László Krasznahorkai Comes Home

This September, Ottilie Mulzet’s superb English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming will be published, completing the novel cycle he began with Satantango and continued with The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the culmination of Krasznahorkai’s labors, a manic Greek chorus that infuses festive Technicolor into his multifaceted, bleak vision. It is Krasznahorkai’s funniest and most profound book and, quite possibly, also his most accessible. Krasznahorkai has hinted that this may be his final novel and, if that’s the case, then it is a tremendous sendoff to one of our most talented writers.

Baron is set in a dead-end Hungarian village riddled with gossips and backstabbers and structured with chapters ominously named after drumbeats. Plastic bags swirl through the air, and a gang of frightening—yet surprisingly human—Neo-Nazi bikers patrol the town. Bitter pomp and fierce one-upmanship reign freely. Everything in this remote village feels strangely universal: everyone blames refugees and “the Gypsies” for all of the country’s ills. Politics are waged in faultfinding and bogus positioning. Then, without explanation, a huge convoy of black luxury cars speeds through town, hypnotizing the residents as they pass. Approximating horsemen of the apocalypse, their procession preludes the village’s downfall.

In a bramble patch just outside town, a world famous professor lives in a hovel fashioned from garbage. The Wittgenstein-like professor has renounced attachment to the world (including, Krasznahorkai points out, his social media apps) and works to purge his thoughts in hopes of attaining his own type of nirvana. The experiment is short lived; he wakes one day to find his long-neglected daughter standing outside his hut, flanked with reporters and accosting him with a bullhorn, demanding he acknowledge her.

Back in town, Baron Béla Wenckheim arrives on the train. Despite his grandiose image, the Baron is befuddled and aloof and is only there because his family paid his horrible gambling debts in South America in exchange for his pledge to disappear and not cause the family further embarrassment. So, in hopes of returning to the place he once knew—and to the woman he once loved—the Baron disembarks only to be greeted with grand fanfare, replete with speeches from both the mayor and the police chief, detailing the ways they will use the funds they mistakenly assume the Baron intends to donate. That the whole thing, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, echoes Christ’s Passion is no mistake. The Baron suffers abandonment, accidentally insults the woman he returned to, and, in agony, finds himself wandering in a Gethsemane-like forest, vying for God’s attention. After his exit from the narrative, his clothes are divided and ruined by a homeless mob.

Coinciding with the Baron’s Gethsemane, one of the book’s most striking scenes describes the professor sitting in an empty train station, weighing belief in God. Though he knows he cannot prove—or even necessarily believe—in God, the professor considers the clear repercussions he must accept if the only alternative to our troubled existence is nonexistence. The denial of God is terrifying because the chaos we experience in our individual lives is only a repetition of the blind chaos gripping the universe. Without greater providence, culture is stunted and chaos is the only reality.

Krasznahorkai is an uncommonly generous writer. Even as he teases, maligns, and undermines his characters, he remains empathetic to their plights and blind spots, for he knows that even the most evil deeds are conjured by brokenness. Unable to find solace in the possibility of transcendence, Krasznahorkai’s characters find themselves mired in uneasy limbo, defending themselves from the chaotic world that grips them. And, finally, time runs out. The book’s closing passage is shocking, powerful, hilarious, inevitable, and about the darkest curtain drop one could imagine as the majority of the characters are wiped from existence without much explanation.

Almost every section in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming runs about 70 pages, and these sections flow easily as Krasznahorkai’s meandering prose swaps points of view at each paragraph break, allowing his characters’ opinions to mesh and conflict. Incredible distance is covered in an oddly intimate, if disorienting, way. While this tactic can make a new reader initially seasick, the reader who sticks with it finds the going easier and the rewards many. The emotional and psychological realizations Krasznahorkai can evoke are singular and breathtaking.

In sharp contrast to the perfectly whittled dialogue so prevalent in fiction today, very few direct quotations ever appear in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. Rather, characters endlessly regurgitate and revise their statements, often describing a single action with two or more verbs in an attempt to either more accurately describe their actions or, more likely, better justify themselves. Perhaps they are being honest in what they report, and perhaps not. We never quite know, for these character’s truest selves—as in real life—remain inscrutable.

