Apocalypse Now

Daniel Green reviews László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming

László Krasznahorkai,
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet.
New Directions Publishing, $29.95.
Buy direct from the publisher.

In the most immediately apparent qualities shared by his novels, László Krasznahorkai could legitimately be labeled a “difficult” writer. The novels forswear conventional sentence structures and paragraphs in favour of a kind of continuous discourse that makes no distinctions between exposition and dialogue, description and interior monologue (somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard, but less rhetorical and more expository). They are narratively fragmented, ultimately telling a story of sorts insofar as they do depict a progression in time, and they shift freely from character to character and scene to scene. Although they are in some ways intensely realistic, in the midst of their otherwise quotidian settings absurd and uncanny events frequently erupt — events which essentially remain inscrutable, resisting even allegorical interpretation. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (trans. Ottilie Mulzet), furthermore, is almost six hundred pages long, so that in this most recently translated novel — ostensibly about the ordinary people of a remote Hungarian village, and their responses to the arrival of the disgraced title character — Krasznahorkai’s destabilising strategies if anything seem even more conspicuous.

The anticipated critical riposte to such a characterisation of Krasznahorkai’s work would likely be that, its apparent difficulties aside, his fiction nevertheless rewards the reader’s attention, offering greater appreciation of the dynamism of language, a deeper immersion in characters’ states of mind, less reliance on superficial plot devices and conventions. But while these postulates would to a degree be true, the appearance of Baron Wenckheim as the self-proclaimed capstone to Krasznahorkai’s career (he has said that Wenckheim is his final novel, and that it belongs with Satantango [1985], The Melancholy of Resistance [1989], and War & War [1999] as his signature work) surely raises appropriate questions about the extent to which the difficulties in his fiction are indeed aesthetically redeemed after all. If reading Krasznahorkai’s fiction can be an arduous task, is it merely the same sort of challenge posed by any writer worth taking seriously?

Perhaps the most salient question, however, is whether the difficulties of this writer’s novels are in fact so severe. To open up one of the books and encounter its dense blocks of unbroken prose seems a daunting enough prospect, although Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming offers more assistance through paragraph breaks (which usually herald a change in point of view) than, say, Satantango, which has no paragraph breaks at all. But this tactic is certainly not so little known as to seem uniquely excessive, with its analogues in Bernhard, Mathias Énard, and, going even farther back, García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975). Sentences in Baron Wenckheim can indeed seem very long, and each section in the book is punctuated as one continuous sentence, but considered closely, these constructions are hardly bewildering:

I don’t even know how I should address you, young lady, said the Mayor, looking around the office to see where he could sit down, in a word, my dear… what was that again?… yes, of course, my dear Dora, but you’ve now reached a day of the utmost importance, of course you must have a thousand things to take care of, but from this point on you must put all this aside, do you understand, and forget about these other tasks, you must simply forget about them — he finally sat down nervously in a yellow, plastic, modern-looking armchair, while adjusting his bowtie, and he continued: whatever work this office has been involved with up ’til this moment, all other business must be halted immediately…

While a passage such as this blends dialogue and exposition without explicitly differentiating between the two, it doesn’t seem especially burdensome for readers to recognise such an implicit distinction, nevertheless. Although Krasznahorkai’s prose is stingy with periods, usually, as in this case, other punctuation and verbal signals (“said the Mayor”), make navigating even the longest sentences less troublesome than first impressions might suggest. (The resulting headlong cadence of the prose may indeed, in fact, create a more ‘immersive’ effect for co-operative readers.) It is possible that this device of eliminating the established markers of ‘prose’ in favour of an uninterrupted flow of ‘writing’ will ultimately come to seem a familiar ploy, less audacious the more it is used, but in Krasznahorkai’s fiction (especially by the time we get to Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming as the final volume of the quartet), it just does not require a radically new relationship between reader and text. His style does not disrupt our understanding of the discursive ‘rules’ in fiction, even if he does wield them in an uncustomary way.

Formally, the novels also do not really exceed the kinds of departures from convention we might attribute to high modernism. The fragmentation of Baron Wenckheim is surely not an unfamiliar practice among modern writers seeking an alternative to strictly linear storytelling, nor is the systematic rotation of multiple points of view. Baron Wenckheim’s large cast of characters lends itself well to this approach. Much of the novel is taken up with the stories of perhaps six to eight major characters (Baron Wenckheim himself being one, but only one), although other more marginal figures make appearances as well, providing a variations in circumstance and perspective that substitute for the artificial expedient of plot. Yet such a strategy is certainly not so unusual among modernist-inspired writers (a prominent example of which I take Krasznahorkai to be). Again, in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, this if anything produces an engagement with the aggregate story, to which all the various episodes cumulatively contribute, which works to sustain interest in that story almost as transparently as conventional narrative. There is little in this novel that could be called metafictional trickery, and none of Krasznahorkai’s novels (at least those that have been translated) could really be accurately described as postmodern.

