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László Krasznahorkai, winner of the Man Booker International prize

How would you describe your work to someone unfamiliar with it?Letters; then from letters, words; then from these words, some short sentences; then more sentences that are longer, and in the main very long sentences, for the duration of 35 years. Beauty in language. Fun in hell.
Which of your books would you recommend to a reader approaching your work for the first time?If there are readers who haven’t read my books, I couldn’t recommend anything to read to them; instead, I’d advise them to go out, sit down somewhere, perhaps by the side of a brook, with nothing to do, nothing to think about, just remaining in silence like stones. They will eventually meet someone who has already read my books.
As a writer, do you feel that there is a distinction between a home and an international readership?No, I don’t; readers with empathy are the same all over the word.
Who are your literary heroes?I have only one: K, in the works of Kafka. I follow him always.
Is it the duty of the novelist to engage with the political issues of the day?No, under no circumstances. Artists have no duties whatsoever. Just freedom without borders, the answer to which is despair.
Tell us something new about yourself.I’d prefer to supply some helpful information: the pronunciation of my name in English: [krαsnαhorkα.i]

The English-speaking literary world’s scandalous neglect of fiction in translation is surely a sign of complacency, for outside the safe little Shire of the English novel lurk fabulous creatures such as László Krasznahorkai, who is known to English-speaking readers for three novels translated from Hungarian by the poet George Szirtes. Since his debut, 1985’s Satantango, Krasznahorkai has been hailed in Hungary as an important writer. The translated books form a small part of his output. As his global reputation grows, we now getSeiobo There Below, from 2008, a novel in the form of a thematically linked set of stories that in ambition and seriousness matches any English-language fiction of recent times. As the worthy winner of this year’s Man Booker International prize, Krasznahorkai throws down a challenge: raise your game or get your coat.
The earlier translated novels (SatantangoThe Melancholy of Resistance and War and War) stand within a recognisably European matrix, that of Kafka and absurdism. They exhibit great disgust at the corruption and cynicism of Hungarian society under the rule of János Kádár (and after), the compromise between Soviet communism and the market democracies of western Europe that became known sardonically as “goulash socialism”. They are also shot through with a kind of millenarian Christian mysticism, expressing terror at God’s abandonment of the world and a yearning for divine presence. In Satantangoa decaying collective farm becomes the site of a grubby conspiracy, and thieving villagers fall under the spell of a charismatic prophet. The Melancholy of Resistance describes the arrival, in an equally corrupt small town, of a mysterious circus, whose sole attraction is a taxidermied whale. Once again venality and superstition provide fertile ground for a takeover by authoritarian forces. In War and War, a suicidal archivist wanders a hallucinatory New York, in which gnostic mystery and degradation are two sides of the same coin.
They are not light reading – Krasznahorkai has stated that the full stop “doesn’t belong to human beings, it belongs to God”. The paragraph break also belongs to God, apparently, and Krasznahorkai’s wish to convey life as a kind of discontinuous yet relentless flow produces sentences that extend over many pages, through which the reader can only cling to the occasional semi-colon for brief respite, before he is carried downstream. It’s an uncompromising aesthetic, which rewards long bouts of intense concentration and brutally punishes distraction (sorry, commuters), but at times it is exhilarating, even euphoric.
Seiobo There Below is a book that, for the reader of Ottilie Mulzet’s exquisite translation, enacts a kind of jump cut. The Krasznahorkai who wrote War and War (1999) has spent a decade travelling in China and Japan. In Seiobo a master Noh actor can say that he doesn’t believe that “those who speak so threateningly of an approaching catastrophe ... are in the right” because “everything occurs in one single time and one single place” and “there is no room here for hope or miracles”. Christian apocalyptic prophecy has crashed into the Buddha and the Tao, which seem to provide balm for (or at least an evolution of) Krasznahorkai’s torment.
Non-Japanese writers who become fascinated with Japan have, let’s say, a mixed record, but thankfully readers hoping for orientalist romance will be disappointed. In Seiobo There Below there is not a suicidal swordsman, oppressed salaryman or sexy robot in sight. There is, come to think of it, no sex, and few accounts of relationships between people, so intensely is the book focused on the relationship between the artist and art, understood as a rigorous set of techniques for disclosing truth. There are 17 stories, some set in Japan, others not, all dealing in one way or another with aesthetic experience. There are no recurring characters or situations, only resonances. The stories are numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence, which would be pretentious were it not for the sense that each story does in fact compound with the one before it to produce the next. Instead of narrative tension or drama, there’s a sort of acceleration, or intensification, as Krasznahorkai’s meditations on art and beauty begin to swirl around and react together.
From the first story, a bravura account of the consciousness of a crane standing in the Kamo river in Kyoto, the reader kayaks down Krasznahorkai’s torrential sentences through biblical ancient Persia, as queen Vashti refuses to appear before her drunken husband, into a temple in a Japanese industrial town where a statue of Amida Buddha is removed, driven to Tokyo, painstakingly restored and then returned, amid much ceremony. The nearest we get to a recurring character (or cluster of characters, since one version gets killed in a road accident) is a middle-aged white male tourist, who turns up in Venice, the Alhambra and the Acropolis, where instead of having the hoped-for peak aesthetic experience, he is felled by the sun and the heat, unable even to open his eyes in the sanctuary. Blindness and insight, a parody of the sublime.

The stories brim with precise detail and exact technical language – about preparing pigments in a Florentine Renaissance painter’s studio, or the post-show social obligations of a Noh actor – and though this sometimes feels oppressive or otiose, Krasznahorkai seems to wish to direct the reader towards a kind of precise attentiveness to phenomena that he sees as lying at the core of the artist’s practice. His study of Japan has introduced the aesthetic concepts of mono no aware (sensitivity to the transience of things) and wabi sabi (acceptance of transience and imperfection) to the inheritor of a Christian tradition of aesthetics founded on perfection and transcendence. In Seiobo There Below, stories about experiencing sublime terror in front of Russian icons rub up against sections that read like Taoist parables, about monks watching ants disappear into cracks and the hand of a craftsman bypassing his rational consciousness. It seems to be Krasznahorkai’s ambition to synthesise these traditions, and it is exhilarating to watch him use narrative to attempt the feat. Whether or not one is sympathetic to the austere conservatism of his aesthetics (he recently advised younger writers and artists to burrow silently underground to escape the debasement of contemporary cultural life), the intensity of his commitment to the art of fiction is indisputable.

Saint Anna Lake is a dead lake formed inside a crater, lying at an elevation of around 950 metres, and of a nearly astonishingly regular circular form. It is filled with rainwater: the only fish to live in it is the catfish. The bears, if they come to drink, use different paths from the humans when they saunter down from the pine-clad forests. There is a section on the further side, less frequently visited, which consists of a flat, swampy marshland: today, a path of wooden planks meanders across the marsh. It is called the Moss Lake. As for the water, rumour has it that it never freezes over; in the middle, it is always warm. The crater has been dead for millennia, as have the waters of the lake. For the most part, a great silence weighs upon the land.
It is ideal, as one of the organizers remarked to the first-day arrivals as he showed them around – ideal for reflection, as well as for refreshing strolls, which no one forgot, taking good advantage of the proximity of the camp to the highest mountain, known as the Thousand-Metre Peak; thus in both directions – up to the top of the peak, down from the peak! – the foot traffic was fairly dense: dense, but in no way did that signify that even more feverish efforts were not taking place simultaneously in the camp below; time, as was its wont, wore on, and ever more feverishly, as the creative ideas, originally conceived for this site, took shape and in imagination reached their final form; everyone by then having already settled into their allotted space, subsequently furnished and fixed up by their own hands, most obtaining a private room in the main building, but there were also those who withdrew into a log hut, or a shed long since fallen into disuse; three moved up into the enormous attic of the house that served as the camp's focal point, each one partitioning off separate spaces for themselves – and this, by the way, was the one great necessity for all: to be alone while working; everyone demanded tranquillity, undisturbed and untroubled, and that was how they set to their work, and that was just how the days passed, largely in work, with a smaller share allotted to walks, a pleasant dip in the lake, the meals and the evening sound of singing around the campfire, accompanied by home-made fruit brandy.
The use of a generalized subject for this narrative proved delusive, however, as the fact slowly but surely became manifest – it had appeared as such to the keenest eyes on the first working day; for most, however, it was largely considered a settled matter by the third morning – that truly there was one among the number, one out of the twelve, who was absolutely unlike all the rest. His mere arrival itself had been excessively mysterious, or at least had proceeded very differently from that of the others, for he had not come by train and then by bus; for however unbelievable it seemed, the afternoon of the day of his arrival, perhaps around six o'clock or half-past six, he simply turned into the campground gates, like a person who had just arrived on foot, with nothing more than a curt nod; and when the organizers politely and with a particular deference inquired as to his name, and then began to question him more pressingly as to how he had arrived, he replied only that someone had brought him to a bend in the road in a car; but as in the all-enfolding silence no one had heard the sound of any car at all that could have let him out at any "bend in the road", the entire thought that he had come in a car but not all the way, only up to a certain bend in the road and only to be put out there, sounded fairly incredible, so that no one really quite believed him, or more accurately, no one knew how to interpret his words, so that there remained, already on that very first day, the only possible, the only rational – if all the same, the most absurd - variation: that he had travelled entirely on foot; that he had picked himself up in Bucharest and set himself to the journey: instead of boarding a train and subsequently the bus that came here, he had simply made on foot – and who knew for how many weeks now! – the long long trip to Saint Anna Lake, turning in through the campground gates at six or six-thirty in the evening, and when the question was put to him as to whether the organizing committee had the honor of greeting Ion Grigorescu, he dispensed his reply with one curt nod.

