War & War (New Directions Paperbook)

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A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

In 1996, on my second day in Ukraine, a respected, local priest—Otets (Father) Ivan—invited me to his flat for lunch. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I went. I’d barely hung up my jacket when he thumbed open a bottle of Sovetskoye champagne with one hand and poured while snapping a chocolate bar into sections with the other. I was bewitched. He then dropped a chunk *bloop* into our shimmering flutes, handed me a glass and offered up this sotto voce nugget with a wink: “our girls love it this way.” Thus had begun my master-class in the finer points of Ukrainian corruption.

Which you may have heard of. The news reports don’t do it justice, of course. For Ukrainians rich or poor, it is as pervasive as it is maddening. Every sociocultural touchpoint bears its trace, from the obstetrics that open your eyes to the palliatives that close them corruption complicates the process. Register your kid in a school. Get a driver’s license. A dog license. A dentist’s license. Open a business. Close a business. Make a sale. Build a home. Pay your taxes. Finagle a liquified natural gas distribution contract or secure a plum date with the local priest for your wedding and it’s blat (pull), otkat (kickback), and khabarya (bribery) all the way down. It’s quid pro quo, who-ya-know, and pay-to-play.

But over these past five years Ukrainian corruption, both macro- and micro-, has met with some significant resistance. The unwashed are naming names. We have become a nation of whistleblowers. There are, finally, arrests.

Had we been listening, Big History would have long ago consoled us: Unless forestalled by terminal cultural collapse, the grubby venality, relentless emotional grind, fragile loyalties and ugly contempt for individual dignity that connote a pervasive culture of immiseration will not hold. Corruption—personal or systemic—is unsustainable indefinitely. Finding corruption, wherever it occurs, has never been the problem. In Ukraine, it took the blood of the young mixed with the memory of the old to confront it and to put a beginning to the end of the days of bullying dilettantism and petty, quotidian tyrannies. Lev, Igor, and Rudy simply showed up too late.

For my part, I was afforded a nice,
soft landing in the bog of Ukrainian corruption. I had tutelage from that jazz
impresario of scam—the abundant, amiable Otets Ivan. The embodiment of
the Russian proverb: if you’re going to steal, steal a million. If you’re
going to fuck, fuck the Tsaritsa.

A week before the end of my parish
service in Ukraine, Ivan called me up, excited; he wanted to show me the
galleys for a book he’d written. “Take a look”, he says. I turn a page,
another, begin to read. Slowly the fog lifts. I was reading my own sermon. Turn
a page. My essay. Turn a page. My lecture. Seven years of my work in print with
only one alteration: Ivan had listed himself as the author. He hadn’t even
bothered to change the anecdotes from my-cum-his youth growing up in the
1960s on the Pacific coast of Washington State. I hope it sold well; I was on
fire in my pastoral writing. Two things I know about Otets Ivan: He possessed
a genius-level capacity for corruption, and he was my first local friend. The
latter is relevant to my reading because I lack Ivan’s gift for acquisitiveness,
but I am not less corrupt. To address it I read.

That’s the long way around to saying
that I’ve come to a point in my life, in my reading, where I seek out books
that engage my need for redemption. In practical terms, a book—no matter how
relentlessly hyped—that betrays a lack of breadth, experience, or feel for
honest human encounter doesn’t interest me. I won’t be scammed. Fiction or
non-fiction, if I get a whiff of manifesto, a hint of ideology, performative
prose, cheap signaling, aversion to complexity or any of the other stultifying categories
of sociological pablum that make for viral tweets, then you’ve lost me as a
reader. I don’t need to be made any dumber than I am naturally. And I, like you,
definitely don’t need to be made more susceptible to the predations of the truly
sinister agents of corruption that are at work all around us.

