To begin with, there is a warning. A preamble to the novel in which a conductor – arrogant-seeming and intimidating – tells the musicians before him that their individual efforts are of no significance. “I must disclose to you now . . . there will be no joy, no consolation.” He doesn’t even like music and, displaying a wearied humility, he tells them “I am the one – not creating anything – but who is simply present before every sound, I am . . . simply waiting for all of this to be over.”
With that overture played, the disharmonious symphony can begin. Already, the writing has a powerful impact, conveying an uneasy apprehension and an intimation that much will go awry in the course of the novel. This is in part because Krasznahorkai’s previous novels have shown us how quickly intentions and hopes become debased by the sourness of human interactions.
We meet a former professor who has built a shack for himself out of materials he found adjacent to the wasteland where he has located his new home. Outside, his estranged daughter has assembled members of the media to witness her protest against her father. An expert on mosses, the professor became disillusioned with society and now seeks to avoid all human contact. “He didn’t like anyone and no one liked him, and he was very happy with this state of affairs.”
At times we are brought directly inside his mind, where deeply intricate, philosophical reflections abound, often ruminating, Plato-like, on the unknowable nature of reality. But an all-too-insistent form of reality persists in his life now that his wilderness home has been visited and violated. One among the resultant irritants is a visit from some fascistic bikers who have decided to intrude upon the professor. Already the notion that events could be controlled by escaping into solitude seems forlorn.
The professor’s former housekeeper, Auntie Ibolyka, visits him occasionally to bring him pastries and, on one occasion, tells him of the imminent return of Baron Wenckheim to the nearby city from which the professor had sought to escape. Thus begins the second subject of the symphony: a Mahler-like, multi-voiced section, the themes of which will elaborate and substantiate all of what has been presaged so far.
The baron, a wealthy member of an influential Hungarian family, is set to return home from Argentina because of the huge gambling debts he has accrued in the casinos of Buenos Aires. The imminence of his return and the transformative effect he may have on the municipal and cultural life of the city leads to feverish speculation about the improvements his money will allow. Among the elected officials and people in positions of power, there is an absurd level of pomposity and an over-confident assumption about the level of influence they will have on any decision the baron might make.
There are strong echoes here of previous Krasznaharkoi novels, particularly Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, in which frenzied crowds of people have placed their desperate faith in the expectations they construct around a figure whose inability to fulfil their delusions leads to chaos and despair.
Among the many hoping without reason, there is a woman who has a very real expectation that the baron’s return will result in meaningful change in her life because she was his first and only love. But should anyone have hope in this pitiless world? The failure on the baron’s part to reconcile himself to what change has wrought and the all-too-late realisation that the only meaning available in life is through connections with others results in catastrophe.
Earlier, while walking alone through some woodland, the baron remembers a meeting with a man who, like him, was returning, in the early hours of the morning, from a casino. The man, named as Jorge Mario Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – asks a question which he deems “fairly heretical”, namely “if one good isn’t good enough for good to prevail, how is it possible that one evil is enough for evil to prevail”. It is a question which addresses the central issue of the novel. Love may be possible, but it will never be enough. Then it too will end.
Despite, or maybe because of, the depth of thought and insight Krasznahorkai brings to this exceptional and profound novel, intricately translated by Ottilie Mulzet, there are moments of great humour too. The petty narcissism of local officials and the baron’s propensity for Thomas Bernhard-like vitriol regarding his native country are among the pleasures of this great work. In the end, we learn the one essential truth of all existence: the one phenomenon we can always rely on is entropy. Things can only get worse.