The Melancholy of Resistance

(By László Krasznahorkai) (Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes)

Here at The Varnished Culture, we are pleased to review yet another excellent novel set in a small Hungarian Town*.  Like Sárszeg from Skylark, or Czinkota, this town is a dot on a map but what map?  Like the train which returns Skylark to Sárszeg from visiting relatives, the train which returns Mrs Plauf to her own town after the same errand is very late but in this book, it is a cobbled-together “emergency train”.  Why? Well, that’s the thing:

To tell the truth, none of this really surprised anyone any more since rail travel, like everything else, was subject to the prevailing conditions: all normal expectations went by the board and one’s daily habits were disrupted by a sense of ever-spreading all-consuming chaos which rendered the future unpredictable, the past unrecallable and ordinary life so haphazard that people simply assumed that whatever could be imagined might come to pass, that if there were only one door in a building it would no longer open, that wheat would grow head downwards into the earth not out of it, and that, since one could only note the symptoms of disintegration, the reasons for it remaining unfathomable and inconceivable, there was nothing anyone could do except to get a tenacious grip on anything that was still tangible; which is precisely what people at the village station continued to do when, in hope of taking possession of the essentially limited seating to which they were entitled, they stormed the carriage doors, which being frozen up proved very difficult to open.”

Yes, that is one sentence.

This note of breathlessness and confusion hauls the reader along on an uncertain, ridiculous rush. The chaos of the town is not entirely unfathomable and inconceivable. At the end of his tether, a military investigator from outside bellows at some terrified citizens that the town is a “stinking place“, a “filthy hole where every godforsaken idiot behaves as if he were the centre and keeper of the universe, God blast him! Catastrophe! Of course! Last judgement! Horseshit! It’s you that are the catastrophe, you’re the bloody last judgement, your feet don’t even touch the ground, you bunch of sleepwalkers. I wish you were dead, the lot of you. Let’s make a bet…that you don’t even know what I’m talking about!! Because you don’t talk, you “whisper” or “expostulate”; you don’t walk down the street but “proceed feverishly”; you don’t enter a place but “cross its threshold”, you don’t feel cold or hot, but “find yourselves shivering” or “feeling the sweat pour down you”! I haven’t heard a straight word for hours, you can only mew and caterwaul…”

The Chief of Police is an incapacitated alcoholic; the publican wants to go to bed and no-one else seems to do anything much.  The streetlamps don’t work and the rubbish is not collected.  The reader is surprised late in the story when the moon-landing is mentioned – the town seems to exist in an earlier time and on a different planet.

Mrs Plauf is perpetually alarmed but she has good reason to be afraid on that return trip.  The ramshackle train is crammed with dirty, violent ‘peasants’, the followers of the circus which is coming to town.  These hordes takeover.  Why do they wait in the streets and squares at night, silently, under the dead streetlights?  They can’t be gathering to see the circus’ one exhibit – a dead whale.  No, they are waiting for The Prince.  We won’t tell you anymore about The Prince, in part because you really should read this book, but mainly because The Prince is heard but not seen and virtually impossible to describe anyway.

Mrs Eszter, the President of the Women’s Committee, calls on Mrs Plauf as part of a murky plan which has something to do with unwashed laundry, and Mr Eszter, and a whole lot to do with world domination. Mrs Eszter claims credit for bringing the circus to town and ultimately for controlling the trouble that ensues.  Her role in this, however, seems limited to taking the Police Chief out of action by locking him up with a bottle of spirits. Mrs Eszter would scare Hitler. She certainly scares Mr Eszter, whom she describes as “this dummy, this fool, this ‘creaking wreck’…a feeble shadow of even his former self, a pitiful geriatric, a terrified rabbit, a trembling old ratbag, whose eyes are always watering.”  In return, he thinks of her as a “dangerous prehistoric beast from whom he, ‘by the grace of God’, had separated years ago, who reminded him of nothing so much as one of those merciless medieval mercenaries, with whom he had tied that infernal comedy of a marriage thanks to an unforgivable moment of youthful carelessness, and who in her uniquely dismal and alarming essence summed up all that ‘multifarious spectacle of disillusionment’ the society of the town, in his view, somehow succeeded in representing.”

Already a nihilist, Mr Eszter (‘The Professor’) and sole intellectual of the town, abjures the world entirely when he hears the blind piano-tuner say “How did this sweet little fifth get here? Terribly sorry, my dear, but I shall have to take you down a peg or two…”  For reasons not clear to a non musician (at the least), this infuriates Eszter, who leaves his position as director of the Academy of Music, descends into “deep delusion and daily self-punishment“, rethinks the history of harmony, re-tunes his piano to considerable detriment and eventually takes to his bed.

Mrs Eszter’s sole helper and friend is Valuska, an “innocent idiot” and son of Mrs Plauf (who loathes him).  Valuska walks the town day and night, ‘skywatching’ and sharing his fascination in the cosmos with Mr Eszter.  Eszter is not impressed: “one long unbroken story related in the stuttering and excitable prose his visitor had regaled him with each noon and every late afternoon for the last eight years, an endless fantasia of the planets and the stars, the sunlight, the ever-turning shadows, and the silent mechanism of the heavenly bodies orbiting overhead, which provided ‘silent proof of the existence of an ineffable intellect’ and had enchanted him all his life as he stared into the eventually over-clouded firmament on his eternal wanderings.”  While finally Eszter realises that he loves Valuska and is driven back out into life when the latter goes missing, Mrs Plauf’s contempt for her son leads to awful violence.

This is a melancholy, arresting and at times, chilling book, about the nature of the social contract and nothing less than the purpose of consciousness.  The most frightening thing in it, worse even than the random violence and despair, is Mrs Eszter’s programme for the town – A TIDY YARD, AN ORDERLY HOUSE.

'A tidy yard, an orderly house' (photo by Pauline Eccles)

‘A tidy yard, an orderly house’ (photo by Pauline Eccles)

[Note: in The New Yorker, 4/7/2011, James Wood, reviewing Krasznahorkai’s post-modern novels, said “The Melancholy of Resistance is a comedy of apocalypse, a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam. Less manic, less entrapped than War and War, it has elements of a traditional social novel..The Melancholy of Resistance is a demanding book, and a pessimistic one, too, since it seems to take repeated ironic shots at the possibility of revolution…The pleasure of the book, and a kind of resistance, as well, flows from its extraordinary, stretched, self-recoiling sentences, which are marvels of a loosely punctuated stream of consciousness.”] [*For the purposes of cohesion and to make the point in review, our reference to a ‘small Hungarian Town’ deliberately ignores the fluid European boundaries of history…at one time or another all of the towns named constituted a ‘small Hungarian Town’.]

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