‘Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming’ by László Krasznahorkai (Review)

You may have noticed that since finishing my reading and reviews of the International Booker Prize longlist, I’ve tried several books that could (and perhaps should) have been on the list, but when the original announcement was made back in February, there was one omission that stood out more than others.  László Krasznahorkai, twice winner of the American Best Translated Book Award (and a recipient of the International Booker in its earlier author-prize incarnation), had a work eligible for the prize, and I wasn’t the only one scratching my head when it didn’t make the cut.  Ironically, my review copy, which I’d been expecting for months, mysteriously appeared during that period, meaning I didn’t have time to take a look, but I recently managed to get around to giving it a go.  So, was LK hard done by?  Let’s find out…

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (translated by Ottilie Mulzet, review copy courtesy of Tukar Rock Press and the Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) is set in a run-down provincial town in Hungary, where the Mayor clings to power thanks to the indulgence of the Police Chief, and a motorcycle gang, the Local Force, keeps an eye on any unwelcome intrusions from the outside world.  However, not all visits are bad, and when the authorities learn of the impending return of local nobleman Baron Béla Wenckheim, the town rushes to prepare a welcome for the prodigal son.  After spending most of his life overseas, the Baron has decided to settle down in his hometown, and rumours abound that his sizeable fortune will be its remaking.

Alas (as I’m sure you will have surmised), this isn’t the whole truth.  While the Baron is on his way, what greets the townsfolk at the station is a doddering old man, the black sheep of the family, saved from prison and a mental institution in Argentina by his wealthier relatives.  Both he and the town’s residents are in for a major disappointment, and as the initial excitement gives way to dismay, fingers are pointed, and blame is aportioned.  Meanwhile, strangers begin to appear in the streets, with nobody quite sure who they are, or why they’re here.  Given the tension already evident in the town, things are unlikely to end well, or quietly, for anyone involved in the Baron’s inglorious return.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is very much a book in the tradition of Krasznahorkai’s earlier novels.  There are distinct echoes of the nihilism of Satantango, and the provincial torpor is reminiscent of the setting for The Melancholy of Resistance (if we want to stretch this idea somewhat, we could even bring in War and War for its depiction of an expatriate Hungarian).  What we get is a lengthy novel revisiting these earlier ideas and expanding upon them, with the writer himself drawing a connection between the works.  This book is an attempt to cap off his oeuvre, and a weighty end to the story.

The lengthy first section is not actually focused on the baron of the title, but on a strange figure called the Professor.  Formerly the pride of the town, a world-famous researcher of mosses who one day threw it all in, he lives in seclusion in an area overrun by thorn bushes, and in this long section, involving a strange stand-off with a woman claiming to be his daughter, the main characters are introduced.  We get our first glimpses of the town and the people running it, but even here, the shadow of the Baron is evident as rumours start to spread:

…because great things were happening here, that’s what they were saying, because the news is going round that the Baron, you know the Baron – he is supposedly coming home, just imagine it, the Baron from America, I knew the old Baron, and I knew the entire Wenckheim family – nearly everyone in my family served them at that time, she said, but those were good times, when the old Wenckheims…
p.71 (Tuskar Rock Press, 2019)

It takes a while, but there’s a gradual shift from the professor’s dramas, dark as they are, to the impending arrival of the Baron, whom the locals believe to be the answer to all their worries.

Alas, the townsfolk (unsurprisingly) are to be disappointed in their hopes.  Dreaming of a dashing nobleman with boundless wealth to splash upon their home, instead they find an ageing beanpole, rescued from gambling debts and sent off to Hungary to spend the last part of his life in obscurity.  With no other desire but to seek out the girl he loved before leaving, he’s terrified by what awaits him on his arrival, an over-the-top ceremony with a bizarre mix of speeches, songs and motorbike horns.  The longer he spends in the town, the greater the disappointment, both of the Baron and the people.  It’s obvious that the story won’t be getting a happy ending – we’re just not quite sure what form the tragedy will take when it happens.

The story unfolds in the usual Krasznahorkai style, with a parade of never-ending sentences and lengthy paragraphs, often containing rambling speeches that go on for pages. Within the sections, the point-of-view switches between paragraphs, moving from the thoughts of the major protagonists to minor characters regaling uninterested bystanders or relatives with stories of what’s happening.  Among the large cast given speaking parts, there’s an intriguing mix of voices, with some surprisingly lower register, meaning there was plenty for Mulzet to work on in her excellent translation.  While the main plot rolls on, there are also many small stories unfurling in the background.  The bikers set out on a mission, looking for revenge on the elusive Professor, the Police Chief attempts to keep an eye on everything going on, and Marika, the woman the Baron once loved, prepares herself, hoping for a fairytale ending.

In truth, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming takes a while to really lift off.  Most readers would expect the Baron to be at the centre of it all, but he’s more of a catalyst than an agent, late to enter and quick to leave.  Given the focus on him in the first section, the Professor is another candidate for a major protagonist, but after this first chapter, he disappears a while, then comes back, then vanishes again.  In fact, for much of the book the focus is a little unclear, meaning the story flounders a little.  When you add to that the Professor’s lengthy musings (his ‘thought-immunization exercises’), which are tough to follow and a distraction from the main thread, there are times when it’s all a bit of a slog.

The true focus, however, is neither the Baron nor the Professor, but the town itself, and once that clicks, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming becomes a more enjoyable book.  As in the writer’s earlier works, the setting is a dark place, literally and metaphorically, and there’s both the familiar desperation of the Satantango villagers and the cunning opportunism seen in The Melancholy of Resistance.  This desperate opportunism, then, is the true core of the book, and the moment it all clicks is when hope is finally extinguished, and the people realise that it’s all over – and then comes an anonymous letter to the press:

…and as I’m one of you, accordingly I’m too close to you, so it will be difficult on this first try to find the precise words to describe exactly what comprises this repulsive aspect, that aspect that causes you to sink below every other nation, because it’s hard to find words with which we can enumerate the hierarchy of that storehouse of loathsome human qualities with which you repel the world… (p.468)

What follows is a superb Bernhardian diatribe, an epistle striking at all those in positions of power, containing crushing caricatures, each with a horrible core of truth.  Protest as they might, the townsfolk take it as a sure sign that their days are numbered.

You nay have noticed the word ‘nation’ in the quotation above, and this is perhaps the key idea of the novel.  Krasznahorkai often lampoons the provincial nature of his characters, but here he casts off any pretence of regionalism, taking aim squarely at his whole nation.  No longer are we merely criticising a town but a country, a people; this is the day of reckoning for the Hungarians, one that’s been coming for decades.  Where in his earlier books, the punishment was limited, here the writer has had enough, and it’s hard not to think that this is a stinging rebuke for the political direction his country has taken, and a warning from a writer appalled by what he sees.  Given his descriptions of his homeland as a stinking, bigoted backwater, I wonder what Hungarian politicians think of his books…

Overall, while I’m not convinced Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming measures up to some of Krasznahorkai’s other works, it’s still an interesting addition to his catalogue, continuing the themes of earlier novels, and even if it does meander a little, especially towards the middle of the book, the final sections, with the fire and brimstone letter heralding a terrifying lurch into anarchy and destruction, are superb, up there with his best writing.  This final part makes for a fitting climax to a loose collection of novels looking at the desperation people experience in simply living their lives, and the hope that helps them do so – until of course, they realise that no matter how many barons turn up, nothing will ever change for them.  At least, not for the better.

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