This month brings us a set of novels in translation from some of the giants of international literature: László Krasznahorkai, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Ananda Devi. These reviews by Asymptote team members will give you a taste of an exiled baron’s return to his home town, a meditation on fascism and gender relations, and the decline of an older woman living in a London divided by race and class.
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, New Directions, 2019
Review by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
“With this novel,” László Krasznahorkai told Adam Thirwell in their conversation for the Paris Review, “I can prove that I really wrote just one book in my life . . . When you read it, you’ll understand. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming must be the last.”
Ottilie Mulzet’s English translation of Báró Wenckheim hazatér has, understandably, been one of this year’s most keenly-anticipated books. It opens with a “Warning,” a labyrinthine eight-page sentence ending with a sigh of weariness that merits quoting at some length:
I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.
If a committee were appointed with the task of designing a writer who didn’t fit into the twenty-first century, it’s hard to imagine that they could come up with any stronger candidate than László Krasznahorkai. At a time when wisdom is supposedly meant to be dispensed in aphorisms of 140 characters or fewer, Krasznahorkai is waging a career-long struggle against the tyranny of the full stop; while the political orthodoxy preaches an impossible dream of continual progress, Krasznahorkai’s trajectory has been a descent into chaos and darkness (“hell” is one of the words that recurs most frequently, in various contexts, in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming; here, though, the inner circle is made of fire rather than Dantean ice). Where the contemporary writer is supposed to bare their soul to the demands of publicists, Krasznahorkai is infamously reclusive.
In an interview with Asymptote, Krasznahorkai reflected that “I cannot remember having felt at home anywhere since my childhood. Perhaps it is totally natural for an adult person to feel this way . . .” His latest (and probably last) novel is woven around the homecoming of a character who, like the author, can never quite feel at home.
Faintly echoing the ill-fated rail journey which opens The Melancholy of Resistance, the Baron— who shares a name but not a biography with a nineteenth-century Hungarian prime minister—travels home “from Hawaii, traveling through Vienna by train.” Although news of the Baron’s return stirs various other characters into a state of frenzy and is reported in the tabloids “for days”, the Baron remains preoccupied with a past embodied in the figure of the “romantic” Marika (“I love candlelit dinners, long walks in the Chateau gardens, and refined feelings, and everything . . .”).
Early reviews have reached for Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin as a character of comparative stature, but at times the Baron seems almost Hamlet-like, addressing the invisible audience in melancholy soliloquies: “It’s not that I don’t understand why a person has to die,” he reflects at one stage, “but rather, I don’t understand why a person has to live.” The home that lies at the end of every journey is, of course, the Biblical “long home.”
Although it’s impossible to represent the richness of the novel in a single review, it seems important to note that the governing principle of Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is entropy. Energy dissipates as the plot heaves itself forward, and the system tends inexorably toward a state of disorder.
Finally, after the work of a lifetime, hundreds of thousands of words pronounced by a chorus of competing voices, the final word is given to “the Idiot Child from the Orphanage,” who croons a parody of a lullaby over the wreckage of the burning city. The dynasty has crumbled, and a lone small voice is left to sing, briefly, in the wilderness.
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann, translated from the German by Philip Boehm, New Directions, 2019
Review by Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large for El Salvador
As I began poring through Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina, now in a new translation by Philip Boehm, Bachmann’s commentary on fascism and societal breakdown replayed over and over in my mind:
It doesn’t start with the first bombs that are dropped; it doesn’t start with the terror that can be written about in every newspaper. It starts with relationships between people. Fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman, and I attempted to say that here in this society there is always war. There isn’t war and peace, there’s only war.
What does it mean that fascism is the first thing in a relationship between a man and a woman? What does it mean that in this society there’s only war?
Malina opens with a limited list of characters appearing in the story: Ivan, Béla and András (Ivan’s children from a previous relationship), Malina, and “myself,” who is the unnamed narrator. The characters live in the Ungargasse district of Vienna: the narrator and Malina live in the same apartment, while Ivan lives a few blocks away. While in a relationship with Malina, the narrator is having an affair with Ivan. It is implied that the narrator is a woman who works as a journalist and writer and employs an assistant, Frau Jellinek, to type correspondences and write drafts of the narrator’s unfinished novel.
The narrator begins having dreams of her father. In her first dream, the narrator recounts standing next to her father as they were meeting a gravedigger who, fearing her father’s gaze, turns and speaks to the narrator. The narrator cannot hear the gravedigger’s words until his last words, “This is the cemetery of the murdered daughters,” to which she replies that the gravedigger should have never said that to her, and then cries. In more of her dreams, the narrator cannot find her voice to respond to her father. It’s as if it has been taken away. After the dreams subside, the narrator’s relationships with Ivan and Malina deteriorate, and at the end of the novel, the narrator writes that she was murdered and disappears into a crack in the wall of her apartment.
Bachmann uses an unusual punctuation style that translator Philip Boehm keeps intact in his translation. Numerous dialogues in the first half of the book have no punctuation and no names to indicate who is speaking, giving the reader a splendid blend of the characters’ voices as if they were speaking together as one. As the novel progresses, the dialogues also evolve to include Italian musical directions—accelerando, crescendo, presto, prestissimo, tiempo giusto, etc.—as if they were notated on musical sheets. The dialogues also follow the trajectory of the narrator’s relationships as the narrator begins breaking away from her lovers; the dialogue reintroduces names and colons to distinguish who is speaking, thereby providing an organized identity for the characters’ speaking parts. Boehm also keeps many of the Austrian idioms untranslated, and they work spectacularly to keep the reader in this post-1945 Vienna setting and familiarize the reader with the geography of the city.