He was thin, like a water bird, his shoulders stooped; bald-headed, in his frighteningly gaunt face two pure dark-brown eyes burned – two pure burning eyes, yet eyes not burning from an inner fire but merely reflecting back, like two still mirrors that something is burning outside.If the credibility of his tale were to rest upon the state of his shoes, then no one could have any doubts at all: perhaps originally brown in colour, they were light summer loafers of artificial leather, with a little ornament stitched in at the toe, and now completely disintegrating around his feet. Both of the soles had separated from the uppers, the heels were trodden entirely flat, and by the right toe, something had diagonally ripped the leather open, rendering visible the sock underneath. But it wasn't just his shoes, and thus it was all to remain a mystery until the very end: in any event, more than a few of the garments he was wearing stood out from the Western or Westernized dress of the others in that these items of apparel seemed to belong to an individual who had just stepped directly out of the late 80s of the Ceauşescu era, from its deepest misery right into the present moment. The roomy trousers were made out of thick flannel-like material of nondescript hue, flapping limply at the ankles, yet even more painful was the cardigan, hopelessly swamp-green and loosely woven, worn over the plaid shirt that, despite the summer heat, was buttoned right up to his chin.
By the third day they all understood that for him the camp was not a camp, work was not work, summer was not summer, that for him there was neither swimming nor any of the pleasant restful joy of holiday-time, which tends to predominate at such gatherings. He asked for and received new footwear from the organizers (they found a pair of boots for him, hanging from a nail in the shed), which he wore the whole day long, going up and down the camp but never once leaving its confines, never ascending the peak, never descending the peak, never strolling around the lake, never even going for a walk on the wooden planks across the Moss Lake; he remained inside, and when he happened to appear here or there, he walked about this way and that, looking to see what the others were doing, passing through all of the rooms in the main building, stopping to pause behind the backs of the painters, the printmakers, the sculptors, and deeply engrossed, observing how a given work was changing from day to day; he climbed up into the attic, went into the shed and the wooden hut, but never spoke to anyone, and never replied with the slightest word to any questions, as if he were deaf and mute, or as if he didn't understand what was wanted of him; perfectly wordless, indifferent, insensate, like a spectre; and when they, all eleven of them, began to watch him, as Grigorescu was watching them – they came to a realization, which they discussed among themselves that evening around the fire (where Grigorescu was never seen to follow his companions, as he always went to sleep early) – a realization that yes, perhaps his arrival was strange, his shoes were odd and his cardigan, his sunken face, his gauntness, his eyes, all of it was completely so – but the most peculiar thing of all, they established, was what they hadn't even noticed until now, yet it was the very strangest of all: that this illustrious creative figure of the present day, always active, was here, where everyone was at work, perfectly and totally idle.
He wasn't doing anything: they were astonished at their realization, but even more at the fact that they hadn't noticed it right at the beginning of the camp; already, if you cared to count, it was getting on to the sixth, the seventh, the eighth day; indeed some were preparing to put the finishing touches on their artworks already, and yet only now did the thing in its entirety appear to them.
What was he actually doing?
Nothing, nothing at all.
From that point on, they began to watch him involuntarily, and on one occasion, perhaps the tenth day, they realized that at daybreak and throughout the mornings, when most of the others were asleep, there was a relatively long stretch of time during which Grigorescu, although commonly known to be an early riser, did not appear anywhere; a period of time when Grigorescu went nowhere; he was not by the log hut, not by the shed, neither inside nor out: he simply wasn't to be seen, as if he had become lost for a certain period of time.
Propelled by curiosity, on the evening of the twelfth day a few of the participants decided to rise at dawn on the day following, and try to investigate the matter. One of the painters, a Hungarian, took the responsibility of waking the others.
It was still dark when, having confirmed Grigorescu not to be in his room, they circled the main building, then went out through the main gate, came back again, went back to the wooden hut and the shed, only to find no trace of him anywhere. Puzzled, they looked at each other. From the lake, a gentle breeze arose, dawn was beginning to break, slowly they were able to make out each other; the silence was total.
And then they became aware of a sound, barely audible and impossible to identify from where they stood. It came from a distance, from the most outlying part of the camp, or more precisely from the other side of that invisible border where the two outhouses stood, and which itself marked the boundaries of the camp. Because, from that point on, although it was not marked, the terrain ceased to be an open courtyard; nature, from whose grasp it had been seized, still had yet to take it back, yet no one expressed any interest in it: a kind of uncivilized, rather ghastly no-man's land, upon which the campsite's owners made no visible claim beyond its use as a dumping-ground for waste matter from dilapidated refrigerators to everyday kitchen garbage, everything imaginable, so that with the passage of time the entire area had become covered with tenacious, nearly impenetrable weed-growth, nearly human in its proportions; thorny, thick and hostile vegetation, without use and indestructible.
From somewhere beyond, from a point in this undergrowth, they heard the sound filtering towards them.

They did not hesitate for long regarding the task that lay ahead: uttering not one word, they simply looked at each other, nodded silently, threw themselves into the thicket, breaking forwards through it, towards something.
They were already in very deep, a good distance from the buildings of the campsite, when they were able to identify the sound and establish that someone was digging.
They went around, for it was already clearly audible to them as the tool was pressed into the earth, the soil thrown up, hitting the horsetail grass with a thud, spreading out.
They had to turn to the right, and then make ten or fifteen steps forward, but they got there so quickly that, losing their balance, they almost went plunging downwards: they were standing at the edge of an enormous pit, approximately three metres wide and five long, at the bottom of which they glimpsed Grigorescu as he worked, deliberately. The entire hole was so deep that his head was hardly visible, and in the course of his steady work he had not at all heard their approach as they just stood, at the edge of the giant pit looking at what was there below.
There below, in the middle of the pit, they saw a horse – life-sized, sculpted from earth – and first they only saw that, a horse made from earth; then that this life-size earth-hewn horse was holding its head up, sideways, baring its teeth and foaming at the mouth; it was galloping with horrific strength, racing, escaping somewhere; so that only at the very end did they take in that Grigorescu had eradicated the weeds from a large area and had dug out this tremendous ditch, but in such a way that in the middle part he had stripped the earth away from the horse, running with its frothing ghastly fear; as if he had dug it out, freed it, made this life-sized animal visible as it ran in dreadful terror, running from something beneath the earth.
Aghast, they stood and watched Grigorescu, who continued to work completely unaware of their presence.

He has been digging for ten days, they thought to themselves by the side of the pit.
He has been digging at dawn and in the morning, all this time.
Below someone's feet, the earth slipped, and Grigorescu looked up. He stopped for a moment, bowed his head, and continued to work.
The artists felt ill at ease. Someone has to say something, they thought.
It's superb, Ion, said the French painter, in low tones.
Grigorescu stopped again, climbed up a ladder out of the pit, cleaned the spade of the earth clinging to it with a hoe lying ready for that purpose, wiped his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief, and then came towards them; with a slow, broad movement of his arm, he indicated the entire landscape.
There are still so many of them, he said in a faint voice.
He then lifted his spade, went down the ladder to the bottom of the pit, and continued to dig.
The rest of the artists stood there nodding for a bit, then finally headed back to the main building in silence.
Only the farewells remained now. The directors organized a large feast, and then it was the last evening; the next morning the camp gates were locked; there was a chartered bus and some of those who had come from Bucharest or from Hungary by car also left the camp.
Grigorescu gave the boots back to the organizers, put on his own shoes again, and was with them for a while. Then a few kilometers on from the camp, at a bend in the road near a village, he suddenly asked the bus driver to stop, saying something to the effect that from here it would be better for him to go on alone. But no one understood clearly what he had said, as his voice was so inaudible.
The bus was swallowed up by the bend, Grigorescu turned to cross the road, and suddenly disappeared from the serpentine route downwards. Only the land remained, the silent order of the mountains, the ground covered in fallen dead leaves in the enormous space, a boundless expanse – disguising, concealing, secreting, covering all that lies below the burning earth.

 Laszlo Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, Hungary, in 1954. The author of six novels, he has received many national and international prizes. Together with the director Bela Tarr, Krasznahorkai adapted his 1985 debut novel Satantango (Satan's Tango) as a black and white film, lasting for seven and a half hours (1994). First published in 1989, his award-winning novel Az ellenallas melankoliaja (The Melancholy of Resistance) was filmed in 2000.
 Ottilie Mulzet has been translating Hungarian literature since the mid-1990s. Her most recent publication is the English translation of Berlin-Hamlet by Szilard Borbely. In 2010, her translation of Lazarus by Gabor Schein will be published by Triton Press in Prague.
 This translation was first published by Hungarian Literature Online.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai.
 Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Photograph: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Awards such as the Man Booker International prize are doing their job if they bring relatively unknown authors to new readers. If you’ve missed out on László Krasznahorkai’s writing so far, here’s a potted history.
This Hungarian novelist and screenwriter has long been an open secret in some circles, and was described by Susan Sontag as the “contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse”. If you are among his admirers, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

For starters, how do you pronounce his name?

[ˈlaːsloː krαsnαhorkα.i] That’s in phonetic English – for other languages, the author himself has provided some help.

Who is he?

