Since reading Satantango as part of my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize duties a few years back, I’ve been a big fan of László Krasznahorkai’s writing, and I’ve done my best to get to as much of the work available in English as possible (sadly, the out-of-print Music & Literature edition remains elusive). When asked what readers new to the Hungarian master should start with, though, I’ve never really been sure what to answer. Plunging straight into novels like The Melancholy of Resistance or Seiobo There Below might be a bit much, but a very short piece such as animalinside might not give a true indication of his writing. Luckily, then, New Directions have come to the rescue with a timely review copy. The most recent Krasznahorkai publication in English splits the difference between these extremes nicely, making for an ideal introduction to his work🙂
The latest addition to my Krasznahorkai library is a collection of two novellas: The Last Wolf (translated by George Szirtes) and Herman (translated by John Batki). The two stories were published separately in Hungarian, with Herman dating from the mid-1980s, and The Last Wolf appearing in 2009. A seemingly strange decision, then, to pair them up in English; however, most readers will be able to understand why the stories were joined up after reading them, as there’s much to connect the two texts.
The Last Wolf initially takes us to a Berlin bar, where a failed German philosopher is talking about a letter he’s received, an unexpected proposal. He’s been offered a free trip to Spain, with air fare, accommodation and expenses all included, and while it takes a while to shake off the idea that it’s all a joke, or a massive misunderstanding, he eventually realises that the organisation making the request is serious. He’ll be treated like a VIP in exchange for one small task:
…and all we ask is that you immortalize the experience, immortalize it entirely as you see fit, just so long as you present posterity with some clear picture, something that springs out of your thoughts about Extremadura, so you see we are perfectly clear about what we would like you to do…
p.20 (New Directions, 2016)
While still unconvinced of his ability to put anything down on paper, the professor decides to go, leaving his little corner of the bar behind.
The problem, though, is coming up with something to write about. Having long given up trying to make sense of the world through his philosophical musings, he trembles at the thought of having to produce what’s expected, scared he’ll be found out to be the fraud he knows himself to be. Nothing really helps him along with his task until a chance expression he remembers from an academic paper sets the kind people underwriting his trip on a hunt. The paper mentioned the death of the last wolf in Extremadura, and soon the visitor and his helpers are on the hunt for people who can shed a little more light on the tale.
A story within a story (which is actually being told back at the bar to the bored Hungarian owner), The Last Wolf takes us to the heart of a tale that somehow links the philosopher’s own failed life with the final demise of the wolves roaming this region of Spain. As we race around Extremadura in search of the truth behind the myth, there’s a feeling that the professor is looking for something else entirely. Perhaps in the story of the poor, doomed animals, he senses a connection with his own failed attempt to keep up with the times…
Herman, a story in two parts, is a very different piece in many ways. Part 1, ‘The Game Warden’, introduces the titular character, an experienced game warden working for the municipal authorities in a small, unspecified town. He has been charged with clearing up a small woods which, having been neglected, is overrun with feral animals, and while the authorities don’t really expect anything from him, he manages to sort the mess out in a matter of months. However, there’s a price to pay, and it comes in the form of the nightmares that develop from the grisly task of butchering bodies:
At this point he would jolt awake bathed in sweat, gasping for breath and staring terrified for minutes on end into the dark, and from then on not a night passed free of this recurring horror which soon began to weigh on him in the daytime as well. (p.89)
Crippling doubts gradually morph into a realisation that it’s time to switch sides. The warden now decides that his task is to preserve nature, not humanity, and over the coming months, the townsfolk will come to fear his retribution.
The second part, ‘The Death of a Craft’, then provides a rather different take on events, with a group of hedonists visiting the town by chance at the time of Herman’s rampage. It’s the same story, but set out in a far lighter tone – the newcomers take the news of the old man’s actions fairly lightly:
If nothing else, this fatuous intermezzo served to revive us after the woeful fiasco of the Marietta affair had frustrated the entire purpose of our trip; we ordered drinks to be sent up and locked ourselves in one room where, after a frenzied session of dalliance (this time Gustav handled the whip), we all retired for the night. (p.118)
Far from letting this ruin their stay, they offer to join the group hunting the hunter, even getting to fire off some bullets in the process.
While it’s a parallel piece to the first part, there are some intriguing differences. Here, Herman is known to be the culprit from the start, whereas in the first version the police remain baffled for some time. There’s also a difference in the way the two pieces finish, with the second part ending on a far more ambiguous note. Together, the two versions add up to a fascinating picture of a man’s decision to turn his back on society.
Two very different stories, then, but as I hinted above, there is also a lot linking them. Quite apart from the commission both the Professor and Herman receive, both stories are connected by the focus on a struggle between man and nature, both on an individual and wider scale. The two stories each feature people doing their best to thwart the efforts of those representing the need for progress, with the traps meant to help things along being subverted. Like Herman, there are people in The Last Wolf who secretly change sides; sadly, in both stories, there’s a sense that it’s all futile. In the face of the inexorable spread of ‘civilisation’, there are many ‘wolves’ destined to die out in an uncaring world.
While the themes are similar, the styles of the pieces are very different. The Last Wolf is classic Krasznahorkai, a sweeping, hypnotic, one-sentence story that drags the reader through in one sitting. ‘The Game Warden’, by contrast, is mostly a more sober read, with fewer of these extended phrases and sentences (although it’s still well written). The farcical tone of ‘The Death of a Craft’, however, with its undertones of Wodehouse tackling Sade, makes the first part look even grimmer. This final section is totally different to anything of Krasznahorkai’s I’ve read so far – I wonder if there’s anything else like this out there…
In short, then, this mini-collection is a book which will appeal to everyone. Krasznahorkai die-hards will appreciate having more work to drool over, and new readers will be able to get a taste for his work without needing to dive into a three-hundred-page nihilistic tract to do so. I’m not sure that it quite measures up to his longer work, but it’ll certainly scratch the itch until the next major work is translated – which probably won’t be that long. Krasznahorkai has a lot more in his back catalogue, and with his reputation on the rise in the Anglosphere, I suspect that it’ll all make it into English before too long🙂