In the end, I’m looking for love in the stories I read because I believe the Old Book is trustworthy in this: love shall cover a multitude of sins. Edify me, lift me up, restore me, help me atone, even provoke me, but talk to me as if I were the only person in the room. It’s what they called storgē in ancient Athens—longsuffering, dedicate, parental love. It’s uncommon among storytellers, a rare gift, and the surest antidote to corruption I know of. You’ll find it in each of the books below.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I am a tree-climber. I became enamored of Macfarlane a dozen years back when he opened The Wild Places with a description of his need to climb “a tall grey-barked beech” in a wood outside London. In Underland, he descends to locales that my claustrophobia prevents me from following him except on paper. He takes us below the surface of the planet to the concealed geographies, sacred and ancient, that undergird our existence and link us to the depths of time. My book of the year, perhaps of next year, too.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson

The great appeal of the best Russian writers is their sneaky way of slipping hard-won philosophy into the story and doing it without being preachy. Perhaps that’s because it’s marked by an acceptance for our mutual predicament (essential to storgē), suffused with irony but bereft of contempt. Osipov’s short stories are brimming with it. Here’s a snippet: “He knew that all the cars passing by contained people who valued their lives no less than he valued his—their lives and the safety of their vehicles; and so they tended to be cautious, give warning, and not to despise themselves for their willingness to yield.” Think about that.

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers

As preposterously original as her fiction is, this is Petrushevskaya at her spare, brutal best. This refreshingly brief memoir adds, at the very least, sobering perspective to current debates about “Cancel Culture”. At its most exhilarating it provides some toothy, deeply grounded counterpoint to the claim that there are no more heroes.

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

I swear, Marilynne Robinson steals all my ideas and then writes the hell out of them with intellectual rigor that’s as rare as it is outmoded in an increasingly vitiated culture. She is the anti-Tweet, the anti-meme, the anti-eyeroll GIF. Lectures, essays and, yep, sermons. Read her, get smarter, and feel your heart swell.

Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

An articulate, compassionate, and necessarily particular argument/memoir on the “fluidity of racial borders” and the idea that it is not the perception of race that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to concepts of race. Williams delves into the abyss of corrupted human nature and emerges hopeful writing, for example: “…the situation is not zero-sum: We can simultaneously resist bigotry and imagine a society that has outgrown the identities it preys on. In fact, we have to.” Smart x3.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

Proviso: You will need to read the first three books in Krasznahorkai’s tetralogy—Satantango, Melancholy of Resistance, War & War—if you want to get this. What am I talking about? There’s nothing to get. Unless, that is, you’re interested in grasping the uncommon appeal of fake news, collective crisis of conscience, and cultural entropy. And all wrapped in Krasznahorkai’s prose both staggering and nonpareil, and dipped in wincingly dark humor sauce. Very funny. Very true. Very us.

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.

A Prism of Hidden Meanings: On László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below 

László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below has been hailed as a book about the sacred. For the fictional artists described in the collection, transcendence comes through the act of creation. In one story, a Japanese theatre master takes the stage and feels the goddess Seiobo coursing through him. In another, a maskmaker’s chisel moves nearly of its own accord, fashioning a series of wooden faces that are almost alive. But Krasznahorkai also turns his attention to another genre of protagonists: average people who encounter the sacred, completely unequipped to contend with its impact. While the book’s artists find transcendence, other protagonists experience utter bewilderment — and their crisis is the focal point of the 17 stories in Seiobo There Below.

Seiobo translator Ottilie Mulzet notes in her interview with Krasznahorkai that he addresses what has effectively become taboo: “The question of ‘sacred’ in a world which has no need for it anymore.” The Hungarian author’s works are known for their promise of higher meaning and their tendency to approach, but never quite reach, resolution. Krasznahorkai’s previous titles in English (War & WarThe Melancholy of Resistance, and Satantango) earned critical recognition from Susan Sontag and James Wood for their strange, apocalyptic impression. Rife with peculiar characters and sealed into sophisticated structures (Satantango adopts the form of the tango dance, while Seiobo There Below, though billed as a novel, presents distinct stories numbered by the Fibonacci sequence), Krasznahorkai’s fiction makes contact with the otherworldly.