Considered by many to be the most important living Hungarian author, Krasznahorkai was born on 5 January 1954, in Gyula, Hungary, to a lawyer and a social security administrator. He studied law and Hungarian language and literature at university, and, after some years as an editor, became a freelance writer. His first novel, Satantango (1985), pushed him to the centre of Hungarian literary life and is still his best known. He didn’t leave Communist Hungary until 1987, when he travelled to West Berlin for a fellowship – and he has lived in a number of countries since, but returning regularly to Hungary.
In the early 1990s, he spent long periods of time in Mongolia and China, and would later explore Japan – all of which resulted in aesthetic and stylistic experiments and changes in his writing. While writing the novel War & War(1999), he travelled in Europe and lived in Allen Ginsberg’s flat in New York, where the legendary Beat poet advised and helped him. According to his publishers, he now “lives in reclusiveness in the hills of Szentlászló”. His main literary hero is, he says, Kafka: “I follow him always.”

Which are his main translated works, and where should you start?

He’s known for his uncompromising style (the 12 chapters of Satantango each consist of a single paragraph) and is often labelled as postmodern. Don’t let that put you off, though. Five of his fictional works have been published in English so far, in translations by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes, who will share the £15,000 translation prize that goes with the Booker.



His first and most famous novel. It tells the story of life in a disintegrating village in a dystopian communist Hungary, where a man called Irimias, long thought dead and who may be a prophet, a secret agent or the devil, appears out of nowhere and begins to manipulate the remaining citizens. According to the Guardian review, this is “a monster of a novel: compact, cleverly constructed, often exhilarating, and possessed of a distinctive, compelling vision – but a monster nevertheless. It is brutal, relentless and so amazingly bleak that it’s often quite funny.” It won the 2013 best translated book award in the fiction category.
The Melancholy of Resistance (1989)


This comedy of apocalypse is set in a town where a mysterious circus, whose only attraction is an enormous whale mounted on a truck, unnerves inhabitants and gives the local would-be tyrant Mrs Eszter what she sees as a perfect opportunity to manipulate the populace.
The form is stream of consciousness, with minimal punctuation. Translator Szirtes described it as “a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type”.
It won the book of the year award in Germany in 1993.

How about the films?

Both these novels have been made into films by his friend, Béla Tarr, in a collaboration which began with Kárhozat (Damnation) in 1988, and includes aseven-and-a-half-hour black-and-white version of Satantango. This took seven years to make and was released in 1994. Their collaboration continues. 

What do the International Booker judges say about him?

Krasznahorkai was chosen from 10 contenders for the £60,000 prize for “an achievement in fiction on the world stage”.
The official citation:
What strikes the reader above all are the extraordinary sentences, sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths, their tone switching from solemn to madcap to quizzical to desolate as they go their wayward way; epic sentences that, like a lint roll, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things as they accumulate inexorably into paragraphs that are as monumental as they are scabrous and musical.
Chair of judges Marina Warner said:
László Krasznahorkai is a visionary writer of extraordinary intensity and vocal range who captures the texture of present day existence in scenes that are terrifying, strange, appallingly comic, and often shatteringly beautiful. The Melancholy of Resistance, Satantango and Seiobo There Below are magnificent works of deep imagination and complex passions, in which the human comedy verges painfully onto transcendence.

What about his other prominent admirers?

“The contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville” – Susan Sontag
“The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing” – WG Sebald

He told the Guardian:In his own words

If there are readers who haven’t read my books, I couldn’t recommend anything to read to them; instead, I’d advise them to go out, sit down somewhere, perhaps by the side of a brook, with nothing to do, nothing to think about, just remaining in silence like stones. They will eventually meet someone who has already read my books.
Letters; then from letters, words; then from these words, some short sentences; then more sentences that are longer, and in the main very long sentences, for the duration of 35 years. Beauty in language. Fun in hell.
I’m not interested to believe in something, but to understand the people who believe.” ― in a Q&A

Quotes from the novels

However apparently insignificant the event, whether it be the ring of tobacco ash surrounding the table, the direction from which the wild geese first appeared, or a series of seemingly meaningless human movements, he couldn’t afford to take his eyes off it and must note it all down, since only by doing so could he hope not to vanish one day and fall a silent captive to the infernal arrangement whereby the world decomposes but is at the same time constantly in the process of self-construction.” ― Satantango
Get it into your thick head that jokes are just like life. Things that begin badly, end badly. Everything’s fine in the middle, it’s the end you need to worry about.” ― Satantango
“ [...] What one ought to capture in beauty is that which is treacherous and irresistible” ― War & War

A very worthy winner of the prize, but a very unworthy summary of the man's work. One of his novel's, -which has been translated - goes unmentioned, another gets a passing mention and the "postmodern" tag is completely misleading. (imagine the coverage if a mediocre Brit like McEwan won!) However the quote from the ever-acute, irreplaceable Susan Sontag, comparing him to Gogol and Melville gives a much clearer idea of the kind of writer he is. SatantangoThe Melancholy of Resistance and War & Warexude a mixture of malicious menace, misplaced faith and increasing desperation. But there is a kind of absurd humour in there too (which Béla Tarr captures very well in the films although I don't think that he and Krasznahorkai are continuing to collaborate because Tarr announced a couple of years ago that he wouldn't be making any more films).
Seiobo There Below , is very different to the other translated novels (and there are four more novels currently being translated). Where previously we were mired in random acts of brutality or understandable despair, we are here presented with immensely patient considerations of the ways in which art, or the sacred, can be deeply transcendent. This willingness to confront beauty in an open, whole-hearted way is certainly unexpected, and makes for deeply engaged writing, and deeply absorbing reading. Whether that beauty is illustrated through a detailed examination of the composure of a heron, the carving of a noh-theatre mask or an amusingly opinionated lecture about baroque music, Kransnahorkai, seems to be genuinely in awe of the power of these, and other elements of our lives, to give meaning and purpose to our existence.
For anyone curious to read a Kransnahorkai novel, I would suggest reading Satantango first, as it is, relatively speaking, the most straight-forward of his novels. He needs a deeper level of commitment and concentration than many average novelists, but there is nothing average about the great Kransnahorkai.

  •  TheLoneliestMonk

    Thank you for your post. Totally agree. Were you able to attend his reading/interview at the British Library? He was very approachable afterwards and when we shook hands I thought 'My God, it's like I've shaken hands with Kafka'. (It was a superb, uncompromising shortlist, which will, I hope, be benchmark for future shortlists. The more contemporary foreign literature is translated into English, the more you realise how second-rate that English literature is.)

  •  diviani

    Thanks diviani. I'm not in Britain so I didn't have a chance to go to that event. I envy you for having met him. I've listened to interviews with him (there's a god one here and he always comes across very well.
    The more contemporary foreign literature is translated into English, the more you realise how second-rate that English literature is.
    I couldn't agree more.

Satantango, first published in Hungary in 1985 and now regarded as a classic, is a monster of a novel: compact, cleverly constructed, often exhilarating, and possessed of a distinctive, compelling vision – but a monster nevertheless. It is brutal, relentless and so amazingly bleak that it's often quite funny.
The action centres on the arrival of a man who may or may not be a prophet, or the devil, or just a violent con-man, in a rotting, rain-drenched Hungarian hamlet. This is the "estate", apparently some sort of failed collective, where all hope has been lost and all the buildings are falling down. It is inhabited by a cast of semi-crazed inadequates: desperate peasants cack-handedly trying to rip each other off while ogling each other's wives; a "perpetually drunk" doctor obsessively watching his neighbours; young women trying to sell themselves in a ruined mill; a disabled girl ineptly attempting to kill her cat. At the end of the first chapter, they learn that Irimias, a man whom they credit with extraordinary powers, and who was supposed to have died, is on the road to the estate, with his sidekick Petrina. The locals excitedly assemble in the spider-infested bar to await him, where they argue, drink and dance grotesquely to the accordion into the small hours.
If this summary of the first half of the novel sounds baffling, it's a hell of a lot clearer than the book itself. László Krasznahorkai's scenes are designed to disorient and defamiliarise. The chapters tend to begin with some under-explained event: a strangely vehement argument about whether to turn on an oil heater; or the inhabitants trashing their homes and setting out on the open road clutching a few possessions. In the second chapter, two characters who find themselves in the grip of some weird and malign bureaucracy are not identified for nine pages. Meanwhile, each chapter consists of one long paragraph with not a single line break. Within each endless paragraph the individual sentences are often several lines long. The characteristic, if relatively short, opening sentence reads: "One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells." Krasznahorkai's translator George Szirtes calls his work a "slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type", and says his sentences take you down "loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars". At one point the wind moves through the trees like a "helpless hand searching through a dusty book for some vanished main clause"; the reader feels something comparable.
In short, Krasznahorkai writes in the high modernist style. The premise and the characters of Irimias and Petrina clearly owe something to Beckett. The unattributed epigraph – "In that case, I'll miss the thing by waiting" – comes from Kafka's The Castle. And, as in Kafka, a depiction of life in an oppressive modern state shades into allegory. The setting is clearly Hungary under communism (Krasznahorkai was born in 1954, and Satantango was his first novel) and the plot seems to gesture towards the country's disastrous attempt at forced agricultural collectivisation. But Krasznahorkai keeps it vague and fairly abstract. Twentieth-century alienation is expressed in quasi-medieval forms: Satantango is shot through with religious imagery and intimations of revelation, from Futaki's bells and Irimias's "resurrection" onwards. "The imagination never stops working but we're not one jot nearer the truth," remarks Irimias.
Modernism mostly features in recent western writing as just another style to rip off, either jazzed up with pop cultural goodies (Paul Auster), or as more or less amusing pastiche – see, respectively, Italo Calvino or Tom McCarthy. InSatantango, it feels like the real thing: a horrified reaction to a world without meaning.
Equally, of course, this is probably not everyone's idea of a good time. Satantangowas made into a beautiful but gruelling seven-hour black and white film by Bela Tarr, famous for its insanely long shots. Reading the book is a similar experience. It seems unlikely that the novel will find the kind of success in Britain of two more obviously engrossing Hungarian classics recently republished here, Sándor Márai's Embers and Imre Kertész's Fateless. Even in Hungary, Krasznahorkai is regarded as forbidding, not least because Satantango is his most accessible book. In the words of one Hungarian critic, "The grandeur is clearly palpable, but people do not seem to know what to do with it."
Nevertheless, this is an obviously brilliant novel. Krasznahorkai is a visionary writer; even the strangest developments in the story convince, and are beautifully integrated within the novel's dance-like structure. It's a testament to Szirtes's translation, 10 years in the writing, that Krasznahorkai's vision leaps off the page. The grandeur is clearly palpable.

