László Krasznahorkai: The Last Wolf/Herman: The Game Warden & The Death of a Craft
Krasznahorkai’s writing demonstrates how humanity’s finest ideals — beauty, order, harmony, justice and freedom — end up employed, or at least hopelessly entangled, with what is abhorrent: exploitation, violence, deceit and betrayal. These two shorts stories, newly translated into English, touch upon similar themes. – A new collection of Krasznahorkai's writing in English reviewed by Rita Horanyi.
It has often been noted that a recognisable metaphysical universe emerges across Krasznahorkai’s oeuvre, one where order and disorder (or good and evil) are intertwined. In Krasznahorkai’s writing this generally demonstrates the way humanity’s finest ideals—beauty, order, harmony, justice and freedom – end up employed, or at least hopelessly entangled, with what is abhorrent – exploitation, violence, deceit and betrayal. The latest English translation of Krasznahorkai’s work – two shorts stories (Herman: The Game Warden & The Death of a Craft) and a novella (The Last Wolf) – touch upon similar themes.
The two short stories that form half of this slim volume centre around the actions of a misguided game warden named Herman. Put in charge of clearing a wild section of forest of noxious predators, Herman could be described as the perfect subject of ideology. He takes pride in his profession and performs the unpalatable duty of killing unwanted predators with perfectionism and diligence. That is, until an epiphany strips away the illusions formed by habit and socialisation, forcing him to confront the horrific reality of his actions and leading to his eventual radicalisation. The second short story, The Death of a Craft, is narrated from the perspective of a libertine aristocratic officer, who has arrived at an unidentified small town with his similarly debauched friends and their lovers, only to discover that a dangerous lunatic named Herman is on the loose. The story – dedicated contra Yukio Mishima – satirises those who regard freedom as the pursuit of pleasure to the point of glorifying violence, transgression and death. For the sadistic aesthete narrating this tale, Herman’s tragic breakdown is nothing but a rather memorable diversion from his perverse sex games.
These two stories have been translated by John Batki from Krasznahorkai’s short fiction collection Kegyelmi Viszonyok (Relations of Grace), first published in Hungarian in 1986. Batki’s translation of Herman: The Game Warden is competent and manages to capture the blend of humour and tragedy characteristic of Krasznahorkai’s writing. His translation of The Death of a Craft is, however, somewhat less successful. This story is unusual for Krasznahorkai in that it is written in a highly parodic style (though irony is always a key component of Krasznahorkai’s work). Unfortunately, some of the humour of this parody is lost due to the clumsy translation. Take, for instance, the title: in the Hungarian, the title uses the word “vége”, which means end, finished or over. The End of a Profession might therefore have been a better title, one more in keeping with the arch, playful tone of the work. The Death of a Craft, on the other hand, calls to mind a leaky vessel, an image which is not, in this instance, particularly apt. There are other phrases too that disrupt the tone: “not really surprising” would have been better as “not exactly surprising”, while words such as “tizzy” and “stifling funk” (“suffocating tedium” would have been more accurate) are not quite in keeping with the parlance of fin-de-siècle libertines. This is a little dismaying, because Krasznahorkai, like Herman, is a consummate master of his craft, a craft that has by no means ended or even, if one prefers, died.
After finishing these two dark tales, the reader is able to flip the book around to begin reading the novella The Last Wolf, first published in Hungarian by Magvető in 2009. Composed entirely of one very long sentence, the novella follows the unexpected adventures of a depressed philosopher, who – much to his disbelief – has been invited to Extremadura, where he ends up on a quest to find the last wolf killed there. The novella is classic Krasznahorkai – a dark, ambiguous allegory about the limits and powers of story-telling in a meaningless world (in other words, an allegory about allegory). George Szirtes has done a fine job translating this novella, although it is marred by the occasional typo (nor instead of not on the first page, for instance). Szirtes’ translations are generally eloquent but somewhat careless; his eloquence comes at the expense of accuracy and can detract from the cumulative nature of Krasznahorkai’s writing style (and thus from his irony). In this translation, Szirtes has been forced to stick closely to the Hungarian original, particularly in terms of sentence structure, making this one of his more successful translations.
The novella is beautifully matched with the two short stories, as the themes of the longer tale echo many of the concerns of the shorter pieces, particularly the focus on predators who become prey. The presentation of the book is excellent too: that the book can be flipped around reflects the suffocating and circular traps the narrators and characters remain caught in, traps created from their misguided reasoning and the limitations of language as much as from any external power structures. The inside cover of Kegyelmi Viszonyok features a quote from an interview with Krasznahorkai, where he describes the central problem facing his various obsessive and melancholic narrators and characters: “My protagonists are tirelessly searching and always will be searching in a labyrinth, but that labyrinth is nothing other than the place of their own disorientation, where an individual can only have one aim: to understand this disorientation, the structure of their disorientation. They thus seek directly the cause of their own disquiet, the balm for their personal suffering, or at the very least the insight that there can be no balm for the wound.”
This difficult undertaking defines Krasznahorkai’s work. Herman’s tale begins with an absence of moral questioning and ends with the protagonist unable to reason his way out of his moral quagmire; indeed, his reasoning only drives him deeper into the abyss. The narrator of The Last Wolf begins convinced that he is “finished with thinking” and similarly remains unable to find his way out of the impasse, but the narrative itself remains a testament to the power of storytelling, even if that storytelling tells of its inevitable failure.
The Last Wolf/Herman: The Game Warden & The Death of a Craft
Translated by George Szirtes and John Batki
Publisher: New Directions, 2016.