The Last Wolf and Herman by László Krasznahorkai tr. George Szirtes and John Batki (New Directions, Sep. 2016) Reviewed by Camille Gajewski

The Last Wolf and Herman
by László Krasznahorkai
tr. George Szirtes and John Batki
(New Directions, Sep. 2016)

Reviewed by Camille Gajewski

Slow, relentless forces permeate the world of László Krasznahorkai; his characters are subject to glacial currents that bear them ever onwards, an inch at a time, toward a horizon they constantly imagine but never actually behold. In so doing, they cry, or laugh, or cry laughing, or carry out the timeworn repetitions that make a life, until the moment they come up against the horizon. And there they are either denied, held at a distance from that which they seek, or, having come too close to the mystery, are obliterated.

This irresistible pull in Krasznahorkai’s writing is made manifest in his narrative construction. The entirety of The Last Wolf, for example, is delivered in a single looping, maddening sentence. As the narrator is trapped in his own experience, so is the reader trapped in the relentless perpetual motion of a line devoid of a dot until the very end. But this loquacity isn’t a postmodern exercise, there is no recourse to pastiche or metafictional distancing here. Nor is it an externalization of internal thought, a notation of consciousness in the style of Joyce of Woolf. Rather Krasznahorkai’s tumbling words are an attempt to bring language closer to natural speech, to approximate its musicality and pauses, its breaths that are taken only to speak again. And in doing so, Krasznahorkai’s writing is exceptionally human and humane, speaking a language that remains compassionate in the face of absurdity, difficulty, and death.

Following the publication of several novels in English translation, The Last Wolf and Herman is a slim pairing of novellas, thematically aligned but otherwise distinct, that spans Krasznahorkai’s career and exhibits the full range of his voice. The Last Wolf was originally published in 2009, shortly after the publication of Seiobo There Below in 2008. Herman, on the other hand, was written very early in the author’s career, 23 years earlier: it is the third of eight stories included in his first collection, Kegyelmi viszonyok (Relations of Grace), published in 1986. Here it appears in a translation by John Batki, while The Last Wolf has been presented for an English audience by Krasznahorkai’s frequent translator George Szirtes.

Both novellas share thematic similarities: hunters make an appearance, as do the animals they pursue. Traps are laid and scents are trailed. But if The Last Wolf and Herman are paired here, it’s because the human animal is the subject of Krasznahorkai’s interrogation: the ones who return to nature and give into it wholly, the ones trying to reclaim a lost Eden, and all of us in search of the thing just out of our reach.

The Last Wolf centers on a classic Krasznahorkai protagonist—the obsessed neurotic—or, rather, it centers on the story of this protagonist as told to a patently uninterested Hungarian barman. Like Camus’ The Fall, this is a story in the frame of a barroom confession. Living on the “embattled wasteland” of Berlin’s Hauptstraße, the protagonist makes his daily sojourn to the Sparschwein bar, where, over sips of beer, he laments the impossibility of thinking and the futility of language. That he does so eagerly and at length, and to the dismay of the increasingly heavy-eyed barkeeper, is a prime example of Krasznahorkai’s playfulness, a streak of black humor that pervades even the darkest of stories. The book opens with laughter:

There he was, laughing, but in trying to laugh in a more abandoned manner he had become preoccupied with the question of whether there was any difference at all between the burden of futility on the one hand and the burden of scorn on the other as well as with what he was laughing about anyway, because the subject was, uniquely, everything, arising from an everything that was everywhere . . .

Beyond the hilarity of “an everything that was everywhere,” the protagonist laughs pointedly at the situation he has found himself in. Having received an invitation from an unheard of foundation in Spain, he is invited to travel to the region of Extremadura—all expenses paid—and spend as much time as he would like writing in and about the region. Or so he tells the barman. Despite the attractive offer, he struggles to believe the invitation is intended for him. Perhaps it was meant for another man with the same name. Or maybe he is the intended recipient, but not in his current form: it’s possible the invitation was meant to reach him but a different him, an earlier him, the one who was an academic and writer before he had “given up thought” as he claims.

Much to the dismay of the barman, it becomes clear that the former Herr Professor had, and still has, an interest in philosophy. Here Krasznahorkai’s coiling sentence embodies the complexity of the professor’s thought and speech, capturing the endless frustrated attempts at explaining, with language, that he has in fact exhausted the possibility for meaningful language. Faced with the futility of language and even thought—“for what could he do with his hopelessly complex, labyrinthine thoughts and sentences”– the professor is cursed with an excess of both. Mercifully, the barman interrupts periodically during the story’s retelling, either to interrogate the meaning of the professor’s word, or to punctuate the story with conspicuous nap.

Eventually the professor consents, and despite the protestations of his publishers in friendlier climates, travels to Extremadura. As its name suggests, the region is both extrema and dura, extreme in its barren stretch of country populated almost exclusively by holly-oak, and hardened by a perpetual state of drought. He is greeted by a silent driver and an interpreter who can only shout to be heard over the jeep’s roar.