PaulBowes01 9 May 2012 5:22

Excellent review. This is on my reading list, but god only knows when I will get to it. This kind of book is the reason why I continue to explore European literature and feel increasingly impatient with the feeble substitutes offered by big-name anglophone writers. There is a seriousness here that can't be faked.

Perhaps that's the problem. A culture of serious literature emerges from serious - unignorable - conditions of life. In the consumerist, televised, celebrity-obsessed West, our cultural lives haven't been serious for a long time now. The price we pay is that instead of a Krasznahorkai we get a Franzen or a Hollinghurst.

DavidWarnes 9 May 2012 6:35

I thought Tarr's adaptation was rather rushed. Could have done with a couple more hours.

MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 7:17

It is an excellent review.

Paul, I think the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire is critical here, as that gave birth to an absolute flowering of talent much of which of course was cut short by the Nazis. The reality is that Hungarian literature increasingly looks like one of the world's great literatures, while English literature (meaning native English language, not specifically from England) has become rather parochial and tired.

Joseph Roth, Antal Szerb, Deszo Kosztolanyi, Musil, Schnitzler, Zweig though he's a much lesser talent (I appreciate that's two different countries, but they were once linked as part of the same state) - and that's just the ones I've personally read. On top of that Marai, Krudy, Krasznahorkai, we could easily continue.

There's an assumption that our literature is great because it's ours, and that other literatures may be of interest as a diversion. It's a false assumption, one that should perhaps be reversed.

Looking back at the stuff I've read over the past two years or so, time and again the Austro-Hungarian and Hungarian literature has stood out. There is a seriousness which is just lacking in the home grown stuff, and which as Paul says can't be faked.

I would query though calling McCarthy pastiche. I think he is more serious than that.

MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 7:48

I saw in the review of Zona Paul, which comments had closed on, that you're a fan of Roadside Picnic. Have you read anything else by the Strugatsky Brothers?

PaulBowes01 MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 8:23

Max: I have read other bits and pieces by the Strugatskys, but this was a long time ago and nothing struck me as powerfully. Even then, I was aware that many of the translations were abbreviated and very defective. I should probably try again, but as always limited time... Certainly, Roadside Picnic stood out for me in the 70s, as did Lem's The Futurological Congress, as being from a very different tradition of writing from that which had produced most Anglo-American SF. One of the things that I valued about the New Wave SF writers was that it was evident that they had read widely outside the genre and were aware of developments in avant garde literature, so that their work was connected to the mainstream rather than being confined to the SF ghetto. Ballard, for example, made far more sense to me as a European than as a British writer.

I think you're quite right about the literature of what was once the Austro-Hungarian empire. (I don't know what one should call it now: Middle European? It cuts across the old Iron Curtain and encompasses several different languages.) Modernism struggled in Western Europe after 1945 and effectively disappears after 1960 as the new pop-based postmodernism displaces it as the primary aesthetic in avant garde literature. In Europe and in South and Central America it seems to have retained its capacity for growth and its radical potential.

As for whether Tom McCarthy is a pasticheur - I'm with you at least so far as C is concerned; it seems to me a better book than that label would allow. But I do understand where Theo Tait is coming from with this. Even C seems to me to be haunted by another writer - William Burroughs, who was interested in the death-directed religion of Ancient Egypt and who pretty well invented the post-Neumann cybernetic fiction of impersonal transmission and reception. And I agree with Theo Tait about Paul Auster, who has always seemed to me to be an inferior imitator of better European writers.

The problem as always is that a radical style, once made public, becomes available as a formal model to later writers, who may apply it superficially without making the essential connection between matter and manner. Our intelligent writers often seem to me to be too well read in the wrong things. They know, and can reproduce, every stylistic twitch, but seem unable to understand why one would write like that beyond the trivial impulse to appear original in a culture that worships novelty for its own sake. Avant garde gestures are not enough in themselves.

atkinsondarren 9 May 2012 9:24

Thanks for the excellent review. If this gets a few more people reading Krasznahorkai or watching Bela Tarr's then you would have done good! Krasznahorkai is an writer of rare talent and incredible vision. Not only did he write the books that became Satantango and Werkmeister Hamonies but also every other Tarr screenplay including Damnation and The Man From London.

The Melancholy of Resistance is an incredibly dense and dark book of ideas that I think made one of the best films ever made (Werkmeister Hamonies). If you are not interested in the potential of a (false) prophet and leader, the madness of the crowds, and the connections between chaos and humanity then you might want to steer clear. The films also have incredible scores from Mihaly Vig that help the ideas to expand in your mind.

I am not sure there has ever been as close a collaboration between a writer and a director as Krasznahorkai and Tarr. They weave in and out of each other with the ideas seeming to translate from page to screen and back again without losing any of their power. Perhaps it is the ethereal nature and universal issues that has led to this synergy between the two?

MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 9:47


Christopher Priest categorises much of that kind of sf as slipstream writing - not sf in the traditional sense but more a sideways and generally not naturalistic look at things. Books that aren't about the future or anything directly sfnal, but which rather use sfnal imagery to explore much more human concerns. Ballard is the classic example, though if you've not read Anna Kavan you'd probably like her.

I know what you mean about them being more European, or making more sense in that context. I got introduced to Berger a while back, and in many ways he feels far more a European writer than a British one.

Your timing looks right to me, and from the 60s I think we see English literature increasingly disappearing into a blind alley of irrelevance. Still some great stuff being written of course, I'll defend James Salter for example against anyone, but a narrowing of ambition and perspective.

Which is why republishing books like this is so important, making them available in English, though the warning in your final para is apposite. It's too easy to adopt the mannerisms without asking why they were there. What drove that writing. As you say, the gesture is not enough of itself.

Darren, I've not seen any Tarr. Where would you suggest starting?

PaulBowes01 MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 10:28

Max: I've never had much time for the term 'slipstream' - it doesn't seem to add much to the debate, and the objection arises that almost anything one wants to include in one's personal canon may be reclassified as slipstream without actually changing anything. I don't think the term has ever had much purchase outside discussions in SF circles. It always seemed to me to be an awkward attempt to widen the SF remit without actually going all the way to saying "it's no longer useful to describe this as SF", which would have meant cutting ties with the loyal fanbase that demanded a certain conformism to expectations.

Ballard, Priest, Moorcock, M. John Harrison, Disch - even the mid-'70s Angela Carter of The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffmann and The Passion of New Eve - all later moved away from explicitly SF tropes (Harrison has revisited them with mixed results). I get the impression that they came to feel that their work was being unfairly handicapped because of the genre label. Even Don DeLillo, who I wouldn't want to accuse of conservatism, described the SF trappings of Ratner's Star subsequently as "a mistake" and enjoyed greater success with the pop-modernism of White Noise. Redescribing these and other books as 'slipstream' looks like a defensive gesture rather than a bold embrace of a genuinely distinctive aesthetic.

There's plenty of good writing in English after 1960, but in general, as you say, the formal models become steadily more conservative, ambition is curtailed, and in the UK at least there is a disturbing preoccupation with the past - as though the present has become unendurable and the future unimaginable - and with textuality in a rather literal, obvious sense; lots of books about books and writing about writers. When a culture starts to feed on itself in that way, it seems to me to be the frankest confession of exhaustion and lack of confidence.

atkinsondarren MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 11:33

Damnation then Satantango and then Werkmeister Harmonies. You might as well watch their partnership on film chronologically.

degrus MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 11:45

I would query though calling McCarthy pastiche. I think he is more serious than that.

Serious McCarthy most certainly is. Crap he most certainly is too.

MaxCairnduff 9 May 2012 12:54

Paul, good points as ever, though I can't help feeling there may be some vague commonality between Ballard, Priest, Moorcock, M. John Harrison and Disch (can't talk to Carter, though my impression is there too). A non-naturalist tradition standing in alternate to the mainstream, and also populaced by people like Alasdair Gray and more recently Will Self.

SF fandom is tremendous if you're writing pure genre sf, but the enemy of pushing the boundaries of the form. That said, it's far more accepting of change than fantasy fandom, which effectively killed the genre it loves and then stuffed the corpse.

Your third para is pretty much precisely my view also.

Darren, many thanks.

degrus, I just can't agree on that one. We shall have to meet at dawn and throw books at each other. I bagsy Gravity's Rainbow as my book/weapon of choice.

degrus 9 May 2012 14:56

Max - the problem is that I wouldn't mind using GR as my WOC either. Maybe I'd have to plump for Beckett's Trilogy instead. Or Ulysses. Or a bit of Ballard. Or Robbe-Grillet.

i.e. I'm fond of many of McCarthy's (incessantly) acknowledged influences. Which would be difficult for McCarthy to get his head around. The very idea that someone could admire Robbe-Grillet but not McCarthy. Look at how he deals with criticism of his stuff: "naturally you don't like it, because you're living in the 19th century and can't handle post-Arnold Bennett literary tricks; try reading, for a change, some European fiction from the last hundred years; try reading a bit of theory, as difficult as it'll be for a bourgeois, English, Sebastian Faulks-admiring liberal humanist like yourself to digest." He can't, it appears, conceive of criticism of his work coming from somewhere other than a "bourgeois", "liberal humanist" position. He himself is avant garde, so all criticism of him must be the opposite of avant garde.

