László Krasznahorkai’s literature teacher in college often entered the class with a thick book, read out some portions in Hungarian and left without a word. The young Krasznahorkai, stealing a glance at the book called Ulysses, saw that it was by someone called James Joyce. He realised only later that until then its Hungarian version had not appeared. His teacher translated the intractable modern epic while he read it out.
Perhaps, those were the earliest impressions that prompted the pupil to make the moment a nucleus of his authorial enquiry. Some are masters of memory, others weave futuristic tales, Krasznahorkai impales the present moment with a relentless force. Long-drawn sentences, often without punctuation marks, or a paragraph running through many pages are not mere literary devices for him. He employs these as epistemological tools to assert that the “moment is an immediate experience of the universe”. The result is asphyxiating, often terrifying. His fiction is a matrix of impending horrors about things his characters can perceive, but cannot completely identify. He effortlessly forwards the legacy of post-war European writers grappling with the civilisation they woke up to find in tatters.
Unable to comprehend the stuffed carcass of the largest ever whale a circus company has put on display, the small town in The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) simmers with an unknown fear. The reader is drawn into this metaphor, but never learns its contours. “We could have reached them in a few strides if we really wanted to but that would have meant giving up the dark, as yet unknown, aura of magic and mystique, full of the tempting surprises, risks and dangers, of pursuit…” the novel believes.
Among the writers shortlisted for The Man Booker International award this year, he was perhaps the “least known”. His works, translated only recently, have had a limited readership. The novel Satantango (1985) was made into a seven-hour movie by compatriot Bela Tarr in 1995, but it was out in English only in 2012. Indeed, there were hardly a dozen among the audience when he visited Delhi two winters ago for a series of lectures and readings. During his speech, the elusive writer, who believed that “being a mystic is a fortune”, would often fumble, become silent and stare blankly, before turning to his Sinologist wife Dorka to help him with the correct word.
The Man Booker jury compared him with Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, with whom he shares more than the initial K. K is not just his “only literary hero”. It’s his alter ego, his doppelganger, a reflection on him and his fiction. His characters do not evoke pity, instead, they carry a seemingly impregnable mystery.
His work with compatriot Bela Tarr is, perhaps, the finest collaboration of a novelist and a filmmaker. Shot in a poignant monochrome of black and white with Tarkovskian long takes, The Turin Horse, Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies portray the beauty of a world unknown to many. Krasznahorkai was not a mere scriptwriter as the credits might tell; these films carry his creative vision. The stunningly long takes, unfolding in real time, especially the opening sequence of The Turin Horse when the old farmer flogs his animal back home, correspond with his long sentences.
The Hungarian language has a word, “Szep”, that indicates an aspect of beauty not easily translatable into English. This word recurs through Seiobo There Below (2008). A friend of Krasznahorkai had a huge collection of 19th century books. Even the dust on the jackets and cobwebs on shelves carried a smell that seemed to be lingering around for centuries. Krasznahorkai regularly visited this friend, sometimes to just silently stare at the classics, until his death. Szep characterises Krasznahorkai’s works and his life.