Saturday, February 17, 2007

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War

Laszlo Krasznahorkai's first novel to be translated into English, The Melancholy of Resistance, won the "Dispatches from Zembla book of the year" award last month (Details here. And yes, its German translation also won the book of the year award in Germany, just in case!). War and War his second and only other novel to be translated was published only last year, more than a decade after it was first published in Hungarian. It is engrossing but very difficult to read and even more difficult to conclude what it all means in the end. Melancholy of Resistance wasn't easy to read either, but since I had seen the movie Werckmeister Harmonies which is adapted from the novel, I was aware of the basic plot and events described in the novel and I could marvel at his style and apocalyptic and satiric tone without distraction. The basic story was easier to decipher too. The dead whale of the circus was obviously the dead Leviathan, which connects it through the pessimistic political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, to death of authority, to death of God and to anarchy, chaos and destruction. Also the shadowy figure who is known as "Prince" is perhaps "the prince of darkness," which again points to destruction and chaos. The metaphor of the history of western music and the theories of temperament are pretty obvious too. There is no harmony, no order to be found in nature. All is chaos, entropy and doom.

War and War resists such reading. At least for me, I couldn't make much of what was happening. The plot is simple and spare, if a little bizarre and odd. A Hungarian archivist Gyorgy Korin has come across a mysterious manuscript who he thinks is a work of exceptional beauty and importance. In fact such is its importance that he must travel all the way to new york, "the centre of the living world", and consign it to the eternity by typing it on the internet and once this last mission of his life is over, he must commit suicide. He is obviously "insane" and like many of the similar characters in the novels of Thomas Bernhard, he is also very eloquent. (One of the characters calls him a "word nut"). Most of the novel is Korin's narration of the mysterious manuscript in his own breathless style as he types it on his computer. In the process he also meets a few unsavoury characters. He finally manages to type the entire thing and comes back to Switzerland where he takes his own life. This incident is not narrated in the book. Instead we see the image of a plaque informing that "this is the place where Gyorgy Korin, the hero of the novel War and War by Laszlo Krasznahorkai shot himself in the head." And also, "Search as he might, he could not find what he had called the Way Out." There is even a blackened page, just like in Tristram Shandy, as a mark of mourning. The novel ends with an epilogue titled "Isaiah has come," in which Korin rants against humanity and about meaninglessness of history and threatens suicide. Perhaps something that happened earlier. Also you can check what finally happened to his manuscript by clicking on

The main source of bafflement for me was the content of the manuscript. It tells the story of the adventures and journeys of four men through various historical time and places, rome, crete, cologne, and in various centuries. I couldn't figure the head or tail of what it all meant. My guess is that it is all meant to signify the meaninglessness of human history, the antithesis of the idea of historical progress or the Hegelian idea that history is a rational process. In the beginning Korin even says that he finds the idea the history and truth have anything to do with each other extremely ridiculous. It is also evident in the title of the manuscript (the same as the novel). It is all war and war, one war after the another, a sequence of destructive events. If it is indeed what he wants us to conclude, it is clearer and more effectively done in the melancholy of resistance.

Despite all the obscurities and difficulties it holds one's attention because of its style, its chapter length sentences -- every chapter in the novel is one single sentence -- and the breathless stlye of narration. This is one of the passages where Krasznahorkai is more explicit in his themes:

What had happened to him--Korin shook his head as if he still could not believe it--was, at the beginning, almost inconceivable, nigh unbearable, because even at first glance, following an initial survey of the complex nature of what was involved, one straight look told him that from now on he'd have to abandon his "sick hierarchical view of the world," explode "the illusion of an orderly pyramid of facts" and liberate himself from the extraordinarily powerful and secure belief in what was now revealed as merely a kind of childish mirage, which is to say the indivisible unity and contiguity of phenomena, and beyond that, the unity's secure permanence and stability;and, within this permanence and stability, the overall coherence of its mechanism, that strictly governed interdependence of functioning parts which gave the whole system its sense of direction, development, pace and progress, in other words whatever suggested that the thing it embodied was attractive and self-sufficient, or, to put it another way, he now had to say No, an immediate and once-and-for-all No, to an entire mode of life; [.... On to two more pages]

Some links and reviews I could find (I haven't read them all): Waggish, Ready Steady Book, Hungarian Literature Quarterly


jyothsnay said...

My heartfelt admiration goes for the winner.Absolutely gorgeous a moment! Can we a sneak preview of the walk on the red carpet and a speech that ensued?. ...(smiles)
ye, this is the movie I need to demand at the counter next week.

Do not we humans love to discover many dates and designs of things at the surface level, so that each one of us come up difefrent a therory, thus enriching lives, simultaneously throwing in that much required obscurity - either consciously or as unknowing participants in a never-ending process--while reinforcing a tolerance for ambiguity...good Post Monsieur!

Alok said...

try to find satantango too, from the same team of writer/director . it will just need seven hours from your busy schedule and you will get to see bleak hungarian landscapes and other things too...

jyothsnay said...

huh huh our dearest blogger is getting too satirical for a humble being like me...umm,7 hrs from my busy schedule, such a harmless yet loaded buttery knife!!! will consider this challenge...check ur mail after sometime, a treacherous plot for chicken recipe...{smiles}