Category: Krasznahorkai, Laszlo

character demolishing

Laszlo Krasznahorkai trs. Ottilie Mulzet

New Directions, 2013

In chapter 13, “He Rises at Dawn,” me meet a master carver of Noh masks. This story is a single sentence that contemplates the flow of his work routine. LK’s characters in SATANTANGO were vivid and grotesque. Here, it’s like his prose aesthetic has been taken so far that characterization as we think of it is not quite possible. The novel is pretty conservative about characters in the Aristotle sense: characters as vessels of action, which comes in the form of massive chains of words so intensely focalized on various aesthetic objects.

But with the various classical artists like this mask carver, we can glean all kinds of artistic values.

…if there ever even was, his master taught him in his youth — or rather fulfilling the prophecy of his master, 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, this is always, and it is unconditionally always so, hence for a long time now that desire has not been within him, to put it precisely, there is nothing at all within him, the thoughts don’t whirl around, his head is empty as if he had been stunned by something; only his hand knows, the chisel knows why this must happen… (153)

Humble and modest is the artist who empties their heart of desire. The mind is empty too but not inactive. It’s just that only the present moment matters; you need to stay in the moment in general, but also when reading Krasznahorkai lest you get lost in the current sentence.

In Chapter 3, “The Preservation of a Buddha,” a monk says that his temple’s sacred Buddha statue “is knowledge given form, but not knowledge itself” (85). I suspect that’s why the master carver is impatient with “Western curiosity-seekers” who want easy answers from him about the “essence” of Noh theatre.

There’s a high-modernist tendency in the book to look wistfully at the art of the past: it seems so perfect and unified, pure, uncommodified. Fundamentally bound with religion, they constitute a force of their own that devastates the very bodies of the spectators each story. There is a notion in Marxist criticism (but from who? Lukacs?) that it was the very material underdevelopment of the pre-modern societies that made such a unified art possible.

But then there’s chapter 34, “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki,” about a Noh performer. It’s opening sentence is narrated by Seiobo herself; maybe master Kazuyuki is so good at Noh drama that she was intrigued enough to come down. Then she returns “back to the purity of the Heavens, to the sphere inconceivable — which in its own form, resplendent, streaming forth, swelling, is nothing else than a return back to that place where nothing is,” which means she doesn’t exist in her home either (214). This infinite place beyond…we have to narrate our way to it. But its nature of being infinite means narrative is impossible — nothing can happen.

There is no improvisation to Kazuyuki’s work, not even in his work schedule or other prosaic matters.

…even if it seems that way, he never improvises, what happens is not improvisation, absolutely not in the everyday sense of the word, of that they are sure, since the sensei knows everything in advance, and knows it with dead certainty, and this is the general conviction, that’s why only to them does it seem like improvisation, because while it is true that he has a prescribed schedule for every given month, the sensei is eternally open, like a book, which means that in this direct contact with the Heavens, and for that reason he may suddenly be a bit unpredictable…(219)

He has stock narratives he tells the media. He has stories passed to him from his sensei, and “not even one single word may ever be altered, not even a single expression, no one may add anything to it, and no one may take anything away” (226). This is an aesthetics connected to the divine, conserving the absolute. Innovation is degenerate market modernism.

But what about Amoru-san, who describes her upbringing under this sensei:

I only love sensei because sensei is everything, and my father was a very hard man, he beat me every day, every single day, once I knocked over a porcelain vase, then he shoved my head into the iron stove, and he slammed the stove door against my head until I lost consciousness; in a word every single day was painful for me, every blessed day hurt, and I wanted to die, for a long time it wasn’t possible, and then finally it was, and I was already an adult when I first saw sensei, and I knew immediately that I loved him, but nothing was possible, so that is why I jumped in front of a car, and I lay in a coma for seven weeks, the blow had struck my brain, I was between life and death, the doctors said there was nothing they could do, but sensei knew, he knew that I loved only him, so as soon as he found out, he came to hospital and he called me back, I only now sensei and I only love sensei, don’t ask me about anything, so, well, sensei is my goal, before him there was nothing and after him there will be nothing, and I hope that he, too, will love me forever (241-42).

In all our desires for a lost whole, we shouldn’t forget: the anxieties of modernity is still preferable to absolute authority and the loss of the self, in my opinion.

But a lot of sacred art is unattributed, and a good thing too. Chapters 2 and 89 examine authorship, or rather its impossibility before modernity. (Foucault tells us the “author” is the function of a discourse based on private property.)

Because I’ve been hung up on the relation between fiction and nonfiction, I see another theme on this book’s back burner. There is a lot of factual stuff about the works of art and artists concerned, even citing modern scholarship and papers and whatnot. I hear LK is at work on a novel about Melville. This doesn’t shock me because I believe SEIOBO is encyclopedic in the way of MOBY-DICK.

Its’ been argued that the split between fact and fiction is recent and a-historical. The problem begins with Plato when he cast out the poets from his republic, thus turning philosophy into something that is not-literature. But Thucydides feels a lot more like creative nonfiction than traditional academic history. To borrow from Stephen Mulhall, philosophy and literature can be thought of as different kinds of “thoughtfulness” (more in a later post) but perhaps what I like about encyclopedic narratives is the “fusion” of these modes. My tastes go in this way.



Laszlo Krasznahorkai, trans. Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions 2013

I almost had a serious problem. The first chapter of Krasznahorkai’s new book appeared in THE WHITE REVIEW . I was entranced just by the first sentence, 800 words, describing a white crane wading in Kamo river in Japan, doing absolutely nothing except waiting for the moment to strike its prey. Indeed, I didn’t want to get on with the chapter, I only wanted to read that sentence again, and again…

Then by December of last year I got my own copy (signed by the author himself in New York). Again, I only wanted to look at that curtain opener. It wasn’t until the end of June that I finally started reading the rest.

