‘War and War’ by László Krasznahorkai (Review)

IMG_5482While László Krasznahorkai has been well known to US readers for quite some time now, his success culminating in two successive Best Translated Book Awards (for Satantango and Seiobo There Below) and the final Man Booker International author prize, British and Australian publishers (for whatever reason) have been a little slower to catch on.  While Satantango did appear in a British edition a few years back, it’s only now that other books, those which have already appeared in the States, are starting to be released on the other side of the Atlantic and beyond.  In fact, today’s choice shows how slow the recognition has been in coming: originally released in 1999 in Hungary, the US edition of today’s book came out in 2006 – yes, ten years ago…

Still, better late than never 😉

War and War (translated by George Szirtes, review copy courtesy of Tuskar Rock Press and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) is the story of Korin, a suicidal forty-something archivist from a small Hungarian town, whose life is turned upside down by the discovery of a manuscript in a file he is checking.  Equipped only with an old fur coat (and the dollars he’s stitched inside the lining), he manages to make it to Budapest and beyond, eventually ending up in what he has decided is the centre of the world, New York.  Thanks to an encounter with an interpreter at the airport, the befuddled Korin (whose English is virtually non-existent) manages to set himself up in an apartment with a laptop, on which he hopes to copy the manuscript out before uploading it to the Internet.

Once the scene is set and Korin is ready to undertake his task, War and War begins to alternate between the Hungarian migrant’s mundane chats with the interpreter’s partner (an illegal immigrant from Puerto Rico) and his descriptions of the manuscript.  A text spanning history, yet strangely featuring the same four characters in each section, the manuscript gradually reveals its secrets despite its maddening, repetitive style.  The four travellers are on an endless quest to find a safe haven in a world riven by war – which is not too different to what is happening inside the New York apartment…

If the Man Booker International Prize really is all about rewarding the best work of fiction by a living author published in English for the first time in the UK in a given year (deep breath…), then we might as well just skip next year’s edition and send Krasznahorkai and Szirtes their cheques now.  I’ve read every longlisted book for the past five years, and I really can’t say any of them have measured up to War and War (not even Satantango).  It’s a ridiculous concept, the story of a crazy man holed up in a small apartment, typing away at his work of copying a manuscript while trying to avoid his rather aggressive landlord, yet at the same time, it’s a work of breathtaking scope, in terms of both language and ideas.  Ten years for a British publisher to pick this up?  Questions must be asked.

The figure of Korin is introduced immediately, standing on a bridge amidst the danger of a group of lethal youths with knives, and his inability to control his mouth is instantly clear, with words spewing out ceaselessly:

It had begun suddenly, without preamble, without presentiment, preparation or rehearsal, at one specific moment on his forty-fourth birthday, that he was struck, agonizingly and immediately, by the consciousness of it, as suddenly and unexpectedly, he told them, as he was by the appearance of the seven of them here, in the middle of the footbridge, on that day when he was sitting by a river at a spot where he would occasionally sit in any case, this time because he didn’t feel like going home to an empty apartment on his birthday, and it really was extremely sudden, the way it struck him that, good heavens, he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything, for Christ’s sake, nothing at all about the world, which was a most terrifying realization…
pp.3/4 (Tuskar Rock Press, 2016)

Strangely enough, though, this is a trait which actually tends to help him.  The murderous youths soon write him off as harmless, and many of the people he is to meet in his travels become intrigued despite themselves, going out of their way to help him.  In fact, he can be an endearing figure, with hints of a savant in his behaviour.

The reader soon becomes immersed in Korin’s experience, and the writer successfully brings across the emigrant’s feelings on his arrival in New York.  After a rather bumpy (and bruising) arrival, Korin eventually finds his feet, walking around the city for hours at a time, unable to do much as a result of the helplessness brought about by the language gap.  Not that it stops him talking, even if nobody understands him.

However, Korin eventually turns his attention to the task he has set himself, that of preserving the manuscript for digital posterity, and during his breaks from typing, he relates the essence of the text to the interpreter’s lover.  What he reveals points to an intriguing, baffling work, one in which four men rescued from a shipwreck in ancient Crete continually flee danger, in search of peace.  The same characters appear in each chapter, yet the time and setting change every time.  We meet them in front of Cologne Cathedral around 1900, watching the construction; on the road to Mediaeval Venice, hoping to hear news of the city state’s new ruler; as Roman legionaries examining Hadrian’s Wall; and in Gibraltar, eager for news of Columbus’ safe return.  Sadly, whenever they think they’ve found a safe haven, they realise that war has caught up with them again (represented by the shadowy stranger Mastemann, another recurring character, the symbol of the ruination of their wishes…).

