Conversations with László Krasznahorkai

On June 26th, 2012, I found myself touring San Francisco—from the Sutro Bath Ruins and the Cliff House to Chinatown—with László Krasznahorkai. László was on his first U.S. tour, promoting the release of Sátántangó, and I had managed, months earlier, to convince Barbara Epler of New Directions to allow me to host the author during the West Coast leg of his tour. While driving to the Google offices in Mountain View, worried that my smartphone recorder was not picking up every nuance of László’s monologues, we discussed everything from our mutual admiration of Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, to our shared loved for Latin American writers like Juan Carlos Onetti, Julio Cortázar, and Jorge Luis Borges. During lunch with László and his wife in Chinatown, I received an email from Peter Maravelis asking if I would moderate a discussion with László at City Lights Books the next day. Presented here for the first time is our conversation from before and after László Krasznahorkai’s appearance at City Lights on June 27th, where the overflowing crowd stood enraptured by his impassioned answers. All the while, László spoke in long, warm monologues, which brought to mind the intense monologues of György Korin, the hero of his novel War & War.


I. Between Theater and Reality

Mauro Javier Cardenas: Before I switched on the tape recorder we were talking about Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. You said there was an actress from Einstein on the Beach who befriended a Hungarian poet who later wrote a book about the theater, a book that explains why you find most theater boring. Let’s start with that Hungarian poet. 

László Krasznahorkai: There was a wonderful twentieth-century poet from Hungary who lived in Paris. There, he had a friend whose girlfriend was the lead actress in Robert Wilson’s theater, a woman named Sheryl Sutton. Sheryl Sutton was the lead in Einstein on the Beach, and János Pilinszky—that was the name of the poet—János was ill, really ill, and every day Sheryl Sutton came to care for him, and this was an occasion for conversation between them, and afterward János returned to Hungary and wrote a book called Conversations with Sheryl Sutton, a very beautiful book about the theater, about God, about madness, about the stage, about what should happen on the stage, and Sheryl Sutton and János Pilinszky absolutely agreed that the trouble with the theater today—and this is my opinion as well—was that actors and actresses wanted something to show or play on the stage, and Sheryl Sutton and János Pilinszky—like myself—thought that on the stage it would be much better if nothing happened, if the actors and actresses would be really there on the stage, with their own lives, the weight of the person. That means very much to me and—

MJC: The weight of the person?

LK: Their presence and the weight of their lives. János and Sheryl said that the lack of presence on the stage is the main problem of all theater. János wanted theater where the audience could see on the stage the state of humans, not a story, not a dramatic structure, but some risk. This is ridiculous that actors or actresses have a fear of making mistakes with the text. This is absolutely unnecessary. I love mistakes, because they’re real, they’re true, something happened on the stage: a mistake.

MJC: Take Pina Bausch, whose dancers talk about how when Pina was developing a choreography she would ask them to bring their own problems to rehearsals and she would use their problems to create the choreographies…

LK: This is the same with a small difference, namely, that Pina Bausch tried to solve the problem on the stage by making a symbolic kind of theater, and I hate symbolism. Because this is also the case instead of something, instead of presence. This is artificial: a true face on the screen, on the cinema, a true weeping face or happy face on the cinema, on the screen, on the stage, is much more variable than every wonderful role on the screen, on the stage, for me. Because it’s an artificial way to make art. This is so far from my idea about art, about literature, about theater, about movies… I try to find a way between reality and fiction, between the weight of existence and fiction. The right proportion is the main problem in art today, I think, between fiction and reality. Perhaps this is an unsolvable problem, but I try to solve it, in my case, in literature.

MJC: The Spanish version of Isaiah Has Come was published separately from War & War, as a pamphlet, and in the front cover of this edition there is a dedication, a note from you that reads: “Dear solitary and sensible reader, I beg you to please add this pamphlet to my book War & War.” I found that direct address to the reader very moving. Could you please talk a little bit about Isaiah Has Come and how it relates to your novel War & War?

