Since Patrick Modiano’s Nobel Prize win last year, there has been a flood of his books into English, but that’s not always the case with prize-winning authors. László Krasznahorkai took out the Best Translated Book Award in 2013 (for Satantango) and 2014 (for Seiobo There Below), as well as being awarded the final Man Booker International (Author) Prize earlier this year, yet outside the American versions (from New Directions) of a few of his books, there’s still very little of his work available in English, especially in the UK and Australia. After reading one of the few books that have made it into English, I’m even more convinced that this is something that must surely change soon…
My choice today is The Melancholy of Resistance (translated by George Szirtes), a sweeping, dense work, as bleak as it is absorbing. The novel takes place over a couple of days in a run-down Hungarian provincial town, one with a noticeably apocalyptic air. The trains run sporadically, the streets are strewn with rubbish, and the street lights are broken, leaving the nervous inhabitants to make their way home cautiously after dark.
This is what happens to the first character we meet in the novel, Mrs. Plauf, a woman who endures a rather stressful return home from a visit, wandering the streets of the town, feeling that disaster could strike at any minute. Then, there’s her son, Valuska, the village idiot disowned by his mother and tolerated, more than accepted, by the locals. The only person who appreciates him is Eszter, a musician whose world-weariness has spread to such an extent that he no longer leaves his house, only rising occasionally from his bed.
Very different, though, is his estranged wife, Mrs Eszter. Physically and mentally robust, she’s a gale force blowing through the town, determined to shake it up. As part of her ‘movement for moral rearmament’, she decides to invite a strange circus to visit the town, hoping to provide new impetus for her ideas. When the circus eventually arrives, however, it’s plain to see that it might not have been such a good idea. Chaos is always just around the corner, and with crowds gathering silently in the main square, that corner looks as if it’s about to be turned.
For anyone who has tried Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance is immediately, and comfortingly, familiar. As is the case in the earlier book, Krasznahorkai has created a bleak dystopia, all the more disturbing for being recognisably close to real life (at least back when the book was originally published in its home country). Like Satantango, the book is full of scenes of decay, with a palpable sense of squalor and decay, disturbing for the few characters who appear to notice it:
” Could this, he wondered, be a form of the last judgement? No trumpets, no riders of the apocalypse but mankind swallowed without fuss or ceremony by its own rubbish?”
p.128 (New Directions, 2002)
Ignoring the obvious decline of the town, the lower-middle-class bunker inside their homes, hoping to hold off Armageddon with cheap, tawdry ornaments and pickled fruit. Outside, though, there’s a sinister sense of dark forces gathering in a season so cold that the snow refuses to fall.
While the setting has echoes of Satantango, the characters also have a familiar feel. The strongest of these, Mrs Eszter, is a formidable creation, a woman who is frightening in her drive to be important:
“…Mrs Eszter saw straight to the heart of their opposition, understanding that their impotence and craven servility sprang from an unreasonable, though, to them, justified, fear of all enterprise that aimed at general renewal, a renewal which, to them, might look like general decay, for in all passionate espousals of the new, people were liable to detect traces of an equally passionate drift towards chaos, and – quite rightly – suspect that the powers unleashed, instead of protecting that which was irrecoverably dead and buried, would smash it to pieces in the good cause of replacing the featureless boredom of their selfish lives with the ‘elevating passion of communal action’.” (p.38)
In her desire to smash the old order and replace it with one of her own design, she certainly leaves nothing to chance. Manipulative, with a fierce appetite for food, men and power, she strides around the city as if she owns it – which, as the story progresses, isn’t far from the truth.
The other main character of the novel, Valuska, is a very different kind of creation. A gentle, confused man, a savant of sorts, he is fixated by the sky above, preferring (understandably) to keep his gaze on the heavens while ignoring the filth below. In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, he organises a kind of ceremonial dance in a pub, a reenactment of the dance of the celestial bodies, with drunken regulars taking the place of the Sun, Moon and Earth, spinning around each other in drunken equilibrium…
Sadly, his innocent world is set to be shattered by the arrival of the circus, and in the prologue, Krasznahorkai contrives a wonderful entrance. As Mrs. Plauf warily scurries back through the darkened streets, she sees a gigantic container slowly making its way along the road. There’s no music, dancing elephants or smiling clowns here, merely a corpse of a gigantic whale and some silent, aggressive minders. This is a rather different kind of circus, where the only laughter will be of the dark, twisted kind.
Of course, most readers will spend much of their reading time attempting to work out what the writer intended by all this. It’s certainly tempting to view it as an allegory, a text critical of soviet-era Hungary and the failure of a state-controlled society. Then again, it may just be a more general commentary on human behaviour and our tendency to seek the quickest route to moral lows, with the faceless crowd of strangers menacing the status quo. Our way into the events of the story is through Valuska, an unwitting observer of the madness that occurs on the fateful night described – who becomes a convenient scapegoat in the harsh light of day.
Throughout the first part of the book, there’s a noticeable contrast between the petty concerns of the leading townsfolk (and their very human weaknesses) and the very unhuman sense of disaster. The crowds in the square are silent and foreboding, as if merely waiting for a signal:
“But there was something else; the silence, that stifled, unbroken, ill-omened silence in which not a single voice rang out, and hundreds of people waited, growing impatient, yet obstinately stoical and utterly silent, ready to stir once the acute suspense associated with such events gave way to the ecstatic roar of the ‘performance’, each individual isolated as if he had nothing to do with anyone else, as though it was of no concern to anyone why everyone else happened to be there, or, conversely, as if they were all part of an enormous chain-gang in which the ties that bound them negated all possibility of escape thereby rendering pointless any communication or conversation between them.” (pp.84/5)
This sense of powerlessness, having to wait and watch, has the townspeople bolted up at home like frightened rabbits in anticipation of the approaching storm. For much of the book, though, we’re never quite sure *what* is happening; there’s merely a general fear, with people afraid of what might be, not what is…
It’s difficult to discuss a Krasznahorkai book without mentioning the writing, and The Melancholy of Resistance is no exception to this rule. The novel makes for absorbing and exhausting reading with its thirty-page paragraphs and page-long sentences; the first full stop of the book is just above the bottom of the first page (it’s hard to put the book down as you’re never quite sure where a natural break is…). It all adds up to a landslide of words pushing you inexorably onwards, and it’s a credit to Szirtes that it all feels natural (and slightly unnatural at the same time). For Krasznahorkai’s work, it’s important to have a translator on their game, a writer and a poet, and Szirtes is one who seems to choose the right words every time.
I may be wrong, but as far as I can see, UK and Australian publishers have pretty much neglected Krasznahorkai so far, with only Satantango and Seiobo There Below (this year) widely available. Yes, Modiano has the Nobel prestige, and his books are comparatively easy to translate, but it still looks as if someone’s falling down on the job here. Let’s hope more makes its way to us soon – it’d be a shame if it took a Nobel win to push people into action…