Ottilie Mulzet is the translator of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s most recent novel, Seiobo There Below, which will be published later this spring by New Directions. In this interview, she presents a wide-ranging discussion of Krasznahorkai’s works, explaining how Seiobo fits into the elaborate schema that Krasznahorkai has built up over over 20 years of publication.
This interview is co-published in Issue 31 of The Quarterly Conversation and Issue 2 of Music & Literature, where it appears alongside several essays on Krasznahorkai, as well as translations of previously untranslated texts by the author. Issue 2 of Music & Literature can be ordered here.
Scott Esposito: Despite a number of qualities unique to each book, the three novels from Kraszhanorkai currently available in English show a remarkable unity, both in terms of form and in content. They all basically play out a trajectory of decay against figures that attempt to prevent that decay from happening. The force of spectacle, the frenzy of anarchy, and the redemptive power of art are all major features in each. Stylistically, the main event is of course the long sentence, but we can also look toward Krasznahorkai’s frequent (but oddly controlled) shifts of perspective, his fondness for the perverse, and his use of simple-but-profound devices to structure his novels (the numbering of Satantango’s chapters going from I to VI, and then from VI to I being one small example). War and War, the most recent of the three, was published in 1999, and Seiobo There Below comes from a much later period of Krasznahorkai’s career, 2008. I’d like to start by asking you where his development takes him in this book and what light it can reflect back on the three prior ones.
Ottilie Mulzet: Firstly, I feel I should mention at least something about the three works of this interim period (1999-2008) which have not yet appeared in English; hopefully they will quite soon. During this phase, Krasznahorkai’s work underwent a profound re-orientation, as his focus turned to Asia. The first book that manifested this shift was The Prisoner of Urga (1992). In this work, which by a large stretch of the imagination could be designated as a “travelogue,” Krasznahorkai renders an account of his first trip to China, via Ulaanbaatar, in the fall of 1990. When I use the word “travelogue,” I should immediately qualify it by saying that more than anything else, this work puts me in mind of The American Scene, by Henry James, in which, as you know, he revisits the US after an absence of about twenty years. Henry James’s account of an America deeply held in the grip of its own “Manifest Destiny” is extraordinary because he is constantly examining what he sees from an almost phenomenological point of view; i.e., the effect it has on his consciousness as a writer. The Prisoner of Urga does much the same thing in a very different setting. For us, it is particularly valuable as it clearly registers the beginnings of Krasznahorkai’s abiding fascination and profound intellectual engagement with Asia, which as it turns out, has largely been focused on both China and Japan.
The next “Asian” work to follow was From the North a Mountain, from the South a Lake, from the West Some Roads, from the East a River (2003). Composed of fifty short chapters (each one a single sentence of between one and five pages, but with the first chapter “missing,” so that there are in effect forty-nine), this work is very loosely based on The Tales of the Genji—his grandson is the chief “protagonist,” as he wanders around a seemingly deserted Zen monastery somewhere outside of Kyoto. Without having to describe it in great detail, I would just note that this volume is truly a work of genius, and is fascinating in its combination of its exquisite rendering of what could be called a kind of Japanese spatiality, or ordering of space, and the “apocalyptic hangover” (or fore-omens) that every reader of Krasznahorkai knows so well from Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War. Even the pages are typeset in such a way as to create, on each page, an oblong “block” of text elegantly framed by the wide blank space of the margins, so that visually, the margin itself acquires extreme importance: the empty space of the page, as opposed to the word. It re-enacts the play between apparently voided space and form that is so prevalent in Chinese and Japanese scroll painting and calligraphy.
Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens (2005) chronicles a further visit of Krasznahorkai’s to China. The date of of his first “Chinese” book—1990—is very significant: the Wall had just fallen, but this is not the only crucial factor. As you read his descriptions of Beijing, you realize that he is chronicling an utterly vanished world: a Beijing where most people still got around on bicycle, where many of the old hutongs still stood, a society that still felt some tangible connection to its own four-thousand-year-old history; in short: China right before its massive economic boom of the past fifteen years . . . In Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, Krasznahorkai documents the loss of traditional Chinese culture through sheer indifference, its transformation into kitsch, and rapacious economic interests steamrolling any remaining shreds of traditional Confucian values. He does this through a series of conversations with various Chinese intellectuals, artists and writers. Probably the most unsettling thing in this book is the clear impression that most of his interviewees are themselves unaware of what has been lost. This book was not so well-received by Hungarian critics, but, if I may cite my own writing, I wrote a rebuttal.1 I think this work is really important because it is one of the very few accounts that describes China as it is today. In fact, it is worth noting that Krasznahorkai published this volume at a time when so many books about China published in English, for example, did little more than trumpet the so-called “economic miracle.”
Seiobo There Below is of course an outgrowth of both of these ongoing parallel concerns: on the one hand, Krasznahorkai’s long, brooding preoccupation with the Finno-Ugric wasteland, and its inevitable generating of that sense of an apocalypse that we are either about to witness or have somehow just missed; on the other, the initial promise of some sort of connection, through the medium of Asia, with the principle of the sacred. (In The Prisoner of Urga, Krasznahorkai feels this promise so keenly in the China of 1990 that an unavoidable three-day wait in Ulaanbaatar before his return flight to Europe, coming right after his Beijing sojourn, is utter misery to him). Of course, Krasznahorkai’s work, circa 1985-1999, is full of false prophets (and some not-so-false ones, as for example, Korin in War and War). For me at least, one of the most striking developments in Seiobo is this departure from the prophet-figure. Every narrative in Seiobo revolves around the confrontation of the (at times basely) profane and the sacred as reflected in both East and West. Of course, since Eliade, “the sacred and the profane” has become something of a cliché, but part of the power of these narratives is that they explore the sacred—or rather the complete and total lack of the sacred in the present time through the lens of all these different cultures. And the answer is always the same: we have lost touch with it, we don’t want it, we have become too weak to bear it, or that the sacred itself, abandoned for all time, just wants to disappear.
