the West, nobody turned any attention to the East, specially the Far East. We knew Sandor Weores and his Lao-tse translations and Ferenc Tokei’s work about Chinese philosophy. But we were uninformed, and I was, too, about what is the East.”

Self-examination and self-reflection of the narrator play an important role in The Prisoner of Urga . Its motto is “Halfway through the journey of our life” from Dante’s Divine Comedy . The journey is undertaken by the author to reach clarity on issues of the fragmented world. The flow of the language in Krasznahorkai’s novel is similar to the uninterrupted plane of the desert with pauses, straying and rushing forward, similar to the way of travelling on a train such as the Trans-Siberian Express.

The sense of exclusion from understanding the universe drives him to lesser aims to the map as a site of philosophical reflection and also to understand the assemblage of roads, lanes and boulevards in Beijing. Culture and its varied forms are compensation for the absence of understanding the Whole.

Krasznahorkai’s work coincides with the revolution of the media in our age. This also affected his work. He is the scriptwriter and consultant of the Hungarian film director Bela Tarr, who turned many of his novels to films. Satantango was the first work that initiated the collaboration between them. The 430-minute-long film with its 10-minute takes is a collaborative project that was made possible because of Krasznahorkai’s and the other film crew members’ participation. Susan Sontag said about Satantango : “Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.”

The protagonist of Krasznahorkai’s novel War and War , György Korin, works in the archive in the Hungarian countryside where he finds a special manuscript connected to the end of the Minoian Empire, which flourished almost 5,000 years ago until it was destroyed in 1450 B.C., an event that took place without explanation. Korin wants to reach “the centre of the world”, New York, to register and spread the manuscript by computer. At the railway station in the countryside, seven urchins, a gang of robbers ranging in age from 11 to 14 and of “blinding speed” and “perfect coordination”, surround Korin on a railway footbridge with rails, with a railway yard below. The dark sky, the wind, the confluence of trains, the smell of tar and the seven children in a semicircle reproduce the oppressively beautiful scenes of Bela Tarr’s films. In New York, Korin buys a laptop, which enables him to type out the story of the four travellers of the Minoian Empire and message this narrative of decline to all parts of the world. War and War has an extension in the form of a visual CD work.

Krasznahorkai describes in an interview how in post-Maoist China he suddenly realised that he was in the “last great ancient empire”—and he calls this a shattering experience. To search for the continuity of culture after his first visit to Urga and China, he returns again to China after 13 years. In Destruction and Grief under the Sky (2004), the narrator describes how he and his partner move metre by metre and he can see only the nearby pine trees, but the rest are removed in the mysterious fog. He refers to the Chinese painters, Huang Shen and Ying-Yujian, pointing out that there is a kind of close vision that frames and enlarges certain objects for us in our field of vision.

“…from time to time we come across a protruding rock, at other times a ravine, not even guessed before it opens up before our steps, so we are moving step by step on the stairs of the path, and our breath stops again and again and I can see that even the interpreter is enchanted by the special magic of divine nature dipped into fog...”

The title of Krasznahorkai’s next novel, From North by Hill, from South by Lake, from West by Paths, from East by River (2003), is a quotation from a poem by Lao-Tse and is set in the 21st century: When Prince Genji’s grandson, the hero of Shikibu Murasaki’s old Japanese novel, lands in a monastery near Kyoto to find one of the most beautiful gardens he has seen in a book called One Hundred Fine Gardens . This is the “so-called hidden garden” by which “he had been instantly captivated” and “he could never again shake himself free of it”. The garden is one of the oldest examples of heterotopia with its superimposed meanings, and it is a key image in Krasznahorkai’s novel. The beautiful garden coexists with other extraneous events, for example, a dog beaten to a pulp, fishes nailed to the gate, drunken men in European clothes which indicate bestiality.

Of course, the grandson of Genji without noticing passes the entrance of the garden: that is itself a microcosm—“the seemingly endless diversity of crystal systems, classes of crystals, elementary cells and crystal forms”—and drifts away.

In Seiobo there below, the question is raised what is the presence and significance of the creations of culture and religion, for example Bellini’s Christo morto, the Eikand-do, Amitabha Buddha, the Akropolis in the East and the West.

In the essay “To go mad in Paradise”, he emphasises “the dense moment of time, the moment of meeting art” that he expresses in the image of “the blooming of cherry flowers, the unearthly floating”. In Krasznahorkai’s work, there is a search for authentic culture and renewal, located in the space of heterotopias. High culture replaces religion, it is immortal perfection that replaces God. He says in an interview that he is searching for a location with the expectation of “redemption”.

Animal Inside, Krasznahorkai’s work with the artist Max Neumann, is a collaboration where drawing and text complement each other. Krasznahorkai calls AnimalInside “a novel” with the master and the monster as characters. It depicts a monster enclosed in 14 frames, fictional places, which also show fourteen temporal phases of the novel. AnimalInside also initiated a new work. Jaroslav Viòarsky, a Slovakian choreographer and dancer, has recently created a dance piece in four parts based on AnimalInside and performed it with his partner, Marek Mensik, in New York. On the basis of Krasznahorkai’s text and Neumann’s pictures, a different art form was created. Wolf (2009) has generated interest in music. Peter Eotvos, the Hungarian composer, has been interested in Krasznahorkai’s story and this interest shows the new forms of creativity Krasznahorkai’s work engenders. This internationally recognised writing from Hungary enters a variety of other art forms and new affiliations displaying an openness to a range of new initiatives.

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