This, more than anything else, is what makes Krasznahorkai’s work worth reading. As the world seeks to reduce and streamline communication, and as our attention spans are attenuated by our thirst for digital-world dopamine-hits, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming presents a powerful rebuttal to our infatuation with easy, saccharine anger. We are, all of us, clumsy egomaniacs, and the truth is that things are messy, hard to understand, and almost impossible to pin down. As Krasznahorkai’s ragtag characters struggle forward, he reminds us that the words we speak are mere indicators of our vast, submerged realities.

These days, the general feeling is that the world has moved on from long, difficult novels. They are irrelevant, plodding dinosaurs whose sole purpose is to establish the gravitas of the author behind them. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the hard reset, capturing our frantic, pessimistic moment with frightening verisimilitude. The style is challenging, yes, but it is not self-serving. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming calls into question our acceptance of the crippling status quo, delivering universal truths in a way that few books can anymore. It is precisely the novel we need in these difficult, foreboding times.

Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Final Wake-Up Call

Before we get too far, I have to be candid: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book from which one must recover. I’m serious. No book since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has left me in such a state of utter, cosmic helplessness. So, if you’re here because you’re trying to decide whether or not to read Bolaño’s 900-page opus, I can only say this: it must be read, but no shame to any person who cannot.

And don’t, I would add, read it when you’re sick. I can say this with some confidence because I read it recently when I was sick, parked on the couch while my little kids played and did homeschool at the dining room table, and the dark fingers reaching up from the pages constituted a private hell to which my cheerful family remained utterly oblivious. 2666 is taxing on the best of days, to say nothing of when you’re all body aches and fever.

2666 was Bolaño’s last book—published in 2004 with Natasha Wimmer’s English translation arriving in 2008—and the grandest realization of his bleak, charged vision. The central thrust is necessarily vague, but basically here it is: For a host of reasons, a cast of seemingly unrelated characters—a scholar, a sports reporter, a celebrity detective, and a reclusive writer (along with the three literary critics who are hoping to find him)—have all come to Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez, a city haunted by the mysterious murders of hundreds of women. No one knows how or why the women die. They simply turn up in the desert.

Bolaño’s signature conflation of high and low literature has always been underscored by a palpable sense of dread, but in Santa Teresa that dread builds into a haunting wail that billows across the desert and envelopes his characters and readers. For hundreds of pages. Several times, we feel we’re close to an explanation for the crimes but, of course, an explanation never comes. And central to this tormented stasis is the never-explained 666 in 2666.

It is easy to reduce Bolaño’s vision to a familiar apocalyptic trope: everything’s going to hell, everything’s burning up. But to do so is to misread both Bolaño’s book and the purpose of apocalyptic literature, which, most often, was not written to explain the end of the world or reveal prophecy—though in some notable occasions it does just that. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor once said of the grotesque in fiction, apocalyptic literature offers a cartoonish exaggeration to shock the apathetic. Resisting common misreads, apocalyptic literature traditionally serves to describe a spiritual condition or stasis. The title of Bolaño’s novel represents a stasis that has little to do with the year 2666 but everything to do with the century that was dawning at the time of his untimely death. By blotting out the new millennium’s ever-changing numbers (2008, 2027, 2912…) with the placeholder 666, Bolaño hinted at a horrific—and, yes, apocalyptic—continuum descending upon us. One that we are growing accustomed to and, eventually, will fail to notice.

Humanity is entering its prolonged denouement. Will we make it to the year 3000? With the constant news of daily violence and ecological catastrophe, that sometimes seems hard to imagine—certainly this was the case for Bolaño, who cited the 20th century as a possible explanation for 2666’s deconstructed narrative terrain. The unprecedented horrors of World War I and World War II are where we come from, Bolaño suggests, and the tortured earth of Santa Teresa embodies our not-too-distant future: we are asleep at the wheel, coddled in luxury, indifferent and distracted, and we are largely blind to the many ways in which our world, every day, breaks just a little more.

Even the most dedicated readers, wading through the ceaseless violence of “The Part About the Crimes” section of 2666, will grow tired of the descriptions. The horrific rape and murder begin to blur as our brains, struggling to cope, become desensitized. Bolaño intended this. He lulls the reader into blood-spattered apathy. Then, in perhaps the greatest example of his authorial sleight-of-hand, Bolaño describes the investigating police trading chauvinistic jokes while ending their shifts. Immediately, we realize our own apathy. If the police investigating these inhumane acts can make jokes about the victims—and this is what captures our attention as readers, not the continued violence—then what does it say about us? Sure, we find the jokes distasteful, but our own indifference is worse: in our need for comfort, we stopped caring about the murder victims. Bolaño has called us out—and, as long as such horrors exist in the world, each of us remains culpable by extension. In this way, Bolaño bludgeons us awake with a power few writers possess, and the murders become shocking once more.