LK: That was my strangest literary project because that was my most radical experiment to find a solution for my trouble between fiction and reality. And that’s why I wanted to write a book, which is absolutely a fictional work, but I wanted my main character, who is absolutely fictional, to be introduced to reality, and this fact, this desire in me, determined everything. This War & War project contains four parts, actually, more than four, but you will see why I am unsure. The first chapter, let us say the first step in this whole project, was Isaiah Has Come. The text is a short story, a big monologue of the main hero, the main character of the novel, but the place of this short story is the birthplace of this character, and the time of the story is three years before the start of the novel. This is very important to  understand. That’s why I am very happy the Spanish edition solved the main problem of the  English, French, and German translations, namely, that this short story belongs not directly to the text of the novel, but is a little bit secluded. My Spanish publisher at Acantilado, Jaume Vallcorba, could solve it because he understood why it’s important to make a difference between this monologue and the novel. In this monologue, the main character talks about the human condition,  how the world is gone, and what’s happened in the last few hundred years, and this happens at a bar in a bus station, it’s almost empty, he’s sitting at a bar next to a man who’s absolutely silent and who’s smoking and smoking, and next to him there’s Korin, and because Korin’s absolutely drunk, really absolutely drunk, he wants to tell this Isaiah figure why the world is gone, what’s happened with the human beings. And after this monologue he wants to commit suicide, but he’s so drunk that after the first shot in the left palm of his hand he collapses, and committing suicide would be absolutely ridiculous. This is the first step of the project.

Three years later, the novel starts with the same main character. This is an almost different person, because Korin, this person, is absolutely a peaceful person, has become absolutely a peaceful person, he is absolutely calm, he has opinions about his own life, his life is absolutely unnecessary, with this wonderful emotions and sensitivities, absolutely unnecessary, but he’s not angry against the world. He wants to say, “Only in my case, this life, my life, is absolutely unnecessary.” That’s why the best solution is to commit suicide and goodbye. But before committing suicide he found a manuscript in his workplace—he’s an archivist—and this manuscript is a kind of novel about four angels who escape, in world history, from one side of the world to the other side, they want to find peace, a peaceful place, but in the world there is no peaceful place, that’s why they try to escape, and when Korin, the main hero, understands it, he decides to find a way out for these four angels, these four fictional angels, and he goes from a very small town in Eastern Europe to the center of the world—these are his words—to New York, and he wants to find a form to care for this manuscript for eternity. Everything is absolutely impossible for him: the movie, the book, every material form is destructible. That’s why when he listens in a bar to a conversation that something like the internet exists, he has the idea that the virtual space is never destructible. That’s why he goes to New York, writes and sends the text into the internet and this is an eternal place for this manuscript and perhaps this is the solution for these four angels. But at the end of the novel Korin runs into chaos, and in this chaos he goes back to Europe because of a sculpture that is very important for him: an igloo by an Italian artist, Mario Merz. And he wants to spend one hour, actually, his last hour, in this igloo, in this sculpture, in a small town in Switzerland. And he reaches this small town and this small museum, Schauffhausen, a wonderful museum, a modern museum, and this museum has three or four pieces by Mario Merz, one of them this igloo. But Korin arrived about midnight, and of course the guard didn’t want to let him into the igloo. Korin finds a man who understands him and asks this man to make a small plaque with his last sentence, and he gives some money for this plaque and afterward he commits suicide. The last pages of War & War are the sentences and opinions of the man who understood Korin, saying, “Of course we will comply with this last wish, this last plaque, of this poor man, because he deserves it.” This is the last sentence of the book, but it is not the last sentence of the War & War project.

The last sentence is on this plaque. After the  novel’s publication the third chapter of this project began, only in reality. One month later, after the book’s publication, we all stood in front of the museum’s entrance and every person, every character from the last chapter of this book stood there and everybody talked about his or her relationship to the main character, Korin. It didn’t matter that this was a fictional person, but these people who were there were and are real people. After that, we unveiled this plaque, and even today, actually forever, you can see in Schauffhausen, on the right side from the main entrance, this plaque with the last sentence of the book.

