‘The Manhattan Project’ by László Krasznahorkai and Ornan Rotem (Review)

I may not get sent all the books I’d like to take a look at (in particular, major publishers don’t really send me anything at all…), but I still consider myself fortunate enough to receive a good number of interesting new titles from time to time.  In fact, there are days when something I wasn’t expecting to get arrives at my house, and the world is a happier place for an hour or two.  An example?  Well, step this way for my review of a beautiful, intriguing book I was very happy to find in my letter box – and one I’m sure many of you would appreciate, too…

While László Krasznahorkai is primarily known for his complex, full-length works (e.g. Satantango, War and War), from time to time he has also produced short collaborations with visual artists, resulting in the chapbooks The Bill and animalinside.  Today’s book is another of these hybrid works, but one that ups the ante considerably, a hardback A4-sized object of beauty (now you know why I was so pleased to receive it).

The Manhattan Project (translated by John Batki, review copy courtesy of Sylph Editions and The University of Chicago Press), then, is Krasznahorkai’s collaboration with photographer/visual artist Ornan Rotem, or, as the frontispiece puts it:

A literary diary presented as
twelve chance encounters or coincidences
Ornan Rotem
(Sylph Editions, 2017)

That’s a wonderful description, and there’s something almost Victorian about this proud announcement (the frontispiece wouldn’t be out of place in a nineteenth-century novel).

Of course, there’s a nineteenth-century feel to the main work too.  The background concerns the author’s year in New York on a research fellowship at the New York Public Library, and while he’s initially unsure of the direction his work should take, repeated coincidences push him in the direction of American writer Herman Melville.  While in the US, Krasznahorkai visits Melville’s old family property, follows the writer’s usual walking routes in New York, and even takes a trip out to Nantucket to see if any of the flavour of Moby Dick can be tasted in the salty (and sandy) air.

However, it’s a chance gift he receives before even arriving in New York, a copy of Malcolm Lowry’s work Lunar Causticthat sets Krasznahorkai off on his literary odyssey.  The book mentions Lowry’s own search for traces of Melville’s existence, and our Hungarian friend senses the pieces of the puzzle gradually coming together:

Manhattan, Melville, Lowry, the three names whirled in my head.
I was aware that some connection existed between the two names and the place.
I had not the least idea that there would be a third name as well.
But by the time I discovered it, I would already be subject to a heavy gravitational force.  That is:

I would be toppling headlong down the slope, in a state of free fall. (pp.22/4)

A trip to the Museum of Modern Art introduces him fortuitously to his third man, architect Lebbeus Woods, and this is where his journey starts in earnest…

The Manhattan Project isn’t the longest of books, but that’s not the point.  In an intriguing work, we find elements of W.G. Sebald’s world of small coincidences, and slight echoes of Teju Cole’s love letter to New York in Open City.  Through it all, though, there’s the unmistakable sense of Krasznahorkai, this time using himself as a central character, an old man, a little bewildered, wandering around the metropolis, not entirely sure what he’s doing there, or why.

What he’s actually supposed to be doing is looking for inspiration for a new work, in the meantime allowing himself to be drawn wherever fortune may take him.  He finds himself following in the footsteps of the illustrious trio, or, as he puts it:

Well then, I reflect, now I have three genius drunks, each of whom had his own route in Manhattan.  Woods, Melville, Lowry.
Dear God, I am on the right track.

As is usual for Krasznahorkai, among the hints of darkness and confusion, there’s time for the odd wry smile too.

Another nice humorous element is the sub-plot of his fellowship.  Late in the book, Krasznahorkai vents some of the frustration he feels towards his hosts at the NYPL, the European writer outraged by the pettiness of some of their demands:

For absences of more than three – that is three – days, you must under no circumstances fail to give advance notice of your intention to go out of town.  Because we do not look kindly upon absences, if you please.  Not even if this absence is related to your work.  If need be, fellowships can be revoked.  I was stunned to realise that I found myself attending a Prussian elementary school, where everybody is subject to the ‘rules’.  And in these rules, in reality commandments, you recognise the mechanism of a heavy-handed bureaucracy.  (p.62)

The final straw comes when an email circulates describing the heinous crime of leaving a coffee cup on a counter instead of placing it in the dishwasher.  The writer can only shake his head at this example of a special kind of madness in the so-called land of the free…

As much as it’s Krasznahorkai’s work, however, you could argue that The Manhattan Project really belongs to Rotem.  I was fascinated by the beautiful black-and-white images illustrating the writer’s travels, with Rotem seemingly following him in his pursuit of the ghosts of the past.  Several of the photos, particularly those taken inside buildings, show the writer, or at least traces, glimpses of him leaving a room, but it’s the pictures of nature, lakes, the countryside, beaches and the rocks upon which New York is built, that truly catch the eye.  As with his other collaborations, Krasznahorkai has provided a text, then stepped aside to allow the artist to do what they do best, and the result is even better than the sum of the parts.

It’s a wonderful work, the ultimate coffee-table book, but so much more too.  It may not take the average reader too long to get through it, but it’s a book you’ll want to come back to, particularly if you have a liking for New York – or Melville.  And lest we forget, The Manhattan Project isn’t even the work Krasznahorkai went to New York to write, merely a side-project.  At the end of the book, as he begins to tie the loose threads together, the writer finally declares himself ready to begin his real task.  I’m looking forward to seeing it, but in the meantime I’m sure I’ll have a few more looks at this one, too.  It’s definitely worth it.

4 thoughts on “‘The Manhattan Project’ by László Krasznahorkai and Ornan Rotem (Review)

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