The Storyteller Who Offers No Escape

Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai writes fiction devoid of revelation, resolution, and even periods.

Grace Heejung Kim

To an innocent bystander, The World Goes On might seem a bland title for a story collection, suggestive of heartwarming tales about good, simple people enduring life’s hardships with grit and courage. Seasoned Krasznahorkaians, however, will understand that the title should be read in a tone of mocking, even deranged, sarcasm, followed by a mirthless snort and a forceful expectoration. In László Krasznahorkai’s fiction the world never goes on. It is always ending. Or, as Krasznahorkai might write, the world is always ending, bursting into flames, collapsing into itself, exploding, tearing apart, disintegrating, being devoured by nothingness.

This sensibility is announced in the opening lines of the first story, which bears one of Krasznahorkai’s proudly obscurantist titles, “Wandering-Standing”:

I have to leave this place, because this is not where anyone can be, or where it would be worthwhile to remain, because this is the place—with its intolerable, cold, sad, bleak and deadly weight—from where I must escape …

This note echoes through the remaining 20 stories, in various shades of darkness, ranging from starless night to oblivion. A scrapbook of representative phrases, each taken from a different story: “foundering in a slough of despond”; “the incidental termination of an excruciating spiritual journey”; “the endgame of the spirit”; “how could I say anything new when there is nothing new under the sun?”; “exploring the dance steps of saying goodbye to the world”; “nothing whatsoever exists at all”; “the hope that he would die some day.”

László Krasznahorkai—born in 1954 in Gyula, Hungary, a town near the Romanian border best known for its thermal baths, and now living, according to his publisher, “in reclusiveness in the hills of Szentlászló”—is the rare author with a unified subject matter, style, and theme. He writes claustrophobic prose about entrapped characters who suspect that reality is a cruel labyrinth from which it is impossible to escape.

The rigor of his sensibility has attracted a passionate following among a subset of lettered readers bored with narrative convention and has made him a fashionable reference among novelists asked to praise other novelists. Recent English translations of his work—by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes—have won various literature-in-translation prizes, among them the 2015 Man Booker International. Krasznahorkai’s subversions are not unique—he borrows tactics from Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Yukio Mishima, writers to whom he acknowledges his debt. But his defiance is especially bracing at a time when the literary novel has become an orthodoxy of its own, its rules as inflexible as those governing any other genre.

New Directions

Krasznahorkai takes pleasure in holding those rules up to ridicule. He favors abrupt, disorienting plot twists; displays an unflinching enmity toward the possibility of dramatic resolution; and is a devoted practitioner of purposeful obscurity, withholding basic information, such as names of characters and places, to create a sense of mystery. His fiction is a sect that requires suspension of disbelief, patience, and above all submission before readers can reap its austere rewards.

In order to frustrate expectations, one has to create expectations in the first place. Like his stylistic forebears, Krasznahorkai possesses one of fiction’s most valuable skills: He is an excellent writer of premises. His debut novel, Satantango (1985), set in an impoverished village populated by desperate grifters and thieves, begins with a series of noir scenarios: a blackmail plot, a double cross, and the promised return of two beloved villagers long believed dead. In The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), a declining town is visited by a mysterious traveling circus featuring the stuffed corpse of “The Biggest Whale in the World.” In the haunting pair of death-soaked stories that appear under the title Herman (1986), a retired game warden at a public park has a crisis of conscience and uses his trapping expertise to hunt the most-dangerous game. But Krasznahorkai soon abandons these plots, thwarting a tidy ending; most of them don’t end at all.

The World Goes On begins with a series of short pieces that are closer to philosophical salvos than to narratives, but many of the stories that follow offer similarly tantalizing lures. A man receives a strange videotape in the mail from a friend, but the friend dies before they can discuss it (“György Fehér’s Henrik Molnár”). A man driving through the country locks eyes with a puppy “sitting perfectly still on the white line in the middle of the road” beside a disemboweled dog (“Downhill on a Forest Road”). A flustered woman at a post office holds up the queue with incessant questions about a telegram she is anxious to send, only to leave the office without providing the recipient’s address (“Universal Theseus”).

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.”

Yet hidden within these dense thickets of prose are sublime, often uncanny visions, much like the ruins of a palace of dark marble and painted tiles that emerge from a remote Portuguese forest in “One Time on 381.” At 4:15 a.m. in a Hong Kong hotel room, a gigantic waterfall suddenly appears on the television screen; during a drug trip a tourist in Kiev finds himself adrift in the cosmos, amid trillions of stars, caressed by a mild breeze. There are also enough ironic asides to suggest that all the talk of foundering in sloughs of despond can’t be taken entirely seriously. Any writer who was truly hopeless, after all, would not bother to write. At the very least, he would not seek publication.

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The eeriness of Krasznahorkai’s best work derives from its dogged hostilities to resolution, revelation, symbolism, parable, narrative clarity, character development. His fiction is not faithful to literary convention, but it is faithful to life. The extended periods of quiescence, the isolated glimpses of the sublime, the portentous images signifying nothing, the mundane images signifying everything, the arbitrary eruptions of horror and beauty—though Krasznahorkai’s technique relies upon artifice, the result is an honest, courageous, often harrowing portrait of a civilization in drift and decline. His dreary worlds are familiar, and the recognition of that familiarity is unsettling: We don’t like to acknowledge the meaninglessness of our lives. Most fiction is essentially escapist, allowing the reader passage to distant worlds or to the even more distant territory of the inner self. Krasznahorkai offers no escape. He writes fairy tales without morals, jokes without punch lines. They are designed to appeal to two kinds of readers: those with a good sense of humor, and those with none.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 print edition with the headline “The Storyteller’s Trap.”