László Krasznahorkai’s Catastrophic Harmonies
The winner of the National Book Award for Translated Literature serves up an apocalyptic vision of Hungarian society.
December 11, 2019
Dec 11, 2019
16 Min read time
The winner of the National Book Award for Translated Literature serves up an apocalyptic vision of Hungarian society.
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming
László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions Press, $29.95 (cloth)
“Power,” wrote the political theorist Hannah Arendt, “always comes from men acting together, ‘acting in concert.’” Tyranny, by contrast, prevents concerted action by turning people against each other; it is characterized by “the fundamental inability to act at all.”
Krasznahorkai has expressed a hope that the death of postmodernism would give rise to “a new realism that reflects on poverty.” This book is it.
Arendt’s ideas take on special significance in contemporary Hungary, where the current prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has self-consciously amassed and consolidated near-monopolistic control over the media, the judiciary, and public finances. A year ago his government managed to drive the private Central European University out of the country, along with several NGOs. He has subordinated Hungarian universities and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to his government’s agenda. And like any monopoly, the Orbán government uses its power to curtail concerted action against it and to keep subordinates in a state of dependency. Just yesterday parties in the governing coalition passed a “muzzle law” designed to sanction opposition lawmakers who “disrupt” parliamentary proceedings.
Earlier this year I received a letter from a professor at a Hungarian university after the government had cut funding to most public universities and placed discretion over distribution of remaining funds into the hands of government-friendly bureaucrats. “Everyone is jockeying, searching for backdoors, and hoping to just make it through,” she wrote. “What we really need is united and decisive action, or to be more precise resistance. Yet this is precisely what’s lacking . . . because everyone is trying to position themselves so the government’s axe does not fall on them.”
It is to this Hungary that László Krasznahorkai’s dense, sprawling new novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, returns. After writing several novels set in other parts of the world—from China to the United States—the Hungarian writer has “come home” to his birthplace, a mid-sized town on the Great Hungarian Plain called Gyula, placing it at the heart of a polyphonic tragicomedy. Otherwise known for his stylistically acrobatic novels with a base note of imbalanced Manicheism (tipped in favor of evil)—several of which have been adapted and transformed to gorgeous effect by the Hungarian art film auteur Béla Tarr—Krasznahorkai has written a novel that possesses the rare quality of being both timeless and very much of its time.
“In the end,” one character prophesies, “everything is going to go up in flames here.” A little over four hundred pages later, that is exactly what happens.
The winner of this year’s National Book Award for Translated Literature, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is a long parable that inverts Arendt’s vision of concerted action: it shows how competing acts of petty jockeying rendered in the form of narrative symphony—switching between voices and perspectives in overlapping increments of time—can reach an ecstasy of catastrophic harmony that has all the appearance of “acting in concert.” In the book’s introductory “Warning,” a prologue of sorts, an orchestra conductor reminds his musicians that they exist in “exclusively unconditional dependency, naturally unidirectional and one-sided” on him, who is preparing them for “the one single, possible performance” for which “there is no reward whatsoever” and “no joy, no consolation.” Even he does not like music and is merely playing an unwilling, supervisory role: “I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.”
• • •
Like Krasznahorkai himself, the sixty-four-year-old Baron Béla Wenckheim has spent many years away from his birthplace. After decades of exile in Buenos Aires, where he has run up a large gambling debt, the Viennese branch of the baron’s family facilitates his return to the Hungarian town—never named, but obviously patterned on Krasznahorkai’s Gyula—where he spent his boyhood and adolescence. A telling early episode sets the tone for the entire novel. As the baron is traveling by train back to his homeland, the rail conductor enters his compartment and launches into an all-too-familiar rant—complaining about all the refugees at Budapest’s Keleti station (there was nothing like that under communism, he says), those gypsies who don’t work, the whiners and complainers, plus those fat cats at the top who only look out for themselves. “In the end,” the conductor prophesies, “everything is going to go up in flames here.” A little over four hundred pages later, that is exactly what happens.
Compared to Krasznahorkai’s earlier fiction, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is funnier and more stylistically accessible, but it is also his most unremittingly ruthless work.
Wenckheim arrives under a cloud of debt and in a haze of nostalgia. He has come to seek out his first love, whom he calls “Marietta,” even though her name is actually Marika. Yet the townspeople are convinced he is coming instead to bequeath a great fortune to them, saving them from palpable stagnation and irrelevance. After jockeying ruthlessly to win his favor, the locals see their fantasy run up against reality: the baron has no fortune to dispense beyond the clothes on his impossible gangly body, and even these were a last gift from the Viennese cousins. There follows a furious effort to erase any memory of the events organized in the baron’s honor, from celebratory crowds that met him at the train station to long speeches, exorbitant feasts, and personalized tours.