But I've said all of this before around these parts. I'll change the record. Krasznahorkai is an important writer. He's important because he's good, and he's good because he's not interested above all in nabbing a place for himself in the pantheon of the giants of high modernism. Mainly he's just doing his thing. (Unlike McCarthy - to change the record back - who, when it comes down to it, writes for no other reason than to be thought of alongside Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Pynchon... The diarrhoetically influence-citing interviews give it all away).

PatriziaNorth 9 May 2012 18:13

My thanks also to Theo Tait for the original article, and to Paul and Max for your very well-informed comments. You've expressed my own sentiments about English (i.e. written in English) literature very well. Certainly Canadian and American mainstream literature seem largely exhausted. I'd argue for continuing the term slipstream, though, because there's too much being written that seems to be defying or expanding or blending genres -- Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Kevin Brockmeier all come to mind as exciting American practitioners.

I too didn't know Satantango was based on a novel. I'll have to check it out. Thanks.

Gogg 9 May 2012 21:14

"A good writer risks perdition where a bad writer takes a chance on the lottery." (- Blanko's Maxims on the Avant-Garde)

The crisis is not one merely of form but particularly of authenticity. I am not sure however that this is a purely contemporary or purely anglophone problem, bleak though things currently seem.

"If we would be strong we must emulate the weaknesses of giants, not their strengths." (Blanko's Maxims again)

Gogg 9 May 2012 21:43

'Slipstream' to me implies being carried along behind and in the shelter of a large forward-moving resistance-overcoming entity in such a way that one need hardly pedal (if indeed one is able to pedal (if one is equipped with pedals)) - exactly the sort of thing degrus above accuses McCarthy of.

"Beckett? Robbe-Grillet? Good of them to warm my mantle." (Voice lost within folds of cloth)

PaulBowes01 10 May 2012 12:44

Interesting that some people were not aware of the novel as the source of the film. This seems to bear out my thesis that in our increasingly visual culture, filmed versions of books often supplant the book in the popular consciousness: apparently this works in the avant garde, too. I would imagine that far more people are aware of Tarkovsky's Stalker and Solaris than have read the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic and Lem's Solaris. Of course, bad and belated translations don't help.

And speaking of authenticity, I for one would love to know the origins of the mysterious yet pregnant-with-portent Blanko, and his or her Maxims.

Gogg PaulBowes01 10 May 2012 19:16

"After a patchy career in the sideshows, Blanko the Performing Horse cantered into the big top at the 2012 Schizoid Ontology Circus with a new series of 'Critical Routines'. Two books followed: an autobiography, What I Said to Derrida (And why he didn't reply) ; and Maxims on the Avant-Garde (of which there are, so far, two). Being a dumb beast, Blanko stubbornly will not set pen to paper until the bibliographic status of these works has been anticipatorily affirmed. A tap-dancing foal, Portent-out-of-Blanko, was born in 2010." (Dictionary of National Biography 2:367)

RabBurnout PaulBowes01 11 May 2012 2:56

Yes, but was this not because the fims had so much publicity -Tarkovsky's particularly, which were widely screened here,and applauded in the 'quality' press. It's unusual for for literature in transltion to get much publicity or , indeed, publication , here.

Bernard Shlink's The Reader was a huge European hit, and also a big seller, as a novel, before becoming a film - well, that is why it was made into a film. this was unusual for a 'foreign novel, though, recently Hans Fallada's work has been very successful here.

The situation re Tarkovsky and Tarr's fims , and the novels they were based on is a bit different isn't it? than that of the British public only watching 'classics' such as Dickens and Austen on the screen, big or small, rather than reading the books.

Presumably, those who go and see Tarr and Tarkovsky fims would be likely to read the novels as well - but they need to know about them and be able to obtain translations in order to do this.

RabBurnout 11 May 2012 3:43

Sorry PaulBowles, Re-reading your post, I see you are actually making the same point as I am - though perhaps the widepread publicity and availability of the Tarr and Tarkovsky films, compared to the novels, is because of the resistance here to publishing literature from abroad, rather than us becoming a more visual culture.

I don't know, maybe you're right, - but the 'arthouse' foreign film has always had an acceptabilty here (though independent cinemas are closing down today), but 'foreign' lit does not.

BackwardPoint 11 May 2012 4:07

This has been a fascinating review and comments thread, which has done much to restore my frequently shaken faith in the possibility of serious cultural discourse on the net. (Serious observation.)

I do like the look of Gogg's blog, which I find to be always already necessary yet impossible. That wasn't Blanko the Performing Horse in Tarr's The Turin Horse, was it?

Gogg BackwardPoint 11 May 2012 16:34

"always already necessary yet impossible" (BackwardPoint)

Imperfectly so in either case, I'm afraid.

bluemoonmajestic 12 May 2012 6:02

a respectful if rather superficial review. 'ah, a European writer, so let's drag out Kafka.' for my diminshing Euro, Krasznahorkai is far better than Kafka.

can you find another European tradition in which to place him?

or perhaps you could talk about the origins and antecedence of his form.

but, no, you settle instead for ''an obviously brilliant novel'' meaning you neither felt that brilliance yourself nor understood it, but assume it must be great simply because you have no understanding or sense of that aforementioned brilliance. ah, European, it must be bleak, it must have subtitles.

this book is about you and your inability to stand up for yourself.


Krasznahorkai’s translator describes his work as “a slow lava-flow of narrative.”

“Reality examined to the point of madness.” What would this look like in contemporary writing? It might look like the fiction of László Krasznahorkai, the difficult, peculiar, obsessive, visionary Hungarian author of many works of fiction, only two of which are available in English, “The Melancholy of Resistance” (which appeared in Hungarian in 1989, and in English in 1998) and “War and War” (which appeared in 1999, and was translated in 2006), both published by New Directions. Postwar avant-garde fiction, like postwar conventional fiction, has tended to move between augmentation (abundance, immersion, getting more in) and subtraction (reduction, minimalism, what Samuel Beckett called “lessness”): Beckett started out as an augmenter, and ended his life as a subtracter. But this division is not really a sharp one, because augmentation in the avant-garde novel often looks like a kind of subtraction: augmentation takes the form of an intensification of the sentence rather than an intensification of the things that many people habitually associate with the novel—plots, characters, objects. A lot has already disappeared from this fictional world, and the writer concentrates on filling the sentence, using it to notate and reproduce the tiniest qualifications, hesitations, intermittences, affirmations and negations of being alive. This is one reason that very long, breathing, unstopped sentences, at once literary and vocal, have been almost inseparable from the progress of experimental fiction since the nineteen-fifties. Claude Simon, Thomas Bernhard, José Saramago, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, and László Krasznahorkai have used the long sentence to do many different things, but all of them have been at odds with a merely grammatical realism, whereby the real is made to fall into approved units and packets.
In fact, these writers could be called realists, of a kind. But the reality that many of them are interested in is “reality examined to the point of madness.” The phrase is László Krasznahorkai’s, and, of all these novelists, Krasznahorkai is perhaps the strangest. His tireless, tiring sentences—a single one can fill an entire chapter—feel potentially endless, and are presented without paragraph breaks. Krasznahorkai’s brilliant translator, the poet George Szirtes, refers to his prose as “a slow lava-flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” It is often hard to know exactly what Krasznahorkai’s characters are thinking, because his fictional world teeters on the edge of a revelation that never quite comes. In “War and War,” György Korin, an archivist and local historian from a provincial Hungarian town, is going mad. For the whole of the novel, he stands “on the threshold of some decisive perception,” but we never discover what that perception is. Here is a necessarily long quote from early in the book, as Krasznahorkai introduces Korin’s relentless mental distortions:

because he didn’t feel like going home to an empty apartment on his birthday, and it really was extremely sudden, the way it struck him that, good heavens, he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything, for Christ’s sake, nothing at all about the world, which was a most terrifying realization, he said, especially in the way it came to him in all its banality, vulgarity, at a sickeningly ridiculous level, but this was the point, he said, the way that he, at the age of forty-four, had become aware of how utterly stupid he seemed to himself, how empty, how utterly blockheaded he had been in his understanding of the world these last forty-four years, for, as he realized by the river, he had not only misunderstood it, but had not understood anything about anything, the worst part being that for forty-four years he thought he had understood it, while in reality he had failed to do so; and this in fact was the worst thing of all that night of his birthday when he sat alone by the river, the worst because the fact that he now realized that he had not understood it did not mean that he did understand it now, because being aware of his lack of knowledge was not in itself some new form of knowledge for which an older one could be traded in, but one that presented itself as a terrifying puzzle the moment he thought about the world, as he most furiously did that evening, all but torturing himself in the effort to understand it and failing, because the puzzle seemed ever more complex and he had begun to feel that this world-puzzle that he was so desperate to understand, that he was torturing himself trying to understand, was really the puzzle of himself and the world at once, that they were in effect one and the same thing, which was the conclusion he had so far reached, and he had not yet given up on it, when, after a couple of days, he noticed that there was something the matter with his head.

