‘The World Goes On’ by László Krasznahorkai (Review)

While László Krasznahorkai’s work has long been available in the US, courtesy of New Directions, the Tuskar Rock Press UK editions only started with Satantango, and it was several years until they began to catch up by bringing out the earlier books (e.g. War and War, The Melancholy of Resistance).  Luckily, it seems the Hungarian writer’s profile has grown enough to have his latest translations appear at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond), and only a year after the most recent major release (The Last Wolf & Herman), we’re fortunate to have another sizeable chunk of the writer’s fiction to enjoy.  But what is this latest work – a novel or a collection of stories?  Well, I’ll let you know that when I’ve worked it out myself…

The World Goes On (translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes, review copy courtesy of Tuskar Rock Press and the Australian distributors Allen & Unwin) is a collection of texts, some long, some fairly brief, divided into three parts (labelled ‘He Speaks’, ‘He Narrates’, and ‘He Bids Farewell’).  The first section begins with a series of first-person accounts, many consisting of a single, mesmerising sentence, such as ‘Wandering-Standing’, a breathless piece in which the narrator describes having to get away from where he is, only for us to discover he never really left.  ‘He Wants to Forget’ is a pessimistic lament of the modern era, while ‘The World Goes On’ is a terrified ramble inspired by the fall of the twin towers.

The bulk of this first section is taken up by ‘Universal Theseus’, a series of three lectures given by a man who clearly doesn’t want to be there.  As he discusses melancholy (!), revolt and possessions, the audience watches on silently, allowing the guest to use anecdotes to illustrate his chosen topics.  With Krasznahorkai, though, nothing as simple as it seems.  Much of the appeal of the piece is the growing realisation that the speaker is being held against his will, an allegory perhaps of the illusion of free will in a world that entraps us.

‘He Narrates’, comprising two-thirds of the book, has a series of stories told in the third-person.  There’s a familiar style about many of these pieces, with several featuring a man out in the world who is suddenly overcome by a sense of horror, an uncanny moment in which his sense of balance is destroyed.  In ‘Nine Dragon Crossing’, for example, a drunk interpreter rendered dizzy by the rush and speed of Shanghai finds himself in the centre of a tangle of expressways.  Having found himself alone at last, he loses his equilibrium completely, stranded in the middle of a modern version of Dante’s circles of hell.

There are several other stories here with a similar approach.  ‘One Time on 381’ follows a worker at a marble quarry as he takes off from the hellish noise and choking white dust, ending up at a deserted palace at the top of a hill.  Meanwhile, ‘A Drop of Water’ focuses on a westerner stranded in the Indian city of Varanasi, broke and exhausted in a city he finds oppressive:

…the Ganges is death, the ghats are death, the women resplendent in their brightly colored saris at the ghats are death, the men in their loincloths at the ghats are death, but the Ganges is death supreme, this unsurpassable incarnation of sewage, this millenia-old constant of filth flowing and frothing past…
‘A Drop of Water’, p.196 (Tuskar Rock Press, 2017)

The story recounts his desperate attempts to leave before his nerves shatter, but he’s unable to find a way out.  The city seems to have its own centre of gravity, sucking the poor soul back in every time he attempts to move on…

The World Goes On is replete with Krasznahorkai’s usual mesmerising fare, including the endless sentences and the bewildered, bemused protagonists wandering around in search of redemption, or at least relief from their existential pain.  There’s an underlying theme of our having lost our way in the modern world – as life becomes ever bigger, ever faster, ever noisier, we wonder what exactly all this progress is for.  Yet my overall impression was that it’s perhaps not as strong as some of his earlier works (it’s most akin in style to Seiobo There Below  in that it’s a series of thematically linked pieces, but without hanging together quite as well), and a few of the stories are short rambles that went over my head.  One piece I wasn’t overly impressed with was the penultimate ‘story’, ‘The Swan of Istanbul’, which consists of a collection of blank pages and some endnotes making up a brief vignette, for me crossing the fine line between clever and gimmicky.  Overall, despite some of the usual brilliance, there’s a sense that this is more a collection of pieces than a coherent, cohesive work.

The title is an interesting one, with a slightly optimistic tinge at odds with the tone of the contents.  While my Hungarian isn’t what it might be (to put it mildly), I did put the original title Megy a világ into Google Translate, and the result seemed to be rather similar to the English version.  Interestingly, though, the German title, Die Welt voran (which was the first one I heard of), has a rather different nuance, translating as something like ‘the world from now on’ or ‘the world to come’, bringing with it a more tentative, fearful aspect.  For me, this better reflects how the book reads.  There’s a constant sense of foreboding, as if everything is about to come crashing down – the calm the protagonists feel is less that of the eye of the storm, but of the one before it really hits…

So, if it’s the end of the world (and we know it), is the writer telling us it’s all fine?  Well, Krasznahorkai’s never easy to pin down at the best of times, and The World Goes On is no exception.  In one of the longest and most impressive stories, ‘That Gagarin’, we meet a half-crazed Hungarian researcher desperate to learn more about the famous Russian cosmonaut:

…because nothing ever happens without antecedents, actually everything is just an antecedent, that’s how it is: as if everything were just always preparing for something else that came before, as if it were preparing for something, but at the same time, and in an appalling manner, as if preparing without any final cumulative goal, so that everything is just a continually dying spark, and I don’t mean to say that everything is just the past, but rather I am saying that everything is always striving toward a future which can never occur, what no longer exists strives toward what does not exist…
‘That Gagarin’, pp.243/4

The academic suspects that Gagarin’s slide into alcoholism was due to his realisation that this is it, all we’ll ever have, paradise on earth – we just can’t see it.

And yet, the third section, a one-page farewell, takes a different approach.  ‘I Don’t Need Anything From Here’ is exactly what it sounds like, a parting message from a man happy to leave everything behind in the knowledge that the world to come (‘Die Welt voran’?) will have everything he could ever need – a different view to that in the Gagarin story.  It makes for a melancholy, comforting end to a book which, even if it doesn’t quite match up to some of the writer’s other works, shows a writer you really should make time for, and contains several stories I’ll be revisiting in the future.

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