But after that, what happened? Mario Merz read this book in German, and that same day, in Schauffhausen, in a small town next to Zurich, Mario Merz runs to see the director of this museum—they were friends—and he cried, “Why didn’t you let Korin into my igloo? Why didn’t you let Korin into my igloo?” And the director said, “What?” And Mario, who was always a very animalistic artist, very rough, cried much stronger and louder: “Why didn’t you let this Korin, György Korin, in my igloo?” And slowly the director understood and he tried to explain: “Dear Mario, my friend, György Korin is not a real person, this is a fictional person.” “I didn’t ask you if György Korin is a real person, I asked you why you didn’t let him into my igloo?” “But dear Mario, listen to me, this is a novel, there is a writer, László Krasznahorkai, and György Korin exists only in his imagination, in his novel.” “I didn’t ask you”—but this time Mario’s voice got louder—“I didn’t ask you whether he’s fictional or not!” The director did not know what to do. The director’s wife came in and tried to calm Mario, but that was impossible. One hour, more than one hour, the same story. And after this absolutely crazy conversation the director and his wonderful wife found a solution: they promised Mario Merz they would all go to the birthplace of György Korin, to the small city where the novel starts and there, in that small city, Mario Merz would make a new igloo to commemorate György Korin. That was the only solution. A little more than two weeks later, I waited for these characters from my novel in the Budapest airport. I rented a big car and we went to this small town because Mario wanted to build a new igloo, his first igloo in an open space. But Mario was a very rough character, and he was very cruel with everybody, except with me. Nobody understood why. But everyone showed him around and asked him if this would be a good place and he would be absolutely uninterested. Someone else would show him another. “Perhaps this is good?” “Absolutely unbearable,” Mario would say. One and a half days we walked in this small city, and everything was absolutely terrible. Everybody was out of their wits. And we went back to Budapest, and nobody spoke with anybody, and my task was to transport Mario and his wife, Maritz Merz, who’s also an artist in the Arte Povera. Maritza Merz is also an interesting figure. Mario was six feet tall, a very big man with sculpture fingers, really rough, and Maritza Merz was five foot two inches, very fragile, with huge eyes, long hair, very long black hair, she’s a dear and the vice-president of the World Association of Witches But at the airport, we were alone—Mario Merz, Maritza Merz, and me—and Mario was suddenly a different person after everyone went away. Very calm, very friendly, peaceful, and he began to make sketches, drawings, of what kind of igloos he would make for Korin, and when the airplane was ready to depart, Mario said, “No, the next one.” Maritza had to change the flight because Mario was so enthusiastic and many of his sketches were on the table. Finally they flew back to Turin and four months later, very late in the night, at four o’clock in the morning, my telephone rings: “I am Krisel”—the director’s wife—“excuse me, I am terribly sorry, I know I woke you up, but this is very important.” “What has happened?” “I know that you loved Mario Merz very much and Mario, about three o’clock, has died.”

That was the fourth chapter of this War & War project, but in reality. And in November 2011, in a small town in southeast Hungary, there was a big poetry competition between different schools and different elementary school students. The name of this competition was Competition of the Lyrics of György Korin. Of course nobody from these schools had any idea who was György Korin. They all believe he was a real person, somebody from the city. And that’s the whole War & War story.

MJC: There’s been some confusion about whether or not the manuscript that Korin finds is real. In the New Yorker, James Wood wrote that “slowly the reader confirms what he has suspected from the start, that Korin found no manuscript but is writing his own in New York.” I read War & War a second time and I didn’t find any indications that the manuscript wasn’t real.

LK: That was a real manuscript. It was a wonderful, wonderful manuscript. And Korin found it and he was a very sensitive person and he perceived immediately that this text was really beautiful and that he was wanted as his last activity to have this manuscript survive.


II. An Authentic Experience of Art

MJC: Recently a young American writer called Ben Lerner, a poet—

LK: Nobody could mention to me important, young American novelists…

MJC: I like his novel very much. He’s an experimental poet who wrote a novel called Leaving the Atocha Station. It opens with a beautiful scene: the poet’s performing his daily ritual of sitting in front of the same painting at the Prado Museum, except this time he can’t because someone’s standing in front of his painting…

LK: One painting?

MJC: One painting in particular. And this person stands there for a long time and starts crying. The poet is surprised because this has never happened to him. He has never had what he calls “an authentic experience of art.” All he can feel is the absence of an authentic experience of art. And so this person goes to the next room and the next room and he’s crying more and more as he goes along, and the guards at the museum begin to follow him just as the poet’s following him and the poet and the guards are looking at each and wondering if this person’s crazy. And then this person’s done crying and leaves and the poet’s left confused because he has never felt anything like this toward art.

LK: Beautiful story.

MJC: And so the whole novel’s an exploration of his inability to feel anything toward art. This brought to mind Korin, who, as we were talking about earlier, has this extreme desire to see Mario Merz’s sculpture before he kills himself, and how he could be this person who cries in front of a painting, this sort of experience of art that can be so intense. So I wanted to talk about Korin’s experience and your experience toward art.