SE: Let’s talk about the question of prophets, false or otherwise. In my reading of the three novels currently available in English, entropy and decay are inevitable. The prophet-characters are noteworthy for their attempts to forestall doom, but they always fail. One is left with the conviction that humankind’s destiny is, at best, a cycle of birth and decay that eventually runs itself down into stasis. I’d like to ask where Asia fits into this. You indicate that Asia at one point represented a new opportunity for Krasznahorkai, a chance to change his thinking, but recent interviews, along with Animalinside, would seem to indicate that he has no more hope for our current global civilization now than he did when he wrote War and War. Can you talk a little bit in-depth about what Krasznahorkai hoped to find in Asia and how Seiobo comments on the conclusions he reached after a decade of interaction with that continent?
OM: In most of Krasnahorkai’s works, the figure of the Prophet (for example, Irimiás and Petrina in Satantango) is separate from another constantly occurring and crucially important figure, that of the Archivist. The Archivist is the Observer—who, as has been pointed out, tries to stave off inevitable decay through unceasing, obsessive observation. The Prophet is either invariably false, overwhelmed by despair, or an emblem of spiritual impotence, a helpless Biblical patriarch (as, for example, the father in The Turin Horse). In War and War, the figures of the Prophet and the Archivist come together in the person of Korin. This could be one explanation for why War and War ends as it does—it is as if these two figures must inevitably cancel each other out. The messenger of the Past and of the Future cannot co-exist in one person.
In The Prisoner of Urga; From the North a Mountain, from the South a Lake, from the West Some Roads, from the East a River; and Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, a major shift occurs, in which the principle figure of these narratives becomes the Seeker. In a way, this clearly fits with the effect that the historical possibilities of the timeframe of these works (1990-2005) might have had on any writer. But Krasznahorkai’s engagement with these cultures is, as I mentioned, something totally out of the ordinary. His stance toward Asia, as I read it from these narratives and from Seiobo, is very deeply ambiguous. His first “discovery” of China does seem to be bathed in a kind of hope, even as he writes that he realizes he is forever cut off from this hope. Yet he states about one of his earlier trips (in Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens): “ . . . even though I really didn’t find anything, my journey was still a happy one; because at the end there was something that occurred to me: that the sky that clouded above me was the very same sky that clouded above Li Tai-Po and all of Chinese classical poetry, and all the wealth of Chinese tradition.”
All of this deeply felt ambiguity is expressed in the pages of Seiobo, and in various ways. To take just one aspect, the sense of spatiality is utterly different than in his previous works. It seems to begin retroactively with that very poignant thought about Li Tai-Po: the very clear directionality of that statement is characteristic of this later period. Krasznahorkai’s vision in Seiobo seems very much influenced by the traditional tripartite division of the universe found in many Asian cultures (deity-realm above, our own middle realm, and the lower realm below, which in these texts is a kind of hell of oblivion). Take the sense of space, for example, in Satantango: it is claustrophobic: it tangibly recreates how the late Kádár era in Hungary (very similarly to the Husák years in Czechoslovakia, I might add) excelled more than anything else at producing individuals whose greatest aspiration in life was to become proper petty-bourgeouis.
By contrast, the sheer breadth of topics (and civilizations) that Krasznahorkai writes about in Seiobo is truly breathtaking: icon-painters, Noh mask-makers, Renaissance painting, to name just a few. Krasznahorkai has an utter genius for reflecting a given historical moment while not sacrificing the universality of a given text (Animalinside is a prime example: an allegory for our time, yet who could deny that this shape-shifting text will adequately transfigure itself to meet the “needs” of future readers?). The vast expanses of space that are present in Seiobo represent the “globalized” world of the present day, our ever-increasing interconnectedness alongside our ever-increasing isolation, and most of all, the relentless secularization of much of the Western world. This is not a value judgment, but rather to say that it is worth pointing out that among the “worlds” that most concern Krasznahorkai to date—Europe both East and West, China, and Japan—alongside the two that have undergone, in the last century, sustained periods of enforced atheism, there exists as well a pronounced deficit of indigenous spiritual tradition in much of Western Europe.
Seiobo is thus clearly a “globalized” text. There are “European” chapters, but it is as if these artifacts of “our” European heritage are being dissected by an impersonal eye, or maybe an “Asian” eye, or that of a European who has so deeply immersed himself in Asian culture that it is no longer possible to delineate a clear boundary between the two.
My reading of the earlier Asian works is that the “promise” that Asia held out for Krasznahorkai, as a writer, as a person, was one of potential connection to this principle of the sacred, or the divine, or even just a field of immanence that is “beyond.” (I hesitate to use the word “transcendent” because of all of the baggage of Western metaphysics it inevitably carries.) A definite progression can be traced, then, from the intricate micro-universe of the rotting collective farm in Satantango, to Korin’s essential need to place his act of transmitting his manuscript to the Internet, “the archive of the world,” in its exact center—New York—to the vastly expansive range of Seiobo, in which, in addition to all the different locales and time periods, suddenly the field of immanence plays such a major role. The adventures of Falke, Kasser, Bengazza and Toót—the four protaganists of Korin’s manuscript—as they progress along the margins or one historical disaster or another prefigure the multiplying scenarios of Seiobo. And in its own way, War and War is as much a document of a “lost world” as any of Krasznahorkai’s descriptions of pre-WTO China, Babylon, or Renaissance Italy.
