A House with Many Doors
In sections of László Krasznahorkai’s most recent novel, Seiobo There Below, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, we encounter a nameless narrator in various cities—Venice, Madrid, Kyoto, Paris, Athens—who might best be described as a seeker. The seeker is an aging man, isolated and alone, manic and despairing, teetering on the edge a familiar kind of Krasznahorkaian madness. By now we should know better than to expect much cheerier from the so-called master of the apocalypse. The figure of the seeker, however, is a departure for Krasznahorkai. He is not swept up in the messianism responsible for the choral frenzy in Satantango, his first novel. We are beyond the claustrophobia of the collective and the confines of the village, which Krasznahorkai uses so effectively in The Melancholy of Resistance to capture the fear of a threat imminent and unknown. Published in Hungarian in 2008, nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Seiobo There Below depicts a search for the sacred in a sprawling, indifferent, borderless world in its current moment of decay.
Like the novel itself, the search proves as enchanting as it does elusive, as comic as it does haunting. In a chapter entitled “Up on the Acropolis,” the unnamed narrator travels to Greece for the express purpose of seeing the Acropolis, which he has dreamed of visiting since childhood. He arrives in a hot bustling city that is hostile to him and his plans: he is lost in language and in place. When he finally does reach the ancient site, the effect of the bright sunlight on the limestone blinds him. He finds neither shade on the paths nor relief in the view. (A German couple wearing “helmet-like sun visors” and dark sunglasses quickly becomes a source of ridicule and envy.) He stumbles around the grounds, unable to look up, muttering to himself about the futility of his position vis-à-vis the “ghastly brilliance” of the stone. That he never does “see” the Acropolis is what Alanis Morissette might call ironic; that at the end of the chapter he is run over by a truck is what Krasznahorkai might call darkly funny. The narrator’s literal blindness, however, is not the real cause of his inability to see; it merely adds comedic insult to metaphysical injury. “He knew that it would be futile to return,” he writes, “whether tomorrow or tonight, he would never ever see the reality of the Acropolis, because he came here on the wrong day, because he was born in the wrong time, because he had been born, it was all wrong from the very beginning . . .”
What remains of the Acropolis is little more than its “poetic possibility,” to borrow Ben Lerner’s phrase, the echo that resounds across the great divide between the object and our ability to experience it. Is there any hope of bridging the distance? It is a question central to Seiobo There Below whether we have indeed lost our ability to see (understand, experience, etc.) the so-called reality of the sacred. Krasznahorkai threads the question through each of the novel’s disparate chapters, which are as varied in time, tone, and place as biblical Susa and present-day Japan. Here is the museum guard who watches over the Venus de Milo each day at the Louvre:
[She] did not belong here, more precisely, she did not belong here nor anywhere upon the earth, everything that she, the Venus de Milo meant, whatever it might be, originated from a heavenly realm that no longer existed, which had been pulverized by time, a moldering, annihilated universe that had disappeared for all eternity from this higher realm, because the higher realm had disappeared from the human world, and yet she remained here, this Venus from the higher realm remained here, left abandoned . . . her beauty emanates, it emanates into nothingness, and no one understands, and no one feels what a grievous sight this is, a god that has lost its world, so enormous, immeasurably enormous—and yet she has nothing at all.
It is essentially un-modern in literature that one should find transcendence in the sacred, for which Krasznahorkai’s characters turn to religion or art, or the religiosity of art; but is it better that we pity the seeker or envy him? He is privileged or burdened, depending on one’s view, with the inevitable realization that comes with each chapter’s end that whatever he seeks will forever be out of reach.
In one chapter, the same—or different—narrator travels to Venice to see a museum, the San Rocco, “the visitation of which was more important to him than his entire mediocre, senseless, barren, and superfluous life.” The museum contains a painting of the lifeless Christ, which he has seen once before, eleven years ago on another trip to Venice. “The image shone forth from a darkness, like gold against the deepest night.” When he sees the painting for the first time it mesmerizes him, even if he does fall easily into swoons. (The Tintorettos in the previous room make him dizzy, as does the marble.) But it is the painting of Christ—a forgery, it turns out—that draws his attention. He stares at the figure’s closed eyes until they seem to open and flutter. Is he delirious? Is he losing his mind? It’s neither of these, really. When he returns to the painting eleven years later again he sees Christ’s eyes open again and flutter. This time, however:
He is struck with terror at the thought of Christ and his sorrow, and outside, the crowds, mostly young boys and girls teeming merrily, he recalled the people he had seen outside; this incomprehensible sorrow, it burst into him, was somehow lost in the corso of young boys and girls outside.
