The lonely inhabitant of this room, as becomes clear from the story his neighbor tells, was obsessed by a dream of a lonely flight into space. In all probability, he realized this dream of his, his “grand project.”

text from Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installation, “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment” (1985)

  The World Goes On  by  László Krasznahorkai  tr.  John Bakti, Ottilie Mulzet, & George Szirtes  (New Directions, Nov. 2017; Tuskar Rock, Dec. 2017)   Reviewed by Irina Denischenko

The World Goes On
by László Krasznahorkai
tr. John Bakti, Ottilie Mulzet, & George Szirtes
(New Directions, Nov. 2017; Tuskar Rock, Dec. 2017)

Reviewed by Irina Denischenko

László Krasznahorkai’s reputation as a writer famous for depicting the world and the individual on the brink of destruction has been cemented by Susan Sontag, who called him the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” and James Wood, who deemed him a visionary writer “fascinated by apocalypse.” This image may seem incongruous for readers faced with the title of Krasznahorkai’s latest volume, The World Goes On (Megy a világ). But nowhere is the cyclical nature of Krasznahorkai’s apocalypse, the unending cycle of destruction and regeneration, more arrestingly imagined than in this latest collection of stories. Unlike the Judeo-Christian apocalypse, which posits the end of time and history, Krasznahorkai’s vision of the end is merely a total eclipse of the sun, to borrow a metaphor from his 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance: the world temporarily darkens and cools, instilling panic in all of the Earth’s inhabitants, only to resume its routine operations moments later. Caught up in primordial fear and anxiety and obsessed with history and causality, the human being’s mental apparatus fails, again and again, to grasp apocalypse in its cosmic proportions, fails to recognize the cyclical nature of the world’s destruction, fails to acknowledge that after each such catastrophe the world incessantly and inevitably “goes on.” Perhaps more than the novel form ever could, Krasznahorkai’s collection of stories suggests that although things do come to an end, “there is no need to fear, there is no end.”

 
 A still from  Werckmeister Harmonies  (2000), Béla Tarr’s collaboration with László Krasznahorkai based on  The Melancholy of Resistance  (1989)

A still from Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Béla Tarr’s collaboration with László Krasznahorkai based on The Melancholy of Resistance (1989)

 

As in his earlier works, Krasznahorkai’s narrators in The World Goes On find themselves wandering in a world of forgotten revelations and corrupted messages, blindly groping toward ineffable essences that forever remain out of reach. As the reader eavesdrops on their minds caught up in obsessive thought patterns, s/he witnesses consciousness on the threshold of insight. By recasting themes familiar from his novels in short story form, Krasznahorkai condenses fragmented revelations, increasing their potency, and creates a sense of wholeness that short story collections often lack. The World Goes On is a labyrinth of parallel universes that echo and correspond to one another, creating, with each new story, a déjà vu like effect that renders the reader’s escape into linear clarity nearly impossible. Moreover, the broad scope of this collection clarifies the various links between Krasznahorkai’s recurrent themes and the importance of his stylistic innovations, such as his unending sentences and estranged narrative positions that dissolve the boundaries of narrative voices.

The collection is divided into three parts: “Speaks,” “Narrates,” “Bids Farewell,” which suggest that the reader is confronting a stylized prophesy. The genderless Hungarian pronoun “Ő,” which is rendered as “He” in this translation, stands at the head of these three sections as the implied agent of these actions. The first part, as its heading suggests, is distinguished by narrators who speak directly, in a manner of philosophical discourse or a speech. Though some stories in the collection transgress the boundaries established by the different parts, the stories in the second section are generally narratives filled out by the fictional worlds around them. The third part consists of just one story, where the prophet-storyteller announces his departure from this world, taking nothing from it. In The World Goes On, narrative, writing, and even language itself repeatedly come under suspicion as agents of corruption that obscure essences by projecting them into stories of beginnings and ends, of antecedents and consequences, and so on. Thus, the organizational principle of this collection could be understood in terms of each text’s distance and separation from the prophet’s original message—a message that cannot be known without mediation.

The first part of the collection includes a story which (in English) shares its title with the volume, “The World Goes On” (“Megy a világ előre”; the word “előre” or “on” does not appear in the Hungarian title for the entire book, Megy a világ). This story is one of several in the collection that evokes the cyclicality of destruction and regeneration of the world. Upon hearing the news of September 11th, the narrator replays the images of collapsing Twin Towers over and over again in his head, obsessively searching for a new language adequate to describe these incomprehensible events. Beyond designating a concrete historical event, the looped images of falling towers in the narrator’s mind represent the unending cycle of destruction that visits the world again and again when an “immeasurably vast,” destructive “power” is released on the world. Although each time this power is released, humanity experiences its destructive consequences as something “new” and “unprecedented,” this power is as old as the world itself—it “has been here ever since the creation of the world” and, moreover, “arrived simultaneously with us.” Thus, a particular event in history, September 11th, gains mythological proportions in the unending drama of both destruction and new beginnings.