In Seiobo, he explores, with exacting thoroughness, the question of this “principle of immanence” as it occurs in Eastern and Western cultures, as well as the media through which humans have traditionally had access to this experience. Generally speaking, it seems as if the possibility of experiencing this principle in a way that does not destroy its intended recipient is somewhat more present in the chapters dealing with Japan.
In some chapters, Krasznahorkai addresses the question of decay in an entirely new light (for example, the delicate issue of renovation of artworks of European provenience or sacred statuary in a Zen monastery). And yet, the narration continually pushes the reader to the realization that physical decay, while always occurring, is actually the least of our problems. In the chapter “Christo Morto,” the proper attribution of a painting of Christ is the subject of futile art-historical disputes during its restoration (the purpose of which is largely to establish its monetary value). In the meantime the narrator, visiting the museum where it is displayed again after eleven years, realizes that Christ’s gaze has actually “inhabited” the painting (as it did as well eleven years before). His reaction is one of trauma and flight: “ . . . for he was ashamed that it had occurred like this, that here was Christ in the fullest and most horrible sense of the word, an orphan, and here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY, but no one needed him . . . ” There is a searing emotional truth in this portrayal. I would cite one example from a recent documentary film about a Ruthenian woman living in Eastern Slovakia who began having visions of the Virgin Mary as a teenager. When she first told her mother, the mother’s initial reaction was to slap her across the face in anger and disbelief. As the mother later acknowledged, her reaction had been driven by nothing less than stark terror.2
To return to “Christo Morto,” two points deserve emphasis: one is the way in which the painting of Christ is “animated” by his spirit, in a fashion that is highly reminiscent of the spirit- or deity-possession (of either people or objects) that one often finds in the East. There is something very deeply syncretic about Krasznahorkai’s vision in this passage as he examines questions on the very margin of Christian soteriology through a very “Asian” lens. It’s not a question of “society” anymore—all of the characters in Seiobo exist in nearly complete isolation, except for those fleeting moments when the field of immanence manifests itself in some form or another. Again, some of the apparent exceptions appear in the Japanese chapters (for example, a congregation praying together during a ceremony to place the statue of Amida Buddha back on the throne, during which it is also necessary to summon the deity back into the statue after its physical “preservation” in the workshop). The other is that the real subject here is the phenomenology of the experience of the field of immanence. The problematics of decay and entropy are equaled or surpassed by the receptive inadequacy of nearly all the protagonists.
I think it may be hard to speak of a single or unambivalent conclusion. The final chapter of Seiobo is a kind of meditation on oblivion that is yet determined to speak itself, however incoherently. In an interview he gave recently on NPR, Krasznahorkai referred to Hungarian as a “far-away” language. I love that description, because it encompasses all of the vast distances inherent within Hungarian itself: all of the loan words from so many variegated sources, the long journey it made to Europe from the Ural mountains (certain scholars argue that the starting point of this journey was to the west of these mountains—based on scientific analyses of bee pollen—while others cling to a more “eastern” origin). In Seiobo, this “fragile, far-away” language becomes the world’s echo-chamber, even if in the end it is simultaneously buried and expressed through its own fragments of words.
SE: I want to ask you now about the particulars of Seiobo. You’ve identified the figures of the Prophet and the Archivist from Krasznahorkai’s earlier work, as well as the Seeker, which you say comes about in the Asian books. Can you talk a little about who the Seeker is in Seiobo and how this character fits into the larger structure of the book? In addition, do traces of the Prophet or Archivist remain? Are there other types or individuals that will be familiar to readers, perhaps the “authorial” type that appears in The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango?
OM: In a way, it’s really fascinating to look at Satantango and Seiobo There Below alongside each other. If, on the one hand, the English-speaking (or reading) reader will be coming to these works somewhat “out of sequence” (in comparison to the chronology of their writing), the micro-sequence of Satantango-Seiobo is nonetheless very instructive. All of the same questions are there, the quintessentially Krasznahorkaian tropes of the Prophet, the Archivist (the Observer, who may in time become the Chronicler), the Exiled and the Damned—are all present in Seiobo, but with a radical shift of perspective that has not been wholly present in his works before.
Consider, for example, the question of the Prophet. The Prophet (whether false, would-be, or otherwise) was present in Krasznahorkai’s earlier works because these took place in fictional worlds in which there was no god, no deity, no “higher principle,” if you will. Prophets emerge when the people need to be reminded of this higher principle: of the perils of ignoring it. The fact that the real identity and purpose of Irimiás, in Satantango, never really fully comes to light is in some ways secondary to the function he performs for the remaining members of the collective farm. Although he fulfills the role of Prophet, as far as the residents of the estate are concerned, his real agency is as a generator of entropy: at the end of the novel, he sends all the villagers off in separate directions to complete their work of “observation.” In one sense, though, their trajectories create a kind of living spider’s web: the spider’s web that paralyzes and immobilizes, and yet, at the same time, connects all things to each other, like the extraordinary sentence (pp. 204-6) describing all of the characters’ dreams, knitting them together into one thread. That sentence—“delicate as breath itself,” one of Krasznahorkai’s favorite adjectival phrases (and only one word in Hungarian, I might add)—is one strand of a finely woven, silky spider’s web of words.
In Seiobo, the agency and the message of the Prophet has been diffused throughout the entire narrative. The Prophet is the narratorial voice of the opening chapter telling the “Kamo-Hunter” (a stork on the river Kamo in Kyoto, an allegory of perfect, undying observation) that it might as well fold up its wings and die, because no one needs it anymore; equally, the Prophet is the voice at the book’s end, transformed into a kind of inchoate scream of the inevitable disintegration of all artifacts of civilization. It speaks this disintegration and is this disintegration at once, almost as if there were no more boundaries anymore between us and the things we have made. And yet, Seiobo is one of the most painstaking accounts of human civilization you or I will ever read, almost fanatical in its level of detail, as if the author himself had been dispatched by Irimiás, not this time to the Women’s Tailoring Shop in Keresztúr, but to observe, minutely, nearly all facets of the human artistic legacy (of which, of course, in its own way, the Women’s Tailoring Shop forms a distinct part).