Again and again, Bolaño grabs us by the scruff of the neck and pushes our heads into the abyss. For Bolaño, the year 2666 is the symbolic culmination of humanity’s neglect and violence, a state of being that has become our modus operandi. Even our best efforts cannot avert the evil bearing down on victims and the apathetic onlookers alike. For that, Bolaño suggests, is where it all starts: at the very spot where we stop paying attention and slip into deadened stasis.

Revisiting Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ on the Day of the Dead

Last year, fighting the anxiety and listlessness that seems to have become the norm of our overstimulated era, I read Under the Volcano for the first time. Since then, I have found myself continually pulling the book off the shelf, returning again and again to its sad, pristinely lyrical pages, as the seasons change and the state of the world remains tumultuous as ever. Under the Volcano is mesmerizing, brokenhearted, almost infinitely discursive, a mescal-sodden, naval-gazing dirge. Though it is resolutely a Modernist work, replete with countless esoteric references and ambiguous plot movements, the implications of the work continue to startle me with their relevance to the Digital Age. Far from the popular notion that Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece is merely “about alcoholism,” Under the Volcano remains a dead-serious bereavement of the insurmountable space that can separate two people sitting side by side.

Under the Volcano takes place in Quauhnahuac, a little town not far from Mexico City. Two volcanos dominate the skyline, their static peaks ever threatening eruption. Our tragic hero is former-British Consul Geoffrey Firmin, who lingers hunch-shouldered in an empty cantina, having booze for breakfast as the annoyed employees set the place up for the day’s business. It is the morning of the Day of the Dead, 1938, and the world, at great distance, is beginning to erupt into World War II.

Firmin’s wife, Yvonne, left him a year previous, and this morning, she’s suddenly come back to try to salvage their relationship, but both nurse old wounds, so a complete restoration seems highly unlikely. Yvonne is anxious, Firmin static and painfully introspective. Also, extremely drunk. Probably the drunkest drunk of literature, Firmin drinks toward a sobriety beyond inebriation as he spends the bulk of the book scheming of ways he could restore his lost connections. “For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.”

Someone really ought to count just how many drinks Firmin
takes over the course of the novel. Hundreds, it would possibly seem, his
thirst monstrous, insatiable, inescapable. It is all he knows. So, when Yvonne
shows up, unexpectedly, he first has trouble registering her presence then, as
they begin to talk, he offers her a drink. “You
have one and I’ll cheer,” is the reply. They are finally
together again, but they still cannot bond. She wants to take him away from
Mexico, and he wants her to stay with him, here, drinking below the volcano.
Distance, as always, glows frustratingly between them.

They return to their house, attempt to make love, then
Yvonne sleeps as Firmin, out of alcohol, stumbles out into the garden he has
let go to seed. Lowry writes, “The Consul, an inconceivable anguish
of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a
protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the
horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be
supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view.”

No, of course Firmin isn’t
simply strolling through his overgrown garden. What he’s
actually doing is trying to stop himself from trying to stop himself from
trying to find the tequila bottle he’d
hidden out in the bushes, for a moment such as this. He wants Yvonne to stay,
he wants things to work, but he also knows that Yvonne has cheated on him, it
becomes clear over the course of the novel, with both Hugh, his half-brother,
and Laurelle, his friend. Yvonne, after all, seems rather cozy with both men as
they accompany the troubled couple through the day’s
festivities, though she maintains that the purpose of her coming to Quauhnahuac
was to return to Firmin. There is little admission, and the locus of Yvonne’s
loyalty remains indistinct. So, ever-weighing options but choosing none of them, Geoffrey Firmin both
pursues and avoids Yvonne as he drinks. And drinks.

This paralysis, Lowry knew, is a living death. “What
is man,” Firmin wonders, “but
a little soul holding up a corpse?” While
Quauhnahuac collectively mourns those who are already dead, the novel’s
central characters mourn those who are still alive but with whom all hope of
intimacy has been trounced. It can be all-too-tempting to drown everything out
with static isolation. Pretty soon, it becomes habitual, a way of life. The
underpinnings of Firmin’s drinking are familiar to everyone.
Connecting with another person usually demands change, and change is the one
thing Volcano’s cast simply cannot do. Thus, in one
way or another, each of the novel’s
characters lingers in a purgatory of indecision. “Yvonne
knew where she was now, but the two alternatives, the two paths, stretched out
before her on either side like the arms—the
oddly dislocated thought struck her—of
a man being crucified.”

