Review: László Krasznahorkai’s "Seiobo There Below"

This review has been drawn from the November issue of the American Reader.

Hell is oneself. Or, if you like, Hell is other people. Either way, Hell’s Modernist vanguard—let’s say Beckett, Sartre, and Eliot—moiled in darkness long enough to recover the bad news and bring it to daylight. Their message? Hell will last as long as we do. Even as their more lighthearted disciples wrung the hereafter, drop by drop, of its holy water, these true believers never sinned against the Dantean orthodoxy that preaches Hell’s totalizing hopelessness. It is worth noting, after all, the titles of their best dramas—Endgame, No Exit, and The Cocktail Party—are euphemisms for Hell.

The Modernists found their most potent expression of Hell in drama, or more specifically, the scene. For Hell’s vanguard, the scene as a form preserves the weight of its etymological origins, implying a stage as much as a unit of dramatic time. It was left to Beckett and Sartre to defamiliarize the scene by literalizing it; only then could it become a symbol for centurial ills. Once its exits were blocked—its spatial and temporal limits made literal—the scene transmuted into paradox: a closed loop, a machine of surveillance and its attendant nausea, an orchestra of trapped bodies that played out the fears of a crowded, exhausted world. With Beckett’s Endgame, the scene reached its endgame. Once a chamber, then a cell, the scene became Hell: 

                     (Clov stops chair close to back wall. Hamm lays his hand against wall.)
                     Old wall!
                     Beyond is the…other hell.

No contemporary writer has tarried in literary Hell more faithfully—or more convincingly—than the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. In the almost thirty years since his first novel, the infernally-titled Satantango, Mr. Krasznahorkai’s vision of society as an inescapable Hell of its own design has never lapsed. It is an ever-expanding world of deceit and human folly, one spun by interminable sentences that spread quaquaversally, like wild flames, scorching hope wherever it writhes.

True to Beckett and Sartre before him, Mr. Krasznahorkai’s Hell always manifests itself as a scene or closed circle. Though these closed circles are of human design, they are populated by demons who are paradoxically all too human. These demons, themselves deeply acquainted with Hell—the closed circle that never opens—choreograph set pieces of swindle and deceit that lead innocents and the willfully gullible to inexorable doom. In this respect, Mr. Krasznahorkai’s work sharply recalls Pushkin’s “Demons,” a poem later used as an epigraph by Dostoevsky in his novel of the same name: 

              Strike me dead, the track has vanished,
              Well, what now? We’ve lost the way,
              Demons have bewitched our horses,
              Led us in the wilds astray.

In Satantango—which implies, yes, a dance with the devil—the closed circle is a failed farming collective lost in the mist of post-Communist Hungary. The novel’s foremost demon is the false prophet Irimiás, who gives pithy expression to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s vision in the form of a hilarious, viciously-circular address:

              I see this tragedy as a direct result of your condition here, and in the circumstances
              I simply can’t desert you.

With Mr. Krasznahorkai’s second novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, the closed circle snakes outward, assimilating the doomed souls of a Hungarian village. The village is roiled by the arrival of a circus that brings with it the cadaver of an enormous whale. Counterposed to the whale is the circus’ homuncular ringleader, named The Prince, another false prophet. The Prince orchestrates a meaningless act of mob violence, one that ruins the “half-wit” delivery boy Valuska, a Shakespearean fool who harbors ecstatic faith in the universe.

As its title would suggest, 1999’s War and War confirms that there is no escape from the closed-circuitry of greed and militarism that defines the globe at the turn of the century. Mr. Krasznahorkai aptly sets his novel in New York City, thought by the angelic Korin to be the center of the world. The city instead reveals itself to be a mega-Babel on the verge of ruin, on the precipice of being “brought low,” as Korin prophecies in the final section. In the figure of Korin, the novel almost imperceptibly joins idiot with prophet, until what emerges is a Cassandra, a confounding voice whose ecstatic revelations about crumbling towers and the coming war are perilously ignored. By the time his searing prophecies become intelligible, the loop is already closed:

              Korin was slowing again—but actually that was not the right word, hopeless was
              somehow wrong, there was no way out of this deadly loop, since it was
ready and
              fully functioning in its own way, and calling it hopeless was not going to foul up
              the works, quite the contrary, in fact, it would simply oil them, bring a constant
              shine to them, help them to function.

