An interview with László Krasznahorkai

János Szegő

Photograph by Lenke Szilágyi

Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai's literary signature is his disenchantment with the period, “the dot” that he considers “an artificial border between sentences.” His stories of dystopian ruin unspool in sweeping sentences that “take you down loops and dark alleyways [. . . ] like wandering in and out of cellars,” sentences that “like a lint roll, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things,” sentences that advance so methodically and insistently that one hardly registers their shifting gears. He rarely resorts to the short sentence because, as he claims, we almost never use them, and it is among his writerly inclinations to model his prose after the rhythms of our speech, to hew as closely to “everyday language” as possible.

Krasznahorkai spins and refines these sentences in his head, not on a computer, which technological advent he uses merely as a recording device and otherwise seems utterly unimpressed by, as he made clear in a 2012 interview with The Guardian: “This is the result of 10,000 years? Really? We have microphone, laptop, this technical society—that's all? This is sad and very disappointing. After so many geniuses in the human story from Leonardo to Einstein, from the Buddha to Endre Szemerédi . . . ”

By any measure, Krasznahorkai ranks among the most essential literary heavyweights. Distinguished even on long lists featuring the likes of Herta Müller, Mo Yan, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Elena Ferrante, he was the first to garner two Best Translated Book Awards, winning in 2013 and 2014 for novels published more than two decades apart—
Satantango (1985) and Seiobo There Below (2008), translated by George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet respectively. In 2015 he became the sixth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize, joining the company of Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Chinua Achebe, and Ismail Kadare.

His latest novel,
Báró Wenckheim hazatér [Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming] was published in Hungarian in September 2016—only to be translated into English three years later by Ottilie Mulzet—and another volume, Az utolsó farkas (2009), appeared in English translation at the end of the same month under the title The Last Wolf, translated by Szirtes. The launches of the two books provided the opportunity to sit down and talk about irony and nature, reality and fiction.

Your short story “The Last Wolf” became the title piece of your book recently published in the United States. Was this your decision or your editor’s?

The whole thing started with Barbara Epler, president and publisher of New Directions, accidentally coming across George Szirtes’s translation of “The Last Wolf.” She loved it so much that she wanted to release it straight away. Afterwards she realized that this text would be too thin even for a booklet, so she asked me to suggest something to complement it with, and I recommended the two versions of “Herman,” “Herman I: The Game Warden” and “Herman II: The Death of a Craft,” both translated by John Batki. These are the sections of the volume that came out on September 27th in New York.

What is the significance of having two versions of this balladic game story in the volume?

In my opinion the “Hermanesque” condition is about the realization that although there may be an engress out of conventionality, this entails a deadly peril for those who take it, and I envisioned this condition simultaneously in two different stories. Herman is the same in the two stories, and while the circumstances are different, both cases represent the fact that although the Hermanesque condition might entail tragedy on the personal level, society would regard it as nothing more than a pointless sacrifice.

Both versions of “Herman” tell the story of a sincere revolt against humanized life, and they come to the conclusion that if a sincere, honest revolt is inevitable, so is the fall of the revolutionary. These texts intend to get even with any kind of revolt and with those who have leanings towards it. They intend to get rid of the myth that revolt is meaningful and that only revolt can lead to a sincere understanding of one another, to greatness and to fame. I wrote them in the Communist Hungary of the early 1980s, when, with a “slight” delay—an innate characteristic of the regime—I was introduced to the key documents and manifestos of the rebellious movements that took place in Western Europe in the 1960s, which swept me completely.

Both versions of “Herman” depict characters that are the last representatives of their kind, dealing with the relationship between the hunted and the hunter in the context of the hunt. More precisely, with the fictitious situation in which the game warden becomes the quarry himself. Without the slightest intention to translate this situation into reality, perhaps we can agree that now, with the last months of 2016 approaching, the notions “last,” “hunt,” and “the mass of deadly chaos” conjure up radically different connotations than, let’s say, a few years ago. Or do you think that the actual time span of things and of existence is beyond our understanding, as there have always been and will always be those who are left to be the last representatives of an era, and the act of hunting is similarly everlasting? I’m asking this specifically because it seems that critics have discussed and interpreted your work through the lens of crisis since the outset of your literary career.

In general, for creatures living in nature and in humanized nature, life gains momentum only in times of crisis. There is no peace. Living under the conditions of war is natural. Instead of expecting the apocalypse to come, we need to understand that we are already living in it. The apocalypse has already commenced. The two “Herman” narratives take it for granted that these stories, just like all stories ever written, take place in times of crisis. Therefore, no Hermanesque figure is needed to bring these crises about. Their existence has a completely different purpose. It reminds us that in the midst of constant crisis there are situations of special significance, in which a revolt can easily point to the fact that there is a crisis going on. The Hermans, the heroes of “pointing,” whatever form they take, throw light into the vast darkness and illuminate the fragility of a world order that is guided by extreme short-sightedness. “I live in peace,” says the average suburban man, asking his wife to bring him dinner and settling down in an armchair to watch the “football match of the century,” while the snarling monster is already peeping in through the window. And it’s only the first one. Soon a herd will come.

