The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai (tr. John Batki and George Szirtes). 128pp, New Directions. $15.95.
The Manhattan Project by László Krasznahorkai (photos Ornan Rotem, tr. John Batki). Sylph Editions. 96pp, $40.00.
In the nearly twenty years since László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance first appeared in translation, his reputation in English has grown at the same gradual, inexorable pace that his books favor. Nearly all his novels of lonely visionaries and glimpsed apocalypses have made it by now into English, and later this year New Directions will substantially fill out the short fiction with a large collection titled The World Goes On. In the meantime, we have last year’s smaller volume; Herman/The Last Wolf picks out three pieces from Krasznahorkai’s short work, two early and one late, and joins them up in an inverted tête-bêche binding.
The Herman stories were written together with Krasznahorkai’s first novel Satantango and originally appeared in 1986. As with the novel, they are set in a remote corner of Hungary and show the author feeling his way toward his mature manner. Herman is an elderly gamekeeper, a last remaining adept in “the splendid mysteries of an ancient craft,” called out of retirement by shadowy authorities in order to exterminate predators from a patch of forest. In the first of two stories he performs his task all too well, trapping and disposing of dogs, cats, badgers, and foxes in an enormous carrion pit that comes to haunt his dreams as a “putrescent hairy mass of dead meat.” Before long we have a reversal of sympathies, and Herman begins to seek human quarry (avoiding obvious grotesquerie, he uses non-lethal snares). In his increasingly desperate and painful epiphanies—he feels he has “divided the world into noxious and beneficial, while in reality both categories originated in the same heinous ruthlessness”—the visionary quality of Krasznahorkai’s mature fictions is just detectable.
The second Herman story replays something like the same events, as seen by a visiting group of young decadents who seem to have wandered in from an older French novel. Finding Herman’s violent exploits more thrilling than their accustomed erotic routine, they throw themselves into hunting the fugitive; but the dramatic standoff of the first story fails to occur, and Herman simply vanishes with a last symbolic snare as farewell. The story is subtitled “contra Yukio Mishima,” and the gamekeeper is perhaps meant to embody Mishima’s doomed archaism: “the irrevocable end of an attempt, a profession, an ancient craft.” But if so, the effect is ironic deflation; for apart from a Huysmans-like determination to “relish the magic bouquet of this escapade,” our narrators draw nothing from their experience. Though Krasznahorkai’s sympathies are with the outsider, sympathy does not tip into valorization; like the experiments with pre-modern musical intonation in The Melancholy of Resistance, Herman’s endeavors must fail. Compared to that novel, these stories take place on a smaller canvas; the epic sweep is not yet present at either the story or the sentence level. The second story in particular treats its decadent narrator with an affectless irony that isn’t natural to Krasznahorkai, and which he won’t use again.
In an inspired bit of bundling, these stories appear back-to-back with The Last Wolf, a recent piece that reworks the theme of a turncoat gamekeeper in Krasznahorkai’s mature mode. Its seventy pages are spanned by a single sentence, layering and blurring the story of a German philosopher’s trip to the remote Spanish region of Extremadura with the more or less comprehending reactions of a bartender back in Berlin, who has his own worries and annoyances and by the end of the story has fallen asleep. Krasznahorkai draws the melancholy, washed-up philosopher as a kind of parodic self-portrait, both sympathetic and laughable, who has written “a few unreadable books full of ponderously negative sentences and depressing logic in claustrophobic prose,” and, failing to make a career of them, has terminally despaired of his own capacities and of language in general. Financial necessity compels him to accept an inexplicable invitation from a foundation: he is simply to visit Extremadura and write something about it, “entirely as you see fit, just so long as you present posterity with some clear picture, something that springs out of your thoughts about Extremadura.”
On arrival he finds a translator and driver at his disposal, and despite qualms of bad faith—obviously they have taken him to be a far more important figure than he actually is—he falls under the spell of the dehesa, a hilly, arid landscape of “pale soil with its sparse grass and stray oaks,” which he feels is “much like his own soul.” He understands the link between the sparse land and the region’s historic poverty, which the same government that invited him is now trying to remediate: “the only dreadful thing being that they had only one way of doing that, and that was by letting the world in, thereby admitting the curse.” Readers who have encountered, say, Krasznahorkai’s description of commercialized, touristified China in Destruction and Sorrow Under Heaven will have no doubt what the curse consists in. Of course the philosopher’s position as invited guest makes him complicit; but he shares his creator’s idiosyncracies and takes a contrary path, sparked by a stray sentence in an article—“it was south of the River Duero in 1983 that the last wolf had perished.” He is struck by the word “perished,” which suggests some moral quality in an otherwise dry scientific account, and in following the thread meets with a series of hunters and gamekeepers, from whose stories gradually emerges the account of an illicit, doomed effort to save the disappearing predators. At bottom this is the same as Herman’s turn against modernity, but it is now rendered in an infinitely subtler form, and there is real pathos in the philosopher’s own last renunciation: he cannot now write this story for payment, for he has “locked Extremadura in the depths of his cold, empty, hollow heart.”
The Manhattan Project is a broad, slim volume co-credited to Krasznahorkai and the photographer Ornan Rotem and constructed as “a literary diary presented as twelve chance encounters or coincidences.” In twelve brief sections we follow a familiar story of an aesthetic obsessive at loose ends in a foreign city; that the character is this time the biographical Krasznahorkai has little effect on the structure. He has accepted a fellowship at the New York Public Library to research a book that seems to have something to do with Melville, though the nature of the link is enigmatic even to him. (He dismisses the obvious connection to the whale in The Melancholy of Resistance, which has led his American connections “to believe that I am some kind of specialist on whales, and by extension, naturally, an expert on Herman Melville.”) The late Melville, enduring isolation and obscurity, is the figure that interests him; all the more once he becomes alienated from the institution that is supposedly supporting his work, with its rigid protocols reminiscent of Communist Hungary. The city of New York no longer answers his decades-old memories of a place where he was once friends with Allen Ginsberg, instead drawing him into a groundless state of “free fall.”
In keeping with Krasznahorkai’s usual aesthetic of startling recognition across gulfs, we follow Melville’s footsteps across Manhattan, and those of two other tutelary figures: Malcolm Lowry, whose drunken walks through the city ended with institutionalization at Bellevue Hospital, and the architect Lebbeus Woods, whose sketches of imaginary structures strike Krasznahorkai as monuments to a catastrophe that “is always ongoing, and partial, and relative. The catastrophe never appears in its entirety.” All this is accompanied by beautiful prints of Rotem’s photographs: sharp exteriors catching the roughness of sidewalk and stone, and interiors that suggest the state of free fall by depicting the author in ghostly double exposure. There is no tying together of the strands; we have only a series of suggestions, which the other book enigmatically linked to Melville will have to draw out. Advance word is that the book will be a novella, titled Spadework for a Palace, to appear in 2020. If it follows the pattern of Krasznahorkai’s best work, its resolutions will be irresolutions of a different kind.
Paul Kerschen is author of The Drowned Library, a collection of short fiction.
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