Two years ago, when László Krasznahorkai won the Man Booker International Prize over familiar names like César Aira and Amitav Ghosh, some readers were shocked. Who was this mysterious Hungarian recluse? And why were his sentences so long?
A literary celebrity in Eastern Europe since the mid-1980s, Krasznahorkai writes in Hungarian. His fiction wasn’t available in English until 2002. (This book was translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes.) Since then, even his biggest American fans have admitted that his books are hard to read. Writing for the New Yorker, James Woods called his first translated novel “one of the most profoundly unsettling experiences I have had as a reader,” while the New York Times quipped, “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing, then László is your man.”
True to form, Krasznahorkai’s latest collection of fiction, “The World Goes On,” is intentionally difficult, if less bleak than some of his vaguely apocalyptic novels. Laced with the dark, existential humor familiar to readers of Kafka and Samuel Beckett, it’s anchored by five long stories where sentences can stretch for 30 pages or more, a technique described by translator Szirtes as “a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.”
In these tales, a waterfall hunter wanders the streets of Shanghai, a tourist stumbles upon the Buddha near Varanasi, and a conspiracy theorist investigates the death of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
But instead of vast rivers, it’s in the collection’s smaller tributaries — the short stories of two to 10 pages — that best suit Krasznahorkai’s knack for the surreal and the profound. The title story, “The World Goes On,” imagines the new era ushered in by Sept. 11 as “a grating noise, as if cumbersome chains were clattering in the distance … as if securely knotted ropes were slowly slipping loose.”
In “One Time on the 381,” a Portuguese marble miner abandons his post and wanders the forest, where he discovers a ruined palace carved from the rock he quarries. And in “At the Latest in Turin,” upon seeing a man beating a horse in the street, Friedrich Nietzsche “unexpectedly leaps in front of the driver and, sobbing, flings his arms around the horse’s neck.”
Make no mistake: Krasznahorkai is an avant-garde stylist with little interest in the traditional short stories we’re all familiar with from literary magazines. The stories in “The World Goes On” are the reading equivalent of climbing a volcano instead of sitting by the beach on your honeymoon. But the rewards — the sudden, knife-like insights so cerebral they seem the work of an alien intelligence — are worth the effort.
Adam Morgan is editor in chief of the Chicago Review of Books. He writes about arts and culture, books and Chicago in the Guardian, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Chicago magazine and elsewhere.
The World Goes On
By: László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes.
Publisher: New Directions, 288 pages, $24.94.