Such insights visit the first-person narrator, whose consciousness is objectified in a moment of crisis, in flashes, but he retreats from them as soon as he comes close to any kind of understanding. At first, he attempts to distance himself from the mind’s obsession with “antecedents and consequences” that prevents it from seeing the larger whole, where destruction is the reverse side of creation, where the very “same thing that had secured” the destructive power “unleashes” it on the world. Instead of dwelling on the details of the “what” and “how” it happened, the narrator attempts to focus on the fact that this tragedy “cannot be comprehended.” He tries to convince himself that all attempts to arrange the events into some kind of narrative—“how ‘all of this’ had ‘consequently’ proceeded from there to here”—must be abandoned. But as soon as he appears to break free of such thought patterns, he immediately falls back into them, finding himself caught in an interpretative loop.

Narratives that identify antecedents and consequences in an effort to make sense of what happened are a recurrent motif in The World Goes On. On a smaller scale, this motif is played out in “Downhill on a Forest Road,” which tells the story of an accident by tracing a series of seemingly insignificant, “unconscious choices” that led to a collision of two vehicles. Difficulty getting the key into ignition, a dog that had been struck by a car and its pitiful friend waiting beside its dead body, the decision to pass another car in order to arrive to a meeting on time—an infinity of such “preconditions” combine to form “a moment-by-moment structure” of catastrophe. But, as the story suggests, while the mind continues to focus on this narrative of causality, deconstructing it further and further, it fails to acknowledge that “chance is not simply a matter of choosing, but the result of that which might have happened anyway.” Obsessed as human beings are with their individual significance, they fail to notice laws of the world that lie beyond human control.

An obsession with causality plagues many of Krasznahorkai’s narrators. In “That Gagarin,” the apparently deranged narrator, a former historian of science, obsesses over the fate of the first man in space after his return, over his disappearance from the public eye, and over the mysterious circumstances of his death in a plane crash. In this story, like in many of Krasznahorkai’s works, the reader witnesses the narrator’s gradual descent into madness, which is at the same time a kind of clarity of mind and insight. Searching for the truth, for the real story of what happened to Gagarin, the narrator gets caught up in “antecedents”: “nothing ever happens without antecedents, actually everything is just an antecedent […] nothing can even be said beyond the fact that in addition to antecedents there are merely consequences.” Struggling to break free of them, he wants to find “the kernel,” “the MIDDLE,” the “story itself” (all the typographical emphases in quotations, including caps and italics, are Krasznahorkai’s). In another story, “Nine Dragon Crossing,” which follows an intoxicated Hungarian interpreter in Shanghai, the mind’s obsession with antecedents and consequences is dismissed as “the latest fashion of the mind” and “the pattern for our thinking and imagining how things are,” by a phantom-like T.V. show host, who changes the narrator’s life.

Narratives of causality, which reconstruct antecedents and consequences, betray a kind of naïve selfishness that interprets the significance of events vis-à-vis the individuals concerned. It is a nearsightedness that makes human beings see catastrophic events, where destruction happens on a major scale, as the end of history. In an obsessive search for causes, catastrophe is interpreted as Apocalypse, the end of time beyond which there is no continuation. But, as Krasznahorkai’s narrator-prophet notes in “He Wants to Forget,” we must remember that with each new catastrophe “history has not ended, and nothing has ended.” We must not “delude ourselves by thinking that anything has ended with us” and understand that “we merely continue something, maintaining it somehow,” that “something continues, something survives” despite the apocalyptic significance of a particular event. Krasznahorkai’s works in general and this collection of stories in particular suggest that the desire to see major destruction as the end of history, the ignorance of cosmic undulations that are indifferent to individual fates is error is all too human. As the narrator of “He Wants to Forget” points out, “we are unable to talk about anything other than ourselves, because we are only capable of talking about history, about the human condition.” Our nearsightedness prevents us from seeing that “history has not ended” with us, “nothing has ended” with us.

In another story, Krasznahorkai’s narrator suggests that our selfishness, our narcissistic desire to see ourselves reflected in everything, is connected to the very structure of the human mind. “How Lovely” imagines a series of lectures given by specialists in various fields—a physicist, a poet, an architect, an anarchist, and so on—on “area theory.” Each lecturer relates his “thoughts about area” from his “own respective point of view.” Despite the surface variety of narratives, at bottom no lecturer is able to transcend the concept of area itself: “regardless of where we look, we see […] nothing but area, area upon area everywhere.” This story confronts “the undeniably limited nature of the human viewpoint” directly: we are “trapped in the bewitchingly confined space of the human viewpoint.” This confined space restricts our thinking, constantly searching for “anything that refers to us” in any particular “area,” rather than for “another viewpoint besides the human,” where “there is no area.” Looking at the world, we only see our own reflection.