Yvonne, in a letter she’d
sent to Firmin during their separation, says, “I am perhaps God’s
loneliest mortal… My wretchedness is locked up within me… Help
me, yes, save me, from all that is enveloping, threatening, trembling, and
ready to pour over my head.” The core of her despair, we see, is
little different than Firmin’s.

In one of the book’s
most haunting scenes, Firmin, drinking away his indecision and doubts, lingers
away from Yvonne in a hole-in-the-wall bar while the proprietress, Señora Gregorio, thinks aloud, her ruminations also
similar to the thoughts tormenting Firmin. “Once
when I was a girl I never used to think I live like I laugh now.” Señora Gregorio speaks in broken English, and her
misused words are cubistic and terribly telling: “This—” she
glanced contemptuously round the dark little bar, “was
never in my mind. Life changes, you know, you can never drink of it.”

And, Firmin quietly corrects her: “Not
‘drink of it,’ Señora
Gregorio, you mean ‘think of it.’”

The ultimate tragedy of Under the Volcano is that of humanity’s wasted potential. Can, Lowry pondered, the psyche repair itself? We are capable of such great things, yet we choose mollification and comfort over almost anything—sometimes even over life itself. “I love hell,” Firmin claims. “I can’t wait to get back there. In fact I’m running, I’m almost back there already.” Under the Volcano is Firmin’s attempt to reckon with himself. He is alone, alienated and is finally unable to square himself with the world he has built for himself within the world he has, in many respects, stolen from others. And, in this, he has everything in common with those around him but, from Firmin’s point of view, the other characters are often reduced to minor characters, walk-ons. The only character that truly comforts Firmin is the beverage waiting before him. This minimization is not only Firmin’s: Each of the novel’s characters, in different ways, attempts to reduce the other to satiate the self.

In large part, Malcolm Lowry’s
genius was in the depiction of this self-centric blindness. In the grand view
of things, every person on earth is a primary character, if only to themselves.
Lowry knew keenly that, to a large extent, there is no escaping this bias.
Thus, the lens of interpretation always shimmied sideways as Lowry jumped from
character to character, even as he let each life bleed through Firmin’s
filter.

Inspired by silent-movie subtitles, Lowry peppered the prose with Spanish phrases that, as they repeat, gained meaning and become mysterious, radiant apothegms. “No se puede vivir sin amar,” goes the book’s most familiar refrain. One cannot live without love.

And so, without love, Firmin finally dies, dragged out of
yet another cantina and murdered by suspicious, crooked police who believe he
may be a political spy. Yet, even as he is carried to a ravine, bleeding to
death, Firmin continues to pine for Yvonne and for the life they ought to have
shared.

It is tempting to equate Lowry with Firmin. The
similarities are endless. Lowry, too, was a hopeless alcoholic and lived a
famously-troubled life. His first wife, Jan, also left him in Mexico. Yet, in
writing Under the Volcano, Lowry attempted what his literary doppelgänger
could not: he offered connection, and he believed that this connection would be
met. Seventy-one years after its publication, Under the Volcano remains
a compelling, widely-read work. In his broken way, Malcolm Lowry succeeded.

Since the book’s composition, the world’s situation has been remade several times over. Volcano’s world is gone but not surpassed. Our newsfeeds are violent, partisan, slapdash, and ugly. We are more connected than ever, yet our sense of isolation has only grown. Like all truly classic works of art, Under the Volcano remains a book startlingly about us, about this time in history. For, like the counter-clockwise rotation of Quauhnahuac’s Ferris wheel—ridden by the mourners who know they, too, will someday be dead—all things repeat. We stave off our potentiality with comfort and distraction.

Under the Volcano reminds us that we cannot live
without love, yet we cannot truly love unless we are willing to fight our
paralysis. Again and again, no se puede vivir sin amar flashes across
the page, and the phrase becomes a chant, a mantra, a prayer: No se puede vivir sin amar.
No se puede
vivir sin amar. No se puede vivir sin amar.
If only we would heed it.