“The owl of Minerva flies at midnight”—one is put in mind of Hegel’s aphorism. It is hard not to be struck by the fact that Krasznahorkai published, for example, Sátántangó in 1985, War and War in 1999, and The Prisoner of Urga in 1992. These works, in and of themselves, read almost like retroactive prophecies. While not much has changed out there on the puszta—with the exception of less rainfall, as Krasznahorkai stated in a recent interview—Sátántangó did in a way foresee the crumbling of Kádárism in 1989 (even if it is being replaced, as we speak, with an equivalent, if differing, form of national stagnation); War and War can be read as a testament to the New York that existed from the post-war era on up until the morning of September 11, 2001; and The Prisoner of Urga, as I mentioned, captured Beijing literally moments before it became the economic capital of the world. Hence, one nearly trembles at the prospect of drawing conclusions on this basis from Seiobo, which is, in effect, an exquisitely rendered “wunderkammer” of the treasures of our human civilization: how and why they came about, who made them, how they have survived through the ages (poorly, as it not surprisingly turns out), and most importantly of all, the burning question of how we are able to receive them into our consciousness—these artifacts, with their overwhelming, impossible burden of conveying the sacred to us in everyday life. And if this question does not exactly feel like a “burning” one to us, perhaps it is because Krasznahorkai is addressing one of the biggest taboos of all, the question of the “sacred” in a world which has no need for it anymore—like the “inevitable mortification of slightly outdated technology” Walter Benjamin described.
Perhaps the most extreme examples of this in Seiobo are the passages describing a nameless Hungarian drifter, who, sick of the unnamed Eastern European city where he lives, catches a cheap flight to Barcelona in the ill-conceived hope of finding a new life there: he is soon living in a homeless shelter, his work prospects patently nil; and it is in this state of total isolation, desperation, and marginalization that a vision of three angels is given to him (through the agency of a painting by Rublev), a vision that in no way comforts, but torments. The homeless drifter—one of so many caught on the wrong side of change in the new “start-up economy”—is himself a variation on Irimiás after the latter sees the floating veil and realizes it is little Esti. His false resurrection (the rumor he and Petrina spread of their own deaths) has been trumped by a genuine one. Not surprisingly, after this incident, Irimiás loses his special power of charisma.
Seiobo is a testament to the “borderless world”—as I write these lines, I am actually sitting in a governmental office on the outskirts of a Central European capital, surrounded by at least 15 different nationalities who share my fate of waiting for the next available clerk—as it moves seamlessly between epochs, languages, and cultures. Krasznahorkai has, once again, put his finger firmly on the pulse of our time. The “borderless world” still contains the Archivist, the Prophet, the Exile—only that they have been transferred from the micro-world of the Hungarian puszta to our “global” civilization, itself seemingly teetering on the very edge, as one commentator put it, of “the end of history.”
SE: Judging by our conversation, it sounds as if, in Seiobo, Krasznahorkai has evolved his use of point of view. This is something he showed a great deal of aptitude for since the very beginning: Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War are all notable for the care and ease with which Krasznahorkai seamlessly shifts in perspective throughout the novels. He constantly penetrates into different consciousnesses, even as the clarity of his vision and the stylistic hegemony of his lengthy sentences give the books a powerful sense of cohesion. This perspective-shifting is a device he uses to great rhetorical and structural effect. In your answer to the previous question you note the diffusion of the narrative voice, as well as the incredible level of detail, in Seiobo: what was your experience of the prose as you were translating it, and did this prose present specific challenges to you? Did your relationship to it evolve as you worked on the translation? Also, can you compare your translation process here to that for Animalinside, a short work by Krasznahorkai that offers a high degree of fragmentation even as it is bound together very strongly by its voice and the general conceit.
OM: Firstly, I should just point out that the question of “shifts of perspective,” when it comes to Seiobo, really are enormous, given that the individual chapters deal with such a huge range of cultures, cultural artifacts, and even languages. On the one hand, this utterly trumps the question that the Anglophone translator of Central European literature is interminably faced with, i.e., can one “translate” Central Europe, with all that that designation implies, into a world language like English, and, even if this is a possible “transfer,” can the target reading public, living in such a different culture, adequately “understand” it? A recent blog post on Electric Literature by Sam Gold describing Krasznahorkai’s appearance at a book signing in Lower Manhattan makes it clear that this question is utterly moot:
Without an introduction, he began reading from a chapter called “Irimiás Makes a Speech.” With a welcoming address of “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Krasznahorkai transformed Housing Works into a town meeting in a Hungarian village. In smooth, inviting tones, which he punctuated with subtle gestures, Krasznahorkai assumed the language of Irimiás, who returns to his home to stifle the tragedy of a young girl’s death and ask for access to the town’s coffers. The audience sat convinced, as if Krasznahorkai were appealing to them.
—and in and of itself, demonstrates a fascinating shift in the reception of Satantango: the extreme deprivation it depicts is no longer perceived as being specific to Central and Eastern Europe. As I mentioned, the presence of Central Europe in Seiobo is minimal: the Eastern European drifter in “A Murderer is Born” (who arguably could be anyone from anywhere), or the Hungarian painter attending the artistic workshop in “Something is Burning Outside” (who is a very minor character). The context of “Private Passion” is clearly Hungarian, but the protagonist is the kind of garrulous autodidact you meet all over Central and Eastern Europe.
