04. 25. 2014. 08:40

East meets East

Krasznahorkai’s intellectual affair with Japan

This is a world where we climb Jacob’s ladder downwards, descending to God through Hell.

Krasznahorkai is an author whose prose is often said to evoke Gogol’s failed attempt to recreate Dante’s Divine Comedy right from the layered depths of Hell, but definitely not reaching above the Purgatory. When conceived from this angle, he stands neck deep both in the Judeo-Christian cultural tradition that operates in a tripartite universe, and in the contemporary reality of Eastern Europe, where those who need compassion are often lacking the words to reach out and become visible. This is a world where we climb Jacob’s ladder downwards, descending to God through Hell. Here the search for meaning involves the acceptance of abandonment and misery, and in our attitude towards the ‘real’ or the ‘sacred’ longing goes hand in hand with distrust.

The Krasznahorkai who writes in and about this world speaks with an almost catatonic, dystopian voice. His early novels, including Satantango (1985) and The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), employ a narrative technique that combines a fervent tonal monotony with often twisted and unexpected swing of perspectives, a result ofthe focus stringently following every single unexpected mental motion of the character described. It is the barren, obsessively documentarist prose that sets up the contrast for the outburst of vast, intense monologues. He treats the reader as Brecht did in his epic theatre; the audience cannot but await the climax, the fulfilling sweep of meaning and justice – or at least one of them – only to be left instead in a labyrinth of imperfection and cynicism with a tinge of pointless bitterness. Krasznahorkai starves the reader’s mind through petty and absurd sceneries, through vast territories of meaninglessness, only to then plunge it into false prophecies. Monologues appear to be both prophetic and ultimately comical; and the zeitgeist ruthlessly suggests that it can only be the latter. We could call this postmodern language and even postmodern condition, but there is something in the sacrifice of his main characters and the almost ritualistic function of repetition that suggest he is pointing to a different direction with his words.

When Krasznahorkai first went to China in 1990, he was searching for the ruins of the long-gone, pre-Maoist China; a goal that is intimately familiar to us from the perspective of the falling Berlin Wall. Thus it was natural to interpret The Prisoner of Urga (1992) along these lines, to see it as a variation on the post-communist experience in the form of a travelogue. But Krasznahorkai did stay and did return to what we often call ‘the East’, with careless Eurocentrist laziness. And by slowly and attentively acquiring another aesthetic framework, another attitude towards repetition and the broader context of human life as such, this latter text seems to assess the possibility of a fusion between the world as ‘a vale of tears’ as Hungarian literature knows it since Kosztolányi wrote Skylark and the world as an animated, non-human source of human thinking, as we see it in the Japanese appreciation of impermanence and allusiveness.

China and Japan are utterly distinct worlds, especially if approached with that studious engagement so characteristic of Krasznahorkai, willing to dissect history with the same anatomic precision with which he sets out to examine mental and physical decay in his first novels. Krasznahorkai’s writings on China or Japan should be assessed as experiments of widening stylistic and aesthetic horizons rather than as mere gestures of outreach from our own conceptual background. We need to follow him into that realm of cultural otherness and understand it in its own terms. This is not an angle often used by critics of his work, partly because the body of his work does make sense as a coherent whole, interpreted from the literary tradition he grew out of. Secondly, it is easy to assume that gazing afar does not mean going and growing afar. I tend to think this is (or could be seen as) different in Krasznahorkai’s case.


“In the mountains the cherry trees were in full bloom, and the farther he went, the lovelier the veils of mist became, until for him, whose rank so restricted travel that all this was new, the landscape became a source of wonder” – writes Murasaki Shikibu in the classical medieval Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji. The grandson of the same Prince Genji is the main character in Krasznahorkai’s From the North a Mountain, from the South a Lake, from the West some Roads, from the East a River (2003). His sketchy, tint-drawn figure is torn out of history, since the logic of hislineage, the surrounding details like the Kyoto train and the timelessness of the landscape all contradict each other – time only makes sense as the medium of repetition. It is impossible and also unimportant to locate the narrative in time, and thus we are left with the dimension of space. In many senses, the landscape becomes the main agent and subject in the book; the landscape where Prince Genji’s grandson wonders around.