The occasional episodes of fantasy or surrealism likewise should not seem to most readers puzzling strictly as literary devices, although their disruptive outbreak in circumstances that otherwise seem static — a world stuck in its own dreary, mundane stasis — does help provide the stories with an additional source of narrative complication. In the case of Baron Wenckheim, they introduce something like a mystery, as we try to determine the identity of the enigmatic figure who several times is seen traveling through town with his motorcade (unseen, however, by the townspeople, who appear to be induced into a kind of trance upon his arrival). Perhaps he is the herald of the town’s destruction at the novel’s conclusion, an event described in quite harrowing detail and the eruption of which is arguably the most perplexing element introduced in the novel, one that might genuinely cause confusion about its intended effect. The novel essentially casts an anathema on the very fictional world it has painstakingly built up for six hundred pages. This does not seem to be a sly metafictional gesture pointing up the unavoidable artifice of fiction-making, so the reader is left to wonder how exactly to take this colossal climactic firestorm.

If nothing else, these plot machinations work uneasily with the novel’s predominant emphasis on character creation through interiority, through what James Wood has lately popularised as “free indirect discourse.” (Not so surprisingly, Wood was one of the first English-language critics to hail Krasznahorkai upon the publication of the initial translations of Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance.) The two primary characters, the Professor and the Baron, are first presented to us, for instance, in moments of prolonged reflection during which we learn not so much about what is happening but their state of mind as things are about to happen. The Professor is introduced inside the makeshift cabin to which he has essentially exiled himself, only to suddenly find his solitude destroyed by local media and a woman who appears to be his daughter:

the spoiled, misbegotten child, whose conception, coming into and then remaining in this world, in addition to being a cheap cruel trick, he could only attribute to his own irresponsibility, carelessness, unforgivable naivete, endless egoism, and boundless vanity, namely his own innate boorishness, the consequence of which he had never seen either in a photograph or with his own eyes…

The Professor is a former scientist who is given to philosophical rumination — including a quite extensive meditation on death and the existence of God as he sits in a train station later in the novel. The Baron, meanwhile, in deciding to return to the city of his birth after living a mostly profligate life in Buenos Aires, provides the novel with its main premise but is revealed to have a much less complicated inner life (his relatives are reputed to consider him simple-minded) — although by the novel’s conclusion the Baron shows himself capable of meaningful reflection on the course his life has taken, culminating in an act that unwittingly may be the origin of his town’s ultimate destruction. Most of the other characters in the novel are also presented through the third-person indirect method: not quite stream of consciousness, but from a perspective close to the character’s perception of the current moment, expressed through the character’s habitual thought patterns.

Thus the characters do vary in their degree of sophistication and self-awareness, but Krasznahorkai’s probes of consciousness maintain the illusion of impartiality, offering us simply the contents of that consciousness without appearing to colour the characters with moral appraisal. This technique inevitably has the effect, however, of making our responses to the characters more ambivalent, as access to their psychological states tempers our judgment — just as does a first-person narrator, albeit even more thoroughly. The “Leader”, a commander of a local fascist motorcycle gang who at first expresses an appreciation for the Professor’s actions (he fires a gun at the crowd gathered outside his shack) but later tries to kill him (after the Professor kills a gang member in what he believes to be self-defence), is surely an unsavoury character, but even he can seem sincere in his malice, and apparently capable of genuine fellow-feeling for his fallen comrade. Certainly the cumulative portrait of life in provincial Hungary is not finally a flattering one: human weakness is allowed to flourish freely, and there are no signs that the society bequeathed to the West by Communism managed to alter human nature.

But, of course, to say that the characters depicted in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming are imperfect human beings does not condemn them as more worthy of contempt than characters originating in any other parts of the world might be. Krasznahorkai’s use of the free indirect method allows him to sustain a long, multi-stranded novel that doesn’t depend on a singly unifying narrative for its interest, but the cataclysmic conclusion to its intersecting stories does seem both arbitrary and pitiless. Even if we take the writer’s ultimate concerns to be more metaphysical than local, with Baron Wenckheim as a kind of sacrificial, holy fool character, that the reckoning induced is annihilation still seems out of proportion. If Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is indeed Krasznahorkai’s final novel, perhaps its climactic conflagration is a way for him to bring his oeuvre to an appropriately… fiery conclusion. If this seems more self-mocking than his fiction has previously shown itself to be (it doesn’t lack humour, but certainly takes its acts of representation seriously enough), then the gesture appears to invoke a pronouncement that would appropriately be called nihilistic.

The quartet of novels that now collectively comprise what Krasznahorkai designates as “my one book” certainly do not project a sunny view either of contemporary Hungary or of humankind in general. Baron Wenckheim’s homecoming to a Hungary that has exchanged Communist rule for Viktor Orbán hardly reveals the country to have made ‘progress’ (it largely still resembles the country depicted in Satantango), but it doesn’t seem that Krasznahorkai’s overriding artistic purpose is to specifically provide social or cultural critique — the characters in all of these novels exhibit their fair share of ignorance and venality (although also just fear and confusion), yet surely no more so than the common run of humanity. Krasznahorkai is indeed interested in the more universal corruptions of human behaviour, and Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming seems to declare a sentence of metaphysical doom on human existence.

If this is the final message of Krasznahorkai’s “one” novel, not only is it a surprisingly cynical closing move, it also amounts to a tacit confession that this one novel (Krasznahorkai’s work as a whole) is itself insufficient in its purely aesthetic achievement to serve as a compensatory act of creation that is cogent enough to provide at least a momentary stay against the futility of human effort (the ultimate achievement of all art). It’s as if Krasznahorkai renounces the possibility that we might take solace from his novel — not as the source of ‘saying something’ about life, but of an achieved aesthetic order that itself stands in contrast to the meaninglessness the writer so relentlessly evokes.