Babel: Krasznahorkai’s War and War
“I haven’t gone mad…but I see just as clearly as if I were mad.”
Unlike Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, the two other novels by László Krasznahorkai translated into English so far, and which are both set entirely in rural Hungary, War and War is an urban novel, opening in a city in Hungary, then quickly moving to New York. Korin, a bureaucratic archivist, discovers a manuscript that defies immediate classification and so he must read it in order to catalog it. The manuscript turns out to be “a work of astonishing, foundation-shaking, cosmic genius,” and Korin, an immediate convert, realizes that previously “he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything.” The manuscript, however, promises to help him “recover the dignity and meaning whose loss he had been mourning.” And so he decides he must dedicate his life to giving this lost, obscure manuscript immortality on the Internet. “There was nothing to do but, in the strictest sense, to stake his life on immortality.”
War and War is an astonishing narrative of Kori’s unquenchable need to find faith and proselytize to a world that literally cannot understand him.
…New York was full of Towers of Babel, good heavens, imagine it, he said the same afternoon on a state of high excitement, here he had been walking right amongst them for weeks on end, knowing that he should see the connection, but had failed to see it, but not that he had seen it, he announced with great ceremony, now that he had got it, it was clear to him that this most important and most sensitive city, had deliberately been filled by someone with Towers of Babel, all with seven stories, he noted, his eyes screwed up, examining the distant panorama…
As Korin reels between doubt and faith, with each new setback acting as further proof of the rightness of his mission, a Dostoyevskian blend of paranoia, irrationality, and faith reenforce each other, blinding him to the fact that the rest of the world treats him like a crazy, unintelligible foreigner from Eastern Europe. Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance each had a central charismatic, mysterious figure who could bend the locals to their will. But in War and War, the charismatic figure is a manuscript, and the only character it gains power over is Korin.
The skeletal but convoluted “plot” of Krasznahorkai’s novel quickly becomes buried beneath his maniacal pinball prose, which breathlessly tracks Korin’s mind with precision as it darts and careens from idea to idea, from emotion to emotion. Toward the end of the book, Korin reflects on the remarkable use of language in the manuscript he is transcribing for the Internet, on how “the sentences seemed to have lost their reason, not just growing ever longer and longer but galloping desperately onward in a harum scarum scramble.” Surely, Krasznahorkai was referring to his own writing:
…this enormous sentence comes along and starts to egg itself seeking ever more precision, ever more sensitivity, and in so doing it sets out a complete catalogue of the capabilities of language, all that language can do and all it can’t, and the words begin to fill the sentences, leaping over each other, piling up, but not as in some common road accident to be catapulted all over the place, but in a kind of jigsaw puzzle whose completion is of paramount importance, dense, concentrated, enclosed, a suffocating airless throng of pieces…
War and War contains a single embedded photograph depicting a plaque commemorating the suicide of György Korin.
László Krasznahorkai’s War and War, first published in Hungarian in 1999 and translated by George Szirtes for New Directions in 2006.