Tango on the lava flow: an interview with László Krasznahorkai

Door Remo Verdickt, Emiel Roothooft, op Wed Nov 23 2022 23:00:00 GMT+0000

Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai has a Man Booker International Prize as well as an American National Book Award to his name. Equally prized are his scenarios for the master of 'slow cinema', Béla Tarr. We spoke to the writer on the eve of the Nexus conference The War and the Future, about his work, violence and cultural pessimism.

Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai’s oeuvre is not for the faint of heart. His debut Satantango (1985) tells the story of a wretched peasant community that is seduced by the dubious messiah figure Irimiás, only to end up worse than before. Likewise, when the characters in The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (2016) instinctively cling on to political pipe dreams, death and destruction ensue. Physical violence often disrupts characters and their surroundings, while the verbiage and experimental form of Krasznahorkai’s prose emanate a perpetual threat and aggression. Endless sentences chock-full of martial metaphors dominate every page, as the many repetitions and stream-of-consciousness intermezzos concoct a feverish rhythm – the reader is drawn into a nightmare from which there is no waking up.

With the current state of the world, Krasznahorkai’s razor-sharp analyses of demagogy and conflict seem more relevant than ever.

Susan Sontag compared Krasznahorkai’s monumental despondent prose to that of Herman Melville and Gogol and he has been a Nobel Prize favorite for years. With the current state of the world, his razor-sharp analyses of demagogy and conflict seem more relevant than ever. On November 19 the Dutch Nexus Institute invited Krasznahorkai to its conference The War and the Future to discuss the war in Ukraine with several historians, political scientists and activists. We meet the author the day before in the lobby of his hotel in Amsterdam. In a hoarse yet gentle voice he explains his views on the connections between war, art, and the human condition – all doused in cultural pessimism. ‘Jesus, nowadays Tarantino is the best we have.’

Homo homini hydrogen

Apart from physical and linguistic violence, Krasznahorkai’s novels and novellas also offer more philosophical reflections on war. Thus, despite its title, War and War (1999) contains relatively little actual conflict. Protagonist Korin discovers a mysterious manuscript that he wants to share with the world by any means necessary. This manuscript is a fragmented allegory of four peaceful travelers who are on the run for war but time and again cross paths with the sinister Mastemann. At one point in the novel Mastemann claims that ‘human life is the spirit of war,’ a view that frightens Krasznahorkai. ‘Mastemann believes that man belongs to nature, and in nature there exists a constant psychological state of fear – no matter if you are a wolf or some hydrogen, your position in the world is always one of absolute defenselessness.’

Krasznahorkai feels a kinship to Franz Kafka, another author whose parables reject straightforward interpretation.

Krasznahorkai considers solitary life to be a position of luxury. ‘Alone, man is more than defenseless, that is why we live in group – as a compromise.’ This compromise he mainly believes to entail another danger. In all of his work the collective is readily beguiled until destruction becomes inevitable. In Satantango, Irimiás makes vague promises to the villagers; with The Melancholy of Resistance it is the arrival of a mysterious circus attraction that leads the town into a spiral of violence. ‘We find the truth to be something dangerous. We rather turn to false prophets.’ The demagogues in his work seldom offer clear ideologies. Krasznahorkai grew up and debuted during the communist dictatorship, but the early novels transcend mere criticism of that regime. His later work is situated in an unspecified present in which little has changed. The titular character in Baron Wenckheim comes ‘home’ to a contemporary Hungary where the population eagerly projects its destructive dreams onto the old aristocrat.

Yet the author also pays mind to the individuals that do dare go against the grain. Often these are loners who are considered hopelessly naïve by the outside world, such as Korin in War and War. Krasznahorkai prefers to think of these characters as angels, ‘and angels always carry a message.’ He compares them to the ‘holy fools’ in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, who he most of all considers to be holy people – in sharp contrast with the faceless mob. In the end, things always turn out badly for Krasznahorkai’s angels. They function as sacrifices ‘because at the end of the day someone has to pay.’

K., as in Krasznahorkai

What might this message be, and what is it exactly that these characters have to pay the price for? The deeper meanings of the novels are far from unequivocal and Krasznahorkai himself detests too explanatory allegories. During our conversation, some of his answers remain shrouded in mystery as well. Tellingly, he feels a kinship to Franz Kafka, another author whose parables reject straightforward interpretation. In K., the protagonist from Kafka’s The Castle, Krasznahorkai thus recognizes man’s doomed desire to contain reality. Just like K. hopes to reach and dissect the titular stronghold, mankind struggles to understand the true world, beyond sensorial reality. To no avail. The book-within-the-book in War and War does not reveal its ending; the circus attraction in The Melancholy of Resistance can never be completely comprehended by the townsfolk; in the end, Satantango turns out to be a circular narrative in the vein of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Weirdly, it was precisely his gushing style that inspired celebrated film director Béla Tarr to a collaboration.