LK: Weeping. Weeping, yeah? The weeping state of humans, this is also a very deep reaction to the world, to beauty, and, yes, I can understand very much this guy in the museum. Sometimes, in my case, if I see, for example, in the Louvre a small picture by Fra Angelico of three small angels—it’s so unbelievably beautiful and there’s a border, and beyond this border comes a kind of ecstasy. Ecstasy is not a normal state, of course, in ecstasy you can weep. Because there’s a border, and beyond this border the beauty is almost unbearable. But we are living here in a very dirty, hopeless, gray world, and this kind of beauty exists for us—if “for us” exists, or can exist, in a picture by Fra Angelico, or in the beauty everywhere in nature—if such a beauty can exist for us, that means we are able to perceive this beauty, which is a message about a world which really exists somewhere, and this is dangerous because this is the point where we begin to believe in something, and this is the most dangerous thing that can happen.

MJC: When we encounter beauty and get to that limit.

LK: Our limit and absolute infinite space, which really exists. And the way, the direction of this beauty, greatness, is the same, beyond this border, and we can never cross this border. We can only stay on this side of the border. We have a knowledge that beyond the border there is a wonderful beauty, a space for beauty, for greatness, that if perhaps you can believe in it, if you have such an experience, your life is a little bit changed. This is not the same as what Rilke said, that you must change your life. No. It could be that your life will change if you are at that point. From this point you can have this knowledge that beyond the border there is a space for beauty and greatness. 


III. The Border of Your Fate Is Your Skin

MJC: Recently the San Francisco Film Society screened Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse. There’s a moment when a neighbor comes into the desolate house where the father and daughter live and delivers a long monologue about how the good have let the bad win, and immediately I thought, A-ha! László Krasznahorkai!

LK: Originally that monologue was much longer. [Smiles.]

MJC: I can imagine. It was only later, when I reread some of your books, that the neighbor’s monologue reminded me of Isaiah Has Come and Korin saying, “There is not a nook or cranny in which you could hide anything from them, because everything belongs to them.” In The Turin Horse, the father and daughter live in a remote place, as if hiding, but they cannot hide from them.

LK: Prior to making The Turin Horse with Béla I wrote a book called Animalinside, and in this Animalinside there is a sentence, a picture that was very important for The Turin Horse, mainly there is a cage, which is so small that actually the cage is your skin. This is the case in The Turin Horse. In a big space there’s a cage, which is absolutely the same as your skin. That means your fate—the border of your fate—is your skin, and you haven’t a hope of finding a way out of this cage, of your skin, of your fate. This big space is not for you, this is nothing for you, this is only a possibility, which is not for you, it doesn’t exist for you. There is this big space, there is a big created world, but not for you because you gambled everything, you gambled and every possibility which you had you’ve lost, everything you’ve lost and you are now absolutely alone, and the last judgment will come, not tomorrow, the last judgment was yesterday, and you are living now after the last judgment, in your last judgment.

MJC: The scene when the gypsies come in the horse carriage is terrifying. “We own the world,” the gypsies shout. “The world is ours, you are weak!” A terrifying scene…

LK: And a very emotional scene for us who made this film, because our sympathy is not for the creation, for the god, our sympathy is with you, with other people, all of the world, we don’t hate human beings, Béla and me, no, what I feel toward people is not hate or judgment, there is no position to make a judgment for me about human beings because I am also a human being. That’s why I can understand this kind of human who wanted to fly and who can’t fly, who wanted to be great and couldn’t be great: he had big desires to create a world which is wonderful for everybody, but this world is small, is actually a cage full of suffering, full of absolutely unnecessary beings. We made our bet, like in a casino. That was our first and last mistake: to go into the casino, in a symbolic Las Vegas. It was a not a good idea to try gambling with luck, because we human beings could only lose, we cannot win. Victory is not on our side.


Peter Maravelis (right) introduces László Krasznahorkai (center) and Mauro Javier Cardenas (left) at City Lights Books on June 27, 2013.

Peter Maravelis (right) introduces László Krasznahorkai (center) and Mauro Javier Cardenas (left) at City Lights Books on June 27, 2013.

IV. The Artificial Border Between Sentences

MJC: Although there are stylistic similarities between Sátántangó and The Melancholy of Resistance, the sentences in the latter felt very different to me: longer and more parenthetical. You’ve said that you wrote Sátántangó as an exploration of why people around you were sad. Could you talk about the gestation of The Melancholy of Resistance and how this new style came about?

