Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s new novel, Seiobo There Below, begins with a rush of detail:
Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silken breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scourging heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles, and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; . . .
That sentence continues for another two pages. But amid the onslaught of description is an echo of another novel’s quieter beginning. Beckett’s Malone Dies opens with its narrator pronouncing, “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.” Both Krasznahorkai and Beckett begin with a warning: time is moving forward, in spite of all. There is nothing but “this one time and one time only,” and there will be no second chances.
The term “novel” applies only loosely to Krasznahorkai’s recent effort. Seiobo does not have a continuous plot; it is instead comprised of shorter, seemingly unrelated stories. The first of these takes place in Kyoto. A heron stands in a river. It watches the water below, waiting to catch a glimpse of a fish. That’s all. The prey never comes, the heron never moves. But the writing maintains the momentum with which it began. In Krasznahorkai’s long, adjective-dense sentences, the narrator speaks of “unbearable beauty” and “perfect nothingness,” provides context about Kyoto, and describes the history of the river in which the bird stands. Twenty pages are spent on this perfectly still heron. The chapter ends, and the heron still has not moved.
Twenty pages are spent on this perfectly still heron. The chapter ends, and the heron still has not moved.Tweet
In the following chapter, a Jewish family hires a boy to create illustrated panels depicting the story of the Book of Esther. The boy, an underling of the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, is preternaturally talented. The description of the boy’s work is intercut with a retelling of the Book of Esther itself. This chapter ends as suddenly as the first: there is a death, and no further mention is made of the family or their commission. The next chapter opens back in Japan, in the Zengen-Ji temple. The monks are preparing for a ritual that will allow for conservationists to remove a wooden Buddha to Kyoto. The conservationists do so, and the monks perform another ritual. That chapter ends. We are returned to Italy—this time, to Venice. A tourist in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is transfixed by a painting of the Dead Christ with closed eyes. The image so obsesses him that he returns eleven years later to see the painting again. He does so, is stricken with terror, and becomes convinced that he will never leave the Scuola Grande. Once again the chapter ends, and the reader is shunted into the next.
These synopses don’t fully communicate the experience of reading Seiobo. For a reader accustomed to a different kind of novel, one in which an author invites his audience into a comfortable space of shared experience and mutual understanding, Krasznahorkai’s opacity can be frustrating. Chapters end abruptly, with no indication of where the next might begin, and the episodic narratives are suffused with a sense of impending cataclysm. Krasznahorkai will focus on one infinitesimal detail for pages on end, or abandon the story’s events altogether for diatribes on faith, or time, or death. The effect is dizzying—especially given the writing’s density. In his earlier novels, Kraznahorkai’s style was always characterized by long, obsessive sentences, but in Seiobo they are taken to greater extremes. Nicole Krauss described those sentences as “shifting their center as if under the spell of some as-of-yet undiscovered grammatical physics.” One would certainly be hard-pressed to locate a single nucleus among Seiobo‘s sentences.
The momentum of Krasznahorkai’s prose forces readers to parse details at a full sprint—and there are a lot of details. Nearly every chapter is well populated with proper nouns: a Japanese abbot does not simply “pray,” but
calls the Lord of the World, the Master Shakyāmuni Buddha, he supplicates the Lord of Faith of the Eastern Realm, Dainichi Nyorai, who is the Tathāgata of crystal light, he supplicates and calls the Lord of Faith of the Western Realm, Amida Buddha, and the Buddha of the World to Come, Maitreya, Miroku Bosatsu, and every Buddha who can penetrate the Realm of Dharma through the air . . .
In theory, this specificity might aid a reader’s comprehension. In practice, the forward-sliding subjects of Krasznahorkai’s attention blur together: it is hard to encounter phrasings like, “He began with Titian, because first of all Cavalcasalle had done so, then Fischel and Berenson decisively, then Suida with doubts, and finally in 1955, Coletti reached the definite conclusion that the creator of the painting was none other than Titian,” and feel entirely confident about what, exactly, is being described. The preponderance of historical figures, artworks, and divine figures is so dense as to produce a learned helplessness in Seiobo’s readers. The intractable complexity of the stories never reveals itself to have been an exercise or a game; it never relaxes into more conventional storytelling. The short-term effect of this is almost sedative: in the face of such furious force, maintained over so many pages, what can the reader do? Submit, or be overcome.
What can the reader do? Submit, or be overcome.Tweet
This is hardly the first time Krasznahorkai has spent a novel grinding his readers up against the limits of reality. His earlier works explore the same themes as Seiobo, although to markedly different ends. Satantango (1985) and The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) are both set in post-communist Hungary, in modest towns beset by unexpected visitors. Both novels construct closed worlds in which entropy increases, all things tend downward, and any hope is shown to be futile. In Satantango, the characters are suckered out of their money; in Melancholy, the town erupts in disastrous rioting. Time plows onward, increasing rot, aging, rust, chaos, death. Here, Krasznahorkai’s long sentences feel like attempts at slowing down the steady encroachment of time, as though that might help prevent any further deterioration. Of course, there is no success. Everything crumbles eventually. There’s something admirable about Krasznahorkai’s willingness to write monstrous misery, and the relentless cataloguing of suffering in his earlier works makes for memorable stories. Nonetheless, it’s that same intransigence that ultimately limits his early novels: their ceaseless darkness proves anesthetizing when stretched across hundreds of pages. It’s a technique that is as likely to bore as to horrify.
But in Seiobo, Krasznahorkai’s ability to capture the wretched is at its best. Some of the book’s success might be attributable to the novel’s unusual form: the constraints of the one-off chapter structure free the author to do more captivating work, as he is relieved of the responsibility to take any plot particularly far. Whereas in Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, Krasznahorkai built towns and described their downfalls, Seiobo has the author beginning with nothing and building up to a hoped-for escape every few dozen pages. And whereas Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance drew moments out as long as possible, as if to arrest the continued movement of time, in Seiobo the author seems to be trying to restart it, and to produce a single moment that represents a break from everything that came before. As the eponymous goddess says:
I had to come from that world where form itself is resplendent; streaming forth it swells, and thus everything is filled by nothingness, I had to descend once more, and again, for I had to break away from the purity of the Heavens, and step into a moment; for nothing ever lasts longer, or even lasts as long as that, and thus so is my submerging below not lasting longer than a single moment, if, yet, so much of everything can fit into one single moment;
Although the goddess Seiobo comes from a paradise of constant, unwavering beauty, she has to “submerge below” to find something that she is lacking. The ephemerality that Krasznahorkai has spent so many books lamenting is here depicted as a positive force that enables the existence of transcendent beauty. The difficulty is in finding that ever-elusive instant.
Either way, time continues, and Seiobo along with it. Its established form is uninterrupted: each story brings its characters toward some enchanting beauty which they may not touch, then breaks off at the last possible moment, leaving us to imagine the result. In a way, Seiobo’s interruptions represent a stylistic pessimism, one that echoes the thematic pessimism of his earlier works: The writing’s long-winded breathlessness and the plots’ and repeated breaking away, make it clear that neither completion, resolution, nor realization are to be found here. But these disturbances provide a sort of coda to the rest of Krasznahorkai’s career, at once affirming and distilling that which came before. He has always dealt in dissatisfaction; here, that inclination is taken to its logical extreme. It is satisfying, though not necessarily in the way that one might hope to be satisfied. The end came, in spite of all.