‘Mirrors in a Funhouse: A Review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “The World Goes On”, translated by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes’, by Darren Huang

The disorienting, hypnotic quality of reading one of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s stories is akin to becoming lost in a hostile foreign city, becoming painfully aware of one’s dislocation, and becoming trapped in one’s multiplying thoughts as they speed toward existential despair. The author’s most recent collection of stories, The World Goes On, is a characteristically bleak series of monologues and thought experiments. The stories are linked by the shadowy presence of a nameless narrator. In the first section, ‘Speaks’, he directly addresses the reader and then comments in a number of inquiries on memory, history, knowledge, and the inhumanity of the world. In the following series of stories, ‘Narrates’, the narrator retreats and recounts scenes from the lives of obsessives, wayward travellers, and eccentrics. Finally, in ‘He Bids Farewell’, the narrator, as if he had his fill of earthly suffering, re-emerges only to depart from the world.

In these stories, departure – or really escape – from either an antagonistic place or an entrenched mode of thinking, remains either deferred or unrealized until the point of death or some form of self-annihilation. The characters often obsess over their bleak conditions until they seem ironic and humorously absurd. These manic, self-recoiling works concern themselves with the futility of existence under apocalyptic circumstances, or as so poetically articulated by Krasznahorkai himself in the title of his second novel, The Melancholy of Resistance.

I. Speaks

In these first series of stories, Krasznahorkai returns to something like his usual breathless ranting; his particular brand of unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness. Sentences sputter on for pages and even entire stories. Often, he dispenses with paragraph breaks in favour of solid blocks of text. The narratives are never straightforwardly linear but discursive and vaguely circular.

Krasznahorkai typically buries deep the internal logic behind his stories. In each story, the narrator flails before a daunting metaphysical problem. In ‘About Speed’, the narrator wants to “leave the Earth behind” by literally running faster than the planet itself. The story is composed entirely of the narrator’s tortuous mental calculations for achieving this feat. The story is virtually self-justification, an argument with the self:

since all that was interesting was that I should move faster than thought, that is to say, outrun the Earth, but then the little brother within me started making calculations in my head, arguing that there, on the one hand, was the Earth’s velocity, that majestically challenging, vast, eternal per secundum and there on the other, were my best efforts at running at whatever per secundum the occasion offered, and then, it seemed to me, any relative value would do for me to run ahead of the Earth…

Krasznahorkai’s worlds are characterized by stagnancy and determinism. His characters are often helpless against physical or metaphysical laws. They are like lab animals running about in endless and elaborate mazes. In ‘At the Latest in Turin’, one of the first section’s more formalized stories, the narrator recounts the incident in which the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche allegedly witnessed the cruel beating of a horse by his driver and intervened by hugging the animal’s neck. Nietzsche starts to weep and is taken by his landlord back home, where he lies in madness for the next ten years until his death. In the story, this incident represents the moment in which his transformation occurs, or in other words, when he abandons his amorality for a more conventional belief system, one that rests on “pity, goodness, forgiveness, and compassion.” The narrator believes that a man’s denial of morality is something temporary and unnatural, and he will inevitably return to living in accordance with a standard of ethics. The individual only has so much time for freedom. Whether in a year or twenty years, he has to answer to his humanity. These stories often feel pessimistic because human nature emerges as narrow and predictable. For Krasznahorkai, the fact of being human paralyses rather than liberates.

II. Narrates

In the intense middle stories of the collection the narrator observes desultory men trapped in pseudo-realities that resemble cities such as Shanghai, Varanasi, and those in central Europe. The neurotic minds being anatomized and poured out before us are often obsessed with a single, monumental desire – a desire to leave, a desire to possess, a desire to reconnect, or a desire to validate.

These stories typically start with characters at odds with their respective worlds. In ‘Nine Dragon Crossing’, a European interpreter of Chinese, on a business trip in Shanghai, finds himself lost in the centre of an elaborate Chinese superhighway and begins to ponder the metaphysical implications of the monstrous structure. In ‘A Drop of Water’, set in a version of Varanasi, a tourist realizes the city is full of the dying. While seeking in vain to escape, he is roped into listening to an engineer pontificate on the mysteries of the water molecule. In ‘That Gagarin’, a historian of science, speaking from a mental asylum, records his claims about a Russian conspiracy to conceal the details regarding the death of the first man in space. These characters are anomalies, outliers or heretics. They seem to be the only individuals able to perceive the madness of their surroundings. The cities are oppressive and conspire against them. The characters either go mad themselves or become altered beyond recognition.