LK: I was not so happy with Sátántangó. This is my normal form. I am little bit of a perfectionist. Sátántangó was almost okay, but this almost, this word, destroyed me. You know that to be the best, the premier player in the world, this is a wonderful thing, but to be the second-best player in the world is terrible. That’s why the almost-good, almost-best novel for me is unbearable. That’s why I tried again. In my eyes, every book which I wrote was a new experiment, a challenge: maybe now I’ll have a chance to write the book that I want to write. That’s why you can find differences, sometimes big differences between my books. And there was also a process, in my life, of the kind of relation I have between the fictional language and the spoken language, always getting closer and closer to the spoken language. When you want to convince somebody about something, if you speak in a way, in that way, you use only long sentences, almost always just one sentence, because you didn’t need this dot, this is not natural if you speak in this way, if I want to convince you about something, that the world is such and such, then it’s a natural process for the sentences to become always longer and longer because I needed less and less the dot, this artificial border between sentences, because I didn’t use, I don’t use, now, for example, I don’t use dots, I use only pauses, and these are commas, this is not my usual tone because I try, especially in English because of my poor English, to make pauses, and that’s why my tone goes a little bit down, but it is not a dot, what I found there, it is a comma, and in The Melancholy of Resistance, I tried again to write this perfect book, and my sentences became always a little bit more beautiful, although the content, my message, couldn’t change after Sátántangó, after my experience in life, but language did change and became more and more beautiful because the beauty in the language became always more important, so I reached a level, a point, I don’t know, perhaps in Seiobo There Below, perhaps in this book I’ve reached my maximum of this desire for beauty in the sentences. 

MJC: I find long sentences beautiful and natural. In Latin American literature there are lots of long sentences…

LK: That was a big interest for me. Alejo Carpentier and Cortázar. And Roberto Bolaño, of course. This is a big discovery. And Juan Rulfo. And the impression is very, very big, the first time I read them, Cortázar and Carpentier. Borges, of course, but Borges was sometimes—may I be honest?—sometimes, especially when I listen to him speak, or when I read some interviews with him, I had the feeling he was not so clever. But in his works, he is fantastic. When I hear Borges, sometimes I have a bad feeling, he is a bit too strange, perhaps a little bit too artificial. When people want to be always very intellectual and sound very interesting… But of course the work of Borges is fantastic and very unique, small pieces. I have a mental picture of Borges with two faces.

MJC: In the story El Ultimo Lobo, which is one long sentence, I found that, because the unit of expression was this long sentence, it forced me to center my focus on this one unit of emotion because I was circling this emotion over and over again.

LK: Yes, because that is the other side of my books, which is very important for me and hopefully for my readers as well, mainly, repetition. Of course, this is one of the questions of sentences, of language. Repetition. This is a part of language that I use because Hungarian is a very musical language, but there is also here a very important issue: What does it mean to repeat something? When I was first in East Asia, in China and in Japan—and I went back again and again, actually for more than ten years I went back again and again—the only one thing that I could somehow understand, rather, guess at, was eternity. This is not an abstract idea, but this is an everyday reality. Many times I watched workers who built sacred places, monasteries, churches, in the Buddhist areas in Japan and it became more and more important to me to see how they work, namely, why is it so terribly important that a wood, a piece of wood, be so smooth, so absolutely without mistakes, I watched the workers and I didn’t understand because I thought that this was already perfect, but this was not perfect enough for him, I tried to see, I tried to understand why it was so important to make the same movement until I understood, or guessed, that it was absolutely not important what happened with the wood, the only thing that was important was the repetition of the movement, and this perfection of the piece of wood was only a consequence of this repetition, of this movement. Actually, I tried to understand, and perhaps I could understand eternity in a very simple way, namely, by watching somebody, the workers, the woman, somewhere, who made the same movements, absolutely the same movements, and I began to watch, for example, a faucet, how the water from the tap moves, how one drop of water leaves the edge of the tap, and this eternal movement led me to waterfalls. For example, in Schaffhausen, surprisingly, there is a wonderful waterfall. This is a waterfall where you can come very close to the water, very close, one meter or less, to try to follow the way of one drop. I haven’t the courage to confess to you for how long I stayed there following drops of water, because this is the border between normality and madness.

MJC: In both El Ultimo Lobo and War & War the protagonists direct their monologues to someone who isn’t listening. There’s a disconnect between the protagonists’ altered state of wanting to say something—to be heard—and their listeners who do not listen.

