László Krasznahorkai: From the North a Mountain, from the South a Lake, from the West some Roads, from the East a River
While looking for the image hidden within his being, the grandson of prince Genji, a highly sensitive, fragile and strikingly beautiful young man, arrives in the deserted outskirts of the southern district of Kyoto. - A review on Krasznahorkai's "From the North a Mountain, from the South a Lake, from the West some Roads, from the East a River"
The following statement might seem surprising although it does not wish to be: the book I am about to discuss here cannot be read twice. Yet in spite of this, the reader will want to read it a second, a third, and a fourth time, over and over again. Even more so, considering that the motto (or more precisely, the axis, the navel, the heart) of László Krasznahorkai’s book is this: “No one has seen it twice.”
Krasznahorkai’s novel is a truly unusual one; but, as a matter of fact, most great works are unique and unrepeatable, thus, they are exceptional, and “strange”. So we should rather say that Krasznahorkai’s book is an adventure novel. A highly fascinating, exciting and liberating adventure novel which (just like crime fiction) focuses on a quest as its central theme. In a certain place, at a certain moment, the image of a perfect garden appears in the mind’s-eye of a certain man, accompanied by a fearful sense of absence which urges him to set out in search for this most beautiful garden. In From the North a Mountain, from the South a Lake, from the West some Roads, from the East a River the grandson of prince Genji, a mysterious, indefinable and shadowy dream-like character, is searching for a garden, of which he harbors only a single image deep within his being, yet he is strongly convinced of its existence. It is by no means certain that he will find it, but it is indisputable that the garden can be found, and so he must necessarily continue the quest and keep up the search.
This book is one of the most poetic and stirring of all Hungarian novels. The main motif of the search can be interpreted in a variety of ways. After a thousand years, the grandson of Genji returns to Kyoto, the old imperial city, and looks for an enigmatic garden. His companions, the bodyguards reeking of alcohol, are looking for the person they were supposed to escort but lost sight of: the grandson of the prince. A badly beaten dog, “a blood-soaked, weakened, scraggy and infinitely exhausted dog which ceased to resemble its species” is looking for ultimate peace at the foot of a gingko tree. (Of course, the question is: can such a crushed creature find ultimate peace at all?) And naturally, the readers are also searching for possible answers to all the troubling questions of their lives.
While looking for the image hidden within his being, the grandson of prince Genji, a highly sensitive, fragile and strikingly beautiful young man, arrives in the deserted outskirts of the southern district of Kyoto. Searching for the right direction he looks around but finds no one in the alleys who could help him, all the houses are quiet, the residents have all “gone away, every one of them.” Relying on his instincts, he starts off in one of the alleyways, walking under the shelter of bamboo branches and pine trees. The street “soon turns clearly upward” and the young man reaches a hill (which cautiously signals that we are dealing with the story of a spiritual journey, with an inwardly directed search) where he sees an abandoned Buddhist monastery. There is no presence to be felt, except for the blowing of the wind. The grandson of prince Genji lights an incense in front of the thousand-year-old pagoda which holds the sacred relics of Buddha, and then kneels to pray.
We cherish the ancient sense of proportion, measure and order deep within our souls. We preserve an image of peace, tranquility and serenity inside, and this is what we search for in life, unless the bitter experience of reality stifles our sensitivity for it. A sensitivity which seems vulnerable, but can in fact be indestructibly eternal. Werner Heisenberg wrote that if one day the magnetic field of the Earth, which guides the compass of the Western man – and most probably originates from an essential order –, would stop functioning, that would be a disaster for humanity. It is this essential order that holds together the material and the moral parts of the universe, and without it disorder and fruitless chaos would rule the inner and outer worlds. Yet this order is inaccessible to reason: we cannot understand it, we can only aim at it with our imagination. According to Jacob Boehme the images we harbor within our imagination are echoes of the original design upon which the creation of the world was based: God created man in His own image through the projection of His inner essence. First there was the idea and the word, and then came the creation and materialization. Consciously or unconsciously, our life is determined by the images we carry within us. Ultimately we turn into whatever we place into the focal point of our imagination.