Krasznahorkai skilfully blends the two tales of the Hungarian archivist in New York and the four travellers through history, and as the story progresses, we come to see that there are similarities in their stories.  Korin believes that the apartment is a safe haven, but in this he is just as mistaken as his fictional counterparts.  The interpreter who has allowed him to rent a room is certainly a rather disturbing character, as his treatment of his poor partner shows.  Yet there are even greater threats around the corner, meaning that it’ll soon be Korin’s turn to flee in search of safety…

War and War is a wonderful novel, and while it’s recognisably related to Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, in many ways it’s more of an achievement.  Perhaps the familiar setting of New York helps the Anglophone reader as the novel feels more rooted in reality, even if it uses this base to spring off into the unknown.  As always with Krasznahorkai, the writing is the key to it all, his lengthy sentences (one to a section), most extending over several pages, hurrying the reader along, lending the text a frantic air.  We feel Korin’s sense of discomfort and unease, even as we’re mesmerised by the waterfall of words the writer immerses us in.

Another aspect of War and War which makes it stand out is its clever use of the meta-text.  Korin struggles with the manuscript for months but eventually claims to have realised what makes it special:

…and he should have seen it, did in fact see it, and,  furthermore, admired it, but had failed to understand it, failed to understand what he was looking at and admiring, meaning that the manuscript was interested in one thing only, and that was reality examined to the point of madness (p.174)

Of course, there’s more than a hint of Krasznahorkai’s own unique style here, and whenever Korin comments on the style of the manuscript, it’s very tempting to read it as a verdict on War and War itself:

…but the fact that these are all part of a single monstrous, infernal, all-absorbing sentence that hits you, so you begin with one thing, but then a second thing comes along and then a third, and then the sentence returns to the first thing again, and so on, so the reader’s hopes are continually raised, said Korin glancing at the interpreter’s lover, so that he thinks he has got some kind of hold on the text, believe me when I say, as I said before, he said, that the whole thing is unreadable, insane!!! (p.200)

A warning for the unwary reader – there are certainly times when it does feel that way for us too.

However, the breathless beauty of the work, as much belonging to Szirtes as to Krasznahorkai, drives the reader on.  We’re desperate to know more about the manuscript and equally keen to discover poor Korin’s fate too – as he goes about finding a gun, we wonder whether it is, after all, destined to end in bloodshed.  I’m not going to say anything about that, but there are some even greater steps towards real-life at the end of the novel.  For one thing, there’s a link to a web-site, Korin’s own homepage, where the reader can see whether the manuscript really has been preserved for all eternity.  It’s also revealed elsewhere that the archivist is remembered in real life with a plaque at a museum in Switzerland, yet there’s a further ironic twist that even Krasznahorkai failed to see coming – this safe haven was forced to shut down for financial reasons in 2014

War and War is an extraordinary work, one that will enhance K’s reputation with those who haven’t already tried it.  Anyone who plunges into the novel will share Korin’s opinion on the mysterious author of the manuscript – this is not just any old writer:

…in other words, he said, his position now was as it had been in the beginning, for that which he did not understand at the first reading was precisely what he failed to understand at the last, and yet it cast a spell on him, and would not allow him to escape the sphere of that moment of enchantment which constantly drew him in… (p.104)

This will undoubtedly be one of my books of the year, and I’ll be looking for more of Krasznahorkai’s work to add to my collection very soon.  Again, if anyone can fill me in as to how this new edition took a decade to appear – answers in the usual place…

18 thoughts on “‘War and War’ by László Krasznahorkai (Review)

  1. I absolutely adored this book when I read it & think of those I’ve read (Satantango, Seibo there below) this is my favourite, have Melancholy of Resistance on my shelves but that will need to be really exceptional to top war & war. Did you try the internet address in the book?


    1. Birne – I wonder if the plaque will move with the museum…

      For me, this is his best book. Seiobo is very well written, but this just hangs together better. I know there’s a new little book coming out in September, but I wonder how long it’ll take before the books already out in German make it into English…


      1. Yes, I also wonder.

        Szirtes and Mulzet have already started translating more of his books (Szirtes “From The North A Mountain, …”, Mulzet “The World Goes On”) and his new novel is coming out in Hungary this fall (“Baron Wenckheim’s…”). The future looks bright…


    1. Grant – As I said to Tony Messenger on Twitter, there’s a very big ‘if’ in that statement (as anyone in the Shadow Panel could testify!).


  2. I do love that cover (not that it excuses the 10 year delay). I purchased this book earlier this year as my chosen introduction to Kraznahorkai and it’s good to hear all the comments in its favour. It will likely wait until fall when I have less external commitments and more focus after what has been a very trying year so far. Your excellent review increases my enthusiasm.


    1. Joe – They’re an excellent set (and I’m not a fan of the ND covers anyway). I can understand how this might not be the ideal book for you at the moment – I hope you find the time to enjoy your introduction to Krasznahorkai in due course 🙂


  3. Hi Tony, I just finished “War and war”. I was swept away by the long beautiful mesmerizing sentences, but I didn’t find the story on itself as interesting as the style. Still glad that I read this one. Greetings, Erik


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