LK:  Because I don’t believe in dialogue. I believe only in monologues. And I believe only in the man who listens to the monologue, and I believe I can be the man who listens to your monologue the next time around. I believe only in monologues in the human world. The dialogues, in American prose, after the Second World War, to be honest, the best dialogue writers are here in the USA, but dialogue doesn’t work for me because I don’t believe in dialogues.

MJC: So it’s not that we have these figures who speak and are misunderstood and not heard...

LK: This is not about an inability to communicate between people. Only that one person speaks and the other listens. This is also communication. I believe in this kind of communication.


V. This Uncertainty Moves in Your Soul

MJC: We were talking earlier about Sebald and his work and your relationship with Sebald. In War & War, the image of the cathedral in Cologne and all the destruction that surrounds it, reminded me of something Austerlitz says that somehow we know by instinct that the outside buildings cast a shadow of their own destruction before them and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins…

LK: We were in a very warm friendship that began before he became a well-known writer. Our first meeting happened in a flat in Zurich with my first German publisher, a wonderful man, Egon Ammann, during dinner. And we began to talk with Max [Sebald] about different things, what do you do, what do I do, and in a few hours this conversation was enough that we both had the feeling that we have been friend for years. This situation remained until his death. I marveled at his work. I marvel at it now still. Those books are absolutely an unique kind of writing. A unique point of view of the world. Because Max could use language so that it would be everything in a simple story, I am walking with my wife somewhere because perhaps, perhaps, maybe it would be the time to buy a house, or something like that. And suddenly he found a house, but it is absolutely empty, they look for the owner, but the owner is nowhere, but somebody is in the garden, something’s in the garden, and they go into garden and surprisingly they find a man on the garden, lying down on the field, on the grass, and from a simple everyday situation we are in a very strange world where somebody, a normal man, lies on earth and what does he do? He explains later to his guests, I have had, in the last few years, a bad habit, always and always it became more and more interesting for me to observe one piece of grass. Do you remember?

MJC: In The Emigrants, yes…

LK: This is a very real situation. A little bit melancholic because Max was a big melancholic. And a very small thing happens and you are immediately with him together in a very strange world without explanation, without a big ideology, everything remains there in a real space, but a little bit scary, a little bit sad, a little bit without future, without past. And the other side of Max, which I love very much, is how he can play with the real things for a purpose, a photo, for instance. . His novels could be rather not like fiction, and more like a strange diary. Descriptive in some cases: descriptions of stories, states of being. I’ll be in a city, suddenly, in an unknown city, not feeling any sensational effects but some very strange, small effects, and it feels like a book by Sebald: I am unsure, I am uncertain, this uncertainty moves in my soul, it remains there forever. And this is wonderful. It’s not only scary. It’s wonderful too, because the unknown was perhaps the most important element of Max’s life. The unknown in things. I lost, in his death, one of my most beloved friends. That’s why my feelings about him are not objective.


VI. Everybody Was Actually Drunk…

MJC: So we were talking earlier about how The Melancholy of Resistance had many funny moments and how Béla Tarr’s adaptation is very serious, different in tone from the book…

LK: That film was a little bit complicated to make after Sátántangó because Sátántangó was so long. Some producers saw this film, for example to try to show it on television, but it was impossible for television. Béla had a fear that if we made this film The Melancholy of Resistance as faithfully as Sátántangó, it would be so long that no one would give us a cent in the future. [Laughter.] And that’s why we had to choose only one of the four main characters: Valuska. And the consequence is this seriousness.

MJC: I had one small question about Sátántangó the movie—or perhaps not so small. Of course a book and a movie are different mediums and so on but there were two lines in Sátántangó the movie, when Estika is with her brother, about to put in the money in the money tree—two lines not in the novel. She says to her brother: “Are we going to be rich?” and: “Are people going to envy us?” And her brother says yes to both questions. In the novel, Estika doesn’t care about the money, nor does she care about being rich. She says she was going to give the money to her brother anyway…

LK: That was a bad solution in the movie. For Estika, her only interest is her brother. Not the money or being rich. And we couldn’t show that, and so we thought: money and richness could be also important to Estika. But this is not true. That was a bad solution. But Béla believed only in Estika’s face and he wanted to show Estika’s face for so long, as long as possible.

