Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai (tr. Ottilie Mulzet). Seagull Books. $30.00, 320pp.
Though László Krasznahorkai’s early fictions were set in his native Hungary, over the past two decades he has turned to settings that cover the globe across much of historical time. He is suited to this wide range by his erudition, by the air of conviction in his long, oscillating sentences; above all because he is a writer temperamentally nowhere at home. His protagonists are wanderers, sometimes easily distinguished from their author, sometimes less so. Whether in Renaissance Florence, Muromachi Japan, New York or Berlin, they meet their surroundings with the foreigner’s mixture of curiosity and fear, and can count no homeland but the symbolic one of art.
Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is the most recent Krasznahorkai volume to appear in English; though it carries the subtitle “Reportage,” it differs from the fiction only in that its confusion and longing are not joined to outright peril. An authorial double—“Mr. László” or “Comrade László” in the Hungarian original, in translation called (at the author’s direction) László Stein—travels to China, together with a long-suffering interpreter, to seek out remnants of classical Chinese culture: “this last ancient civilization, this exquisite manifestation of the creative spirit of mankind.” The phrase “beneath the heavens” is a rendering of tian xia, the Confucian concept of an ordered universe in which earth is brought in accord with heaven. Structurally, Krasznahorkai is a religious writer, and his quests after aesthetic revelation take the form of pilgrimages; but in this case, the pilgrimage goes quickly and spectacularly awry. The scenic town of Zhouzhuang is horribly transformed to a flea market the moment the tourist buses arrive; the fabled “First Spring Under Heaven” in Zhenjiang has become a filthy, stagnant pond; the adjoining Jiangtian monastery, while keeping its outward form, has inwardly ceased to exist.
. . . they are not viewing a monastery, and in particular they are not viewing Jiangtian but, rather, they have been dropped into a safari park where nothing is real, where everything has to be paid for, because here every building is new and fake, every luohan, every Buddha and every bodhisattva is new and fake, and every wood join in every column and every centimetre of golden paint is new and fake, in short, the whole thing is fraudulent, so that wherever a person goes he will encounter a vendor dressed up as some kind of Buddhist priest and who in every corner of the temple buildings will try to get him to buy—aggressively and expensively—some kind of dreadful religious junk, a pearl rosary and a Buddha necklace and a paper Guanyin, buy incense, they chant in place of sutras, buy a postcard, buy a pilgrimage bag, buy a certificate stating that you were here, a big stamp on it costs 5 yuan, the little stamp costs 2 yuan, but if you don’t buy anything, that’s OK, the monks corrupted into merchants snarl at the visitor, even then please pay, pay for everything, pay for stepping over here, for stepping over there, pay because you’re looking at this or that ‘sacred’ relic, pay at the entrance, pay at the pavilions, pay and we’ll ring the gong for you once, and buy something if you’re hungry, and buy something if you’re thirsty, of course at three times the price, the main thing is that while your yuans are decreasing, ours are increasing…
The complaint of rampant commercialism is familiar, if not trite, and has been made about many countries other than China. But for all his use of hyperbole, Krasznahorkai is a subtle writer; like Thomas Bernhard, he uses polemic as a compositional element and seems to enjoy holding at some distance the towering passions he describes. The epigraph to the Hungarian text, unfortunately missing from the translation, reads: “The use of the first person singular is not to say: I.” The source is a comment by the Chinese polymath Yan Fu on his translation of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, a book that itself contains a famous Western misreading of Chinese culture. Krasznahorkai’s book is both about China and about his own standpoint on China; two cultures are at work appropriating each other, and the attendant partial understandings and difficulties of translation complicate the act of speaking in one’s own voice.
In the second half of the book László Stein speaks less, and the perspective broadens. Having laid out the problem of a vanishing culture, he turns to dialogue, speaking to Chinese in various walks of life and recording their answers in interview format. We meet an abbot and a fashion designer, writers and theater directors, museum officials and expatriates, a bedridden old lady who remembers the Japanese war. They give varied responses to Stein’s talk of cultural crisis. Some deny that any problem exists; others perceive it but can suggest no remedy. The abbot and museum director are professionally bound to answer questions with irrelevancies and propaganda. Others give a subtler response shaded by Marxist theory, that the external form of culture may alter but the inner essence persists. Stein’s reverence for classical China engenders some suspicion; one of his interlocutors points out that Western admiration for Chinese tradition does not square well with Western exportation of democracy. Another sees the fall of that tradition not in the 1990s transition to a market economy but in the revolution and civil war that followed the collapse of the Qing dynasty, itself the culmination of a centuries-long process that had begun in the Song.
Stein’s last recounted visit is to a centuries-old garden in Suzhou that affords, if not unmixed consolation, a suitable last act to his quest. The garden is beautiful, but China has not lacked for beauty thus far; what is different is that this beauty is cared for. The garden is not ossified in a museum, nor (so far as we can see) overtly commercialized; instead it is maintained in an ongoing practice, under aesthetic laws that the garden director attempts to explain: “For example, if at one time a painting by Wen Zhingming was placed here, then we should place another painting by Wen Zhingming here, or something from the same era and which in the essence of its theme, its proportions, moreover in its atmosphere is essentially the same.” Against this setting Stein conducts his last interview with one Mr. Wu Xianweng, an unassuming silver-haired man of unstated profession who turns out to be the sage that Stein has been searching for.
To end a book with a wise man, fictional or otherwise, is a move that taxes credulity, and what rescues it here is Krasznahorkai’s usual obliquity. After a short conversation by way of the interpreter on art and life, Wu dispenses with speech and begins to write down a series of characters that, according to the interpreter, have no translatable meaning. When Stein insists that the interpreter simply give the literal meaning of the characters, the result is a text of the form:
Life very difficult pursuit interest tendency
When young go across mountains swim in water
Poetry recite painting
We grow old We die
Classical Chinese poetry is notorious for dispensing with grammatical particles and leaving implicit the relation between images and concepts. Ever since the first English translations appeared, a debate has flourished as to whether a more explicit English syntax and (it is said) an attendant Western metaphysics ought to be imposed on such lines, or whether a simple juxtaposition is not more powerful and faithful to the originals. The debate is of course irresolvable on its own terms; there can be no English text equivalent to the Chinese poem in its original context. Kransznahorkai’s book about misunderstanding and loss closes on this same irresolution but insists on the validity of the attempt, impossible though true fidelity may be. It is an admirable stance, one worthy of the culture to which he has fashioned this homage.
Paul Kerschen is author of The Drowned Library, a collection of short fiction.
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