The distance between the sacred and his experience of it has only grown with time: he takes no pleasure in the animated figure. He pities Christ, and it causes him shame, as though Christ’s abandonment were instead a mirror of his own. “Here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY, but no one needed him.”
* * *
Seiobo There Below is the first of Krasznahorkai’s novels in English to draw explicitly from the author’s curiosity with Eastern religion and thought. There are others, though, written prior to Seiobo There Below, not yet translated which are also rooted in this geography and pulls from the region’s themes: The Prisoner of Urga; From the North a Mountain, from the South a Lake, from the West Some Roads, from the East a River; and Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens. In the sections of Seiobo There Below set in Asia, one finds a more ambiguous take on the transcendental power of the sacred. There, a greater permeability exists between the heavenly and earthly realms, to which the eponymous goddess Seiobo descends, or more precisely appears, in the form of a Japanese Noh actor. In his words: “All that you call transcendental or earthly is one and the same, together with you in one single time and one single space.”
There is one chapter in which this ambiguity comes through most clearly. In it a statue of the Buddha has been removed from a monastery and brought to a national restoration workshop in Kyoto. Restoration is not quite the right word for the process; conservation is more accurate. “It is not our task to repair mistakes,” the director tells his workers, in accordance with law no. 318, the Act for the Protection of Cultural Goods, “but rather to secure the current extant state.” Celebrated by experts, the Buddha that has come to their workshop, called an Amida Buddha, is known for its half-opened eyes, which give the statue “its essence, the infinite suggestion of one immortal gaze.” In order to conserve its gaze, one must first locate its source, now that it has been photographed and disassembled. The director’s answer is that it is in the souls of the restorers.
Fine, comes their reply, because even if they can sense that, and they actually do sense there is something in their souls when they glimpse [the Buddha] for the first time, and the unquestionable respect felt in their souls does not cease during the entire course of the work up to its completion, but . . . when the whole lies here in tiny pieces, it can hardly be said that the whole of it is there, that is to say the whole, gathered here in pieces isn’t there, only the pieces are there, and the whole isn’t anywhere, so that as always, there is a certain unease in the matter.
The suggestion of the gaze, divided in its component parts, is much like the possibility of the Acropolis: elusive, diffuse. Again the sacred is held just out of reach. The chapter offers a confounding, but nevertheless interesting turn when the gaze is in fact restored to “its original radiance” and “sweeps across the entire staff of the Bijutsu-in, as if they had been struck by a windstorm.” How have they done it? How have they been able to retain the essence of the statue? Perhaps, as Ottilie Mulzet seems to suggest in an interview in the second issue of Music & Literature, Krasznahorkai holds out more hope in the East for a kind of connection between the spiritual and the worldly. When the Amida Buddha is brought back to the monastery, its return is consecrated with a religious ceremony. Though the monks have prepared for the day, the ceremony is executed with mistakes, which saddens the presiding monk, for the way in which it was so hopelessly human.
* * *
In Seiobo There Below, Krasznahorkai has built a book as grand as its scope, and it is easy to lose one’s bearings in its architecture. If it were a house, the novel would have many doors and few windows. No section resembles the one which precedes it, and somewhere in its many corridors one starts to wonder which way is in and which way is out. To translate such a novel is a massive undertaking, and Ottilie Mulzet deserves much credit in this regard: her translation of Seiobo There Below is thorough, carefully researched, and worthy of high praise. The technical language alone, on everything from Orthodox iconography to art restoration, seems enough to drive a translator quickly mad.
