Seiobo There Below: A very human odyssey of the imagination
László Krasznahorkai’s newly translated book ‘has everything anyone would wish to experience from reading’
Seiobo There Below
Just when you may have mistakenly begun to feel that every story has been told, any lingering feeling analysed and each remaining tiny fear picked bare to the bone – along comes a fabulous masterwork guaranteed to set the nerves tingling. When Hungarian cult literary maestro László Krasznahorkai strode onto the international stage in 2012 with the belated English-language translation of his debut Sátántangó (1985) courtesy of the poet George Szirtes, it seemed it could not be bettered.
Krasznahorkai’s bleak comedy about the human detritus left behind on a decaying grand estate in the wake of the failed communist utopia was so heartbreakingly funny its ambivalence seemed the final word in human despair.
Although he professes to look to Kafka as his master, the truth is, he has no equal. With the English-language translation of Seiobo There Below, a collection of stories presented as a novel, which was published in 2008, Krasznahorkai, the poet of the Apocalypse, stands alone relentlessly, if gleefully, offering wonders.
His vision is prophetic and melancholic yet he is also subversive and enjoys his jokes. Everything anyone could wish to experience from reading is achieved here in a novel as human as it is inspired.
Few writers wear their learning so lightly or favour longer sentences; Krasznahorkai’s continue, elaborating and contextualising, for up to 14 pages. He believes in replicating the natural rhythms of speech and his prose conveys the impression of a writer who composes in his head before ever venturing near paper. This quality of inner debate makes his work, which may appear cerebral, to be far more engaging than might be suspected.
Sátántangó resounds with rain and mud; order and chaos; it explores the futility of existence with exuberance worthy of Beckett. There are also the moments of weird beauty, wayward thunderclaps of subtle artistry. His descriptions are never predictable as he is more drawn to the least obvious detail.
Futaki, one of the central characters, stares out of the window at a gathering deluge, “like a river breaking over a dam” and notices a vague form: “One that eventually could be made out to be a human face, though he couldn’t tell at first whose it was, until he succeeded in picking out a pair of startled eyes, at which point he saw “his own careworn features” and recognised them with a shock like a stab of pain since he felt that what the rain was doing to his face was exactly what time would do. It would wash it away. There was, in that reflection, something enormous and alien, a kind of emptiness radiating from it, moving towards him, compounded of layers of shame, pride and fear.”
By the close of that thrilling first novel, which is structured dance-like and repetitive, it becomes clear that it is being written by a demented observer, the local doctor, an unforgettable creation of heaving complexity. Sátántangó, sharing absurdist traces of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls as well as of Eugene Ionesco andMikhail Bulgakov, is a vigil kept by the floundering survivors on being alerted that their dead former leader has been sighted, alive, and is making his way back to them.
It becomes a fascinating variation of Waiting for Godot, only this particular Godot, a conman named Irimiás, is as menacing as he is resourceful. Krasznahorkai plays with time and yet is attentive to plot and, most of all, to characterisation. The cohesion resides in the chaotic apathy shared by the players, each carefully sustaining his or her respective delusions.
Seiobo There Below is very different from the trio to date translated by Szirtes – Sátántangó, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War & War (1999) – but it doesn’t disappoint and Ottilie Mulzet’s majestic translation is a marvel, as is to be expected from her as she has written widely on the “elastic band” fluidity of the Hungarian language.
It consists of 17 stories, ranging from beautiful interludes such as the opening prose poem featuring a lone heron poised to kill, and possibly be killed, to a tragic comedy about an elderly tourist intent on visiting the Acropolis in murderously hot conditions. His quest degenerates into an endurance test. It is a perfect short story.
Throughout the book, which is an odyssey of the imagination steered gracefully and seductively by Krasznahorkai’s visionary grasp of the glories of art and its fragile permanence, he never loses sight of the human, most specifically the emotional response. We aspire, we struggle and usually fail. A book which could easily intimidate is oddly comforting, possibly because one of its enduring themes is that of restoration. Also vital to him is the notion of seeking.
In Christo Morto, one of the strongest pieces, a man with a mission sets off alone: “He was generally not the type who walks with banging steps, he was not the resounding, military, lock-stepping Hussar type; yet because he liked the leather soles of his shoes and the heels of the leather soles to last a long time, the soles and the heels were fitted with proper old-fashioned shoe taps, which, however, echoes to such a degree, with every single step he took, in the narrow back street that it was becoming obvious with each meter [US spelling] that these shoes, these black leather Oxfords, did not belong here, not in Venice.”
As he marches noisily through the deserted alleyways, he becomes aware of being followed. A rising panic begins to compete with the annoyance he feels about the racket his footwear is making. Having dealt with his fears, as well as an irate museum guard, the seeker notices a little painting: “His gaze happened upon it and he stepped back with a serious demeanor [US spelling], to reassure the guard who was staring at him again, he stood in front of it like a proper museum-goer, or at least how he imagined a proper museum-goer should stand, he stood in front of the little painting, which depicted a half-naked Christ, whose head was so gently inclined to one side, and on his face was such an endless and otherworldly peace.” The man continues to gaze at the painting and eventually decides that the painted Christ wishes to open his eyes.
Elsewhere a veteran Noh actor in The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki recalls his past and a childhood marked by his father’s long absences. Only when his fortune fails does the father return home. The actor committed to portraying the goddess Seiobo, admits that his childhood memories have accompanied him throughout his adult life “and so he continues unchecked, in his own particular way of speaking, repeating and repeating, there are numerous repetitions in the narrative, but it’s as if he were doing it just for the rhythm, because his memory . . . is formidable.” The same could be said of the remarkable all-seeing Krasznahorkai.
From the restoration of a Japanese Buddha; to the Italian Renaissance painter Perugino moving his apprentices to another workshop as he battles with his failing interest; to the allure of Russian icons and Andrei Rublev’s angels; to an unfulfilled architect haranguing his terrified listeners about his passion for baroque music which is matched by a seething dislike of just about everything else, to the many quests undertaken. This is an exquisite, archival life-enhancing work about what it means to think, to explore and perhaps what it actually means to be human in dark times.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent