Someone to Watch Over Me: Hungary’s Greatest Novelist Trades In Opression for Perfection

It might not be time to write a requiem for postmodern literature just yet, but it probably isn’t too early to wish it well

Laszlo Krasznahorkai. (Photo by Horst Tappe)
László Krasznahorkai. (Photo by Horst Tappe)

It might not be time to write a requiem for postmodern literature just yet, but it probably isn’t too early to wish it well as it heads off to South Florida to spend its golden years playing shuffleboard and complaining about the rising cost of grapefruit. Both a reaction to as well as a derivative of modernism, which saw writers trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world between the World Wars, postmodernism has advanced, as it were, to the point where one-time wunderkinds like Paul Auster have settled on simply writing memoirs about the hell that is old age. There is still some life left in the minor late-period works of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, authors indelibly tied to the nebulous term, but Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai is truly the last of the great postmodern writers that grew up in the shadow of World War II. His latest novel, Seiobo There Below—his seventh available in English and available now in a new translation—is a send up of postmodernism’s systemic critique of progress and also something altogether blissful. Coming from a man famously labeled “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse” (his books carry this phrase on their covers like a badge), this is no small departure.

For the unfamiliar: Mr. Krasznahorkai is the type of author whose prose will leave you breathless, reading line after line, comma after comma. He obviously has some personal vendetta against the period—you can read several pages without seeing one—but the chaotic pace of his writing makes a book like Seiobo There Below difficult to put down, even as it forces you to continuously retrace your steps.

Where his other books can feel dirty, at times suffocating and mired in one place, this latest work is dizzying and globetrotting. It begins with the Japanese deity Seiobo returning to Earth, which she has monitored for generations from afar, to search for perfection: “I put down my crown,” she says. “And in earthly form but not concealing my face, I descend among them.” Seiobo hovers above, searching out beauty, simultaneously omniscient and a participant in the story she’s telling. The reader is treated to wondrous descriptions of grand achievements and small events alike that unfurl and unwind slowly, word by word.

Here is Mr. Krasznahorkai’s account of one character Seiobo observes, a tourist, aimlessly making his way through Venice, stumbling by chance through a doorway: “not a single living soul, only a kind of ornamental staircase decorated with morbid ivy-tendrils that somehow curled, morbidly, upward in the slightly darkened entrance hall.” A page later, as the tourist walks up the steps, he sees a painting of Jesus Christ “looking at him, sitting on a kind of throne in the middle of a triptych.” As he more closely inspects the painting, he notes: “It was, moreover, beautiful—that was the only word for it, beautiful.” He goes on staring at the image for a few pages, to the point where Mr. Krasznahorkai’s long, obsessive sentences become indistinguishable from that which they describe, seeming to enact exactly what the character is doing: staring, staring and staring at a work of art, trying to understand what makes it so beautiful—the perfect summation of this book.

Mr. Krasznahorkai’s most famous work, Satantango, was about a communal farm near the fall of the Soviet Union, engulfed in perpetual rain but otherwise so nondescript that it seems to be literally fading into nonexistence. Most of the people have left, and those that remain are all hopeless and rendered nearly indistinguishable (such is the fate, perhaps, of riding the long train of Mr. Krasznahorkai’s sentences). The book seems both allegorical—though for what, exactly, is hard to say—and strikingly real, a misery so evocative that the rain-soaked streets may as well be a mountain of hellfire. Seiobo There Below’s more deliberate otherworldliness removes the novel from the realm of what was referred to as the Goulash Communism practiced by Mr. Krasznahorkai’s homeland under the country’s general secretary, János Kádár, from 1956 to 1988, a period in which the author, born in 1954, unwittingly came of age. While Hungary’s human rights record was superior in comparison to other countries within the Eastern Bloc, the effect of living under, and immediately after, a government that didn’t take kindly to artistic expression is easier to detect in his earlier books. There’s an imminent feel of frustration and anger that runs throughout those works. While Seiobo There Below might be less oppressive, the book is undoubtedly melancholy, and you don’t put it down thinking to yourself that everything is going to be alright. The balance between Eastern and Western religious philosophy and symbolism, and the little modern flourishes—most notably the mention of a group of Greek friends and how they “talked about the song ‘The Guns of Brixton’ and whether the Arcade Fire or the Clash version were better”—as well as the almost science-fiction feel of the goddess Seiobo’s observations, make the book into one long meditative rant on the nature of beauty, less a product of oppression and more of a coming to terms with it. In comparison to his past work, it seems that Mr. Krasznahorkai has become a little bit more comfortable with his surroundings.

Seiobo There Below is an opportunity for the author to play around, for him to view humanity writ large from a happy distance, flaws and all. In one chapter, Seiobo visits a Japanese monastery and then in another goes to the Passeig de Gràcia in Spain, while “the crowd of people at the intersections swelled to such a density, and all of them in such elegant clothing swelled together.” Mr. Krasznahorkai has learned to appreciate beauty—“I collapse from this sweet pain,” he writes, “because this music gives me such a way that it also annihilates me”—and still acknowledge the ugliness of man’s propensity for destruction.

Someone to Watch Over Me: Hungary’s Greatest Novelist Trades In Opression for Perfection