War & War by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
The first of László Krasznahorkai's novels to come out in English - The Melancholy of Resistance, published in 1999 - was praised by writers as eminent, if in almost every other respect unalike, as W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag. This second is similarly a work where formidable density accumulates through the succession of immensely long sentences, many of which continue for more than a page. Also reminiscent of the earlier novel is the predominance of monologue given in indirect speech, almost as if this were, however improbably, a police report. The narrator vanishes into the objectivity of a tape machine, or a recording angel.
In more normal prose this device would set a plate-glass window between the reader and the events described, but Krasznahorkai's cetacean sentences curve through that window, confuse the sense of distance or, rather, they constitute a distancing effect in themselves. We feel our contact with Korin, the central character, to be constrained because we can reach him only through efforts of reading in which the desire for a cadence is so long frustrated, and will be frustrated again. But we accept the frustration as positive. The portrait of a character almost terminally worn out, in a world of dissolution and disarray, depends on the power of the text to exhaust, which in turn depends on that text's power to enthral. We keep going. We keep coming back for more. And we do so not only because of the grip of the story (or stories) but also because there are so many poetic and moving incidents, and because these vastly extended rhythms are, in George Szirtes's translation, so masterly.
Long sentences have other functions than to place the narrative in a mist of awaited completion. They enable Krasznahorkai to swivel the subject, so that a sentence which begins as a statement about Korin can roll on to other characters and even other times. This is a mist, therefore, in which a figure may come into view and then recede as others slide forwards. Out of the mist, too, the same anecdote or remark may reappear, in more or less the same words. To change the metaphor, the prose arrives in great waves, each with its own internal eddyings, each rearing up to crash at its lengthily delayed culmination.
That wave pattern is emphasized by the separation and numbering of the sentences in what may be regarded as the main part of the book, or perhaps as the whole book, that which follows being afterlife. The breathtaking first chapter, available entire at the author's website, introduces us to Korin, spilling his story to a septet of young teen and pre-teen toughs who have cornered him on a railway bridge at night. Fortunately, the device of indirect speech reminds us that Korin lived through this encounter, and the whole fifty-page chapter proceeds to execute a strong arc from the railway bridge to an airline office the next day, which is where and when Korin is telling what happened on the bridge.
By the end of this chapter we know that Korin has a mission. Through his work as an archivist in the public records office of a provincial Hungarian town he has discovered a document (typed, but generally referred to as "the manuscript"), which he deems to be of such world-shaking importance that he must go to the centre of the world - New York - and give it eternal life on the internet. The next six chapters duly unfold in New York, but - since they contain large chunks of the manuscript being reported as Korin types it into his laptop - in a New York riven with scenes set on Crete in Minoan times, in nineteenth-century Cologne, and even simultaneously on Hadrian's Wall in the second century A.D. and in Gibraltar in 1493, for the characters in the manuscript are capable of such unexplained moves through space and time. This aspect of the book gains some coherence from its opportunities for the Krasznahorkaian outlandish (the colossal cathedral of Cologne, the Roman wall) and from its attendance at epochal events (Columbus's return), but its embedding is deeper. Often outweighing the New York episodes in length and colour, and sometimes curiously echoing them (notably in the frequency of foursomes), the narrative within the narrative comes to seem the real matter. In its irrationality it places itself under the sign of Korin's inescapeable deity, Hermes, "not a god who led but one who misled". In its meaninglessness it outlines the shape of meaning and though it is not clear whether Korin finds meaning in the manuscript or in the act of copying it, the tracing of absent, decayed meaning is what the novel is about. Eventually we discover the title of the manuscript, or the title Korin has given it: War & War. (War, the battle for restored meaning, will be endless; there is no peace except in that war.)
At this point Korin is back in Europe and close to the end. He has finished transcribing the manuscript, but it has not finished with him. Unable to find a way out from it, he goes to Switzerland and shoots himself. This event, though, is not narrated in the text. In an act of rupture, designed to lift Korin out of the book into life, Krasznahorkai has had his hero's end related on a plaque affixed to the wall of the Hallen für neuen Kunst in Schaffhausen, and it is a photograph of this plaque, with a caption in English translating its bilingual Hungarian-German text, that conveys the fact to us in the book.
This is a quixotic touch, for fictional characters escape their texts not by material evidence but by passing into the language. It is not the Good Samaritan Inn, situated on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, that guarantees this person has vaulted into the real world; rather it is the presence of the character in everyday discourse that gives the inn?s name plausibility. Korin may yet overstep the confines of his book, but that is beyond Krasznahorkai's ability to manufacture.
The futility of the plaque seeps into the remainder of the novel, the end after the end, in which Korin finds the hereafter to be a bus station buffet. Here he continues his narration to a man standing at the bar while two elder denizens couple on the floor. His scarification by the lack of meaning in the world is now blamed on the enlightenment, whose light obliterated the perspectives within which judgements of goodness, nobility and transcendence could be made. This is a bit of a come-down. There are still some very long sentences, but the style is more conventional, and the hovering dread of so much of the main part of the book - the sullen grandeur, also - gives way to tub-thumping.
Yet the novel remains powerful and important for those very qualities of dread and grandeur, and for its depiction of vacancy mirroring vacancy - and thereby holding some shape in the darkness - in such passages as this, from the first chapter, where Korin and the seven boys are:
as aware of each other, of their precise positions, as of the enormous mass of dark sky above the smashed neon, the sky which might have glimpsed the reflection of its own enormous dark mass as it trembled with stars in the vista of railway yards spreading below it, had there been some relationship between the trembling stars and the twinkling dull red semaphore of lights sprinkled among the rails, but there wasn't, there was no common denominator, no interdependence between them, the only order and relationship existing within the discrete worlds of above and below, and indeed of anywhere, for the field of stars and the forest of signals stared as blankly at each other as does each and every form of being, blind in darkness and blind in radiance, as blind on earth as it is in heaven ...