Krasznahorkai is at heart a writer of suspense, though he takes the genre’s methods—deferral, misdirection, portent—to deranged extremes. He is expert at attenuating a premise, and the reader’s patience, to the vanishing point. He has fun with this. His characters occasionally interrupt themselves with criticisms of their own long-winded style. “I will not continue,” says one, before continuing, “not wishing to overdo things and let a tormenting stylistic inanity heighten the tension to the breaking point.” His most conspicuous gambit is his prose style, which denies readers the satisfactions that most other writers are careful to grant, such as periods.
One begins a Krasznahorkai story like a free diver, with a deep inhalation before plunging in. Each chapter of Satantango is a single paragraph. Many of the stories in The World Goes On are a single sentence. Krasznahorkai’s long sentences are nothing like Marcel Proust’s nesting-doll magic tricks, James Joyce’s litanies of quotidian minutiae, or David Foster Wallace’s manic digressions. They proceed tentatively, a tide advancing by imperceptible increments. When the dramatic stakes are high, the effect is absorbing, incantatory; in longueurs about planetary rotation or the hermetic nature of human imagination, it is literary water torture. “A Drop of Water,” a single sentence lasting 29 pages, follows a tourist’s increasingly panicked meanderings through the chaotic streets of the Indian holy city of Varanasi:
… in this wildfire of noises he comes to the decision that he must leave, because he is in mortal danger here, demanding not only certain safety measures, not only an elevated attention level, but the realization that he must immediately beat it from here, perhaps the best way would be to withdraw cautiously, retreating step by step, backing out of this place, the upshot of it being that he absolutely must leave the city, he must right now take the first steps toward this end …
He must leave, he must immediately beat it, he must leave. He must withdraw cautiously, retreat step-by-step, back away. Why use one word when eight will do?
Krasznahorkai’s most diabolical form of deferral is the introduction of a monologue of excruciating technical detail. At the climax of “A Drop of Water,” the narrator makes the mistake of pausing to converse with an obese native who has the manner of a religious mystic. Did you know, asks the man, “that according to local tradition a single drop of the Ganges is in itself a temple?” This is the point at which, in the kind of short story taught in American M.F.A. programs, the cynical Western narrator would achieve some glimmer of enlightenment or regret. Not in a Krasznahorkai story.
The obese prophet, who might be a madman, embarks on what the narrator describes as a “totally insane” lecture on the molecular structure of water (“… if you picture this hydrogen bond as well as the covalent bond and keep in mind the simple fact that water in a liquid state is an alternating system of covalent and intermolecular hydrogen bonds, well then at this point matters start to become interesting …”), while all meaning evaporates. Similarly maniacal accounts unfold elsewhere in the collection, of a bank’s internal audit and the arrest of a beggar for public urination. Revelation is denied—not only to the reader but to the characters. “He only paid attention occasionally,” Krasznahorkai writes of a character listening to an acquaintance discuss personnel decisions at his bank. “It was difficult, he wasn’t interested, the story bored him.”