MJC: Because when I saw the movie it felt like the reason she’s mean to the cat afterward is because she feels—at least that’s how I interpreted it—that, hey, I am going to be rich, I am going to do whatever I want, I have power over you, cat, so it had this different sort of causality for why she’s mean to the cat, and then when it turns out she won’t be rich, that’s therefore the reason she kills herself, whereas in the book is very different, the causality…

LK: You’re right. So many other problems with Sátántangó. With The Turin Horse I didn’t have any problems. For example, this monologue in the middle was twice as long, in written form, but in the time of shooting I told him that it was too long. Perhaps we could throw this away, I told him, but he chose a shorter version of the monologue, and that was it as far as problems. In Sátántangó, the problems were not because I wanted a faithful rendering. It was not an adaptation, because we don’t do adaptations. I tried to make something that Béla could feel he could do what he really liked with, and that was the script, the novel was a sort of inspiration. Almost everything was decided in the time of shooting, and everything depended on the state of the characters because that was a very long shooting. Everyone was almost always drunk.

MJC: The actors?

LK: Not only the actors, but the people behind the camera, the lights people, everyone.

MJC: And that bar scene, the one we were talking about earlier, the one with my favorite Hungarian word, babtetu, which is repeated over and over…

LK: The one who repeats that word, for example, he’s not an actor. He was a wonderful cameraman who photographed small things, fantastic pictures of surfaces. And some of the other actors were painters, musicians, an actress from Yugoslavia, Béla could handle these characters very well. Sometimes cruel and sometimes very friendly.

MJC: And in that long bar scene, was that choreographed quite a bit or were they just drunk?

LK: Everybody was actually drunk. In real time, when the camera was shooting, Béla or I or Agnes would give them directions, go left, and they would go, “Ah? What?” “Left, left!” “What?!”


MJC: There’s an interview in which you talk about a beautiful moment that happens to you and Béla Tarr when that same actor, the cameraman, in that same bar scene, starts singing, “Tango, Tango…”

LK: That was the turning point for Béla and for me. Until then we were absolutely unsure why we were doing this shit. But this man, this cameraman, began to sing, and that was absolutely an improvisation, we had an idea that if he can sing, or if he can remember something, because he was drunk all day… He’d brought a harmonica, suddenly he tried to play this song and sing, “Oh the tango, my mother used to sing! Oh the tango, my mother used to sing! Do you know this? Oh the tango!” And so Béla and Agnes were, “Please, shoot it, shoot it!” That was outside the story, actually, and that was so heartbreaking, that I felt Béla holding my leg, because we were sitting next to each other, and Béla’s hand was so strong, that after the minutes I had a big bloody fleck here on the leg and Béla wept. Béla is not a sentimental figure. But that was so heartbreaking, him singing for us. And after that we understood, okay, we got the film. Because of this.

MJC: It wasn’t that the song had any particular meaning for you but it was the beauty of the improvisation?

LK: Yes, Béla and I had no idea of this song. And there was a little manipulation afterward because we needed the melody but the harmonica was absolutely…

MJC: In another interview, with The Millions, you talk about your influence on Béla Tarr. The magnitude of it. What I didn’t understand was how did that work…

LK: The main point was the book. Because Béla is a very good reader. And Sátántangó caught him, and The Melancholy of Resistance, especially the first chapter, with the train, though we couldn’t use it in the movie. And if I may, the truth is, he honors me, admires me, always defends me, because I hate making movies, and he knows that. That was the essence of our friendship: he supported me while making the movie, and he used me as a philosopher. I told him always something about the philosophical background, or questions, not exactly about the scene. Many moments I told him something about Heraclitus, about Shakespeare, about Thomas Bernhard, who he didn’t know because he wasn’t able to study these books under Communism. He began filmmaking very young. He was only twenty years old when he won the main prize in a very important avant-garde film festival in Germany with his first film, Family Nest. It was an excellent film, with amateur actors. He was only twenty. After that, he made three films, and after that he worked mostly from my work. I gave everything, titles, names, stories, the background, the atmosphere to these movies by Béla Tarr.

MJC: A lot of connections have been made here in the United States between your work and Thomas Bernhard’s. Do you feel an affinity with Bernhard? Is there a connection?

LK: He made a very deep impression, of course. My first reading of Frost, for example, and The Lime Works, these two novels were a very big experience for me. But this is Thomas Bernhard. There is a big difference between us, because I am not sentimental. Bernhard, despite everything, was sentimental. He was a big believer in greatness. That’s why he was so cynical. Because he admired the great intellectuals, he was a big admirer of art. I am not. I am an observer. That’s a big difference.


