László Krasznahorkai, Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens

Paul Kerschen reviews the recent translation for The Quarterly Conversation

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Though László Krasznahorkai’s early fictions were set in his native Hungary, over the past two decades he has turned to settings that cover the globe across much of historical time. He is suited to this wide range by his erudition, by the air of conviction in his long, oscillating sentences; above all because he is a writer temperamentally nowhere at home. His protagonists are wanderers, sometimes easily distinguished from their author, sometimes less so. Whether in Renaissance Florence, Muromachi Japan, New York or Berlin, they meet their surroundings with the foreigner’s mixture of curiosity and fear, and can count no homeland but the symbolic one of art.

Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is the most recent Krasznahorkai volume to appear in English; though it carries the subtitle “Reportage,” it differs from the fiction only in that its confusion and longing are not joined to outright peril. An authorial double—“Mr. László” or “Comrade László” in the Hungarian original, in translation called (at the author’s direction) László Stein—travels to China, together with a long-suffering interpreter, to seek out remnants of classical Chinese culture: “this last ancient civilization, this exquisite manifestation of the creative spirit of mankind.” The phrase “beneath the heavens” is a rendering of tian xia, the Confucian concept of an ordered universe in which earth is brought in accord with heaven. Structurally, Krasznahorkai is a religious writer, and his quests after aesthetic revelation take the form of pilgrimages; but in this case, the pilgrimage goes quickly and spectacularly awry. The scenic town of Zhouzhuang is horribly transformed to a flea market the moment the tourist buses arrive; the fabled “First Spring Under Heaven” in Zhenjiang has become a filthy, stagnant pond; the adjoining Jiangtian monastery, while keeping its outward form, has inwardly ceased to exist. [Read More]

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