The passage displays many of Krasznahorkai’s qualities: the relentless ongoingness of the syntax; the way Korin’s mind stretches and then turns back, like a lunatic scorpion trying to sting itself; the perfect comic placement of the final phrase. The prose has a kind of self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, these corrections never result in the correct answer. As in Thomas Bernhard, whose influence can be felt in Krasznahorkai’s work, a single word or compound (“puzzle,” “world-puzzle”) is seized and worried at, murdered into unmeaning, so that its repetition begins to seem at once funny and alarming. Whereas the characters in Bernhard’s work engage in elegant, even oddly formal rants—which can be removed from the fictions and performed as bitterly comic set pieces—Krasznahorkai pushes the long sentence to its furthest extreme, miring it in a thick, recalcitrant atmosphere, a dynamic paralysis in which the mind turns over and over to no obvious effect.
In “War and War”—whose epigraph is “Heaven is sad”—Korin has found a manuscript in the archive where he works. He came across the text, which seems to date from the early nineteen-forties, in a box labelled “Family Papers of No Particular Significance.” This text is a fictional narrative about four men, named Kasser, Falke, Bengazza, and Toót, who have various adventures, from Crete to Cologne and the North of England, and in different historical periods. Korin is overwhelmed by the beauty of this unknown manuscript; the moment he took it out of its box, “his life changed forever.” Already unstable, he decides that the manuscript holds a religious or visionary answer to the “puzzle” of his life. He feels sure that it is really “speaking about the Garden of Eden,” and decides that he must go to what he thinks of as “the very center of the world, the place where matters were actually decided, where things happened, a place such as Rome had been, ancient Rome, where decisions had been made and events set in motion, to find that place and thenquit everything.” He decides that this place is New York. There he will publish the manuscript by typing it up and posting it on the Internet. Then, he thinks, his life will come to an end.
László Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, in southeast Hungary, in 1954. He has lived in both Germany and America, but his name is more familiar in Europe than it is here. (In Germany, he is almost canonical, partly because of the amount of time he has spent there and his fluency in German, and is spoken of as a potential Nobel laureate.) He is probably best known through the oeuvre of the director Béla Tarr, who has collaborated with him on several movies, including “Damnation,” “Werckmeister Harmonies” (Tarr’s version of “The Melancholy of Resistance”), and the vast, overwhelming “Sátántangó,” which runs to more than seven hours. These are bleak, cavernous works, which in their spectral black-and-whiteness, sparse dialogue and reticent scores, seem to want to revert to silent pictures, and they offer a filmmaker’s analogue of Krasznahorkai’s serpentine sentences in their tracking shots, which can last as long as ten minutes: in “Werckmeister Harmonies,” the camera accompanies two characters, Mr. Eszter and Valuska, as they walk through the streets of a gray provincial town; the wordless, protracted ambulation seems almost to occur in real time. Throughout the film, the camera lingers on the blank, illuminated face of Valuska (a naïve and troubled visionary) with the devotion of a believer kissing an icon. “Sátántangó” uses a complex tango-like structure (six steps forward, six back) to present the tableau of a collective farm on the brink of collapse. It is famous for its long, uncut shots, such as one of villagers drunkenly dancing (an intoxication that, according to Tarr, was not fictional).
For all their daring and austerity, these works cannot replicate the peculiar engrossment of Krasznahorkai’s prose (nor, of course, do they exactly seek to). “Werckmeister Harmonies” simplifies considerably the political machinations of the villagers in “The Melancholy of Resistance,” at the cost of pushing the story toward a Central European magic realism. So readers of English await more of Krasznahorkai’s fiction, and are, seemingly, reliant on Szirtes, his translator, and on the enlightened largesse—for that is what it is—of New Directions. His work tends to get passed around like rare currency. I first heard of “The Melancholy of Resistance” when a freakishly well-read Romanian graduate student handed me a copy, convinced that I would like it. I opened it, was slightly excited and slightly alienated by that typographic lava flow, and then put the book on a shelf, in the resignedly optimistic way in which one deals with difficult work—one day, one day. The sense of somewhat cultic excitement persists, apparently. While I was taking notes on these books, a Hungarian woman stopped at my table in a café and asked me why I was studying this particular author. She knew his work; indeed, she knew the author (and had, she said, gone to see “Pulp Fiction” with him in Boston, when it came out), and she wanted to talk to me now about this writer.
The excitement has something to do with Krasznahorkai’s literary mysteriousness. Thomas Bernhard’s world, by comparison, is at once reasonable and insane. A pianist and writer, say, recalls a friend who committed suicide and their interaction with Glenn Gould. This book—Bernhard’s “The Loser”—is an extreme form of unreliable first-person narration but at least conforms to a basic generic conventionality. Even if the sentences are difficult, such a world is comprehensible, even desperately logical. But the abysses in Krasznahorkai are bottomless and far from logical. In Krasznahorkai, we often have no idea what is motivating the fictions. Reading him is a little like seeing a group of people standing in a circle in a town square, apparently warming their hands at a fire, only to discover, as one gets closer, that there is no fire, and that they are gathered around nothing at all.
In “War and War,” Korin travels to New York, finds lodgings with a Hungarian interpreter, Mr. Sárváry, gets a computer, and begins to type the text of the transcendently important manuscript. But the desperation of his attachment to this text is equalled only by his inability to describe its actual import:
It took no more than the first three sentences to convince him that he was in the presence of an extraordinary document, something so out of the ordinary, Korin informed Mr. Sárváry, that he would go so far as to say that it, that is to say the work that had come into his possession, was a work of astonishing, foundation-shaking cosmic genius, and, thinking so, he continued to read and reread the sentences till dawn and beyond, and no sooner had the sun risen but it was dark again, about six in the evening, and he knew, he absolutely knew, that he had to do something about the vast thoughts forming in his head, thoughts that involved making major decisions about life and death, about not returning the manuscript to the archive but ensuring its immortality in some appropriate place . . . for he had to make this knowledge the basis of the rest of his life, and Mr. Sárváry should understand that this should be understood in its strictest sense, because by dawn he had really decided that, given the fact that he wanted to die in any case, and that he had stumbled on the truth, there was nothing to do but, in the strictest sense, to stake his life on immortality.
It is not just that this “truth” upon which Korin has stumbled is not defined; it is also that Krasznahorkai recesses Korin himself. The passage is third-person description, but notice the strange, unstable way in which it veers among the report of an ongoing activity (“he continued to read and reread the sentences till dawn”), the description of a mental state (“he had to do something about the vast thoughts forming in his head”), and an account of an unstoppable monologue that Korin is apparently delivering to Mr. Sárváry (“something so out of the ordinary, Korin informed Mr. Sárváry”). The entire passage, even those elements which seem anchored in objective fact, has the quality of hallucination. One senses that Korin spends all his time either manically talking to other people or manically talking to himself, and that there may not be an important difference between the two. Almost every page of “War and War” contains the phrase “said Korin,” or some variation thereon (“It was Hermes, said Korin, Hermes lay at the heart of everything”). It is a parody of the source attribution we encounter in a newspaper, whose purpose is to put such journalistic authority in doubt. At one moment in “War and War,” we get this sublime confusion: “Believe me when I say, as I said before, he said, that the whole thing is unreadable, insane!!!”
In New York, Korin starts to tell first Mr. Sárváry, and then Sárváry’s partner, about the manuscript. Day after day, he sits in the kitchen, retelling the stories about Kasser, Falke, Bengazza, and Toót. Krasznahorkai reproduces these strange and beautiful fictions—there are remarkable passages about Cologne Cathedral and Hadrian’s Wall. Korin tells Sárváry’s partner that, as he reads the manuscript and types it up, he can “see” these characters, because the text is so miraculously powerful: “He could see their faces and expressions from the moment he started reading as clearly as anything . . . faces and expressions you see once and never forget, said Korin.” And slowly the reader confirms what he has suspected from the start, that Korin found no manuscript but is writing his own in New York; that “the manuscript” is a mental fiction, a madman’s transcendent vision. The “said Korin” tag inevitably slips into the implied “wrote Korin.” Reading, saying, writing, thinking, and inventing are all mixed up in Korin’s mind, and inevitably get mixed up in the reader’s mind, too.
For all these reasons, this is one of the most profoundly unsettling experiences I have had as a reader. By the end of the novel, I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person, and, in particular, the inhabiting of a mind in the grip of “war and war”—a mind not without visions of beauty but also one that is utterly lost in its own boiling, incommunicable fictions, its own grotesquely fertile pain (“Heaven is sad”). This pain is inscribed in the pages of “War and War” much as Korin feels that pain is inscribed in the pages of his own manuscript:

The manuscript was interested in one thing only, and that was reality examined to the point of madness, and the experience of all those intense mad details, the engraving by sheer manic repetition of the matter into the imagination, was, and he meant this literally, Korin explained, as if the writer had written the text not with pen and words but with his nails, scratching the paper into the paper and into the mind.

