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The World Goes On
By László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, George Szirtes and John Batki
New Directions, 2017. 288 pages
Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai has written some of most densely challenging intellectual fiction of his generation. A cross between metaphysical savant and doomsday fantasist, he has in one instance transformed Hungarian country life into a fable about collective and individual chaos ("Sátántangó"), in another placed a giant whale into a circus truck and made it into a surreal symbol for the end of days ("The Melancholy of Resistance"). His expression hinges lengthy, mesmerizing sentences constructed in the way of a vortex that rhythmically and repetitively sucks the reader into loud or digressive discourses of the author's spellbound making.
The 21 stories in "The World Goes On" fit well into his densely wooded forest. A suspicious man, "a clueless guest," gives a series of lectures to a mysterious cabal of listeners who eagerly await his the musings on melancholy, on revolt, on gap between good and evil (evil wines). Another man goes to Kiev to visit a longtime friend, a banker, but is so obsessed by the Chernobyl disaster that the friendship and radioactivity compete on a level field. A hung-over translator and lover of waterfalls loses his way among Shanghai expressways that come to possess their own animus. A backpacker in the holy city of Varanasi, seeking relief from India's putrid humanity, comes into the thrall of an obese hunk who extols the surface tension of the holy Ganges. A science historian, obsessed with the life and times of Yuri Gagarin, announces that the first cosmonaut drank himself to death after seeing "paradise" earth from space, this he says, or tries to, between distracting visits from his asylum doctor. "I don't want to die, but just to leave the Earth," if only he could jump.
Krasznahorkai is fixated on departure, one narrator explaining "a kind of confusion had developed between himself and the world," another that he feels the need to "run counter to this terrifying world."
No surprise, then, that September 11 — which Krasznahorkai witnessed — plays a pivotal role. "Because on September 11 I flashed on the fact, like a twinge of physical pain, that, good god, my language, the one I could use to speak out now, was so old, so godforsaken ancient, the way I strung it out, quibbling, twisting and turning, pushing and pulling it to move ahead, pestering it, advancing by stringing one ancient word after another, how useless, how helpless and crude this language is, this language of mine…"
From this wish to "push ahead" comes rare confidence. "We are in the midst of a cynical self-reckoning as the not-too-illustrious children of a not-too-illustrious epoch that will consider itself truly fulfilled only when every individual writhing in it — after languishing in one of the deepest shadows of human history—will finally attain the sad and temporarily self-evident goal: oblivion."
Krasznahorkai is an insatiable student of human existence who takes nothing for granted and has learned to hypnotize prose as a beggar does a snake. There is no writer like him on the planet, the very same one he seeks to escape.
Reviewed by Book Staff