It is this confinement, this limitation of the human mind, against which so many of Krasznahorkai’s narrators struggle in this collection and in his other works. In “Wandering-Standing,” the very first story of The World Goes On, the narrator seeks to flee the confines of his own thinking. As so many others in this collection, the story begins with the narrator’s articulation of his desire to escape, “I have to leave this place.” Though these words can be interpreted literally, in the course of the story the narrator makes clear that escape is not about changing locations, but about shifting perspectives, lifting one’s own head to see that one has not been moving at all, that one is in fact rooted to a particular place: “if he had raised his glance, if he had just once—in the course of his wanderings seemingly lasting hundreds and hundreds of years—just raised his head […] he should have seen that he was still standing there […] and there he is rooted to that shoe-sized piece of earth upon which he stands, so that there is no hope whatsoever anymore that he can possibly move from there.”

The apprehension of one’s own rootedness is not necessarily a failure to escape: this story shows how escape through language and art, however temporary, is nevertheless possible. The escape strategy of this particular narrator is familiar from Krasznahorkai’s collaboration with Max Neumann in AnimalInside (2010): it consists in abandoning the “I” position in favor of a constantly shifting narrative identity.

In “Wandering-Standing,” reader observes as the “I” of the narrator becomes a “we,” and the reader no longer sees the world through the narrator’s eyes, but through his own, standing alongside the narrator in an implied or even coerced solidarity. The narrative “we” is quickly replaced by “he,” as if the narrative “camera” were panning out and the reader were now observing the narrator from a third person perspective, viewing him as rooted to the place he desperately wants to leave, with a forward-leaning posture indicating his intention to move, to get away.

This shift of perspectives plays out somewhat differently in the original Hungarian, which allows for certain constructions to remain unspecific about the agent of the action. For example, in constructions that use the modal verb “kell” (“must” or “have to”), the infinitive that follows the modal verb usually reflects the person performing the action. In other words, the “I” of the “I must leave” is normally reflected in the declined infinitive “leave,” while the pronoun is omitted. However, a simplified form where the infinitive does not reflect the person is also possible, and it this form that Krasznahorkai takes full advantage of when he alternates between the “I” and “he” narrative positions. Another story, “Universal Theseus,” which carefully weaves autobiographical details about the author into fiction, contains a clue as to the narrator’s possible investment in such an ambiguous narrative position: he wants to rid himself of all possessions, including the very forms that express possession in speech.

Rendering the shifting narrative position of Krasznahorkai’s narrators is one of the many translation hurdles superbly overcome by his translators, John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes. Krasznahorkai often speaks of his translators as the authors of his books in a different language. This collection of stories, which plays with the idea of broken revelations refracted and dispersed in language and narrative, could not be a more appropriate space for all three translators to come together for the first time and lend their voices to the message of the prophet (“Ő”).

Other narrators in The World Goes On also struggle against different forms of confinement. “On Velocity,” “Wandering-Standing,” “Universal Theseus,” “One Time on 381,” “Bankers,” “A Drop of Water,” and “That Gagarin” are stories that prominently feature narrators or characters seeking to escape their circumstances. Not only for those seeking to break free of their own mind and body, but even for those seeking to escape specific spatial confines—a prison, an insane asylum, a country, the planet Earth—words become an instrument of escape. Besides a shifting narrative position, which makes possible for narrators and readers alike to have a kind of out-of-body experience, the narrators possess another instrument of escape: the “Krasznahorkai sentence.” Seemingly endless, always “recoiling” on itself, progressing in a non-linear manner, the Krasznahorkai sentence postpones the ending—“the period”—indefinitely and creates a spatio-temporal dimension distinct from both real and narrative time. If only for a brief moment, it allows the narrator and the reader to experience cyclical time, to return at the end of a story to the very beginning and retrace his steps once again ad infinitum, as suggested in “A Drop of Water.”

 A photograph of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installation, “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment” (1985)

A photograph of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installation, “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment” (1985)

But, if the drunken, homeless narrator of “Obstacle Theory” is to be trusted (and in Krasznahorkai’s world, just as in Nietzsche’s, the most profound revelations come from the mouths of madmen), language is a faulty tool through which to orchestrate an escape, since “words never reveal anything […] they exist precisely to hide the way out […] words are helpless, it’s always a merry-go-round, around the thing itself, never a bullseye.” Words, as the lecturer in “Universal Theseus” points out, can never go beyond themselves and reach the essences which he desires, or once desired, to know. Still, the last page of The World Goes On leaves the reader feeling like s/he has just witnessed a great escape and beholds the empty room of Ilya Kabakov’s installation “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment.”

W.G. Sebald has commented that “the universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.” In interviews, such as the one included in Music & Literature no. 2, Krasznahorkai too has noted the non-specificity of his own settings, his “generalized present tense,” suggesting that his works can take place anytime in the twentieth century. While the stories of The World Goes On bear many of the same timeless qualities ascribed to Krasznahorkai’s novels, these shorter texts touch on some of the most important issues of our contemporary, twenty-first-century reality. In The World Goes On, globalization and the break-neck speed at which we live today are reinterpreted and distilled in timeless images of artists making a public spectacle of themselves, of weary travellers “circling all around the globe like the second hand of a watch” but “signifying nothing,” and of drops of water that in their structure contain a model of the universe.

 

Irina Denischenko is a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, where she teaches language and literature. She has published translations from Hungarian and Russian in Words Without Borders and elsewhere.