But the stakes are higher in Seiobo There Below. For one, the global nature of the collection is a marked departure from Krasznahorkai’s former English-language releases. The novels that earned him his reputation in America were texts with deeply Hungarian roots. The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango were both set in crumbling Hungarian villages; War & War featured a Hungarian protagonist newly moved to New York City. Seiobo, in contrast, spans locations from Kyoto to Persia and Perugia. Its narrative voices are equally diverse; we hear from a nascent murderer, a fanatic lecturer on Baroque music, a Parisian museum keeper in love with the Venus de Milo. Moving beyond localized meaning, the stories challenge us to examine the psychology of our moment, a time in which our inability to understand the sacred paralyzes us in its presence.

This bewilderment manifests itself in several narratives of Western European travelers knocked spiritually unconscious by the impact of sacred art. In “Christo Morto,” a traveler is drawn into Venice’s Scuola de la Roca to revisit a painting of Christ he had seen 11 years prior. He witnesses the image of Christ opening his eyes and is frozen by disbelief:
BUT HE IS OPENING HIS EYES, he registered within himself; then again he tried to muster the courage to fix his gaze onto the two eyes of Christ, BUT HOW DARK are these eyes, it was spine-chilling, as although NOW THEY REALLY WERE ALMOST COMPLETELY OPEN, you could hardly see the pupils, and nothing in the white of the eyes, it was completely clouded, a dark obscurity lay in these eyes…and here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY
The capitalization, the quick cadence of thoughts, the terror in beholding the eyes: this man’s franticness is palpable in the text. Bewildered, he sits and stares, then decides to turn away from the painting and leave the Scuola in hopes of dismissing such terrible thoughts. But the last line of the story — “For him there would never be any exit from this building, not ever” — reveals the inescapability of his new, disoriented state.

The next story, “Acropolis,” reiterates this feeling of bewilderment. The protagonist of the tale journeys to Athens fulfill his lifelong wish of visiting the ancient site. He arrives at the site only to find the limestone so bright that his eyes ache and tear. Unable to bear its radiance, he stops his ascent in pain and bitterness, asking himself why no travel guide, no art historical account, had warned him about the blinding light. His bewilderment grows from the expectation that he could have foreseen, let alone overcome, this trial. How could he have known the luminosity of this place?

Not all characters in Seiobo There Below reveal such blatant bewilderment. Several try to understand the sacred by cycling through methods tried and true: scholarly intercourse, scientific inquiry, mathematical analysis. Ironically, the characters who pursue answers down these clear pathways are among the most disconnected. At intervals throughout “Christo Morto,” for instance, we learn about an art historian who had tried to restore the Scuola’s painting of Christ. She brings the painting to a chemical restoration workshop in hopes of discovering the original artist, a mystery over which the board of San Rocco holds its breath. When the chemical restorer X-rays the image and examines the gesso, he finds an underwhelming signature. The painting is left half-forgotten in a small corner display. The art historian is so focused on the work’s scholarly evaluation that she misses the essence of the painting.

This intellectually fueled oblivion percolates through the stories. When a European scholar tries to study the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise Shrine, she misunderstands the tradition to such a point that she obscures the rite’s actual meaning. When a group of travelers camps out in the Carpathians to foster creativity, they grow so preoccupied with their routine that the true artist among them — an elusive man who carves an enormous earthen sculpture — becomes a spectacle.

As one bewilderment follows another, the repetitions themselves start to hold higher meaning. The arrangement of narratives into the Fibonacci sequence is no coincidence. Like the mathematical series, the stories in Seiobo There Below evoke a spiral, both recursive and unexplainable. Plots reoccur, protagonists resemble each other, and narrators repeat phrases as they circle around the topic at hand, always one inch short of final revelation. As one narrator remarks, “Not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.” This is the philosophy of Seiobo There Below. László Kraznahorkai has given us a work that shimmers under a prism of hidden meanings. Our task is to connect the dots, experience the mystery of the text, and embrace moments of bewilderment with patience, openness, and preparation for a deeply meaningful encounter.

Surprise Me!

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