It is a familiar scene – a depressed man slumped at the counter nurses his beer and tries to make sense of it all by confiding to a bored barman. The story pours forth in gulps; it has many twists and turns yet it makes sense. Hungarian maestro László Krasznahorkai is laconic and shrewd, as practical as he is existential, capable of wresting huge laughs as well as immense profundity from the commonplace and the way in which we choose to respond to it.
The Last Wolf (2009), now translated by poet George Szirtes, is a low-key, persuasive novella, voiced in the third person and delivered by means of an epic single sentence. Krasznahorkai presents another of his melancholic, obsessed central characters. This Everyman for our times is a philosophy professor down on his luck and resigned to just about getting by in a dreary part of Berlin. He is recalling, somewhat painfully, an invitation he accepted to Extremadura, a sparsely populated area in western Spain, having been commissioned to write the story of the last wolf. Herr Professor, one of the funniest variations to date of Camus's Jean-Baptiste Clamance (from The Fall), fears it may all have been a mistake.
In common with Austrian Thomas Bernhard, Krasznahorkai has grasped the mounting craziness of everyday existence. Absurdity is his speciality as he playfully established in Satantango (1985) – Szirtes's 2012 English-language translation made Krasznahorkai internationally famous. The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War and the thrilling, episodic meditation Seiobo There Below all testify to a singular genius for offbeat observation and insight.
Yet even at his most comic, he always displays a tender, often unsettling awareness of the fragility of human existence. Krasznahorkai is sophisticated yet also intriguingly folksy, a traditional storyteller favouring vivid anecdotes.
There is nothing cold or studied; the prevailing unhappiness of the story immediately surfaces.
Obsessive, alone and defeated, Herr Professor, ever grappling with "the burden of futility . . . the burden of scorn", knows he is "doing nothing . . . simply drifting, spending hours", nursing the same beer for a long time. Luckily for him, the Hungarian barman is the ideal listener; he has little interest in the meandering narrative and this indifference allows Herr Professor the freedom to think out loud. More and more information filters through the various digressions, abetted by Herr Professor's habit of analysing everything. Krasznahorkai always makes inspired use of repetition; his characters think and speak in circles because this is how we reflect and converse in life. Among the most striking qualities in his apocalyptic fiction, along with his mastery of pauses, is the accurate replication of natural speech. An excellent example of this is the opening exchange between Mrs Plauf and the scheming Mrs Eszter in The Melancholy of Resistance.
The Last Wolf is an exercise in compression. The sprawling vision of Krasznahorkai's major novels here yields to rich – if fleeting – lamentation; Herr Professor questions both his actions and his reality. It is a monologue performed to an audience of one: the barman who is barely listening. Once upon a time Herr Professor had had a Spanish translator and a publisher, both "selfless". He appears to have been on good terms with them: " . . . though even they, naturally, had been obliged to pulp his books because they couldn't sell them . . ."
It is a bit random because, as Krasznahorkai knows, life is random. His fallen philosopher accepted the bizarre invitation by return email, using a grubby internet cafe computer, and suggested a random date to travel. All is agreed. A ticket is despatched: “and he was already on board the airplane when the weight of something in his head began to pull two opposite ways at once for it was clear that the whole thing had been his mistake, either that or they had mixed him up with someone else, to which he added the possibility that the person they were confusing him with was in fact him, it was just that that particular ‘him’ no longer existed . . .”
Lest the reader’s sympathy falter into bathos, the scene at arrivals in Madrid airport is described with gusto. An interpreter is there, smiling broadly and holding a sign over her head. She radiates good will and hope, “ . . . though all the way on the bus he kept thinking that even if they had been thinking of him it wasn’t actually to him the invitation had been extended . . . he occasionally nodded at something the interpreter said who, it seemed, wanted to out-shout the protesting voice within him and was practically bellowing, trying to explain something to him in English . . .”
Herr Professor’s initial uncertainties are soon overshadowed by the confusion over who killed the last wolf or rather which wolf held out the longest and where. On being introduced to Chanclon, a cheery individual who keeps an enormous stuffed wolf in a glass case in his shabby home – it is a detail which certainly gets a reaction from the barman – he is disturbed that “this extraordinarily regal specimen” should be displayed in “this little ruin of a house”. The project becomes a quest for the truth.
Further evidence emerges: there were other wolves, a pack. So much for the fabled last wolf; the facts of the story merge with the bewilderment and defeat stalking the professor which in turn is juxtaposed with the clarity of his gradual understanding.
Also included in what is a slight volume is Herman, an earlier story from 1986, translated by John Bakti. In it Herman, who sets out to tame nature by trapping predators, has become sickened by the seething pit into which he throws the dead carcasses. He realises that in order to even the odds, he must lay traps for humans. He withdraws further from society. The dramatic conclusion achieves a weird symbolism.
The linguistic energy of Joyce is apparent as are the cautionary vision of Kafka and the bleak humour of Beckett, yet Krasznahorkai is an original and the undisputed laureate of our deranged and increasingly vulnerable epoch. Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance are irresistible, unforgettable and required reading. Deep in War and War may be a key to making sense of what happened on November 8th, 2016. Krasznahorkai has studied humanity, our weakness and folly. In his wry, engaging disenchantment lingers hope in the lucid pursuit of salvation. "Something is going to happen today," remarks one of the characters in Satantango, and to read Krasznahorkai is to experience that frisson of anticipation and excitement, knowing that an intoxicating adventure really does await us.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent and author of Teethmarks On My Tongue