Meanwhile, a professor who was once a world-famous moss specialist has had it with mosses and just about everything else (“his iPhone—with Twitter, Facebook, his email, and of course LinkedIn”) and withdrawn behind a Hungarocell foam insulation panel in a forest on the edge of town. His young-adult daughter has found him there and is angrily picketing outside the makeshift hut accompanied by journalists, though it is unclear to the professor what she wants. The scene erupts into action when the professor fires several rounds at her and the journalists from behind his insulation panel until they chaotically disperse.
Woven among the stories of baron and professor are Nazi bikers—whose motorcycles run not on gasoline but “Honor”—and a menagerie of other personalities: the mayor, a Chinese warehouse owner, the police chief (in league with the bikers), a group of homeless people, orphans (driven out of the orphanage to accommodate the baron), the young Pope Francis, several local drunks, a library director and his assistant, two women who work in a tourist office (in a town with no tourists), a gas station attendant (at a gas station that officially has no diesel), and a local criminal type who calls himself Dante (after the soccer player), to name just a few.
Krasznahorkai plants words and phrases from contemporary Hungarian life everywhere. The effect is of a mounting tension that has yet to find its source.
One last essential character among this peculiar panoply is an “evil, sick, and omnipotent” figure who twice sweeps through town in a black motorcade, freezing beer mugs and even raindrops in place. He is the mysterious force behind “the fundamental inability to act at all.” The division he precipitates is evident in the characterizations offered by different Hungarian reviewers. One, writing for a local newspaper in Gyula, sees in this evil man “one of the last century’s cruelest [socialist] Party figures,” while another sees Viktor Orbán himself. The novel, for its part, reveals only that “he was evil.” Whatever his essence, the novel makes it clear that evil cannot be so neatly externalized or isolated.
• • •
Persistent tragicomedy is the basso ostinato of Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. The homeless are thrown a bundle of the baron’s finely tailored clothing, only to discover that every item has hopelessly long and thin arms and legs. “There is still human dignity in this world,” one says as they gleefully set it all on fire, “and we aren’t some starving Syrians lunging at food packages thrown across a border fence,” a reference to viral videos and photographs taken at a holding center on the Hungarian border in early autumn of 2015, showing Hungarian police throwing sandwiches into what looked like a cage full of refugees and migrants. The novel is flush with similar true-to-life ironies with a comedic edge, like the hopelessly drunk old Halics Junior trying to show everyone “who he really is” only to wind up in an ignominious heap on a shop room floor surrounded by cheering, goading, and similarly sloshed coworkers who are soon to accidentally slice the baron into three pieces with a speeding railway-service vehicle. Krasznahorkai has expressed a hope that the death of postmodernism would give rise to “a new realism that reflects on poverty.” This book is it.
Krasznahorkai once said that an uninitiated reader of his work should start by reading the Old Testament, and then choose at random from among his fiction.
And there is also old-school cinematic comedy, where the reader feels they know something that the characters of the book don’t and wants to shout, “It’s the butler! He’s got a knife!”—or, in this case, “It’s the Old Testament! You’re all doomed!” In an interview Krasznahorkai once said that an uninitiated reader of his work should start by reading the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Revelation, then choose at random from among his fiction.
Compared to Krasznahorkai’s earlier fiction, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is funnier and more stylistically accessible—despite its length and seemingly endless sentences—but it is also his most unremittingly ruthless work. This is quite an achievement for the author who gave us the storyline of Tarr’s relentlessly dark film The Turin Horse (2011), about a father and daughter who start out eating nothing but cooked potatoes for dinner and end up sitting in the pitch dark unable to eat even an uncooked potato, not that the viewer can see them by then anyway. There is a resemblance between this and Krasznahorkai’s earlier novels—the waiting, the dark, the dread, the End—but that resemblance is what the novel’s superego might call “wretched happenstance”—resemblance that the reader is tempted, but not allowed, to conflate with a known reality. The phrase comes from a formulaic disclaimer that appears in the novel just before the table of contents: “The incidental resemblance to or concurrence with reality of any of the characters, names, and locations in this novel are exclusively due to wretched happenstance, and in no way express the intention of the author.”
Anglophone readers will grasp some of the “wretched happenstance,” but Hungarian readers have much more of it before them than translation can possibly convey. This is not the fault of the translator, Ottelie Mulzet, who has rendered the complex prose into admirably readable and clear English. Rather, it is because Krasznahorkai plants words and phrases from contemporary Hungarian life everywhere—from the names of streets, landmarks, and historical figures (including the baron himself), to phrases that conjure recent political events. The familiarity of these hyper-charged references is nonetheless deceptive, for they repeatedly fall out of relation or appear with an ironic twist; sometimes a storyline containing them trails off or disappears. The effect is of a mounting tension that has yet to find its source, or, more precisely, its target.
In his longing for “post-post-postmodern sacralization,” Krasznahorkai has taken apocalypse to its logical conclusion.
Take, for example, the word népmozgás, translated as “movement of people,” which is used by the town’s library director to describe the rush on books about Argentina that precedes the baron’s arrival: “a movement of people the likes of which had never been seen in the past decades.” Orbán used this word in the autumn of 2015, as refugees from the Middle East and Southeastern Europe were crossing the border into Hungary on their way further north and west. “The Hungarians don’t want a worldwide movement of peoples to transform Hungary,” he said. They “want to live with order, peace, and security; they don’t want chaos.”
The novel reveals how chaos need not come from the outside. Krasznahorkai’s “wretched happenstance” repeatedly gives the lie to glib characterizations and easy explanations for what’s wrong with the world, making them part of the grand tragicomedy. “The human being,” he once said, “has simply forgotten the world and like a hopeless idiot misinterprets everything and experiences that world as truth.” Art, for Krasznahorkai, is therefore both hypersensitive and unflinching—striving but repeatedly failing to be like the orchestra conductor, who himself seeks to emulate Friedrich Nietzsche’s “cold angel,” looking upon the world “without becoming angry, without ill-temper.” As the conductor tells his musicians in a speech crammed to overflowing with contempt and bile, “I don’t love and I don’t hate you.”
Krasznahorkai may be preparing readers for another world. But to get there we will have to let go of this one, as the Israelites let go of the tortures and comforts of Egypt.
The abundance of wretched happenstance may be Krasznahorkai’s method of preparing readers for another world. But to get there we will have to let go of this one, as the Israelites let go of the tortures and comforts of Egypt. With this attempt at effecting a longed-for “post-post-postmodern sacralization,” Krasznahorkai has taken apocalypse to its logical conclusion, flooding the narrative—and with it his own hometown—with comic self-important megalomania, petty vitriol, invisible gaseous vapors, horrific crimes and frogs, then setting it off with a match and blowing it all sky high, leaving behind only a sheet music archive containing a list of what is missing and what has been destroyed. Unlike The Turin Horse, which ends with a dark whimper, this novel ends with an apocalyptic bang. “I am implicated in the apocalypse,” Krasznahorkai has said, “because my life will certainly end thus, as will all our lives.”
It is therefore quite possible that the entire scenario which appears to be playing itself out in the “real world” in Baron Wenckheim is also unfolding within. The theme appears elsewhere in Krasznahorkai’s work, too. After receiving a disturbing painting from the German artist Max Neumann some years ago, Krasznahorkai translated the image into prose—it became the book Animalinside (2011). “The essence of the text is the primordial nature of sin,” he said. “It depicts evil from within.”
• • •
In its apocalyptic broodiness tinged by humor, many critics have compared Krasznahorkai’s work with that of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, author of such fringe classics as The Lime Works (1970), Correction (1975), and Heldenplatz (1988). The influence is hard to overstate. Baron Wenckheim is saturated with Bernhardisms: the “sick compulsion of thought,” the obsession with articles of clothing, the repetition, the exaggeration, the pages-long sentences, the always going “in the opposite direction,” as Bernhard put it. (Regarding this last quality, Krasznahorkai once said in a self-interview, “I’ve heard from several people that you are exactly the opposite of the way you are trying to describe yourself now.”)
In giving space in the novel to rants about Hungary, Krasznahorkai may be giving not so much a critique of Hungary as a critique of critique.
Yet Krasznahorkai has been profoundly unlike Bernhard in one crucial respect: his reluctance to engage in a full-throated critique of Hungary and his fellow Hungarians. In a 1990 interview Krasznahorkai was asked why his work is so dark. Did he really feel so awful in Hungary? He replied by referring to Bernhard’s famous invectives against his native Austria. Bernhard was an exuberant nest-soiler by reputation who considered the primary attributes of Austria to be “nothing more than contagious diseases, mental illnesses.” But whereas Bernhard frequently launched into tirades against everything Austrian, Krasznahorkai said he was “wary of uttering a totally condemnatory opinion about the Hungarians.”