Other oddities of Bachmann that Boehm keeps are the musical bars that sporadically appear throughout the novel. In a scene near the end of the novel, Malina pushes the narrator off the piano as she begins to play. Malina then begins playing a musical piece and singing so that only the narrator can hear. Throughout the novel, a patriarchal figure is always present around the narrator: Ivan, Malina, her father in dreams, musical pieces, interviewees. This background of patriarchy in the narrator’s life is the music that she builds her life around, as if she cannot have an independent or purposeful life without the patriarchy, in line with the fascist ideology that limits the roles of women in society through subjugation and compliance, in service to men. What is even more insidious in this Viennese society is the narrator subtly implying that one of her lovers, Malina, may not even exist and may be a male figment of her imagination that she used to keep herself within that society’s standards, much like in her dreams of her father.
From the beginning of the novel, the relationships between the narrator and the men in her life are dictated by “a very old wall, a very strong wall, from which no one can fall, which no one can break open, from which nothing can ever be heard again.” Bachmann uses this wall to represent constant struggle, war between the narrator and men deciding her purpose, her existence in this society. What relationship can exist between people if there is a wall dividing them, if one is subservient to another? How can there be any peace without equality for both parties in a relationship? The narrator’s father, Malina, and Ivan all serve as a manifestation of fascism that Bachmann states is the first wall to start and continue war. It is a force so powerful that even the narrator is robbed of the individuality of her death, as fascism—through the men closest to her—orchestrates her murder by simply erasing her existence from memory.
The Living Days by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffery Zuckerman, Feminist Press, 2019
Review by Daljinder Johal, Senior Executive Assistant
Adeptly translated from French into English by Jeffery Zuckerman, The Living Days by Ananda Devi explores the macabre sexual infatuation that a seventy-five-year-old white British spinster named Mary Grimes has for Cub, a thirteen-year-old Jamaican boy from Brixton. An immediate attraction grips the mentally-deteriorating Mary, unsettling and intriguing the reader in equal measure. However, while Mary’s life feels revived by the youthful beauty of Cub and nostalgic hallucinations of her former and only lover Howard, the racism, poverty, and class conflict of post-7/7 London unites the three characters in a tragic conclusion.
The novel is relentlessly critical of the immense wealth and inequality of a “city of corpses and promises” that crushes its inhabitants both mentally into indifference and physically as they live in squalor. Indeed, death permeates the book in all of its characters and its setting. Even during a brief encounter with Mary’s Parsi neighbour at a wedding, who describes his funeral wishes for “towers of silence,” or in moments of lightness as Mary pleasurably envisages her aging body rejuvenating, it’s evident that her feelings are borne out of delusion.
However, Devi manages to balance the bleak tone of the book with her use of pacing. The plot is primarily told through the perspectives of Cub and Mary, frequently bouncing between the two at speed so we never feel too overwhelmed by their lives and treating them with much sympathy. Still, so intimately exploring their thoughts can be an uncomfortable experience. Mary’s desire for Cub waves between maternal, sexual, and an artistic appreciation of “a beauty that cut to her core.” Perhaps even more worryingly, she continues despite mostly recognising the inappropriate nature of this, and also notes her neglect of herself and financially valuable home on Portobello Road. There’s a depressing honesty when Mary thinks: “She’s now at the point of no longer caring. So used to things decaying that it’s ceased to bother her; on the contrary, they’re her own ruins.”
In fact, we flash back to her younger years from the novel’s opening, and Devi equally refuses to shy away from the consequences of a “lost generation” of young men who fought and died in World War Two. Mary appears to hold some nostalgia, for post-war London in particular, yet thanks to her privilege of inheriting a nice house on Portobello Road, she doesn’t have to see that “the aftereffects of the war were still visible: a Salvation Army soup kitchen where survivors went to eat without having to look anyone in the eye; a homeless shelter where men creeped like fleeting shadows.”
Even Cub recognises Mary’s comparative privilege to his struggle to support his single mother and sisters: “So much weakness for no reason, he thought as he watched Mary. Life didn’t seem to have done anything to her, didn’t seem to have taken anything away. She alone didn’t know what to do or what to make of life. And she was crying about that.”
Like the many nameless faces in the novel, Mary demonstrates the same indifference to others’ suffering. But this seems to be a symptom in the book as a whole. When examining Mary’s youth and and the post 9/11 world, those in the early twentieth century demonstrate a stronger need to embrace each moment—or each other—because “Why pretend when time is so short?”. In comparison, the twenty-first-century capital seems to host many existing in a living death, barely scraping by and many succumbing to homelessness.
Thus, when considering the title, The Living Days, it’s unclear to what era the title refers—the past or present. But the uncomfortable content also highlights the strength of the book’s translation. Devi’s flair for description is maintained by Zuckerman, rendering the flow of words an enjoyable read, for instance: “The golden moisture of the air exhaled microscopic droplets on this fragile parchment. Just beneath her skin could be seen the latticework of veins, the bluish network that still traced the trajectory of Mary’s life. Howard knew the different phases of Mary, as a precise calendar would those of the moon.” In a novel focusing so intensely on the bleak and macabre, retaining such evocative passages of imagery feels essential.
Ultimately, The Living Days seems most like a call to appreciate balance. Avarice and indifference end up condemning our protagonists and the city of London is a warning of the pitfalls of prosperity in an attempt to “overcome the madness” of war. Above all, Devi maintains a careful balancing act to ensure that our protagonists provoke some degree of empathy and provide an engaging read.
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