In an interview with Mauro Javier Cardenas Krasznahorkai talked about his slow but restless effort to eliminate humans from his novels. He said “and if you find a place where you can see only the nature without human beings, this is actually the paradise, but in the next moment the human being walks into this picture and we are immediately and suddenly in the first chapter of the Old Testament. And we’ve lost it.” This is the angle from which Genji’s character makes perfect sense: his figure evokes the fragility and acute refinement of senses not ever before overwhelmed with the world. He is seen during his search for the perfect garden, but his figure also merges into the narrator’s voice, allowing the book to turn into a chronicle of perceptive contemplation laid almost bare of having a plot at all.

Two Japanese aesthetic concepts have a pervasive presence in the book. Mono no aware, the sensitivity towards impermanence, is a deeply Buddhist notion, a bittersweet awareness of the transience of everything, and an overall awareness that this is the only reality we can know about. This fascination with the inner lives of objects and the caveat to find the significance in their insignificance is what leads the eyes of the reader, as observation becomes slower and slower in the book. A dog is dying under the gingko tree, there are 13 dead goldfish cogged to a building, and a fox also dies; scenes of the final certainty of impermanence set the rhythm of the otherwise slowly flowing text. Contemplations about the role of the hinoki cypress tree and the golden Buddha sculpture looking back to this sad world with his head turned function both as preparatory processes of mono no aware, and as introductory explanations for the culturally alien reader. Reading From the North a Mountain itself becomes an exercise in consciousness and perception, inviting the reader to learn this delicate method of seeing, of understanding the extremely low probability of the seed falling into the right soil to then go through the metamorphosis leading to the blossoming of the cherry tree.

The other uniquely Japanese notion operating in the book is that of wabi or wabi-sabi, the appreciation of imperfection and incompleteness. Since the human condition is to witness the world in its eternal flux, giving privilege to the full moon, the perfectly open flower or the most immaculate features is seen as self-deception. Embracing objects in the arbitrary moment we happen to encounter them, and ultimately embracing emptiness and nothingness lies at the heart of wabi. The dead animals, the desolate monastery and the abandoned police office are all scenes in Genji’scalvary, whether they are noticed or not, leading the senses out of the otherwise abundant impressions and serenity that result from mono no aware.

Many critics dismiss Krasznahorkai’s descriptions of human encounters with ‘the absolute’ as it is found in nature and art. In a review on Seiobo There Below (2008), József Sántha dismisses the whole approach as a result of ‘swollen infatuation’. From the perspective of our post-Romanticist hermeneutics and the postmodern obsession of fragmentation right behind us, when looking at nature, Nohmasks or bamboo scrolls can easily feel sentimental, and almost a gesture of stepping back to the sorrows of young Werther or the joys of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet the finely written conclusion of Genji’s final failure of noticing the garden right next to him is subtle and complex precisely because it allows interpretation from both a cynical perspective, which could make the ending a tragicomedy, while leaving more than enough room forthe Japanese aesthetic meaning as well. Thus ultimately the novel does not mix traditions, but operates within them in their parallel, separate worlds.

The short stories of Seiobo There Below and the entirety of From the North a Mountain… could be (and are) easily dismissed as yet another attempt at escaping from the disenchanted Euro-Atlantic world, erudite ways of masking sentimentality, but these interpretations are only accurate (if at all) from one angle: that of their own hermeneutical tradition. Krasznahorkai, with his patient descriptiveness, does allow the reader to enter the text without previous orientalist training; but the narratives will not make sense at all if assessed by simplified and overtly familiar notions of ‘nature’, ‘art’ and ‘time’. They do unfold, however, if given the suspension of accustomed perception and if followed through on their own terms. Genji experiences tragedy, tragicomedy, or, if seen from the Shinto-Buddhist perspective, nothing special at all. After all, things come and go, the garden stays for a while and Genji eventually finds his way to the Kyoto train.

Diána Vonnák

Tags: László Krasznahorkai