As a work of art, Seiobo is constantly positing the question of “difference”; the reader is continually displaced between these widely variegated aesthetic and affective “worlds,” where the narratorial voice itself—by contrast—is largely at home. The text assumes a breadth and level of erudition achieved and achievable by no doubt a vanishing small number of individuals on our entire planet and yet always explains just enough so that reader doesn’t entirely drown in the sea of detail. At the same time, it replicates our now daily state of “information overload,” but, as it were, in a remedial, yet non-didactic, fashion. As a translator, then, I need to be at home enough in the text to assume (more or less) the same comfort level as the narratorial voice in describing topics as diverse as medieval icon painting and the topography of Kyoto, to name just two; and yet I also need to refrain from making (or allowing) the reader to become too comfortable, which is clearly something the text itself doesn’t want.
Krasznahorkai, for example, made it clear at the beginning he didn’t want any of the words in foreign languages (Japanese, Russian, Greek, Spanish, Italian…) in italics. This already causes us to “read” these words differently, whether we can gloss their semantic meaning or not. Italicizing a word from another language in an English text sets it off as “different” or “other”: at its most neutral, it informs us that the word is from another language, and yet, it can also function as a trope of snobbery, as a kind of ornament, or subconsciously can even suggest to us we don’t really need to pay attention to this word. What is interesting in the Hungarian original, of course, is how these words are imperfectly “domesticized” into the text: Krasznahorkai employs (or deploys) them with regular Hungarian suffix endings: in one sense they are literally “trapped,” “immobilized” within the Hungarian text; in another, they provide a deceptively “seamless” interface with these other worlds. So, obviously, I need to try to replicate the “feel” of that in English, which is of course neither an agglutinating or inflective language. Clearly today in many languages there is a penetration of a certain amount of English vocabulary (in the case of inflective languages like Hindi or Czech, the word is then usually declined according to indigenous grammatical rules), but Krasznahorkai is radically doing the opposite here, infusing into English—through the means of this translation—that which it has dismissed, for the most part, as being entirely irrelevant: in other words, everything that stands outside of its own globalized self-complacency.
There is a great deal of fragmentation in Seiobo: it is the result of a never-ceasing attempt to seize the whole, all the while in full realization of the utter impossibility of this. The long sentences (to paraphrase the theory on the nature of causality of the lecturer at the village library in “Private Passion”) are truly like curling tentacles, trying to wrap themselves around everything. Many of the smaller meaning-units within one sentence (which typically can be between two and eighteen pages in length) have a “nesting” structure, of subordinate clauses buried within subordinate clauses within further subordinate clauses (but in Hungarian, of course, these can be prepositional phrases, which is the form preferred by Krasznahorkai). One senses something like an attempt to replicate a spiraling infinity within language.
At the same time, there is a deeply ambiguous, multidirectional quality to many of these subordinate clauses. Often, they can be seen as referring both to the phrase that follows as well as the phrase that directly precedes them. This gives the text, overall, a strange sense of endlessly moving somehow forward while always remaining in one place. It is, if you will, the linguistic equivalent of some of the most memorable shots in The Turin Horse, if you recall the scenes where the characters are seen to be struggling forward, searching for water, trying to get somewhere, and yet due to the way they are photographed, they are essentially moving in one place. On one level this makes the text rhizomatic—to use Gilles Deleuze’s terminology—as opposed to a “linear” text: it seems to be branching out in all directions at once. One also thinks of Deleuze’s words:
Of course the nomad moves, but while seated, and he is only seated while moving . . . Immobility and speed, catatonia and rush, a ‘stationary process’, station as process . . .
The other clear contrast that immediately offers itself in terms of Animalinside, is, of course, that the latter text is wholly concerned with the demonic. The “directionality” in Animalinside is that of an all-consuming and yet nebulous threat gradually yet inevitably surrounding the reader like thick impenetrable fog, emanating from both without and within. The shape-shifting “beast” is simply one possible manifestation of this threat, one that must be deeply lodged in the subconscious of mankind (feral dogs, wolves). And yet, as Krasznahorkai’s text makes clear, we are the threatening and the threatened both. As a translator, I felt I had to try to “channel” this sense of the internal demonic from which we human beings perpetually attempt to disassociate ourselves (the “other” person, country, culture, religion, etc. is always the evil one, not us). The narratorial voice violently deconstructs and mocks this disassociation.
The field of immanence that is such a key narrative element in Seiobo is at a further remove: it lends to the text a continually shifting directionality. There are continual displacements both horizontally and vertically: horizontally, as it were, across our “flat” globe, and also between the tripartite vertical division of space, as I mentioned before. The displacements across time make me think of a memorable sentence of Czesław Miłosz, describing pre-war Lithuania in his memoir Native Realm (trans. Catherine S. Leach): “Practically every person I met was different, not because of his own special self, but as a representative of some group, class, or nation. One lived in the twentieth century, another in the nineteenth, a third in the fourteenth.” Miłosz ascribes this extreme temporal synchronicity to the “lack of form” of the Eastern European, who is always “governed by a sudden ebb or flow of inner chaos”: “Form is achieved in stable societies,” he writes. (Of course, the question of which societies could be designated as “stable” today is another question altogether.) In effect, Seiobo There Below lays all of these differing epochs on one plane—the plane of eternal disassociation from the Divine (and we, the reader, are even further displaced in time and space from these resurrected worlds). Perhaps this is yet another aesthetic manifestation of “the end of time”—all the times converging at once, in utter chaos—through which nonetheless Krasznahorkai’s long tentacle-like sentences continue to wind.