It is all the more remarkable, then, that we find in Baron Wenckheim such Bernhardian passages as:
hey, you, putrid Hungarian, you’re the epitome of envy, petty-mindedness, small-time sluggishness, indolence, shiftiness and sneakiness, impudent shamelessness, ignominy, constantly primed to betray, and at the same time arrogantly flaunting your own ignorance, lack of refinement, and insensitivities; you, Hungarian, are an exceptionally disgusting subject whose breath, now stinking of sausage and pálinka, now of salmon and champagne, could strike anyone dead.
This may be an act of “intellectual arson,” as one character in the novel calls it, but layers of irony and mediation prevent us from taking it as Krasznahorkai’s own sentiment. The words appear in an anonymous letter to the editor of the local paper that could have been written by any one of several characters (most likely the editor himself), or been included for no reason other than narrative effect—to elevate the temperature of the rising gaseous mélange of petulance in preparation for the Big Bang, or to serve as the last irritant before the characters realize that something much larger and more significant is afoot than local politics, interpersonal pettiness, national-genetic depravity, or even physical survival.
Even Krasznahorkai’s surrender to Bernhardification, then, is quite possibly the opposite of what it seems: not so much a critique of Hungary as a critique of critique. After all, a mere rant can’t set the world right any more than the problem can be limited to the Hungarians alone. This backing away from identification with events, interpretations, and sentiments expressed in the novel is a sad and comical and sneaky gesture, not to mention anti-Bernhardian in the extreme. It may also be why Krasznahorkai appeals to those like the moss professor, who have had it with positioning, call-out culture, and the fakeness of reality TV and just about everything else, an atmosphere in which words and acts of outrage, confession, and conversion are all so staged they cannot possibly mean anything. The professor apparently channels the frustrations of those who wish to fire back at their own outraged children.
But Krasznahorkai does not give full quarter to this sentiment, either. There are signs and suggestions that he is not the cold angel the conductor aspires to be. He leaves the protagonists of the father/daughter subplot among the missing, rather than the destroyed, and even half-hints at a hope of recognition if not reconciliation between them—at an anti-government demonstration where she is speaking, no less. This prospect is also laden with wretched happenstance; Krasznahorkai has a daughter in Hungary from whom he has been estranged and who in many respects matches the description of the young demonstrator in the book. When an interviewer asked him in 2011 about the last time he had cried, he gave two answers. The first was about being estranged from his daughter: “I just cry on the inside because of that, I cry.”
Art, for Krasznahorkai, is both hypersensitive and unflinching—striving but repeatedly failing to look upon the world “without becoming angry, without ill-temper.”
His second answer referred to watching a scene from Tarr’s famous seven-and-a-half-hour-long adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s novel Sátántangó (1994). The scene follows an intoxicated pub patron as he sings a sad song to the accompaniment of a tango accordion. “As he was singing it was so moving that I just felt the tears falling,” Krasznahorkai said. “But strangely I could also feel . . . that my right leg had gone completely numb.” Tarr, who was sitting next to him as he watched the scene, had been pinching Krasznahorkai’s leg with incredible force, “So as to succeed in capturing that wondrous state. So that nothing could intervene. And so it was.”
Krasznahorkai has described his ideal reader. In the 2011 interview, he mentioned a sensitive village doctor where he lived who went to see the film version of his novel The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), called The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), directed by Tarr. At one point in the film a rough crowd storms a hospital and brutally attacks all the patients, until they enter a room where an old man stands naked in a bathtub. There they stop, and the scene freezes in a long shot. It is a scene of the sort for which Krasznahorkai and Tarr are rightfully famous, and one can only hope that Tarr will come out of self-imposed retirement to adapt Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming for film. “That scene with the old man was truly very intense,” the village doctor told Krasznahorkai when they next met, “it was very moving how we stood there!” That “we” was precisely the response Krasznahorkai aims for. He has said he wants Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming to be “a kind of magical text, like all of my writing, in the sense that it wants to—magically—involve the reader in something.”
While we have you...
...we need your help. While reading László Krasznahorkai’s Catastrophic Harmonies by Holly Case, you might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. We've also gone one step further and become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your support to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
December 11, 2019
16 Min read time