While I was right on top of what was happening in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year, it’s taken me a while to catch up with some of the big guns in the American version, the Best Translated Book Award. In today’s post, then, I take a look at this year’s winner, a book which (as far as I’m aware) still hasn’t come out in the UK. It was the writer’s second win in succession – and if you’re following my personal comparison of the two big translation prizes, this definitely makes it a third consecutive win for the American side of the pond 😉
László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below (translated by Ottilie Mulzet, published by New Directions) is most definitely not a book for fans of easy reading. It consists of seventeen pieces (calling them short stories would be misleading) which, while not really interlinked, come together to produce a cohesive work. In fact, most reviews have given me the impression that the book is supposed to be considered a novel.
Seiobo There Below is less a novel in the traditional sense, though, than an exploration of the idea of beauty, approached via a series of sketches examining the effects great art has on the human mind and the problems great artists have in producing their masterpieces. Krasznahorkai takes us on a dizzying journey through time and space, where we might find ourselves in modern-day Japan on one page, then in Renaissance Italy on the next. It’s a bumpy ride at times, but one thing is certain – the scenery is always beautiful 🙂
From the very first piece, in which a description is given of a white heron standing in wait in the shallows of Kyoto’s Kamo River, the reader senses that this is a book where plot is a minor issue. It’s all about words, emotions, about being swept along in the writer’s wake:
“…- and that is why it stood there; almost in the middle of the Kamo River, in the shallow water; 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…”
‘Kamo-Hunter’, pp.4/5 (New Directions, 2013)
I hope you’re all following this – there are still another four-hundred-and-forty-odd pages to come…
As mentioned above, the main theme is art and beauty, and the writer explores it in great depth, using his stories to examine the effect they can have on ordinary people. Krasznahorkai doesn’t confine himself to painting, although many of the stories are concerned with this section of the arts – he also looks at music, architecture and sculpture, leaving characters and reader dumbfounded:
“…finally he made his way around and once again began the slow sliding, here gaping at the ceiling, here at the Tintorettos, and so it went, and he could not even conceive that, in this palatial hall, such bounty as had been created, marvellous but still too weighty for him, could even be possible, because it was too much…”
‘Christo Morto’, p.114
From the rotund music lecturer thundering away on the subject of Baroque music (to a terrified handful of old people at the local community centre) to the unemployed migrant mesmerised by the figures in a Russian triptych, these consumers of art are anything but passive, almost unable to withstand the beauty of their chosen pieces of art.
While there’s a lot about people appreciating art, much is also written about how the works are created. Many of the sections have a two-strand formation, with one showing a modern appreciation, the other looking at the history of the piece. These sections offer the reader interesting insights into the origin of paintings and cultural artefacts, as we are shown teams of artists in Italian workshops scrambling to fulfil an order for a mural, or the lengthy and deliberate preparations for rebuilding a Japanese temple.
However, in many cases, time is kept at a distance, allowing us to see the effect of beauty, but not all its secrets. The Louvre guard who watches over the Venus de Milo every day has his theories on what her lost arms were doing, but he’ll never know for sure whether he’s right. When it comes to some of the Renaissance masterpieces, even the greatest of art scholars can be unsure as to whether a particular piece was finished off by the master or one of his apprentices. As for the magnificent Alhambra complex, many more questions are raised than answered. Who commissioned it? Who built it? And, more importantly, what is it actually for? This idea of the impossibility of complete comprehension is most clearly portrayed in the short final section where we are privy to a brief glimpse of magnificent treasures buried beneath the earth, their secrets left thousands of years behind…
In addition to writing about the art, Krasznahorkai also turns his gaze to the artists, unveiling the agony and madness which can go hand in hand with greatness. Whether it’s an eccentric Romanian sculptor who frees horses from the soil or a Swiss painter whose nerves are shot, the character studies revealed in the book show us that creating a lasting testament has an effect on the creator. In fact, for many of these artists, the act of creation never really stops:
“…in a word, rehearsal is his life, so that for him there is absolutely no difference between rehearsal and performance, there is no particular mode of performance in the Noh, what happens in a performance is exactly the same as what happens in a rehearsal and vice versa, what happens in a rehearsal is exactly the same as what happens in a performance, there is no divergence…”
‘The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki’, p.237
For this famous Noh actor, as for many of the other characters of the novel, genius exacts a cost…
Seiobo There Below is a wonderful book, dazzling in its range of ideas and settings, fascinating stories told in dense, lengthy, multi-page sentences which drag the reader along, breathless and dizzying at the same time. If you’re looking for comparisons, books which immediately come to mind include Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding or even (in terms of scale and time) David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. However, Krasznahorkai’s work is a little more oblique than those, and it’s up to the reader to join the dots and make sense of what the writer has offered us.
One of my favourite sections, ‘The Preservation of a Buddha’, is a representative example of much of what I’ve discussed. It follows the progress of a statue’s restoration, from its departure from the temple to its unveiling a year later. The writer describes the secrets and rituals of the monks in minute detail, but it’s only towards the end that we really see the uncanny similarities between the rites of the monks and the meticulous nature of the restorers, who are perhaps the true artists of this piece. There’s a fine line between religion and bureaucracy…
The head monk in the story eventually realises that perfection is impossible, and that we can only do our best, despite our limitations, and at this point it’s time to take his advice and give up the struggle for a perfect review. There’s far too much in Seiobo There Below to cover properly here; it’s a wonderful book which has added to Krasznahorkai’s already considerable reputation. As always, though, the English-speaking world is behind the game, and with a future Nobel Prize definitely within the realms of possibility, it might be time to finally get more of his work translated into English. I, for one, am certainly keen to see what else he has to say 🙂