László Krasznahorkai’s ‘The World Goes On’ Stands in Defiance to Its Own Despair


When Americans read innovative Eastern or Central European fiction, their minds often linger on three or four particularly phenomenal and unique writers—Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Franz Kafka—and their distinct but related strains of surrealist writing. When American readers first encounter the name László Krasznahorkai, whom Susan Sontag described as “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” they might come to expect from him that same sense of spectacle and bleak humor implied in his multisyllabic name. Sontag’s prescription in particular—an exceptional blurb, to be fair—stokes the apocalyptic flames of expectation. The World Goes On, Krasznahorkai’s newest collection of short stories translated into English, paradoxically follows the Kafkaesque tradition of surprise by not surrendering to the surreal. In fact, the new book from “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse” conveys an assaulted sense of hope more reminiscent of Charles Bukowski than Bulgakov. That’s not to say Krasznahorkai doesn’t delve into the nightmarish—he does, but with unremarkable relentlessness rather than showy surrealism.

Bulgakov’s name, incidentally, does come up—Ixi Fortinbras, a man visiting his friend-turned-banker, Paul, in Ukraine, wants to visit the famous writer’s old home. Instead, he spends most of the story in a car, eavesdropping on the mostly inane prattle of Paul and another financier before winding up in a brothel and, later, at Ixi’s behest, traveling toward the irradiated land surrounding Chernobyl, obsessed with finding an authentic Ukrainian something among brothels and vacuous financial gossip. The World Goes On comes to read like a litany of such obsessions. Listing them will, like a quick description of any fixation, give you no idea of the actual life surrounding them, but it will give you some sense of the breadth of Krasznahorkai’s obsession with obsessions. They include: the world, motion, the death and internal life of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, artistic depictions of sex-workers, water, waterfalls, rivers, drops of water, and more. Water, that vital thing, seems to signify Krasznahorkai’s entire project. His prose certainly tumbles like a waterfall—whole stories run in single sentences, but this seems less stylistic and more intrinsically tied to the stories themselves, as though they couldn’t be told any other way. Even so, Krasznahorkai’s prose can sometimes try a reader’s patience. It can’t really be read aloud faithfully either, at least not in a way that won’t leave you frustrated or passed out. A reader’s eye will sometimes find itself submerged, searching the page for a place to begin again when it loses Krasznahorkai’s complicated but finely woven thread of thought. Like water, his writing blends into a seamless, rushing whole. Uninterrupted clauses filter into paragraphs that often stretch multiple pages—a veritable torrent of text that resembles a shape of significance, a body of water or a startling moment of human life.

And that’s what lies at the heart of these stories—moments and modes of thinking explored in punctilious detail. A quarry worker searches the countryside for water and stumbles into a devastated palace. A translator wakes up in the middle of a Chinese freeway during a rote business trip. These quick summaries might describe what passes for boots-on-the-ground plot in Krasznahorkai’s stories, but they do little to describe their breadth, tone, resonance, or the maddening vertigo you come to experience alongside their characters. You’ve likely already inferred that a good deal of the stories in The World Goes On feature a main character either wandering (usually endlessly) in search of a something (whether it’s an idea, a thing, or an escape) and you would be right. These stories are, in contravention of Central and Eastern Europe’s black humorist tradition, lacking that comedic gut-punch, but still bleak and probing. Moments that seem orchestrated for laughs return, after just a few seconds of reconsideration, with heartbreaking clarity. In “Universal Theseus,” for example, while the narrator waits in line at a post office, a nervous woman cuts in front of him, and asks the postal clerk about sending a telegram. After failing to complete the telegram form multiple times and visibly enraging the clerk, the woman, whispering with eyes downcast, asks the clerk to send a single word in the telegram: useless. The book is full of these endings. Although we might look at the words arranged on the page as constructed to provoke a single release—a laugh—they also have the power to leave you sickened with your own sense of humor. So, yes, this does recall Kafka and Gogol, and the entire tradition of Eastern Bloc satirists who laughed through tears. These stories force their readers to adopt an empathetic and patient eye, even if it sometimes feels futile.

In one such story, “A Drop of Water,” a tourist lost in Varanasi, India, finds a man with a body “like a giant globe of fat” lecturing on the properties of water flowing in the Ganges. In a rambling monologue part manic and part profound, the globular man covers water’s connection to the spiritual, the infinite, and the infinitesimal:
[A] single drop of the Ganges is in itself a temple […] because water itself somehow escapes approximations […] it still possesses a tremendous number of other properties that should not exist […] these attempts get us nowhere when we consider water having such properties as memory […] which must exist for sure since after we melt ice back into liquid water, this ice returns to the identical liquid crystal system it had possessed previously […] in other words, water knows about everything that has happened on Earth, and is currently happening, so that our knowledge is insufficient for understanding even a single drop of water [.]
Naturally, Krasznahorkai’s tourist can’t turn away. The more the bloated man speaks, the more his face reveals something striking: “the beauty of that hidden face is becoming more and more obvious, that beautiful face enfolded within the mass of blubber is anything but aggressive, just like his voice, it too contains something heartening[.]” Krasznahorkai notably flirts with a notion outside the typical postmodernist wheelhouse—hope.  He doesn’t commit to it, however. The bloated man undermines his speech on size and spirituality by begging for spare rupees. The tourist walks away convinced he will never escape, that the squalor of Varanasi will swallow the whole world.