VII. This Tall Man on the Beach

MJC: We were just talking about György Kurtág, the Hungarian composer, and how he was composing a piece based on Beckett…

LK: An opera, his first opera, based on Endgame by Samuel Beckett. Kurtág had read my book Seiobo There Below and he’d called me on the phone out of the blue and stammered, “Hello, this is György, György Kurtág.” “Oh, György Kurtág,” I said, “how are you doing?” “I’m fine, I’m fine.” “So what is it?” I asked. “Oh, nothing, nothing, we, we, read, just now, finished your book.” “What kind of book?” “Se-se-oibo.” “Oh, Seiobo There Below. And did you enjoy it?” “Yes, actually, the reason for calling you is that we would like to say we love you.” After that, I visited him in the South of France with his wife Marta. He showed me the first pages of the opera. It was very complicated and spatial and based on Beckett’s Endgame, so we began talking about Beckett. I told him about my first experience with Beckett’s poems, from Beckett’s early years, his early poems. Perhaps he used those poems. He wanted to know my opinion about Beckett, the relation between Beckett and language. What impressed Kurtág the most about Beckett was the language. I told him about Beckett’s fight with the language, always, because I see Beckett’s relationship with language was absolutely not a free relationship, it was a fight. He fought the language because he hated unnecessary words. Kurtág enjoyed very much this Puritanism, his asceticism, like a monk.

MJC: So the early poems of Beckett had an impact on you…

LK: For me, that was very important. A poem of a man alone on the beach. It’s gray and sad. No emotions, nothing. A man on the beach. Cold wind. You know, I was nineteen years old and I hunted around to know about this person who wrote these poems. I wanted to know something about the person who wrote them because I was too young. Something about the person was so important to me. How these poems said all was possible. [Laughter.] This tall man on the beach, and the sand. The cold wind. This was very important for Kurtág too. He said, “Really, a tall man? How tall? Exactly how tall?” “I have no idea.” [Laughter.] “Morning or evening?” 


VIII. A Secret Connection to the Whole Creation

MJC: Getting back to you books, there’s a connection, I think, between Estika in Sátántangó, Valuska in The Melacholy of Resistance, and Korin in War & War, in that they seem to be not of this world.

LK: Yes, these are the very important figures who allow us to be in the world, this kind of people who are sacrificed, who are victims of this world, in the sense of the Russian literature, in the sense of Dostoyevsky, in the sense of Tarkovsky. They are the prize for us so that we can live with compromises in this world. They are the prize which we pay for the possibility to live with compromises in this world. There are of course similarities between these figures, but they are not absolutely similar. Estika is the purest, simplest victim, because she believes everything that’s promised to her from whom she loves. But she’s absolutely defenseless. And this kind of people I love very much. In a big crowd I immediately recognize this type of person. And they perceive each other in the world. This is a secret community between these kinds of people. But they are always alone. They cannot help each other. They have only one fate: to lose himself or herself. Because him or her, they are really victims. This is their only one task, one very cruel task in this world. Without these figures, the whole machinery of the world doesn’t work. Sátántangó is the best example of this fact. The whole machinery of Sátántangó, this whole story, the state of the men and women there, couldn’t exist without a victim, without a sacrifice. These people there, these characters there in this novel Sátántangó couldn’t make their fate without Estika’s victimization. Valuska’s a little bit of a different case. Valuska is like a small animal, Valuska is made of belief, because Valuska has a secret contact with the whole creation, and the whole creation is wonderful, and Valuska sees only this fact. And for Valuska the world is absolutely the same like the created world and humans are only a very, very small part of this big huge creation, and this is not so interesting for him, a very small mistake, or failure in the creation because the whole creation is really wonderful. Actually, you and I are sitting now very close to nature [gestures toward a view of the Pacific Ocean], 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.


Mauro Javier Cardenas is a novelist. Excerpts from The Revolutionaries Try Again, his novel-in-progress, have appeared in The Antioch Review (2006), Guernica (2010), Witness Magazine (2012), and BOMB (2013). His interviews and essays on/with Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Juan Villoro, and Antonio Lobo Antunes have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, BOMB, and The Quarterly Conversation. Follow him on Twitter at @ineluctablequak.