Krasznahorkai’s most recent work in English is not a novel but a collaboration between the writer and the German artist Max Neumann. “Animalinside” (translated by Ottilie Mulzet, and published jointly by New Directions, Sylph Editions of London, and the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris; $20) is a series of fourteen exquisite and enigmatic paintings, with paragraph-length texts by Krasznahorkai. In a brief introduction, Colm Toíbín explains that Krasznahorkai first worked from one of Neumann’s images, “and then Neumann, spurred on in turn by the words, made the rest of the images to which Krasznahorkai, his mind let loose by the captured visuals, responded by writing the other thirteen texts.” Neumann’s images feature black dogs, pasted into the pictures in dense silhouette, sometimes menacing and wolfish, sometimes playful and even cartoonish. In the first, a dog (or wolf) seems poised to jump but appears to be imprisoned in a small room, its head almost touching the ceiling. In the fourth, the black dog, again leaping, is trapped within a gridlike rectangle. In the fifth, a man calmly reads a newspaper—he looks like a contented, professorial gent—while the black dog leaps at his head from the left of the picture.
Resembling, in form, Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing,” Krasznahorkai’s words often seem to be a commentary on late Beckett; there is a steady emphasis on nothingness, entrapment, going on and being unable to go on. These beautiful fragments have the packed intensity of Krasznahorkai’s longer fiction, particularly its control of repetition and echo. In the first text, for instance, Krasznahorkai sees the dog as a boxed victim, desperate to escape its cage, and condemned to “howl with one howl.” He takes two words, “tautening,” and “nothing,” and makes “one howl” of them, by using them again and again:
I want to stretch open the walls, but they have tautened me here, and here I remain in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing else for me to do but howl, and now and forever I shall be nothing but my own tautening and my own howling, everything that there was for me has become nothing. . . . I have nothing in common with this space, in the entire God-given world I have nothing in common with this structure . . . so that I don’t even exist, I only howl, and howling is not identical with existence, on the contrary howling is despair.
The reader might think of Beckett’s “The Unnamable,” and the narrator’s cry at being “a wordless thing in an empty place, a hard shut dry cold black place, where nothing stirs, nothing speaks . . . like a caged beast born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead.” Krasznahorkai is a more political writer than Beckett and, inevitably, this caged beast accrues political and moral significance. The dog is both victim and aggressor; aggressor because it is victim. If it could, it would “jump up to sink my teeth into your throat.” In the fifth text, which accompanies the picture of the dog leaping at the man contentedly reading a newspaper, the beast seems to have become the Other, everything that threatens bourgeois contentment, such as an immigrant, a terrorist, a revolutionary, or just the feared stranger: “I shall rear up and tear apart your face and then what good will all your expectations spent in horror, in anguish, in dread turn out to be.”
The dog promises to come like the apocalypse, like a thief in the night, and shatter every consoling structure:
Because in reality I will be there so quickly that it will be impossible at all to measure it . . . because before me there is no past, after me there will be no need of the future, because there will be no future, because my existence is not measured by time . . . you raise your head from today’s newspaper, or you just happen to look up, and there I am in front of you.
By the end of this relentless text, the dog has passed through the political and become metaphysical or theological. The dog is now everyone’s secret dread, everyone’s inevitable fate. It might be suffering, pain, death, evil, what Norman Rush in his novel “Mortals” calls “hellmouth”: “the opening up of the mouth of hell right in front of you, without warning.” And though Krasznahorkai’s dog seems to be thinking its savage thoughts and threats and aiming them at the human in a terrible monologue, the subtle suggestion is that this may be nothing more than the recitation of human fear, a projection of savagery, by the man mildly reading his newspaper.
Krasznahorkai is clearly fascinated by apocalypse, by broken revelation, indecipherable messages. To be always “on the threshold of some decisive perception” is as natural to a Krasznahorkai character as thinking about God is to a Dostoyevsky character; the Krasznahorkai world is a Dostoyevskian one from which God has been removed. His novel “The Melancholy of Resistance” is a comedy of apocalypse, a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam. Less manic, less entrapped than “War and War,” it has elements of a traditional social novel. Set in a provincial Hungarian town, it features an array of vivid characters: the wicked, quasi-fascist Mrs. Eszter, who is plotting to take over the town and appoint herself the head of a committee for moral and social renewal; her sickly, philosophical husband, a musician who long ago resigned from the directorship of the town orchestra, and spends his days on a chaise longue, thinking bitter and refined thoughts; János Valuska, a postman and visionary dreamer, who walks all day through the town considering the purity of the cosmos, and is mocked by people who think him simple or odd; and the kind of supporting cast you want in Central European comic novels (the drunken police chief, the hapless mayor).
But this summary doesn’t do justice to the unfathomable strangeness of the novel. The town is in a state of decline and uncertainty: the streetlights are out, rubbish is piling up uncollected. A travelling circus arrives, whose only attraction is an enormous whale, mounted in a curious, doorless truck, and some preserved embryos. The circus has been moving through the region, accompanied by a group of apparently aimless but oddly menacing onlookers, men who hang around the town’s main square near the whale, waiting for something to happen. Everything is full of vague and doomy imminence, and Mrs. Eszter sees her opportunity: if she can foment (or even manage) some kind of anarchy, blame the unrest on unnamed “sinister forces,” and then successfully quash that unrest, she may attain her desire, to head the “tidy yard and orderly house movement.” The men do eventually go on a rampage, smashing up things and people, burning buildings. But why? We are never told. One of them states that “we could not find a fit object for our disgust and despair, and so we attacked everything in our way with an equal and infinite passion.” The army is called in, and Mrs. Eszter triumphs. Within fourteen days of taking charge, she has “swept away the old and established the new.”
It is unclear whether the whale had anything to do with the irruption of violence; Krasznahorkai mischievously dangles the possibility that the circus is a difficult art work, that it was simply misread by everyone as an agent of apocalypse, in the way that all revolutionary and obscure art works are misread (by implication, this novel included). The whale is a funny, gloomy allusion to Melville, and perhaps Hobbes; like the leviathan, like Moby Dick, it is vast, inscrutable, terrifying, capable of generating multiple readings. But it is also static, dead, immobile, and the Puritan God who makes Melville’s theology comprehensible (however incomprehensible Melville’s white whale is) has long vanished from this nightmarish town in the shadow of the Carpathians. Meaning scrambles for traction, and the sinister doorless truck that sits silently in the middle of the town square is also a joke about the Trojan horse. Naturally, in Krasznahorkai’s world, the Trojan horse is empty. No one gets out of it.
“The Melancholy of Resistance” is a demanding book, and a pessimistic one, too, since it seems to take repeated ironic shots at the possibility of revolution. The only resistance offered to Mrs. Eszter comes in the form of Valuska (who is picked up and confined to a mental asylum) and Mrs. Eszter’s husband, who is a feeble, isolated foe. The pleasure of the book, and a kind of resistance, as well, flows from its extraordinary, stretched, self-recoiling sentences, which are marvels of a loosely punctuated stream of consciousness. These are used with particular brilliance to capture the visionary gropings of Valuska, who wanders through the town thinking cosmic thoughts, and of Mr. Eszter, who, for years, has been obsessed with tuning his piano to Werckmeister’s old harmonic system, and then with choosing one suite of music to play for the rest of his life.
Krasznahorkai can be a comic writer, and comic justice is meted out to Mr. Eszter, who finally tunes his piano, sits down to play, and is horrified by the hideous sounds he makes. For Eszter, music is a sort of resistance to reality:
Faith, thought Eszter . . . is not a matter of believing something, but believing that somehow things could be different; in the same way, music was not the articulation of some better part of ourselves, or a reference to some notion of a better world, but a disguising of the fact of our irredeemable selves and the sorry state of the world, but no, not merely a disguising but a complete, twisted denial of such facts: it was a cure that did not work, a barbiturate that functioned as an opiate.

Mental fictions may enrage us, and may lead to madness, but they may also provide the only “resistance” available. Korin, Valuska, and Mr. Eszter are, in their different ways, all demented seekers after purity. That they cannot exactly describe or enact their private Edens makes those internal worlds not less but more beautiful. Inevitably, as for all of us but perhaps more acutely for them, “heaven is sad.” 


LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI WAS BORN IN GYULA, HUNGARY, IN 1954, and has written five novels and several collections of essays and short stories. Until recently, at least in the English-speaking world, he was probably best known through the oeuvre of the film director Béla Tarr, with whom he has collaborated on several films over three decades, including the adaptation of several of his own novels.

In 2000, the Hungarian-born British poet George Szirtes – who conducted this interview in 2012 by email – translated Krasznahorkai’s THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE, the first of his books to appear in English. It was blurbed by Susan Sontag (‘the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse’) and W. G. Sebald (‘The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s DEAD SOULSand far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.’). Krasznahorkai, who was awarded the 2015 Man Booker International Prize last Tuesday, is widely recognised as one of the very best and important novelists of our time.

So much so that on the occasion of the release of SÁTÁNTANGO, another Szirtes translation, in 2012, the author was mobbed by hipsters at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City, where the critic James Wood was interviewing him. ‘[T]he excitement of Krasznahorkai’s writing is that he has come up with his own original forms…’ writes the novelist Adam Thirlwell in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. ‘There’s nothing else like it in contemporary literature.’

James Wood, writing in the NEW YORKER in 2012, placed Krasznahorkai alongside post-war greats such as Thomas Bernhard, Claude Simon and David Foster Wallace. Wood did qualify his comparison though – in spite of a common affinity for ‘very long, breathing, unstopped sentences’, Krasznahorkai is ‘perhaps the strangest’, his writing ‘peculiar … strange and beautiful’.

George Szirtes, who has now translated three of his books into English, calls Krasznahorkai’s work a ‘slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type’. His sentences, he writes, take you down ‘loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars’.

In 2013 New Directions published László Krasznahorkai’s SEIOBO THERE BELOW (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), the latest of his novels to be translated into English. The novel is published in the UK by Tuskar Rock this month. We are delighted to publish its first chapter, and this short interview with the author.




 — What do you think are the advantages, disadvantages or dangers of translation?