With Seiobo There Below—the author’s latest novel, now published by New Directions and expertly translated by Ottilie Mulzet—the closed circle, the terrible web of human folly, has expanded to include several historical periods strewn with innumerable depictions of ascetics, murderers, gods, and artworks of terrorizing beauty. Only it is at first difficult to give name to this circle because the title and the first chapter and even the formal structure of the book amount to a demonic ruse, one that tricks the reader into believing he will bathe in the springs of Eastern transcendence. The title itself hints that the goddess Seiobo will descend unto the earth below, that she will count the rhythm of mortal life against the untroubled silence of the eternal. Mr. Krasznahorkai’s ruse is abetted by anecdote: we know that the novelist spent the last decade traveling throughout Asia, especially Japan and China, where, in search of the sacred, he observed Noh masters and ancient statues of the Amida Buddha. It would appear from the preliminary evidence that Mr. Krasznahorkai has shed the disciplined madness of his storyteller—the one who brought us so much chaos—for the impartial gaze of the goddess eye.

The narrator of Seiobo begins by contemplating the cadences of nature by way of a serene lilt, one that matches the flow of the Kamo River and observes the Ooshirosagi, a white bird poised in an S-curve that no sculptor could render:

              …and even the entirety of words that want to describe it do not appear, not even
              the separate words; yet still the bird must lean upon one single moment all at once,
              and in doing so, must obstruct all movement: all alone, within its own self, in the
              frenzy of events, in the exact center of an absolute, swarming, teeming world, it
              must remain there in this cast-out moment, so that this moment as it were closes
              down upon it, and then the moment is closed, so that the bird may bring its snow-
              white body to a dead halt in the exact center of this furious movement, so that it 
              may impress its own motionlessness against the dreadful forces breaking over it
              from all directions…

Did the fever break in Mr. Krasznahorkai’s prose? Gone is the viper’s nest of idiots, fools, and prophets; instead there is only the bird and the river and the alien narrator. Until, from nowhere at all:

              …it would be better for you to go away this very evening when twilight begins to fall,
              it would be better for you to retreat with the others, if night begins to descend, and
              you should not come back if tomorrow or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for
              you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow;
              so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close,
              and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that 
you bear, die at midnight in the
              grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that—breathe your last.

Fall onto your side and die. There is no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow. Actually it is worse than this, as the reader of Seiobo will eventually learn over the course of seventeen scenes. It is worse because of Mr. Krasznahorkai’s ruse, which is actually a revelation of something we have forgotten. And the ruse is demonic, precisely due to what is revealed. The novelist now writes about transcendent gods because he wants to remind us that the only escape from the closed circle of human misery is the fleeting contemplation of the aesthetic sublime, one that is tied inextricably, in every epoch, to the divine. This contemplation is fleeting, he tells us, because the gods are fleeing from the Below—where we reside—which is not merely the earth but the inescapable Hell of human relations.

The structural burden shouldered by Seiobo There Below is enormous; to stay true to the author’s vision and ambition, the novel must erect an inescapable Hell that spans ages and contains both apogee and perigee of human creation. Mr. Krasznahorkai’s solution to this problem amounts to a startling formal development, at once a renovation of Dante’s infernal edifice and a novelization of the closed loop developed by Beckett and Sartre. In short, Seiobo proceeds by way of seventeen scenes, each of which spins a narrative on the theme of failed transcendence. It is almost as if Mr. Krasznahorkai has condensed the architecture of his prior novels into unbearably taut episodes. And although these episodes or scenes are temporally disjointed—one may linger in fifth century Persia, the next in contemporary Japan—they form an arpeggio; only the reader cannot, until it’s too late, determine whether its notes are rising or falling.

Of course, scenes demand players, and there is no shortage of figurative and literal actors in Seiobo. The most memorable of these is Master Inoue Kazuyuki, whose incredible discipline as a Noh master affords the novel a rare glimpse of human triumph. As his scene begins, it is impossible to tell the difference between Kazuyuki and Seiobo, the goddess whom he incarnates on the stage; Mr. Krasznahorkai’s prose weaves between them, penetrating the human and divine in equal measure, until it settles in the Hell below, where we learn how Master Kazuyuki once tried to persuade his family to join him in a mass suicide. 

