While it has taken a while to eventuate (and certainly doesn’t compare to the flood of Patrick Modiano books currently deluging the market), the recent interest in the work of László Krasznahorkai looks as if it’s helping him reach a wider audience. UK editions of books long available in the US are starting to appear, and a couple of his other works are currently in the translation pipeline. In the meantime, though, while you’re waiting for more of the Hungarian master’s fiction to become available, you could do worse than check out his most recent release in English, a rare non-fiction piece – although with Krasznahorkai, the line between fact and fiction is a blurry one at best…
Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens (translated by Ottilie Mulzet, review copy courtesy of Seagull Books) begins with a journey into the unknown, as two Europeans, the Hungarian writer László Stein and his anonymous interpreter, get on a long-distance bus bound (they hope) for a complex of Buddhist mountain temples somewhere in China. The setting may be rather far from home, yet the writing is very familiar:
There is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called South-western Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on 5 May 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and the unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing from the bays of this station, a regional bus, starting from the No. 5 bus stop, slowly ploughs onward – among the other buses and the puddles and the bewildered crowd of wretched, stinking grimy people – up to the vortex of the street, then sets off into the wretched, stinking, grimy streets…
p.1 (Seagull Books, 2016)
This lengthy sentence (once it eventually ends…), reminiscent of the start of another of the writer’s works (The Melancholy of Resistance), propels us forward into the chaotic world of travelling in China, until we finally reach the mist-covered mountain temples of Jiuhuashan.
This first part of the book, the journey to, and wanderings upon, the mountain, is typical Krasznahorkai, with lengthy, elegant sentences and characters wandering lost in the fog, leaving most readers wondering at this point if Destruction and Sorrow… is actually a novel after all. Eventually, though, the mood changes, and what follows is an account of a journey around China, one in which the writer (or, at least, his alter-ego) searches for evidence of a continuous Chinese classical culture and proof of contemporary links to the past. The irascible Stein (with the help of his unfortunate interpreter) butts heads with a variety of people in conversations (and monologues), hoping to find elusive proof of the culture he has been chasing for over a decade.
Destruction and Sorrow… is Krasznahorkai’s attempt to come to terms with an alien culture he desperately wants to understand, but fears has disappeared without a trace, and his travels far and wide in search of a lost time and culture are both futile and Quixotic. In fact, at times the Cervantes link is especially apt, particularly when the writer makes demands on his poor anonymous student interpreter. The student can come off as the Sancho Panza to Don Stein, the crazed Hungarian poet, when the two Hungarians sit down for a chat with one of their hosts, forced to ask questions and interpret things he knows he really shouldn’t…
These interviews form the backbone of the book, with Stein, Krasznahorkai’s irascible alter-ego, meeting with members of the intelligentsia in his quest to find out more about Chinese culture today. He’s far too impatient to go through the usual formalities, bursting into strings of questions in a very un-Chinese manner. It’s a method guaranteed to rub most people up the wrong way, and his interviewees are often people who are very sensitive and loathe to be pushed in a direction they find distasteful.
In fact, many of the conversations turn into virtual monologues since the subjects (using the wall of interpretation to aid them) simply ignore Stein’s questions. As the platitudes continue to flow, each speaker cheerfully (or stonily) insisting on a healthy, thriving continuation of Chinese traditional culture, Stein breaks in, thundering ‘where?’, ‘how?’, ‘why?’. As you can imagine, these answers are in short supply, and even when his conversation partner is more forthcoming, there’s still an unavoidable culture gap, one the writer isn’t always able to bridge:
There was something Stein should have said, some formulaic courtesy; he has ruined something, or he hasn’t done something, or isn’t doing something that he should, because he can sense that the conversation is beginning to run along a different track. (p.239)
It’s true that the manner of his interviews might be to blame, with his reliance on a third party, yet even if he could speak the language, he begins to doubt that he’d fully understand what is being said.
If it can’t be explained, then it needs to be found, so Stein and the interpreter set off on a grand tour, in search of traces of the classical culture. Sadly, though, every time they think they’re close, it turns out to be a mirage: they see gardens and shrines, enclosed in concrete; they enter sacred places only to encounter playgrounds with cartoon characters. Finally, one evening, they stumble upon the village of Zhouzhuang, entranced by their discovery of classical, unspoiled beauty – and then, at 8 a.m. the next morning, the tourists arrive in their hordes, and the illusion is shattered…
Anyone who has read Krasznahorkai before will be familiar with much of the style and themes of the book, and there are several nods to other works (for example, the visit to the workshop in the mountains where the Buddha statues are made could be slotted straight into Seiobo There Below). However, what makes this a rather different book (even if calling it non-fiction is rather a stretch…) are the conversations which fill it. Here, we leave the usual mesmeric Krasznahorkaian sentences and have the interviewees explain their ideas in their own words, as frustrating as that can be.
Stein does his best, but he’s doomed to failure in his quest, particularly when met with the usual infuriating (unsubstantiated) claims of the unique nature of Chinese culture:
YAO: China is not the same. China is different. China cannot be compared to any country. Legalities are different here, specific. For example, the tradition of the social relevance of the intelligentsia, their extraordinary significance, the vitally important and well-known role of the literati, is very strong. (p.87)
But where? Can you provide examples? Is this still true today? There is no reply to these questions – the empty generalities just keep rolling along…
If you read this expecting answers, you’ll be disappointed too, yet I doubt anyone turns to Krasznahorkai for a plot. While Destruction and Sorrow… doesn’t cohere quite as well as his novels (mainly owing to the slight clash in style between the interview sections and Stein’s search for perfection), it’s still a beautiful read at times, with Ottilie Mulzet capturing the dizzying style of Satantango and Seiobo There Below, particularly in the opening mountain section, the long, looping sentences echoing the endless steps awaiting the fascinated poet (and his cold, wet and miserable sidekick…).
I’ll leave it to you to discover whether Stein eventually finds what he’s looking for, but I can assure you that the reader (thanks in no small part to the beauty of the book itself ,with its stunning cover) will be very happy to have accompanied the two Hungarians on their quest for beauty in the Middle Kingdom. In my own search for (literary) beauty, Krasznahorkai has once again proven to be a reliable fellow traveller; I can’t wait for the next trip🙂