SEIBO is a cycle of short stories concerned usually with art from the old world, but pretty much always with aesthetic questions — it’s an encyclopedic novel full of holy Shinto and Buddhist sites and statuary, Russian iconography, antique literature, Renaissance panels, ancient Greek architecture…I’m still only 2/3 of the way through it.

Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silken breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scourging heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; each individual shallow wave, as it falls, tumbles over the low weirs, and then, every inconceivable fleeting element, this surface suddenly emerging and just as quickly collapsing, with its drops of light dying down… (3)

It was hard to stop typing up the sentence: these are really just going to be arbitrary cut-offs. The message of Heraclitus: the only constant is change. Compared to the extreme stillness of the crane, the whole universe is quivering with movement. The text thrives on difference. There are actually an unusual amount of adjectives in this sequence: most of the time, Krasznahorkai’s eye is so close on the chapter’s given object (a crane, the restoration of a wooden Buddha statue, a painting of angels) that there’s no room for rhetorical ornaments. And yet the long sentences give a sense of expansiveness. Yeah, many of them are technically run ons, but it’s obvious that he’s doing something different here, more paratactic.

The sentence develops as the narrator describes how, eventually, this crane will kill “a fish, a frog, a beetle, a tiny reptile” in a rapid, precise movement.

and there it stands, in one time, immeasurable in its passing, and yet beyond all doubt extant, one time proceeding neither forward nor backward, but just swirling and moving nowhere, like an inconceivably complex net, cast out into time; and this motionlessness, despite all its strength, must be born and sustained, and it would only be fitting to grasp this simultaneously, but it is precisely that, this simultaneous grasping, that cannot be realized, so it remains unsaid, and even the entirety of the words that want to describe it do not appear, not even the separate words; (4)

Animals are great at existing in the eternal present moment. When a puppy dog waits in barely contained anticipation for a piece of jerky, is he conceivably in some “cast out moment” of anticipation that could go on forever if he had to wait that long?

Just when the crane seems to be about to be cast into something (I hesitate to say symbol), we get some shorter sentences (each one is separated by a space break) about the eternal starvation of the animal world, and the surrounding city of Kyoto. Nearby is the famous Higashi-Honganji temple. A tourist in from the Shinkansen station could look on this temple, but

the Higashi-Honganji today does not exist; as the eye looks upon it, the Higashi-Honganji never had a past, or a yesterday or a day before yesterday, there are only thousands and thousands of Allusions to the obscure pasts of the Higashi-Honganji, so that the most impossible situation is created, that there is, so to speak, no Higashi-Honganji of today, just as there never was a Higashi-Honganji at one time, only an Allusion, commanding respect, there is one, there was one, and this Allusion floats across the entire city, as one enters into it, as one tramps across this prodigious empire of wonders, from the To-ji temple to the Enryaku-ji

It comes to represent “the ungraspable, the inconceivable — as it is unreal — in other words: unbearable beauty” (9-10).

Only humans (the embodiment of sloth and evil) need time, before and after. It is the imposition of time that allows us to ruin the sublime indeterminacy of these beautiful objects. They exist out of time until we see and appreciate them and, as the event still transpires, puts it in the past tense: I experienced this, I learned that about the world and that about myself.

So that crane, with no indication of when it will strike, with no visual transition between its stillness and the moment of the strike, which is never narrated, becomes our first encounter with the unnamable realm of beauty and truth; the realm of Seiobo, where we desire to penetrate yet also need to keep unsullied by the world. Modern storytelling takes us to the terrain of what is necessarily inexpressible, and we can see how language gets all messed up as we approach it, like the gravitational lensing around a black hole.

So it’s actually a really scary thought, that Seiobo is, was, and will be, there below. We have to think about how and why these problems of aesthetics haunt us precisely when the aesthetic has devolved into a commodity object and cut itself off from the divine. We walk a line between the holy pilgrimage and the crass consumerism of the tourist.

And not all unbearable beauty inspires love. One story I want to look at closely in a future post shows how the sublime can punish the body without mercy.

One last bit: there’s a little digression in this first chapter, “Kamo Hunter”, about the building of the great water infrastructures in ancient China and other East Asian empires. This was a watershed (sorry) advancement for the development of these civilizations.There’s a role, not explained with the same lucidity as Krasznahorkai brings to other topics, for the ideological and its use of art for the interests of the ruling class, and the assault on the environment these uses entail.


hic et nut


Even thought the narrative events themselves are rather quiet, Krasznahorkai’s prose is so intense that I just plowed through his first novel. i expected something fantastic but i didnt expect to have as much fun as i did. 12 chapters, no paragraph breaks, enumerated I to VI then VI back to I, like a tango, as so many have already said. The dance is at the novel’s mathematical center.

There’s something very disturbing lurking in text’s thematic center. i remember the second time i watched Bela Tarr’s film adaptation, being struck by the landlord’s behavior when he learns that Irimias and Petrina, thought dead, are back and approaching the collective farm estate. He retreats to the storeroom of his tavern and starts smashing up his empty bottles screaming “You won’t take this away from me! It’s mine!” etc. It became extra creepy when you know how the plot unfolds, how Irimias, working for the police, cons the mean and miserable villagers into pitching in for a farming co-op which never happens, having them lose all their possessions and get scattered across Hungary. The film is a circle, the events looping back to the beginning by means of the town doctor setting down the prose that is SATANTANGO. The landlord’s outburst was almost like a wrench out of the circle, as if he were aware that all this has happened before, and it will happen again. In the novel we learn that Irimias had ripped the landlord off by getting a shit load of free drinks just for suggesting that he buy the place.