SE: I tend to see Krasznahorkai as a writer who gives his books a very elemental feel, as though they are reaching far, far back to the true roots of the problems they attempt to depict. For instance, even though the first two books (The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War) take place in a recognizable historic setting, they really don’t feel situated at all, and the questions that drive the books feel cyclical, as though they extend through each book to the interminable past and future. What you are describing in Seiobo sounds like a leap in this technique, in the sense of Krasznahorkai attempting to assimilate more and more into this elemental/timeless feel. I’m wondering to what extent you feel that this novelistic development reflects changes in both Krasznahorkai’s self and in the world we all live in. It seems that his going to Asia must have broadened his perspective on the core concerns that have stayed with him throughout his career. And in a related sort of way, the changes in the world after the fall of Communism would give a thinker like Krasznahorkai much evidence that, at root, the logic of the democratic and communist systems were responding to his core questions in similar ways. What I’m getting at is that for a totalizing author like Krasznahorkai, it would seem that there would be much in the past decade or so to feed that impulse and to allow him to totalize to an even greater degree than he had in his early novels.
OM: There certainly is a universal quality to all of Krasznahorkai’s writings which consistently pulls them out of the specificities of time and place, even when a precisely defined time and place forms the setting of the stories themselves. And it’s true that Krasznahorkai’s texts usually create a kind of “total” fictional world, which in a relevant sense cannot be called into question by the reader. In Seiobo this tension between universality and the specific is very great. Krasznahorkai mentions in one of the interviews published here (from 2003) that he is not an adherent of historical fiction—that one can only really write about the present age—and that his work is set in a kind of “general present.”3 And the narrative voice in Seiobo, while shifting from Babylon to the Shang Dynasty to medieval Japan to post-Cold War Europe, does bring each narrative into a kind of generalized present (in terms of tense). When you are reading about Queen Vashti, you feel the Persian Empire is a part of the present as you read it, and not in the distant historical past. These texts bear an extraordinary force of the immediate. Part of the universality of the texts lies in how they force each narrative into a strong articulation of the concerns that lie at its heart. This “compulsion within the text” to be universal, operating on many levels, is in extreme contrast—almost in contradiction to—the great masses of near-anthropological detail.
There are, as well, several other factors that pull these texts towards the universal. One is the intersubjectivity of characters, the way in which the voice of the narrative almost imperceptibly shifts between a generalized narrator and the thoughts of different characters, as well as their own words, almost always in the form of indirect reported speech. This process will seem “familiar” to readers of Krasznahorkai’s earlier works, inasmuch as it is inherently destabilizing. (As well, the Hungarian critic Edit Zsadányi sees the indirectly reported speech-fragments in Satantango as indicative of the extreme marginalization of the inhabitants of the estate: the narrator has to “lend” his own voice for them to be “heard.”) In Seiobo, for example, the reader may follow what appears to be an “omniscient” narratorial thread, only to discover that actually, he has just been made privy to Ze’ami’s intimate dialogue with himself. And yet the one does not exclude the other. Perhaps it is both voices speaking at the same time. On the one hand, for a Western literary antecedent of this kind of intersubjectivity, one thinks of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; and yet at the same time of certain Chinese literary techniques in which a poet creates an “inter-subjective consciousness” which never directly faces the other, but instead “possesses several points of view at once,” creating the effect of “the internal debate of a plural being.”
Yet another factor is the “universality” of each “archetype” mentioned above, and the way that each of these roles figure in each narrative, always in a different way, like a mathematical subset manifesting itself according to different permutations. In addition to the Archivist and the Seeker, for example, there is the Guardian (the individual whose job it is to protect the Artwork), the Creator (the subject wholly devoted to technê) of the Object, which is itself a Vessel for the Immanence that descends into it or inhabits it, and the Commentator(s), i.e., the scholarly community whose function it is to analyze and interpret these Artwork-Objects, and, as the book makes abundantly clear, miss their target completely in most cases, or only manage to purposefully befuddle things. And finally, there is the Deity itself, always taking a different form, who narrates the only brief first-person section of the book (in the chapter placed at the exact center of the book, “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki”)—the reflections of the Deity who, if we try to look too closely or directly, blinds us and leaves us powerless. How these roles alternate with each other somehow make me think of the Noh drama: not the repertoire of dramatic plots, but the accumulated storehouse of concrete physical movements that constitutes the expressive reserves of each Noh actor.
The overriding concern of each narrative, the question of the transmission (or lack of it) through a work of art of the field of immanence lifts also the book into perhaps the most profound universality of all: the question of the non-material world. Because, as you mentioned, Krasznahorkai’s novels continually reach back to elemental “timeless” concerns. These texts would seem to indicate that from Krasznahorkai’s point of view, when it comes to the question of the immanent, both the communist and the democratic systems are equally left wanting. And, as the images inevitably accumulate as the book progresses, the question of what this “immanence” even is becomes more and more impossible to define. Transcendence? Immateriality? The other-worldly? Not only does this accumulation defy any kind of pre-packaged homogeneous definition of the “sacred,” but the main contrast, if there is one, seems to lie not between the East and the West, but between the Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic traditions. For example, take the protagonists—the Romanian drifter, the hapless middle-aged tourist in Venice—who are, in effect, so shaken by “their” experience of the sacred as to be irreparably damaged, or driven to murder. (“She shudders: the angel is here/ And she too knows: every angel/ Is ghastly,” in the words of poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy.) The visitor to the Alhambra in “Distant Mandate” feels he is not a visitor to the monument, itself exiled into an uncomprehending present through the agency of time, but its sacrifice. He is prey to it until he can figure out the “higher reason” for the non-figurative ornamentation entirely covering each and every one of its surfaces. Unlike the reviewer obsessed with deciphering “the figure in the carpet” of a prominent author’s work in Henry James’ novella of the same title, the narrator wandering through the courtyards of the Alhambra is obsessed with discovering why the figures exist at all, and why they cover every available surface.