Scenes, too, even as closed loops, require spectators, and, most crucially, their gazes. The word gaze abounds in Seiobo. Early, and often, the gaze is an object of discipline; it must be trained in order to sustain contemplation of the beautiful, and only in this way does the novel proffer the possibility of transcendence. Eyes in the novel overpower with their significance, especially when they peer from art works imbued with the aura of ritual, as in the case of the Amida Buddha:

              …but they cannot bear to look away from Amida, for most of the believers remember
              very well how the statue looked across the decades, a dark shadow on the altar, with
              almost no contour, almost no light, yet now it is truly resplendent, resplendent in the
              wondrous face the wondrous eyes, but this pair of eyes, if even touching lightly upon
              them, does not see them but looks onto a further place, onto a distance that no one here
              is able to conceive…

On the other hand, the undisciplined human gaze, which it turns out, belongs to every one of us, resolves itself in the pure Hell of the other. Of course, the idea that “Hell is other people” is premised on the gaze that was so crucial to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and No Exit, where the look or gaze of another is the fount of existential anxiety and dread. Allusive variations on the phrase “no exit” recur throughout Seiobo, most powerfully in the chapter titled “Christo Morto,” which takes place in Venice and works as a comedic (if disturbing) revision of Sartre’s own essay on the same. In the opening section of “Christo Morto,” the protagonist thinks that a man in a pink shirt who “gazes” at him is also trying to murder him. When he turns to look back at the man, while crossing a bridge, the “chilly sensation in his body” escalates from “anxiety” to “sharp fear.” When the protagonist finally realizes that he is not being chased at all, he sits at a café, orders a cup of coffee, and reads a newspaper headline, one that quotes Pope Benedict:


The man attempts to shrug off the headline (“there’s no heaven, no purgatory, that’s fine, to hell with the whole thing”), but he is plagued by the notion that he is somehow, mysteriously, “flirting with danger.” Later he visits the San Rocco, where, like Sartre, he seeks the paintings of Tintoretto. Instead he becomes literally captivated by an anonymous painting of a Christo morto or Dead Christ—in a moment that catches Mr. Krasznahorkai’s sly wink to Sartre in a frieze. As the man attempts to flee the terror of the Dead Christ, to exit the San Rocco, he has no idea that for him “there would never be any exit from this building, not ever.”

While contemplating a novel with its own Cristo morto—Dostoevsky’s The Idiot—Walter Benjamin once noted that “the concept of eternity negates infinity.” It is now obvious that Seiobo There Below is the purest expression of this principle in contemporary literature, especially if we take “eternity” to mean “unending Hell.” To illustrate the way Hell eats infinity, Mr. Krasznahorkai embellishes his novel with a cruel joke. Its sections are arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence, a series where successive integers are always the sum of the prior two. The Fibonacci sequence is often rendered visually as a spiral, toward infinity, and this optimistic picture is routinely paired with the observation that the ratio between two Fibonacci numbers is very near what we have come to know as the Golden Ratio, that mathematical foundation of uncountable human masterpieces in architecture, painting, music, and more. Of course, the novel reminds us again and again that such aspirations toward infinite expression are bound to be lost in the eternal sway of human lunacy. It is just as probable, anyway, that the infinite spiral implied by the Fibonacci sequence points downward, to the Below.

The penultimate chapter of Seiobo, “Ze’ami is Leaving,” ends with a corpse. The final chapter, “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” as the title suggests, is nothing but pure Hell, one that plays out the Mephistophelian joke begun with the Fibonacci sequence:

              …they are hidden deep below the earth in the darkness, and with their mouths
              open wide they scream, the graves they were meant to serve collapsed onto them
              long ago; and collapsing in layers, buried them completely, so that they became
              walled into the earth, among the stolons, the ciliates, the rotifers, the tardigrades,
              the mites, the worms, the snails, the isopods…and before their cataract-clouded
              bulging eyes could stare, for the earth is so thick and so heavy, from all directions
              there is only that, everywhere earth and earth, and all around them is that impen-
              etrable, impervious, weighty darkness that lasts truly for all time to come…

Mr. Krasznahorkai’s pyrexic prose, with its aleatoric yet precise movements through matter and consciousness, retained its heat even as it expanded beyond the Hungarian deadfall, from Satantango to War and War. Yet nothing could have prepared the reader for the boundless scope and unerring erudition of Seiobo There Below. As it shifts from epoch to epoch, meditating on temples, ancient statues, masterworks of painting and architecture, Baroque music, and the abstemious will required to craft and absorb such wonders, the narrative works to overpower familiar arrangements of the novel. As an act of sustained literary creation, as an astonishingly new rendition of Hell—we can say, without fear of infamy—it possesses few if any rivals in the contemporary scene.

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