 — I won’t say anything about advantages and disadvantages but I will address the question of dangers because they simply don’t exist. The translated work, in my opinion, is in no way to be identified with the original in a different language. That is an absurdity. The translated work is the work of the translator, not the author. The author’s work is that which comprises the story as written in the original language. The translated work is a new work in the language deployed by the translator, a work of which the translator is the composer, and resembles – more or less, as members of a family resemble each other – the original work. The author simply looks on and reads: the text is familiar, occasionally very familiar, to him and he is delighted when it looks good, and rages when it looks bad. I have only ever once raged, at the German translation ofWAR AND WAR which turned out a bad book. It was almost impossible to repair. Who would take on a new translation? That was very difficult. But apart from that every translation of my work has filled me with wonder. I have marvellous translators.


 — Why did you choose to live in Berlin?


 — Ever since I first spent a longer period in the city back in 1987 I have developed close ties with it. West Berlin, as it was then, was an asylum for wounded spirits. All kinds of artists, as well as those who hoped to be artists, were drawn there to do their work. It was really nice to know that I could sit in the same bar, and in fact at the same table, as great artists to whom I could relate as part of a family. This relationship continues today. Though I still spend most of my time in the city I no longer feel good about it. Nowadays it chiefly appeals to artists who want to sell their work rather than actually make it. And if that’s the case where’s the difference between here and there?


 — What is your writing practice?


 — I don’t sit at a work-station, meaning a writing desk, and I don’t stare at the laptop hoping to get an idea, but work in my head starting from the assumption that literature is my work. Putting aside personal reasons, the fact is that when I began to write I was living in very difficult circumstances: I had no writing desk and was never alone. So I got used to beginning sentences in my head, and if they were promising I kept adding to them until the sentence came to a natural end. It was at that point I wrote it down. That’s the way I do things even now, in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times – in other words I am continually at work. I write everything down at the end. I don’t correct in the normal way because I’ve done all that in my head.


 — What do you read apart from the classics such as Kafka?


 — When I am not reading Kafka I am thinking about Kafka. When I am not thinking about Kafka I miss thinking about him. Having missed thinking about him for a while, I take him out and read him again. That’s how it works. It’s precisely the same with Homer, Dante, Dostoevski, Proust, Ezra Pound, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Attila József, Sándor Weöres and Pilinszky…


 — Why do you thinkSÁTÁNTANGÓ has been so successful right now? Has something happened in the world, or in literature, that has opened doors for it?


 — I think readers who already knew SÁTÁNTANGÓ, the film by Béla Tarr and myself, and had read THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCEWAR AND WAR and ANIMALINSIDE were waiting to read this too. And it seems that at the time of publication, SÁTÁNTANGÓ was the kind of book many people actually wanted. People who wanted to escape the middle ground of high-formal pyrotechnics and the exhaustingly new; those who were waiting for a book that says something about the world; those who want something other than entertainment, who don’t want to escape from life but to live it over again, to know that they have a life, that they have a part in it, and have a preference for the painfully beautiful. My explanation is that we have no great literature. But readers need it, not as medicine, not as delusion, but because they need someone to tell them there is no medicine.


 — Why is it so important for you to map things so clearly? Why is it so important to specify precise location?


 — Because it’s always important to know where things are. And a thing can only precisely be where it is.


 — How far does the world where you began as a writer – maybe not entirely began but when SÁTÁNTANGÓ first appeared – how far and in what respect does that world resemble that of 2013?


 — The similarity is astounding. Everything seems to have changed and yet everything is essentially the same. Think of the surface of a fast-flowing gurgling stream, the way a single bubble within the foam breaks as it spins, breaks into tiny drops then joins again to form a tiny current and goes on its way. I watch the drops and try to concentrate on a single one. It’s impossible. There is no drop. Somehow there is only the whole that is at every instant different and yet the same. But the whole does not exist. Nor do the parts. So what is there? There is a changelessness that is always changing. It is beyond grasping.

The Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai isn’t exactly a late bloomer. It’s just that the English-speaking world has been tardy in discovering what European readers already know: If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing, then Laszlo is your man.

Even before the work of Mr. Krasznahorkai (pronounced CRAS-now-hoar-kay) was available in the United States, the critic Susan Sontag had hailed him as a “master of the apocalypse.” But his first novel, “Satantango,” published in 1985 and made into a film in 1994, didn’t appear in English until 2012, and several works are only now being translated by New Directions and other publishers.

Strange things are always happening in Mr. Krasznahorkai’s absurdist universe. In “Satantango,” life on a failed, rundown collective farm is upset when a pair of swindlers thought to be dead are spotted on the road into town. And in “War & War,” a depressed archivist finds a mysterious manuscript in a forlorn village, but feels dark, conspiratorial forces pressing in on him when he tries to translate and publish it.

“I wanted always to make some absolutely original thing,” Mr. Krasznahorkai, 60, said recently when asked what motivates him to write the way he does. “I wanted to be free to stray far from my literary ancestors, and not make some new version of Kafka or Dostoyevsky or Faulkner.”

Mr. Krasznahorkai, who has flowing white hair and piercing blue eyes, lives mostly in rural Hungary with his wife and three children, but was in New York for a rare, extended visit. He taught at Columbia in the spring; was one of the star attractions at the PEN World Voices festival in May, giving what was billed as a master class with the Irish novelist Colm Toibin; and stayed on to tend to the growing American interest in his work.

“His mind is a mysterious and funny one — it darts and moves and shifts and rises,” said Mr. Toibin, who has appeared on literary panels with Mr. Krasznahorkai, knows him socially and admires his work. “He has a mesmeric and breathtaking style, a style that pulls you and holds and keeps you, so that somehow or other, you can’t resist whatever rhythm he catches, which always has a sort of melody in it.”

That is not to say that Mr. Krasznahorkai is an easy read. He writes sentences that can go on for pages and pages: “The Melancholy of Resistance,” in which a bizarre circus wanders into yet another small town in the dead of winter, toting a gigantic stuffed whale, consists of a single 314-page sentence.

“When you start breaking down some of his bleaker descriptions, it’s very funny, almost a self-caricature,” said the Anglo-Hungarian poet George Szirtes, who translated “The Melancholy of Resistance” and three other books by Mr. Krasznahorkai into English. “He is certainly not without a sense of irony,” a characteristic that has led to comparisons to Beckett.

Because of that often claustrophobic atmosphere and because Mr. Krasznahorkai came of age under Communism, his novels are often thought to be political allegories. But he is adamant that they are not. “No, never,” he said. “What’s more, I never want to write some political novels. My resistance against the Communist regime was not political. It was against a society.”

Mr. Krasznahorkai’s fondness for rural settings stems, he says, from his upbringing. He was born into a middle-class Jewish family (his father was a lawyer, his mother an employee of the social welfare ministry), in Gyula, a town on the border with Romanian Transylvania. He describes it as “quite a strange and melancholy place, full of lonely, enigmatic people”: the circus whale, he said, came from a particularly vivid childhood memory.

He left to do military service but, he said, deserted after being punished for insubordination, beginning several years of drifting. He did social work among Gypsies for a while and played piano in a jazz trio that performed in rural Hungary, but also studied literature and philology in Budapest.

Nowadays, Mr. Krasznahorkai’s status in Hungary is similar to what it was under Communism, that of an outcast. The country is governed by a right-wing populist-nationalist party that he said represents “a very dangerous political direction” and that has little use for him, either.

“Just imagine Philip Roth and Don DeLillo living and working in the U.S. and being ignored,” said Jakab Orsos, the director of the PEN World Voices Festival and also a Hungarian. “Laszlo’s approach to life and art is so different from general political sentiments that it automatically becomes a political statement.”

In some quarters, Mr. Krasznahorkai is better known for the screenplays he has written, something he describes as a sideline. He’s done five, all for, and with, the avant-garde director Bela Tarr, including the seven-hour “Satantango” and, most recently, “The Turin Horse,” based on an essay about Nietzsche.
Mr. Krasznahorkai is enjoying a moment in this country. Credit Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Mr. Krasznahorkai and Mr. Tarr said they first met early on Easter Monday in 1985; Mr. Krasznahorkai was sleeping off a bad hangover when Mr. Tarr started pounding on his door. Although “Satantango” had not yet been published, it was circulating in samizdat, and Mr. Tarr had just read it in a single sitting and ran to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s to tell him he needed to make it into a movie. Mr. Krasznahorkai said he did not, and shut the door in Mr. Tarr’s face.

“Those long sentences, they may look like a kind of baroque, but it’s not true,” Mr. Tarr said in a telephone interview last week, when asked to recall his reaction to the book. “It’s so simple, and very pure. It was a kind of tableau, the lowlands setting, the terrible life the people had there. I got the manuscript at 9 o’clock in the evening, and when I finished, it was almost morning, and I had already decided, ‘This is for me.' ”

The film version of “Satantango” was released in 1994 and quickly became a cult favorite, landing on some lists of the 100 best movies ever made. “The Turin Horse” won two prizes at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011.

“We are quite similar in character, there is nothing sentimental about ourselves,” Mr. Krasznahorkai said about his partnership with Mr. Tarr. “We are lonely figures who are absolutely uncompromising, and we love each other.”

After Communism fell, and he could move freely, Mr. Krasznahorkai spent time in East Asia, which led gradually to a change in the focus and tone of his work. He has lived in Beijing and Japan, where he spent 2005 with a Noh theater troupe.

A novel reflecting that shift of interests, “Seiobo There Below,” was published in English last year. New Directions plans to publish another recent novel with Asian themes, “From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River,” as well as a collection of stories, “The World Goes On,” as soon as the translations are finished. And the University of Chicago Press plans to issue a 2004 novel focused on China, “Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens.”

“I wanted to find something from my world that was not only dark and apocalyptic,” Mr. Krasznahorkai said of “Seiobo,” named for the Buddhist goddess of mercy and inspired by his Noh experience. “I thought maybe I could write something from the other side and make something beautiful, as a gift.”

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