One scholar of Japanese tradition writes, “According to Chih-i, Buddha tempers his light and merges with the dust so as not to blind and confuse ordinary beings with the full radiance of enlightenment. Thus the Buddha dims his light and enters fully into the ordinary world.” One wonders if it is possible to speak then of the “crushing” divine of the Judaic-Abrahamic traditions, as opposed to a “kinder, gentler” divine, in any event much more dispersed in its presence through all existing objects, of eastern Asia? A “divine” which may make itself accessible through the lifelong sacrifice and ritual of technê, as opposed to a divine that traumatizes and crushes with its sudden immediate overwhelming presence, for which one can never be fully prepared: “the awe cast by the shadow of God,” as one writer of Islamic tradition has it. (There are, of course, significant syncretic developments where the two have merged into a unique spiritual alchemy, such as the heretical sect of Nestorian Christianity, banished in early-medieval times to Central Asia, which came to include significant Taoist and Buddhist characteristics, or certain Hasidic cults that consider “the divine spark” to be present in all things.) And yet let us recall the Noh mask maker carving his mask in “He Rises at Dawn,” wholly incognizant of what he has wrought: “a demon has come into being, and it will do harm.” This raises again the very Jamesian question of consciousness: is it better to be aware, even if one is destroyed by that awareness, or to simply render homage through the extreme tedium and devotion of technê? Does one have a choice?
It is, perhaps, not too much of an exaggeration to state that the last time Western culture was genuinely and truly concerned about any questions of transcendence at all—and that in terms of philosophical considerations of the Sublime—was in the early nineteenth century. This Sublime was not necessarily concerned with the experience of hierophany in Eliade’s sense of the term. It was an aesthetic Sublime that was simultaneously connected to the poetics of the ruin. So the question remains: when, for example, a Mongolian nomad offers the first drop of milky tea to the deity that resides in the fire, or makes an offering to a deity that resides in a mountain and simultaneously is the mountain itself, does this have any relation at all to our (diluted, enervated, and above all bifurcated) “concept of the sacred” of the present age?
Throughout the book, I have been reminded of the comments of the eminent Czech Japanologist, Antonín Líman, on the Japanese concern with—and fascination with—surface. In his view, in traditional Japanese culture, there is no dichotomy between surface and depth:
. . . in Japanese culture, the dualistic disintegration of things into a surface and a profound meaning hidden somewhere deep inside of the things never existed. This perspective means that our attention, when it is intent on something, on some aspect of the external world, becomes fatigued much sooner than the attention of a Japanese: we mentally wander off somewhere far away, somewhere into the Earth or onto the Moon, or on the contrary into the things themselves, where we assume there to be a hidden meaning. In doing so we abandon and neglect the eloquent surface of things, whereas the traditional Japanese imagination remains with them much longer than we do…This fractionalized and volatile viewpoint of the world, in which there is such a huge dose of irony, has as its consequence a truly much more horrendous superficiality than the traditional respect and love for the ‘texture’ of the surface in traditional [Japanese] culture.4
And it is fascinating how in Seiobo, the narratorial voice follows the surface of things with such profound fidelity, as if the prose itself were attempting to replicate the process of technê that Krasznahorkai discusses in the 2009 interview published here.5 The prose at once describes and performs the process of technê, as if the narration itself were hoping, through this process of faithful repetition, to achieve its own immateriality. Yet it is, paradoxically, a non-materiality accessible only through the material: a material, and an immateriality, that always differs from itself.
SE: All this talk of knowledge and technê sets us up nicely for one last question. I think you’re absolutely right that Krasznahorkai pulls us toward the spiritual even as he keeps us within very prosaic concerns and prosaic means of representation, like repetition. I also think you’re right to identify the transmission of knowledge as one of Krasznahorkai’s core concerns: the means by which humans perpetuate their knowledge in a world where entropy is the rule and those things that give themselves to that kind of representation and transmission. So, to conclude, what kind of knowledge would you say is Krasznahorkai’s main contribution to human understanding, how do you see it living beyond Krasznahorkai’s life (other than, obviously, in the books), and, to bring it back to Seiobo, what is that book’s chief innovation as regards this knowledge?
OM: Paradoxically, a book so deeply concerned with the notion of technê and the transmission of tradition, whether through direct instruction, imitacio, or inexplicable means, ends with the contemplation of a kind of infinity of oblivion: the evocation of fragmented archaeological remains “screaming beneath the earth” along the banks of the Huang He (Yellow River) in China. All of our human endeavors are condemned to this incoherent oblivion, the book most definitively suggests, and yet one must weigh this thought against all that has come before, i.e., the vast narrative sweep reaching from Biblical times to modern-day Europe. Seiobo leaves us teetering on the edge of this unresolved—and irresolvable—ambiguity.
The New York-based graphic designer Milton Glaser once remarked—at the point when computers were at the beginning of their now-unavoidable prevalence in design, architecture, and the other plastic arts—that the quality of a given piece of artwork, or a creative work in general, usually stands in inverse proportion to the ease with which its material can be moulded to the artists’ desires. He used the example of stonemasons: how long does it take to carve a piece of stone, as opposed to, say, designing a poster using standard graphic-design software. In a more recent interview with The Believer (2003), he stated that:
Increasingly, my students and other young people are beginning to realize they can’t use the computer for everything, and they can’t start with the computer. They have to start by making things, by drawing things, by conceptualizing things. I have the long rap on the computer, but the problem with the computer finally is there’s no chance to develop ideas. Things become clear too soon. The interaction between a sketch and the brain is such that you try something, the brain corrects it, you revise it, the brain corrects it. That dialectic is totally missing from the computer, because as soon as you have an idea, it becomes clear. There’s not enough fuzziness in a computer solution, so you figure it out too early, and what you get is a very well-executed ordinary idea. Because there’s no development in this system. That’s not entirely true, but it is characteristic. It’s hard to do things that are, it seems to me, fully developed in a thoughtful way on the computer.