The author thinks of the world as a chaotic wholeness. ‘I absolutely don’t consider this chaos to be a purely negative force. The world works like this because things happen very quickly in the universe. Concepts like time and space don’t really explain reality, they merely help us to orient ourselves.’ He considers his own writing a tool to look further, even though it mainly causes him pain. ‘I try to express something that I cannot. The highest art can build a bridge, but only until it reaches the border of the hidden reality – you cannot move beyond that. I try to reach that border through beauty. That is not the only way, but it is my way.’

László Krasznahorkai tijdens 'The War and the Future' (c) Jan Reinier van der Vliet / Nexus

‘Beauty,’ however, is usually not the first thing that comes to mind when reading a novel by Krasznahorkai. He mainly shows humanity at its ugliest. Yet that choice is often paired with a lot of humor, as when in Baron Wenckheim a choir tries to celebrate the baron’s ‘homecoming’ with an improvised rendition of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. ‘Myself, I am also quite cynical, but always with humor. I don’t want to hurt people. Each human being has their dignity and I would never touch that. I just want to understand why they act so stupid and aggressive.’

Don’t shoot the novelist

In addition, an enormous magnetism oozes from those never-ending sentences, full of asides, repetitions, and inner monologues – seldom hindered by other punctuation marks than the comma. Krasznahorkai describes his style as ‘a lava flow.’ Weirdly, it was precisely that gushing style that inspired celebrated film director Béla Tarr to a collaboration. Since 1988, Krasznahorkai has been the co-screenwriter on five of Tarr’s feature films, including a legendary seven-hour adaptation of Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), based on The Melancholy of Resistance. These films have become the epitome of ‘slow cinema.’ Long takes often easily run for over ten minutes and action only occurs sparingly. This sounds like a considerable contrast to Krasznahorkai’s frenetic prose. He himself does not consider the films so much as adaptations of his work. ‘Béla used my original ideas to create a world all his own. I can watch those films from a distance, even though I was involved in every moment of production and collaborated on every decision, because in the end they belong to Béla.’

‘Now mediocre writers present themselves as the summum of the literary world. The cult of prizes is everywhere.’

Actually, Krasznahorkai doesn’t like to make movies at all. ‘I hate it even. Every time, Béla had to convince me again that the next film would be so important that I couldn’t say no.’ With The Man from London (2007), Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s adaptation of a novel of the Belgian writer Georges Simenon, things almost turned sour. Krasznahorkai co-wrote the screenplay but felt the final film was too much of a repetition of their earlier work. Tarr argued they could not end on a low point, and in 2011 the duo presented their swan song with The Turin Horse, ‘perhaps our very best work together.’ Since then, Tarr has retired from directing; Krasznahorkai has traded in screenwriting for multimedia experiments with visual artists and musicians. Thus each chapter of his novella Chasing Homer (2021) contains drawings by Max Neumann and a QR-code that refers the reader to corresponding percussion recordings by Szilveszter Miklós.

Poetic pessimism?

Even though Krasznahorkai explicitly distances himself from his characters, we hear echoes of their cultural pessimism when he addresses the state of contemporary art. ‘Ninety-five percent of contemporary literature follows the false prophets. Capitalism has reduced art to nothing but wares and the quality of literature has sunk spectacularly. Now mediocre writers present themselves as the summum of the literary world. The cult of prizes is everywhere. Yes, I have won many prizes myself, but those only make my mother happy. When I was young, we couldn’t stand to hear about Hollywood, Oscar ceremonies – that was ridiculous. But aside from that, there existed a very high level of filmmakers, from Fellini to Tarkovsky to Bresson. That talent is gone. Jesus, nowadays Quentin Tarantino really is the best.’

As our conversation ends, Krasznahorkai proves to be as elusive as his work. Satantango opened with an enigmatic quote from The Castle: ‘Then I’d rather wait here and miss him.’ After almost forty years of waiting, Krasznahorkai’s characters still miss one another in their disastrous quest for salvation and meaning. Meanwhile the readers feast their eyes as those words continue to dance on an endless lava flow.