Like league tables in education, the danger of literary prizes is that something with value beyond the all-consuming capitalist pursuit of excellence becomes reduced to a kind of sporting event.
This is one effect of the often-quoted puff copy by Susan Sontag which first aroused my curiosity in the work of the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, who has just won the sixth International Man Booker Prize. Sontag described him as the “contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse”. My first thought was to wonder whether every country had its own reigning literary Master of the Apocalypse who would compete for a global prize (a fight to the death, obviously).
But Krasznahorkai’s award is welcome precisely because it provides us with a sense of something beyond the norm. His work deserves to be read by more than the small but devoted band of English and American readers who have discovered him over the past few years as a result of superlative translations by George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet (both of whom shared £15,000 in prizemoney).
The International Booker Prize is awarded “for an achievement in fiction on the world stage” and the appeal and ambition of Krasznahorkai is certainly global. His work mixes timelessness with the unmistakably now. Details about the villages in his novels Satantango (1985) and The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), for example, are in short supply, giving the stories they tell a timeless air. They are like the fables or philosophical allegories of other writers in the European existentialist tradition who might be regarded as Krasznahorkai’s forebears: Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka and Beckett.
At the same time, his preoccupation with societies which spiral into self-destruction and debauchery, with the spectre of apocalypse, and with charismatic but menacing quasi-poitical leaders, make Krasznahorkai’s writing unmistakably the product of the late 20th century, an age beset by fears of social breakdown, environmental catastrophe, the end of the species (or the species as we know it), global economic meltdown and so on. Anxiety is hard-wired into the modern sensibility, and the mood of Krasznahorkai’s fiction is its perfect complement.
One of the allegorical contexts his work invites is, inevitably, that of totalitarianism and the Cold War. Reading Krasznahorkai in 2015 transports the UK reader into a temporal vaccuum. The Melancholy of Resistance was published in a landmark year – 1989 marked the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the restoration of Hungary to a democratic parliamentary republic. That year ushered in what turned out to be a brief moment of political hope – until 9/11 triggered a return of the apocalyptic imagination.
To read the novel in 2015 means its tale about a travelling exhibition of “The Biggest Whale in the World”, which leads not to carnival and wonder but a descent into chaos and violence, eventually requiring the army to move in and restore order, becomes at once a historical allegory of totalitarian Hungary and a cautionary tale about the dangers of social breakdown in the face of the collapse of religion and politics.
‘In and out of cellars’
Krasznahorkai’s writing tends to be described as “difficult” or “innovative”. What this means is that he does not conform to the norm in contemporary literary fiction and write accessible narrative-driven realist or historical fiction. Instead, he experiments with literary form and language. The most recent of his novels to be translated, his 2008 novel Seiobo There Below, is an exercise in “constrained writing” (where an arbitrary rule dictates the structure) in which the chapters are numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence in mathematics.
And then there are the sentences. One of the most striking features of Krasznahorkai’s writing is the sheer length of its sentences and paragraphs. It is not uncommon for a paragraph to comprise a single sentence and that sentence to last for a page or more, punctuated by commas and semi-colons. The effect, as Szirtes has said, is that readers feel guided into “loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars”. But the rhythm of the clauses produces a lyrical beauty which conveys the sense that the world is endlessly fascinating and beyond our comprehension.
Its relevance to the contemporary mood and its sense of being beyond the norm is why Krasznahorkai’s fiction demands to be read. In a year marked in Britain by the rise of crude anti-European – especially anti-Eastern European – xenophobia, I find it a comfort to regard the International Booker Prize not as a reward for excellence but as a reminder of an enriching cultural perspective beyond the narrowly British. In the case of this particular winner, it offers a welcome insight into a global but distinctively Eastern European perspective on the modern world.