As for the composition, it is of particular importance that the novel starts with the second chapter, or more specifically, the second “song.” We can anticipate how this textual feature of the book would give rise to various interpretative strategies: all of them puzzled by an apparently unfinished novel in which – oddly enough – the beginning rather than the end is missing. The blurb ensures us that the first chapter does indeed exist, but it exists in an entirely different kind of space, and so “every sentence of the novel draws its strength from this space.” Theoreticians are left guessing. One of them may argue that this missing chapter refers back to Murasaki’s book, The Tale of Genji, written around 101o; which could be a plausible presumption since in the middle of Krasznahorkai’s novel the reader learns that the monastery has preserved a very valuable original copy of the classic text. Another, more interesting, argument may hold that the empty place of the first song could be filled in by the complete work itself. Now how would that work? The first chapter of the book is the completed book itself, in which the first chapter is also the whole book, and so on and so forth. So in order to read the first chapter, we would need to read the whole book, and then continue with the second chapter, but in order to read the first chapter of the whole book we still need to read the entire novel, which leads us back to the question about the wholeness of the work. (In this self-created whirlpool the critic would be illuminated and understand that “there are no fragments, only the whole.”) Finally, there is an explanation that could claim that perhaps the first song of the novel is nothing else but the image of the perfect garden harbored within ourselves. The inner design of order, safety and peace – the flawless imprint of the perfectly created world. The missing first song signifies the absence of the garden.
In an important episode of Krasznahorkai’s War and War, the chapter about Gibraltar, the narrator argues that after the discovery of America the boundaries of the known world collapsed: from then on Gibraltar was not facing a big void, but the boundlessness of infinity. This, however, had quite unpredictable implications since the disappearance of boundaries caused the effacement of incontestable statements and the beginning of a general uncertainty. Thus, War and War was a novel of hopelessness since its conclusion was that nothing could stop the progress of destruction and decay. As opposed to this, From the North… is a novel of regained certainty. The thirty-eighth song simply rejects the concept of infinity by saying that – within the circumstances of reality – infinity cannot exist; it is only a theoretical abstraction. And while reality is finite, “infinity was only possible to postulate through the abstract constructions of evil and crooked theoretical mathematicians who were playing a rather cruel game instead of researching the natural world.”
Numbers are the material basis of the world, and it is also through numbers that we can cross over to a world beyond our senses, writes Béla Hamvas in his essay on Pythagoras. Numbers guarantee measure and proportion. If we start talking about infinite numbers then all measure and proportion is lost. The image of peace, order and serenity fades away, leaving only the terrifying sense of absence. This is why the thirty-eighth song treats Georg Cantor and all other theoretical mathematicians arguing for the concept of infinity so ruthlessly.
It might well be that all we can do in life is to keep searching for that special garden the image of which we carry within ourselves. Perhaps finding it is not as important as not forgetting it. Preserving a mental image of the garden, wherever life takes us. The grandson of prince Genji, a man “of exceptional beauty who fascinated everyone that lay eyes on him,” always carries the image of the garden within him, so that finally he almost becomes one with the garden: he becomes the living proof that “human sensitivity, solidarity and compassion, mercy and good-will, tenderness and humility, eminence and higher calling do still have a place in this world.” So perhaps it is reassuring that at the end of the novel the grandson of Genji leaves for Kyoto, “a city currently troubled by great problems.”
The title of the novel refers to the ritualistic guidelines for the location of a Buddhist monastery. Hidden in a secluded part of the monastery, there is a garden which represents the “ultimate concentration of beauty.” This garden is not spectacular, impressive or breathtakingly extraordinary, quite the contrary: “it is a very small and very simple garden, and yet an incomparable, unrepeatable and amazing creation.” The novel gives a detailed description of the position of the garden, of the layer of moss covering the ground, and of the eight hinoki cypresses with their mighty branches. Moreover, it describes the composition, origins and formation of the soil with the precision of a scientific treatise, it relates the series of “divine accidents” required for the growth of the moss and the cypresses, and the “inexplicably complex and immensely serious play” of various forces necessary for the creation of such a garden. Through this magical description, the novel essentially writes the garden, and its triumphant message of beauty, into actual existence. And with this gesture, just like the grandson of prince Genji, the novel becomes one with the garden: it becomes the found garden and the reality of the inner image. Perhaps this is the reason why, after finishing the book, and being aware of the admonishment (since “no one can see it twice!”), the reader will still feel the need to reread the novel, a second, a third and a fourth time, over and over again.
The rite of eternal repetition is the road which ultimately leads to perfection. As Krasznahorkai writes in his essay on Japan: “a movement repeated millions and millions of times creates the ideal of perfection: the certainty that somewhere in the perspective of the unfinished movement, at an unreachable distance, lies perfection.” (“Going Insane in Paradise”)
Perhaps all we are left with is the search. The search for the image which we harbor deep within ourselves. We do not know how or when it got there, or who placed it there, but it is most certainly there, and we cannot betray it.
László Krasznahorkai: Északról hegy, délről tó, nyugatról utak, keletről folyó
Magvető, 2003, 2012
Translated by: Szabolcs László
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