Dragged to a barren stretch of country, possibly a fraud, and driven with relentless helpfulness around the region: none of these things ease the professor’s case of existential dread. Krasznahorkai devotees might recognize a particular tone and angst here from his existential travelogue Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens. But a line in a scientific magazine offers the professor a moment of respite: “It was south of the river Duero in 1983 that the last wolf had perished,” it reads. He is struck by the line, its unusually evocative use of the word “perish,” and the suggestion of a single, last wolf. He decides to uncover its story. With manic goodwill, the driver and interpreter set about ferrying him to every potential lead.

But sensing the risk of the reader becoming too comfortable in the sentence’s ebb and flow, Krasznahorkai’s barman interjects: “do keep to the point, the Hungarian barman grumbled.” Like that, we are transported out of the text. At such moments, the barman seems to be a direct representation of Krasznahorkai himself, allowing the professor speech and breath but taking it away now and again, in turns feigning confusion at his own text—“it seemed he had some problem understanding the whole story, as if he hadn’t heard the beginning of it”—and slyly suggesting the barman’s deeper intelligence:

and so it must all be true, he told the Hungarian barman, who asked: what is true? at which point he shrugged, saying, never mind, then gestured for another bottle

“What is true?” Is the question a quip at having misheard what came before, or the unspoken mantra at the heart of the professor’s crisis of meaning? That’s for the reader to decide as he navigates this novella’s single, labyrinthine sentence. The barman serves as a narrative frame, but he’s also Krasznahorkai chiming in from beyond, firmly in the realm of fiction but with echoes of an author’s voice, (“he shrugged, saying never mind”), before breaking the storytelling spell. But, like the rest of those who populate Krasznahorkai’s universe, the barman is only human. He dozes under the weight of the endless phrases, tangents, and unpunctuated fragments of thought. He is only truly roused in one moment of the text: at the mention of the hunter Chanclon, and his vitrine. Chanclon was the first lead in the professor’s hunt for the last wolf. Having found him in the dehesa, the professor is led to his home, at the center of which sits an enormous vitrine. In the vitrine is the “last wolf,” legs splayed and jaws open, frozen for eternity through a feat of taxidermy. The professor is aghast, the barman awakes: we see a glimmer of what lies over the horizon in the petrified image of death.

But this wolf is in fact not the last—what is true, after all?—and the story continues, a breath having been taken in Krasznahorkai’s narrative flow. The sentence reanimates and the protagonist resumes his drift ever closer to what he is searching for:

he had not felt, not in the least, that the story was coming to its climax, a climax that would explain to him why fate had cast him here, a climax that would tell him what he should be doing

And he finds this fate in the figure of Jose Miguel, a game warden of a solemn disposition and an acute sympathy for animals, vultures in particular. According to the warden, that there wasn’t a single last wolf, but a pack of nine. Over three years, seven were hunted and “murdered” by a professional lobero, and two escaped. But the lobero fell into a permanent state of fear and unease, and the hunt lapsed. Meanwhile the existing traps appeared to be tampered with, loosened so that their nooses wouldn’t tighten as the wolves squeezed through them. Holes appeared dug under fences, as if to facilitate an escape.

Then one of the last wolves, pregnant, is found run down by a car. The last, having thought to have escaped to Portugal, is found shot by a pond. The story has reached an end. The professor returns to the car—and here he rouses the barman, a last attempt at giving meaning to his fate—and Jose Miguel follows, moving as if to confess something. The professor stops him from speaking. The barman sleeps. The professor contemplates “the last word” as he speaks, and then, as we see it in the distance, more inevitable with each passing word, he speaks it so that we know it’s really true: “and that’s exactly where he was now, at the end.”

Like the visitor in the “Up on the Acropolis” chapter of Seiobo There Below, crushed by the traffic, heat and relentless sunlight bearing down as he attempts to reach the ruin, maddened and oppressed to the point of being unable to look directly at the cultural treasure he had traveled so far to see, the protagonist of The Last Wolf never reaches what he has been looking for. The endless looping sentence is the journey itself, folding back upon itself, tunneling clauses into fragments into tangents, all the while pushing relentlessly towards an end that is nothing more than an “end.”

In Herman, the other novella rounding out the book, Krasznahorkai allows his prose more than one sentence, and more than one form for telling the eponymous character’s story. In Herman’s first part, “The Game Warden,” Herman is tasked with clearing the Remete woods of “noxious” predators. In the second part, “The Death of a Craft,” a detachment of comically amorous officers and their girlfriends spend their holiday in tranquil sylvan hotel, only to hear of Herman’s story unfolding in the town around them.

Herman is a “peerless virtuoso of trapping,” the “last of the Mohicans” guarding the mysteries of an ancient craft that is on the brink of extinction. Like the fabled last wolf, he is ostensibly the final practitioner of his trade. Charged with clearing an untended forest left to flourish with unsavory predators, Herman comes out of retirement for this final task. After two years, the primal jungle becomes bright again, rife with proper game and a fitting last assignment for the aging trapper.