Certainly not to say that all computer-generated design is bad (it certainly is not), yet, that the computer has become a global mental prosthesis in the vast majority of professions, not just in design or architecture, as well as in daily life, is irrefutable. Not to mention the surplus it creates—at least in the First World—of “insane ease,” to use the formulation of Jean Baudrillard. And, in its own way, Seiobo itself paradoxically makes the reader aware of this, as he or she types yet another unfamiliar or half-remembered name from the volume into the search engine, and yet somehow is forced to confront the reality that reading a Wikipedia entry about Ze’ami is not the same thing as, say, making a pilgrimage to his place of exile on Sado Island. Perhaps it may even be unnecessary to point out this paradoxical state of affairs, of so much more information, yet so much less reality—except to the younger generations who have never known anything else.
As we see though, in Seiobo, all that is described there is performed exclusively by hand, which in a way does point to a very poignant connection between the hierophantic evocation and the physical products of stonemasons, icon-painters, Noh mask-carvers: we attempt to ascend to the plane of the hierophantic through that which we have wrought manually, we create it and hope that it may be as a vessel for the Immaterial. And yet, in many significant ways, we are losing the techniques described here in such exquisite, nearly arthropological detail. We are losing, in a word, the technê, the ability to transmit and perhaps even the very notion of transmission itself. Not only are we losing the technê of objects, of the objects we need to try to connect us to something else, but we are losing an epistemological technê at the same time.
I am also put in mind of an article written, if memory serves me well, by the architect Sanford Kwinter, likewise emerging during the era when the domination by the computer of every single aspect of our visual culture—both in production and consumption—was becoming increasingly apparent. He exhorted his readers to return to objects as a kind of act of resistance against the ever-increasing domination of the virtual and expressed the very real fear that we were (are?) losing touch with the Real itself. And yet he was not writing as a kind of Luddite, but rather as a perceptive observer acutely aware of a massive, irrevocable shift in human culture. Later on, in 1996, he wrote that “of late, there has been a tendency to become overly mesmerized by these factors [of digital innovation], a tendency to lose sight of the existential aspects of our relationship to the material and built environment.”6 In which comments we can hear the echo of the words of poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy, written decades earlier:
So that if a person takes from the whole a pebble, the leaf of a tree, a discarded adapter, an important or unimportant detail of his surroundings, it may occur that this something will, in his hands, becomes a micro-transmitter which suddenly is broadcasting an unexpected program. It broadcasts the world that we know, as well as that which we do not know, that which lies behind cognition . . . 7
It is interesting to consider that in some of the traditional arts of Japan, transmission as such is intimately tied to the notion of kata, which could be rendered in English as a structural or prescriptive form:
Japanese artists have kept the forms, actively trying to adapt to the structures created by their predecessors, rather than too lightly making up new patterns. The forms are not constraining shells that they have been trying to escape from, but ideal forms that they have been able to achieve through painstaking endeavours. The pattern or form that the artists may achieve is a crystallization of the artistic spirit of their predecessors, which they inherit in “the most correct way”, and these become the forms that they transmit in “the most correct way” to their followers.8
In other words, just as Antonín Líman noted the devotion to surface and pattern, here a devotion to form, or “intangible forms” is given emphasis, in marked contrast to the omniscient digitized visual culture that appears to be literally gobbling up, digesting and then regurgitating everything in its path, as if it were some kind of giant Pac-Man, reducing all things to the same pixelated homogeneity.9 There is seemingly nothing now which cannot be expressed in terms of the binary functions upon which computers operate: everything is a one or a zero. We “transmit” information, teachings, artwork, knowledge, through the click of a button, and yet do not take into consideration the consequences of the reduction of all human knowledge to this binary prison.
Seiobo is a work which, in a sense, envisions its own demise amid the vast archive of human creation, as well as the demise of all that prompted its author to write it. Perhaps the ultimate message of Seiobo lies in what could be termed a kind of prescriptive, even redemptive, melancholy. Melancholy, which, as we may recall, was in the time of the ancient Greeks connected to the gift of prophecy: the words for prophecy and insanity in ancient Greek stem from a similar root.10 Insanity, the gift of prophecy, and melancholy were often perceived as in deep connection to one another:
When a human being glimpses the [other-worldly, truly existing] beauty here, he recalls what is truly beautiful, his wings grow, and ruffling his feathers he wishes to fly, but in his impotence he just gazes into the heights, like a bird, and is not concerned with the earthly: the charge can then be readily laid that he has been seized by delirium.11
The insanity that leads one into the heavenly spheres was considered to be a kind of mania, whereas the insanity of knowing oneself to be handcuffed to the earthly was melancholy. “Melancholy, which in Aristotle (and in Hippocrates) is inextricably interwoven with mania, renders those who experience this state capable of stepping beyond the usual borders of human existence . . . Aristotle draws our attention to the fact that melancholics can prophesize with alarming accuracy . . . The prophet should not be understood in the contemporary sense of the word as someone who standing in the present moment prophesizes some kind of event that will take place at a later date, but rather as someone who himself stands outside of time.”12
We can recall that the protagonists in Seiobo who receive the most compelling visitations of the divine are precisely those most situated on the absolute margins of society.13 The melancholy of Seiobo is one which doggedly adheres to its own technê of a certain fulfillment of attentiveness as practiced by the great white heron of the Kamo River of Chapter One. And its gift to its readership is ultimately the gift of this technê, the immaterial in the objects, and the brooding grasp from which nothing can escape, least of all its own perdition: the technê of melancholy.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation. Ottilie Mulzet is the translator of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s AnimalInside and Seiobo, as well as a literary critic. She has worked as the English-language editor of the internet journal of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Prague, and her translations appear regularly at Hungarian Literature Online.
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