The nightmarishness of these worlds is amplified through both the repetition of mundane detail and tangential, lengthy monologues that interrupt the main narratives. In ‘Nine Dragon Crossing’, the simultaneous interpreter returns to his hotel room after a horrifying experience on the superhighway. He turns on the TV and half-awake, he listens to a program from Hong Kong:

it was downright insinuatingly mellifluous, and constantly, during every least fraction of an instant aiming to persuade, continuously and melodiously seductive therefore, and vivid, as the Cantonese dialect always is, and it was just in the middle of saying, this sweetly persuasive, ever vivid Cantonese dialect, that the entirety of the whole is not a sum of the smaller wholes but simply exists, if it existed, except that it does not, therefore there is no sense in talking about it, which would be all right, except for one problem, that now the belief in it also has no sense, however without it our entire way of thinking collapses

The passage is highly characteristic of Krasznahorkai: there is a relentless emphasis on the defining qualities of an everyday object (the voice is “insinuatingly mellifluous”, “melodiously seductive”, and “sweetly persuasive”). The writer passes with ease between distinct registers, that of concrete, hyper-realistic reportage and abstract, philosophical discourse. This writing also has an effect of slowing down the clock, as if its events were occurring over years rather than real time. The voice is speaking both “constantly” and in “every least fraction of an instant”. The “fraction of an instant” has been engorged with detail, both mental and physical. In Krasznahorkai’s fiction, the tendency is toward infinity, toward the exhaustive packing of the smallest moment in time.

In the fashion of postmodern writers like David Foster Wallace and John Barth, the passage also resorts to the use of a story within a story, or the world within a world (and sometimes, within a third world). The significance of the second narrative is often only glimpsed after a complete reading or rereading of the story. In ‘Nine Dragon Crossing’, the TV program’s philosophical messages seep into the mind of the simultaneous interpreter and spur a transformative revelation about his own life. There is a conflating and intertwining of the narratives, so that they become indistinct from one another. In these works, the most incidental occurrence – a voice on a TV channel or a chance encounter – can gather cosmic significance.

In the author’s most realist fiction here, ‘Bankers’, the second story becomes so tenuously connected to the point of seeming like background static. In the main plot, the businessman Ixi Fortinbras visits his intimate friend, Paul, and realizes that Paul has become crude, anxious, and cynical. Much of the story occurs in stilted conversations between Ixi, Paul, and Paul’s friend Mursel, while all three sit in a car speeding between various remote locations in Kiev. Ixi finds Mursel standoffish and self-absorbed. The second story is Mursel’s unending and prolix account of his bank’s internal affairs. The writing skips from Mursel’s account to Ixi’s turbulent thoughts:

but he didn’t, instead he continually was enraged, and he turned more and more against me, and as he turned against me, I also was compelled to react, so that his position became more and more entrenched – who’s this now, Fortinbras put forth the question, but only within himself, because he was even less interested in this story, if that was possible, of which he didn’t even understand half, because he only paid attention occasionally, sometimes just pick up a word here and there…

Mursel’s accounts are like something out of Kafka’s convoluted bureaucratic nightmares. And they seem a distraction from the story’s central concern – the relationship between Ixi and Paul. Unlike the blending that occurs in ‘Nine Dragon Crossing’, the two stories here are disconnected enough to seem like two different texts that have been interposed and sewn together. The second story does manage to deepen the first by playing up the humorous absurdity of the circumstances and heightening our feeling for Ixi’s sense of isolation and foreignness in the strange city and in the company of a friend who has become painfully unfamiliar.

Elsewhere in the collection, Krasznahorkai writes of parts being almost unrecognizable from each other and a whole: “that the Whole exists in its wholeness, the Parts in their own particularity, and the Whole and the Parts can not be lumped together, they do not follow from one another”. This could be taken as the writer’s mantra for his artistic process. The fictions of the middle section are indeed fragmentary. Though they are composed of incongruous parts, those parts interact mysteriously and cunningly like mirrors in a funhouse and reveal the ethereal or the hellish in each other.

III. He Bids Farewell

In a collection where almost all the characters have desperately sought departure, it is fitting that the final section has the enigmatic narrator saying goodbye to the Earth. In only a page, he abandons the full range of earthly experience: “I would leave here incantation, enigma, distances, inexhaustibility, and the intoxication of eternity; for here, I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me from here, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.” The narrator’s sentences, which had hammered away at reality, beat softly with a sad resignation. Most notably, the goodbye is mixed, tinged with remorse. It is a goodbye to the both the sublime and the quotidian, and to mostly hope rather than despair.

And despite the apocalyptic nature of these fictions, most of them allow for a form of redemption, however provisional or slight. In the middle stories, there are suicides and deaths but also reconciliations, epiphanies and renewed faith in God. Perhaps, the collection suggests a softening of Krasznahorkai’s vision. “Heaven is sad”, the author wrote in the epigraph to his novel War and War, but in these stories, at least heaven exists.

Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His work has been published in Bookforum, Kenyon Review, Words Without Borders, and other publications.