László Krasznahorkai’s novels are hard to put down, but not for the usual reasons. The Hungarian writer’s fictions are allegorical in flavor but hostile to interpretation, dense with uneasy images and mad characters, and often indifferent to linear time. Krasznahorkai writes very long sentences: they go on for pages, they feint and double back, they abuse themselves like a trapped animal who chews through its cage and then, in a fit of madness, eats itself. In effect, they tie a reader’s hands behind their back. Krasznahorkai is interested in the mind’s derangements, and as his sentences map his characters’ fugitive thoughts, they recruit the reader into similar patterns of thinking. When you open one of his novels, it can be a shock to see no ragged margins, just a sheer bank of language, inexorable as a funeral stela. But once you proceed down the winding path of a character’s obsessive thoughts, you have no choice but to read on with a similar compulsion.
In A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East—the latest of Krasznahorkai’s novels to be published in English, in a translation by Ottilie Mulzet from New Directions—his sentences turn away from the psyche to trace a character’s journey through a puzzling geography. The novel begins with a man arriving at a monastery outside Kyoto. This man is known only as the grandson of Prince Genji. He has read a book called One Hundred Beautiful Gardens, a mysterious illustrated volume that fell into his hands by accident. The most exquisite garden in this book is the one-hundredth garden, which is perplexing in its modest beauty, impossible to find, and perhaps a joke inserted by the author. The grandson of Prince Genji suspects the garden is somewhere in this monastery, and so he roams the complex in search of it.
What follows is a meticulous consideration of the monastery and its hidden corners. Each crooked gate and hidden courtyard, each fountain, wall, and tree, each gust of air is evidence of the subtle and unrepeatable chain of events that occasioned its existence. The torii are not just gates but physical histories of the hinoki grove that supplied their timber, of the workers who felled the trees, and of the master carpenter who joined them. The monastery’s library is a time line of writing technology, beginning with early bamboo sutras, and moving on to the invention of mulberry paper and the scroll, each iteration highly particular in its design, each one condensing the history of its antecedents. Everything in this ancient complex is inevitable, unable to be anything but itself, from the massive ginkgo tree with its primordial, fan-shaped leaves, like a time traveler from the Cretaceous period; to the holly bush that sprouts from its trunk; to the dog that lies down in its shade to die.
This is a book preoccupied with infinity. Krasznahorkai’s project, it seems, is to thwart the passing of time through a program of looking. When a person’s eye lingers, the moment swells; to describe something in excess is therefore a hedge against death. At first, Krasznahorkai’s incantations seduce us. Yes, we think, time is a concertina. Everything is always. And yet, deep within the monastery, Krasznahorkai plants a counterpoint to this premise. When the grandson of Prince Genji reaches the abbot’s private chamber, he finds a two-thousand-page book called The Infinite Mistake. The work is a refutation of infinity, written by a scholar who derides a list of famous mathematicians with “extraordinarily obscene expressions.” Perhaps because I was primed by Krasznahorkai’s earlier works, which are filled with apocalyptic prophecies, my mind was already inclined toward endings. A maximalist treatment of a plant or animal may attempt to halt time, but instead it only rehearses a tragic calculus. It takes millions of years of chance occurrences to make a bird in its perfect machinery and just a moment for it to be destroyed, impossible to be remade.
Publisher: New Directions Page count: 144 Price: $17.95 Key quote: “…from that point onward this hidden garden never let him go, he simply could not chase it from his mind, he continually saw the garden in his mind’s eye without being able to touch its existence.” Shelve next to: Nicholson Baker, Jorge Luis Borges, Benjamín Labatut, W. G. Sebald, Murasaki Shikibu Unscientifically calculated reading time: One idle afternoon on a garden bench