From the perspective of syntax, Krasznahorkai presents a host of other challenges. He has drawn much attention for his use of long, sinewy sentences. For a writer working in a language that embraces the comma splice, Krasznahorkai holds the run-on in a suffocating bear hug. His sentences are compared to Thomas Bernhard’s for their comedy and Beckett’s for their bleakness. In his novel War & War, translated by George Szirtes (who also translated the The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango), they are at their comic best, twisting back and forth, as if across the channels of Korin’s mad, obsessive brain. Ottilie Mulzet is no newcomer to the Hungarian author’s work, having previously translated Animalinside, Krasznahorkai’s collaboration with Max Neumann, as well as Lazarus! by Gábor Schein. His sentences in Seiobo There Below are also host to unexpected shifts in time and perspective, such as in the following:
Mark my words, repeated Dr. Chiari, everyone will be talking about this; in which, however, the scholar was greatly mistaken, because in total a notice of a few lines was published in a professional journal for restorers, penned by an unknown art historian, Giovanna Nepi Scire, and the whole thing remained confined to the pages of Restituzioni 2000, which, because of the far too specialized nature of the journal’s orientation, could not reach the personages most affected, so that they knew nothing of this discovery, not Tempestini, not Goffer, not Belting; and the wider public, finally, knew nothing at all, so that now, standing in the square before the San Rocco in the sunlight that filtered through the iron gate, as he made ready to enter the building at last and seek out the work for the second time in its usual spot . . .
The sentences build and build, returning to the place where they began, then flitting off again, elsewhere, only to return again on a higher, stranger plane. For Krasznahorkai this is not new territory, but the technical pirouettes in Seiobo There Below are perhaps his most masterful, and the defamiliarization of place within the text is essential to understanding it.
The blueprints that Krasznahorkai has in mind for the structure of Seiobo There Below can be found at the book’s start: the chapters are numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 up to 2584. It is a well-known recurrence pattern, which function much like his sentences and on the basis of which a spiral can be drawn that looks something like a ram’s horn. It’s not a very subtle code; at least, he makes no attempt to disguise it. In Satantango he does something similar, counting the chapters up from one to six, then back down to one, like the steps of the eponymous dance. But here Krasznahorkai alludes to greater mystery and complexity.
In a chapter entitled “Distant Mandate,” an unnamed speaker presents an architectural case study of the Alhambra, the palace and fortress that overlooks Granada. He contends that the Alhambra is not its original name, merely what it has come to be called, since no historical document has survived which refers to it as such, nor has any data on its construction, as though “it would have been of particular importance to its commissioners that their work . . . remain concealed in its essence, but by its appearance revealed.”
The absence of a necessary “interpretive code,” according to this vision, renders the Alhambra “aimless and incomprehensible,” for after Granada fell to the Catholics in 1492, with the Arabs driven from power, who was left to understand it? Some might say there are scholars whose work it is to parse meaning from historical rubble. One, a Professor Grabar, in a monograph on the conspiracy of the Alhambra, writes that the building is nothing more than an attempt at disguise. But the speaker dismisses his, and others’, scholarship on the subject. Why must one devise a story? “He cannot resign himself to there being no explanation. . . . [He] neither considers it possible, nor is capable of accepting, that an effect can appear without having been elicited by a cause.”
It is difficult to accept the lack of an answer as a suitable answer. If we don’t, it leads only to trickier ontological waters: What, then, is the Alhambra? What interpretive demands does it make on those who visit it? The questions proposed here are no different from those which the nameless man encounters at the Acropolis or which plague the guard at the Louvre; and if consistency were Krasznahorkai’s aim, then we might be able to know how he might answer: that the Alhambra is lost, that we have abandoned it, etc. Here, however, Krasznahorkai suggests something else. At the end of the chapter, following a lengthy description on the application of geometry in the patterns of the palace, the speaker concludes:
The geometrical composition used by that Arab spirit, across the Greek and Hindu and Chinese and Persian cultures, actualizes a concept, namely that in place of the evil chaos of a world falling apart, let us select a higher one in which everything holds together, a gigantic unity, it is that we may select, and the Alhambra represents this unity equally in its tiniest as well as its most monumental elements, yet the Alhambra does not make this comprehensible, even just this once, it does not demand comprehension but rather continuously demands that it be comprehended . . .
It is a pleasant, even hopeful close to the section. One wonders if this is in fact the author speaking here, suggesting how he thinks the novel ought to be read: that we enter its architecture and explore its many rooms. He does not demand comprehension, but that we continue to lose ourselves to understanding, to trying to understand, regardless of how complex the things we see. In a house with many doors, it may be the closest we come to finding a key.
Adam Z. Levy is a writer and translator. His essays and criticism have appeared in The American Reader, The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books and World Literature Today. He lives in New York.