AnimalInside by László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann (trans Ottilie Mulzet). Sylph Editions/Center for Writers & Translators at AUP/New Directions. 40 pp. $12.95.
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, reads as the speech of a creature (dog, it would seem) that understands itself to be condemned, not to death, but to stillness and captivity. It’s strange though, that the text’s impression should be one, essentially, of direct speech, as it does shift between the first and the third person throughout. This very concrete, monologic personation is perhaps due in part to the crucial office that a series of paintings by Max Neumann served in the creation of Krasznahorkai’s text. The first section of Animalinside was written in response to a gift given Krasznahorkai by his artist friend, Neumann: a painting of a black two-dimensional animal figure, a kind of box-nosed dog, on its haunches, without arms, fixed mid-leap and encapsulated, nauseously, in a dull, three-dimensional space. It was a painting that Krasznahorkai had put up in his house to pass by everyday, and which would so obsess him as to finally drive him to “transcribe” it. Neumann would, in turn, create a whole series of paintings in reply to the writings begot of the first troubled gift, all to be at last translated, arranged, revised, and published in one volume by The Cahiers Series of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and now available for purchase in the United States by New Directions Publishing.
If an animal lives basically through action, it knows it is a body precisely when it can feel itself to act (muscles exist only through their articulation, and mouths, through taste, sound, the sinking in of teeth), then to be stilled, to be caught, is the worst kind of agony, that of paralysis. This agony or “tautening,” which so incites aggressive hatred, seems, syntactically, to induce a kind of flexing, the indolent flexing of the confined muscle, to pass nigh explosion but to remain painfully and ever so in the tense, wagging brace before violence. Krasznahorkai’s sentences issue, it would seem, from exactly this condition; yet they, despite the surety of their punctuation—when read aloud especially—feel rather unlike sentences. Their rhythm supplies, overall, a sense of continuity, of abiding or floundering, as an imprisoned body does, from one moment to the next.
They drive the mind darkly forward in their repetitions and contortions but resist all tendency toward some aggregate, permanent constitution:
. . . so that he doesn’t even exist, he only howls, and this howling is not identical with existence, on the contrary howling is despair, the unspeakable horror of that instance of awakening when the condemned comes to realize that he has been excluded from existence, and there is no way back, if there ever even was a way here, he has been caught in a trap, there is no escape, and everything hurts, that one thing still belonging to him hurts, that fact that he ended up here in this space ill-matched to his proportions, and he howls, he howls I want to break out, I want to stretch open the walls, but they have tautened me here, and here I remain in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing else for me to do but howl, and how and forever I shall be nothing but my own tautening and my own howling, everything that there was for me has become nothing, everything that could ever be for me is naught, so that for me there is nothing that even is.
Animalinside feels operatic, incantatory, as none of Krasznahorkai’s other writings are. The Melancholy of Resistance, for example, despite the frequent musicality of its syntax, is not principally so: its language is not “scored,” confined as Animalinside’s is. Intellectually, philosophically, and aesthetically, it is diffuse, exploratory and so would seem bound for close, silent reading, while to the contrary, stylistically, and technically, Animalinside is an oral text by virtue of the tenacious, distraught arrangements of its language, which would seem above all to invite performance, recitation.
And precisely so, during an open event celebrating the publication of The Cahiers Series’ Animalinside at the American University of Paris, selections from the text are read aloud. On the date, Krasznahorkai is serene, cheerful. He sits cross-legged, speaks very little, is a silvery and reluctant man, a quiet smiler. He is, on the whole, reticent, merry but remote, except when the moment arrives to read from Animalinside in the Hungarian, which he seems to relish. In fact, he is a very talented lector and there is a slippery, contained calm in his reading. I was especially struck by how his modulations in Hungarian compared or, rather, did not compare to the English translation when read aloud. The Hungarian was less inflected, characterized by a sort of cold boiling, while the English was always, so it seemed, springing forwards and outwards, demonstrative. But then perhaps English does best lend itself to inflection and to demonstration. It was strange in any case to hear the certain, spoken disparity between the two texts and to begin then to understand how much the way a text feels is so necessarily altered by the work of translation, not for lack of accuracy or talent on the part of the translator but for the sheer, tactual difference between languages. For example, the translated text, through the English and its requisite pronunciations, expresses a kind of perpetual “lunging,” while otherwise, the Hungarian original is gathered, and so to say, poised. It does not ptyalize or molest as the English does, it threatens and even promises pain, horror, in a voice, gleeful, and that yet softly tinkles, like a cat bell. The Hungarian is perhaps more calamitous for exactly this reason: all along it is, just as Krasznahorkai reads it, smiling.
Despite whatever violence of form and feeling—plain or furtive as may be—must characterize Animalinside, it is a compelling work not for this force of violence but for its coupling with subtler, finer forces: like to the dainty, “chirruping” little Prince of The Melancholy of Resistance, Krasznahorkai also writes destruction with an extreme affective delicacy, a quaintness, that punches holes:
. . . and nothing shall tauten anything else ever again, there isn’t even anything to eat, and there isn’t even anything to drink, but not even hunger or thirst anywhere, because someone to being hungry doesn’t even exist, and someone to be thirsty doesn’t even exist, and nothing shall burn ever again, and no wound will ever again spurt out blood, because there won’t be anything to burn and there won’t be anything to spurt blood, so that there won’t be anything to put out, and nothing to tie up, because there aren’t even wounds any more, and no verb at all shall ever be heard again, no memories, no traces, no judgment and not even any crime, no punishment, the last word died away long ago, as well as anyone who could even say what it was that doesn’t interest us in the least . . .
The coincident poignancy and fearfulness of this text are accomplished, it would seem, by the equanimity and punctiliousness of its description. Perhaps in contrast to some of Animalinside’s other moments, there is no violence to be had, felt, or intended here. Devastation is found to have very strange proportions indeed. Some “totality” exists from which the volume of a wound, of all wounds combined, and of air and memory and so on are to be subtracted, made to equal ‘zero’. Effectively all things are subtracted from themselves. To carry out this operation, an inventory must be taken. But this inventory of all such volumes as constitute a world—and are to be subtracted from it—serves rather to re-produce precisely these volumes, this world, within the text as it tells of its destruction. Simply, any thorough destruction in language must finish as a re-constitution of objects, conditions, feelings. Just so, Krasznahorkai’s works would seem less concerned with the combustion or obliteration of such things and animals as are condemned to destruction than with the life and being of the condemned things themselves, which are purest, leanest, and (after Wallace Stevens) acutest at their vanishing.
Christiane Craig is an American student of literature living in Paris. She has worked as a proofreader and assistant on several of The Cahiers Series’ projects, including the first publication of Animalinside.
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