Despite his success, Herman is haunted by visions of the carrion pit where he leaves the animal carcasses every night, seeing “a putrescent hairy mass of dead meat quivering like jelly” in his dreams. Fraught with paralysis, seized with fear and unable to retrieve the remaining trapped corpses, Herman seeks medical advice. The doctor pronounces a clean bill of health, but Herman has already named his illness: “an invisible, stifling power” in the form of weeds and vines, in the primal force of the forest making a mockery of his human attempts to manicure, tend, and control.

Propelled towards his new fate, Herman foregoes the human for the animal: becoming nocturnal, installing himself in foxholes, deepening his attention to the ways of the deer, stags, pheasants, and does. And the traps once set for feral dogs and foxes, or the “Berlin swan’s necks,” are set again, but for a new kind of prey. With his once-solid worldview crumbling and the lines between good and “noxious” blurring, he sets the traps in the doors of the homes, churches, and schools in the nearest village in the night, returning to his forested warren to sleep through the day.

But after hearing reports of broken legs and trapped children, Herman worries that his turn was unjustified. Driven to create order, to level the unsteady ground that opens out beneath him, and suddenly overwhelmed with compassion, he decides to confess and share his new understanding of the world with the patrol now pursuing him. His vengeance has been wrought; the hunter has been to the realm of the animal and back, and has seen the truth of his condition. Having finally reached his horizon, Herman rushes out of the bolthole he had confined himself to, ready to warn the oncoming patrol of the traps he had set and embrace his new humanity, only to be met by a heavily armed contingent and riddled through with bullets.

In “The Death of a Craft,” however, Herman escapes into the night and is never seen again. From the early story collection Relations of Grace, both halves of Herman are evidence of the text as an early experiment in storytelling. The tone is varied and the sentences shorter, and if Seiobo and The Last Wolf are anything to go by, then we could say that Krasznahorkai’s sentences have since become longer—more intricately wrought, and arguably more beautiful—as his work has matured. But these early stories carry the same drive towards fate, the same slow push to the end of the world as their longer-phrased counterparts. And both have characters driven away from the human and towards the animal, albeit in their own ways.

The officers and girlfriends in “Death of a Craft” seek not the earthy warrens and predatory impulses of the animal world, but rather the sexual and ecstatic side of animalism. Seeing themselves as harbingers of modernity, they move across the countryside in a travelling saturnalia. With the narrator among the group himself, Krasznahorkai’s language here is frilled and bordering on the baroque. Sickly and lascivious, the text is overwrought—as in a “frenzied session of dalliance”—and suggests the band has already somewhat tired of pleasure.

Bored with their endless sexual configurations, the group becomes fixated on witnessing girlfriend Marietta’s mother on her deathbed, hence their travel to Herman’s wooded town. They see the encounter with death as a promise of danger or ecstasy, the uncuffing of their hampered imaginations. But Marietta’s mother dies unprompted, without the group having a chance to witness the act, and having been denied their glimpse of the dreadful beauty of existence, of meaning, they become sullen.

Until word of Herman reaches their country hotel, of course, by way of a nervous clerk, tormented at the sight of the officers and their girlfriends. He bemoans the state of the once-tranquil town, now a “godless and lawless world,” a regular Sodom and Gomorrah, but invites the group to look inside the cold storage room, where a mass of frozen animal cadavers stands as proof that an unhinged deviant has been terrorizing the town at night.

Alerted to the story of the hunter and aroused by the sight of dead game on ice, the group decides to join the nightly town hunt for Herman. After coming across a collection of traps in the woods, they aren’t disturbed by Herman, but impressed by his fanatical obsession to the craft, to ancient methods and traditional knowledge, to the point that they suspect a kind of connection between the hunter and themselves. Perhaps it in their endless pursuit of ecstasy, in doing everything to escape the cage of their skin, they see Herman on the same path they seek to tread: in search of a lost Eden.

Herman disappears but not before a last trap appears, a swan’s neck, this time at the base of a crucifix in the local church. The words “Berlin swan’s necks,” oddly enough, hark back to our long suffering narrator in the Sparschwein, stuck in a swan’s neck or noose of his own: that of the futility of language. It is an image that, perhaps, symbolizes the last wolves skirting the slacked, sabotaged nooses in the barren Extremadura, and the officers and their girlfriends unable to escape the limits of their own bodies. And the looping swan’s neck of Krasznahorkai’s prose, the sentences that ensnare his readers as they guide them inevitably to their end, be that in frustration or oblivion. The twinned novellas The Last Wolf and Herman  represent neither the encounter with immanence that imbues Seiobo, nor the waking nightmare at the heart of Sátántangó.  These two stories, rather, are  an obsessive yet playful, black-humored and deeply human look at the animals we all are.

 

Camille Gajewski is an arts writer and producer in London, and design editor at Music & Literature.