While you’ve often been asked about your experience of social existence and travelling among different cultures, I’m curious about your experience of nature. How do you feel when in nature? Can we still talk about nature in the “original” sense of the word? And where have you encountered nature in its most intense form?

My relationship with nature has changed radically in the past few decades. When I was young, I tended to imagine nature as an unusually hostile place to live in, both for humans and for other beings. I regarded it as hostility itself. I found it rather strange that some people would willingly seek contact with unrestrainable nature, only to wander in it joyously. I simply regarded every hiker as an idiot, as well as heedless, naïve, and blind to peril, people who haven’t the faintest idea that what they consider beautiful and sublime is already lying in wait to extinguish them. Later, when I was influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture, their worldview changed my attitude completely, and I started to reckon nature as the locus of mystery and of epiphany, and simultaneously, I found some arrangements in my natural surroundings fairly beautiful.

And now I tend to think that the only thing that exists is nature, that nothing else is real but nature, and the reality one perceives is similarly nature itself, beyond which only void resides. You may wonder whether I find nature beautiful. I have to admit that when I am up there, let’s say on one of the summits surrounding Matterhorn, and contemplate the scenery of the Alps, which in this region can be more than 4,000 meters high, I do not find it beautiful. Rather, I am seized with feelings of veneration and awe while reflecting upon the immeasurable vastness of the monumental landscape. Of course, a fallen man says this, who has no idea what he is contemplating with such awe and veneration.

The idea of “traces” is conjured up frequently in these texts: people are lost without a trace, cover up their traces, while others find the traces that have been covered up by others. It is also characteristic of you to vanish sometimes, almost without a trace, only to appear later somewhere else and decidedly venture to stir out of your private inward life, and then drop out of sight in the wilderness anew. How would you describe your relation to silence and darkness these days?

You have offered a valid description of my life. You have left out one important element though: it's the accidental nature. My disappearances and reappearances are not following a scheme, you know. I just let chance guide me—it guides me anyways.

Wherever I happen to disappear, it is neither into silence nor into darkness. Nowadays even the seemingly most unimportant and miserable spots of the universe are filled with awful noise and frightful glare, and the poor victim who seeks to find shelter in the comforting silence and darkness cannot find any.

The translations of your works into English since the millennium have almost surpassed those into German. English has now become one of the leading “familiar yet foreign” languages in which your novels are available. What are the most significant characteristic features of the English translations? How do your sentences sound in English? I’m referring both to the manner of your working with excellent translators and to the extent to which these renderings are in “harmony” with the basic features and the “personality” of the English language.

To tell the truth, I have no idea how my books sound in a foreign language. I can understand them in English or in German or in other languages, but I don’t have the faintest idea how they sound in these languages. Everything is up to the translators, and I consider myself to be exceptionally fortunate in this respect. The translators who have worked on my volumes so far—George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet, and John Bátki—are people blessed with enormous patience, talent, and humility.

I am standing before them as if before a perfectly locked cloister. I am standing at the gate, which is closed, but right next to it there is a narrow opening, and in this opening there is a revolving apparatus, divided into compartments. I place the Hungarian originals of Satantango, Seiobo There Below, and “The Last Wolf” into one of the compartments and spin the apparatus around, which takes the manuscript inside, where somebody, one of the translators, takes it out—from then on, I have no idea what happens to them. And after months and years have passed, all of a sudden I am notified that I can visit the cloister again. I watch the revolving apparatus in the opening, and all of a sudden, the translation appears. This modest parable does not even get close to the profoundness of the mystery that surrounds the act of translating a text from one native language into another. A perfect mystery—one that cannot be unstitched.

A recurring motif in your books is arrival, which is often inseparable from notions of returning and homecoming. I am particularly interested in the idea of homecoming: How many homes do you think you have and how do you feel about it (or them)?

I cannot remember having felt at home anywhere since my childhood. Perhaps it is totally natural for an adult person to feel this way; yet, there are some fortunate ones who keep the ability to be able to feel themselves at home practically anywhere. I’m not one of them. But I can cope with this situation, by which I mean that I’m indeed able to talk about what home means or might mean for others, the more fortunate ones. To use a cliché: an illusion.

You know, the ability to feel that you are at home at this place or another is something that should not be dismissed lightly. To be able to feel at home, one needs to be blind to a whole lot of things, to fail to acknowledge a whole lot of other things, and to keep the realization that his or her home is highly unstable at a distance. The unstable nature of homes is very much evident to me and thus, I find some people’s clinging adherence to their homes highly moving.

And this is the most complex element of the problem—why I find this affection so moving. I would not say it is because the ability to feel at home would be natural, as what we are talking about is only a refined variant of an animated melody that I would call anything but natural. But then should I call it primordial? Ancient? Or something that is by definition already given? Perhaps I should, but no, none of these phrases seems to be adequate.