Just as themes of water and wandering recur, so too does Krasznahorkai’s prose. In “Nine Dragon Crossing,” the aforementioned story where a translator wakes up in the middle of the eponymous convergence of multiple Chinese highways, Krasznahorkai reminds readers not just once or twice, but six times that “the locals” call Nine Dragon Crossing Jialongzhu Jiaoji. This kind of redundancy is maybe uneconomical and certainly unnecessary, but Krasznahorkai doesn’t use maximalism to show off or manufacture a sense of authority, but to join a story with an overwhelming idea. Rarely does he elevate prose for its own sake, and the particularities of word choice certainly come down to the translators—John Bakti, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes—who must have put in long hours to make this book somewhat grammatical. The fictional translator’s predicament in “Nine Dragon Crossing,” however, is never explained. Although we come to learn he had been drinking, Krasznahorkai devotes no space to telling the reader how or why the translator—drunk or otherwise—managed to negotiate traffic and fall asleep in the middle of the freeway. Similarly, the translator simply exits the problem, as if carried forward in the story by an indifferent current. For Krasznahorkai, plot and all the logistics it demands generally step aside to let the story’s mania occupy the reader’s attention.

But these stories, if a little narratively thin at times, live within a wider structure if still equally inconclusive structure. The entire book is bracketed under the pronoun “He,” with the first section titled “Speaks,” the second “Narrates,” and the third “Bids Farewell.” This bit of textual framing doesn’t reveal anything tangible so much as it conveys an almost ineffable thesis or, to use a much safer word, sense. Some stories in the first section read more like treatises than actual narratives. The title story describes the “ineluctable modality of chance” (a construction straight out of Ulysses, this time applied to chance rather than visibility) where “all [we] will ever be able to know are of the consequences of ineluctable chance, those terrifying moments when the whip cracks[.]” It turns out Krasznahorkai is describing 9/11 and its demarcative effect, the “collapse of the Twin Towers and caving-in of the Pentagon,”a “new world” where “everything was as obsolete as our conviction to rely on experience.” He portrays tragedy not in a way that, frankly, would be unfair to expect of him—with raw data or primary accounts—but with a horrific marveling at rupture. Krasznahorkai, or, perhaps, just his narrator, ends the title story with anecdote: “I began to describe what I saw, together with the others, in this new world, I began to write down what I felt, that I was unable to comprehend, and the old sun began to set in the old world, darkness began to fall in the old way in my old room[.]” It’s near impossible to call this story hopeful. After all, Krasznahorkai tells us that “the darkness […] had broken loose, it was closing in, it was already here.” Still, isn’t the potential for actually charting this “new world,” however horrific its inception may be, a hopeful thing? Krasznahorkai’s work doesn’t seem to want to politically bewitch or motivate its readers, but it does point to, if not endorse, that sentiment that’s seeming less aphoristic and more political by the day—have hope, for the world really does go on, believe it or not.

Although the larger scope of The World Goes On pushes beyond postmodernist pretension, Krasznahorkai still indulges more than a little bit. He includes a story with “seventy nine paragraphs on blank pages,” which comes across like a conceptual art piece. Humble footnotes (by postmodern standards, anyway) tease that a story maybe had been printed with invisible ink, but they never develop into anything more significant than the footnotes themselves, as if indicating we have more to glean from absence than presence. He disparages “literature that pretends there is such a thing” as absolution or “ultimate meaning.” Those 79 paragraphs on blank pages reveal a reluctance to recognize knowledge or narrative.

In fact, Krasznahorkai lays a preemptive trap against reviewers like myself, and seemingly against anyone who would try to discuss his book with any kind of confidence. In “One Hundred People All Told,” which is all polemic and no narrative, Krasznahorkai describes the degradation of ideas and the futility of communicating in general, where “every single link in the original chain of thought has been turned into the most egregious error, every single item in the texts is erroneous, every single item in the commentaries erroneous[.]” This kind of epistemic nihilism is all fine and good, but it begs a really easy question—why bother? Why write pages upon pages of punctuation-free story to convey in hundreds of pages what others have communicated in fewer words: There is no hope, and we will never understand one another. The book itself stands in defiance to its own despair, and all the seedlings of hope glossed over throughout its stories suddenly seem more important, more poignant, contrasted beside that heavy, constant dread.

The World Goes On is an achievement, but not standard literary fare. Krasznahorkai nimbly maps the climate of modern obsession and languor, approaches his peculiar brand of storytelling with philosophical, psychological, and emotional nuance. When Krasznahorkai’s narrator declares “I would leave everything here […] this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me,” we know that the narrator will take nothing with him because he has left all he could here. In a literary landscape sometimes over-reliant on motion and plot, Krasznahorkai pauses to consider the actual mechanics of motion, its directions, the components of its moving, the traveler’s relation to the mover. He almost never names his travelers, though, and never deigns to give them a home.