In 1999, just before László Krasznahorkai made his English-language debut with “The Melancholy of Resistance,” Susan Sontag gave the writer perhaps his first English rave, calling him “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse”and comparing him to the 19th-century giants Gogol and Melville. Very few novelists are as aesthetically original and visionary, and with each subsequent work, this complex writer has added to that solid foundation. He has rightly been called a fabulist in the lineage of Kafka, making from Hungary’s communist experience claustrophobic tales about individuals bereft of God and abandoned to the forces of entropy.
On the heels of releasing an English translation of his first novel, “Satantango” (1985), last year, New Directions has published Krasznahorkai’s “Seiobo There Below” (2008). A thoroughly satisfying artistic evolution, it shows the author broadening his core obsession with humankind’s lurches between civilization and anarchy, while expanding to encompass new locations and time periods (all rendered spectacularly in Ottilie Mulzet’s pitch-perfect English translation).
With “Seiobo,” we see the moody darkness of Krasznahorkai’s early novels becoming revitalized by the balm of great art. This fragmented novel occurs across 17 chapters, each numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence, starting with 1 and ending with 2584. This mathematical allusion is apt: Just as the Fibonacci sequence balances the arcane depths of number theory with the simple, beautiful spiral that it describes, so does “Seiobo” suggest the ways that humans transmute their brutish existences into the timelessness of the divine. Although each chapter represents a very different place, time and scenario, each is clearly a plot along the skyward spiral that human civilization has been traveling since the ancient Greeks. With two notable exceptions, each story focuses on something that inspires humanity, such as the pathos-drenched expression on a Noh mask, the eyes of a wooden Buddha, a medieval painting depicting a Greek myth, the Venus de Milo or the last words of an exiled artist.
The question that unites these disparate tales is why the world’s great artistic and religious traditions have left us with priceless artifacts in whose presence we experience transcendence. Krasznahorkai’s descriptions of the chaos and decay that govern our world make clear the fragility of these items, which are often made of little more than wood and paint. But his depictions of the peace that they are capable of instilling make for an equally persuasive testimony to their worth. The book is an eloquent apologia for the great artistic and spiritual artifacts at a time when the world is so enamored of science and technology.
What feels most original and powerful about “Seiobo” is how it focuses on ordinary men and women’s experiences of these artifacts. Krasznahorkai often provides precise descriptions of their creation and painstaking preservation throughout the centuries. An adept researcher, he constructs believable scenes around the obscure rites of a Japanese sect, a master artisan at a Renaissance workshop, a tourist at the Acropolis and a desperate painter in turn-of-the-century Europe. He also shows his mastery of narrative technique with stories that range from mad monologues to quiet ruminations, nimble use of the detached third person and even an essayistic chapter on the Alhambra palace in Spain — each piece wholly self-enclosed and satisfying on its own terms.
Krasznahorkai is 59. Had he put down his pen after finishing “Seiobo,” the book would have been a glorious summation to a career unique in contemporary literature. Yet he continues to write, having published, among other things, the excellent “Animalinside” in 2010 and a recent collection of short stories. Other translations of his works are pending. Just as English-language readers devoured Roberto Bolaño as his novels became available, so should they rally around another one of the great acts of world literature.
Esposito is the co-author of “The End of Oulipo?”
SEIOBO THERE BELOW
By László Krasznahorkai
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet
451 pp. Paperback, $17.95