But it is fairly evident that affection has to do with the question of safety. And even if the adult person is not unaware of the fact that he or she is not at home because one cannot be at home anywhere, finally even this person returns or intends to return home. One can return anywhere: to the trunk of a withered tree, to a house that is nowhere to be found anymore, or underneath a cloud of times past. So to hell with arguing—we remain what we are, animals.

Your new novel was published in mid-September (and as far as I know, a translator is already rendering it into English). I regard this text as your “homecoming” as an author after having written so many works that portray foreign civilizations in remote continents. In contrast to the “world texts” this is a characteristically “Hungarian text.” As an author, do you find any difference between fictionalizing something that has been long familiar for you and something that you have encountered only recently?

The novel you are talking about—Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming—provides a cadenza for my previous novels. It sums up what I have scribbled down during my career as a novelist. And this novel is not my “homecoming,” but that of the protagonist. When asked about my literary career, I often say that from the outset I intended to write one novel, under the condition that it was “well written.” And since I never really succeeded, I tried again and again. However, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming has nothing of this urge in it; it is rather the confession of a failure and thus, among other things, it can be characterized as the acknowledgement of the fact that this is as far I have gotten: to attempt.

But to get to the point: the basis of this novel is the return home, which is a very ancient topic in literature. The novel has many great predecessors. I very much respect the noble cliché, and you love it too, for you know that on the peaks of world literature there is little more than a few great clichés, and it is hardly necessary, indeed hardly worthwhile to attempt to free oneself of them. The question is always simply what you can do with a lofty cliché. My story is modest: someone lives his entire life under the yoke of a single love. And he returns to the place from which this love stems to die. And in the meantime, the human world works to show itself? And to show itself as being exactly the same as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago? And this all takes place in the Hungary of today? I chalk this up to chance. Because I chalk everything up to chance. To rotten chance.

Your newest book marks a return to the novel after several collections of short stories (Seiobo There Below; Megy a világ “The World Goes,” not available in English translation yet). What excited you about writing these narratives?

The dense form. The carelessness, disregard, and irresponsibility that, in the writing of a story, go without saying. The story dispenses with the laborious portrayal of wholeness or perfection. Rather, it conjures it with the trick of compressing it down to a single story or the presentation of a single element. The authors of stories are always scoundrels.

In the novel you once again brilliantly mix reality (or perhaps the strong illusion of reality) with “true” fiction. As an author, what do you make of these terms, reality and fiction?

Oh, you have used the expression “author” several times. I cannot let this slide. In my case, there is no difference between a statement I make as an author and a statement I make not as an author. There is simply no difference. I do not have two separate lives or two faces. I am an author in my personal life. And the other way around too, I am a person in my life as an author. This is not simply a play with words. I hear your questions, I try to answer them, but in the meantime in my head there is . . . a sentence. I wait for an airplane, a train, a bus, someone else, or I happen to be waiting for them to bring me the glass of brandy that I have ordered at long last, and they don’t, damn them, and in the meantime this whole…is a single whole. I don’t know if what I am saying is clear. I do not divide myself up into parts. I do not divide myself into parts depending on what is happening around me at a given moment or depending on which part of me the things happening around me happen to want. I am always aware that I am part of a whole.

And so now the question, reality or fiction. It will be about charlatanism. As a child, I was constantly chided for colouring, exaggerating, overstating, and distorting the “truth.” This has not changed. For some unusual reason, the essence of which I do not entirely understand, reality as such was always inadequate and remained inadequate to me, so I always told tales, fictionalized, changed the proportions, and I always made changes in places where I sensed a lack of proportion in the “real” process of events. Disproportionateness. As if reality had a more proportionate, more “real” version, so I thought for a time.

But then I had to accept that I was not on the right track. Reality is like God: “we are convinced that He exists,” but He has never appeared in . . . certainty. He does not present Himself. Nor does reality present itself. We surmise that “this” is reality and not something else. The more honest among us try again and again to get closer to it. But that is like trying to see your own eyes. This drove me to despair in my youth. And then, following the guidance given by Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, I resolved to be a “scoundrel.” Or to use a different word, a charlatan. Writing is quackery. But so is proclaiming anything about reality. We are charlatans. Simple little charlatans. So why not be a charlatan by profession, I thought. And I started to write Satantango. That’s how it began.

The nature of irony in your new book seems to be different. It is more vehement and mordant. Painful in a different way. To what extent, assuming you agree, is this a literary tool and to what extent is it a human form of defence?

Again I must note, though perhaps it sounds like I am just being playful, that I wrote the novel —all of it—but what takes place in the novel, what comes to pass, what pushes it forward, that is the characters’ doing. This is how the characters present themselves. They cannot do so in any other way, only in this way. They have no personal lives when they are not the characters in this novel, or when they are. So if you find this novel more ironic, satirical—or if you find the ironic-satirical nature of this novel sharper, more biting, or to use your words, more vehement and mordant, and if this is so—then it is due to the characters. Let me reply by suggesting that you please ask them.

translated from the Hungarian by Eszter Krakkó