László Krasznahorkai, 2008
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, 2013
Krasznahorkai is unlike any other author I’ve ever read. His prose is propelled by an intoxicating and seductive rambling vision that meanders in sentences that run on and on in tangents and narrative diversions that are several pages long. Entire chapters can consist of single multi-page sentences filled with lush descriptive intention that linguistically weaves itself through the page like a river carving and crashing through a glorious canyon. While reading these hallucinating sentences the reader is transported along an invigorating and imaginative ride flipping through the pages with enigmatic succession and hardly noticing the length of the journey, forgetting where the the beginning ever started and surprised where the narrative journey ultimately ends.
The long sentence may seem daunting and laborious to most readers, but Krasznahorkai has mastered it. He owns it. His words are pure beauty and what he is doing with the novel is totally unique and refreshing. After reading Satantango a couple of years ago I was spellbound by what I had read. I’ve been wanting to read more Krasznahorkai but only at a time that was right for me to give him proper attention.
When the translation of Seiobo There Below was released in 2013 shortly I had finished reading Satantango I was initially excited to get my hands on more of this author’s genius but my excitation quickly morphed into hesitation after I learned from the book jacket that Seiobo There Below was not set in Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian homeland but was focused on a Japanese goddess and sacred sites in Japan. In addition to his linguistic lyricism, much of what captivated me about Krasznahorkai and Satantango was learning a little about the unique perspective of a backcountry village in Hungary. The Japanese setting of Seiobo There Below caused me to question the value and merit of a book written in Hungarian by a Hungarian author about Japan, a country across the world from the native locale of Hungary that had captivated me in Satantango. So, despite falling in love with the author of Satantango, my drive to read more Krasznahorkai was put on hold for a while until a used copy of Seiobo There Below came into my hands.
It is too bad that the jacket cover was overly focused on the Japanese setting of a what is really only a portion of this expansive book because Krasznahorkai explores much more than simply a single setting in Japan. Seiobo There Below is an episodic work that transverses time and setting with seventeen distinct chapters that each read like a short story with totally different characters and settings that span European locations in addition to the Japanese. The intention behind the novel’s travels through history and location is concerned with the beauty of artistic expression throughout human history and approaches the beauty of art by either exploring the method and craft of creative artists or focusing on the inspiration that art endows upon those who appreciate and view the arts.
The common theme from chapter to chapter is that beauty is a gift from above that transcends and connects mortal man to something that extends beyond the brief moments of life on this Earth. The novel’s namesake is based on Seiobo, the Japanese name for the Chinese goddess Xi Wangmu who bestows prosperity and eternal bliss on others. In the novel, Seiobo There Below, the goddess Seiobo takes many forms and is sometimes directly referred such as in the chapter titled The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki when Seiobo appears in first person, speaking “I put down my crown, and in earthly form but not concealing my face I descended among them,” (211) to inspire the craft of a famous Noh actor. However, most often throughout the novel Seiobo takes less direct forms of heavenly inspiration such as the angels in a painting that cause a lost thief to purchase a knife out of fear, the glaring sun on the marble stones of the Acropolis that blinds and frustrates a would-be tourist, or the hypnotizing gaze of the Venus de Milo that has seduced a museum guard to obsessively dedicate his life’s devotion towards admiration of the masterpiece sculpture.
Although many of the chapters focus on the craft of creating art, the best chapters are those that focus on the hypnotic power of art to speak to common men such as the museum guard, tourist, or thief. The narrative of these chapters demonstrates that beauty is not intended solely for the cultured and aristocratically educated. Although the creation of art is dependent on the conscription of the moneyed class, once it is created its existence reaches beyond the influence of money and provides a multitude of inspiration to all those who are open to receiving. The narrative of Seiobo There Below explores these ideas through many perspectives and to better explain what I am trying to get at, read the following passage (a brief excerpt from one of Krasznahorkai’s very long sentences) that describes the thoughts of one of the assistants to the Noh actor in the chapter titled The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki:
“…it’s impossible, or a miracle, and I’ve marveled at him because of that, but then accepted that the sensei knows already in advance what is going to happen later, and also that this comes not from himself but from the world, from the true structure of the world, which he and only he sees and knows, but I could also express it like this: the sensei just feels things, and he is deaf, deaf to the those things that we are not deaf to, he is deaf to mundane explanations because he only feels, only grasps what his soul tells him, we are deaf to our souls, to him our mediocre imaginings and connections mean nothing at all, he sees them, he sees us, he knows what we believe what we are thinking and what we do, he knows the laws that are important to us, the laws that determine and circumscribe all of us here, yet these laws, in regard to the sensei somehow … just don’t affect him at all…” (221)
The assistant’s admiration to the sensei actor is a reflection and expression of thoughts that any one of us could have felt at one time through awe toward the artistic genius of a great performer or master of painting, sculpture, architecture, or even sport. What is intriguing about the description of admiration is that the words are the thoughts of a mere assistant in the presence of the master, indicating that the master’s expression of perfection of acting does not require mastery to achieve appreciation towards the actor’s genius. This thought is further expressed in the following passage spoken from the thoughts of a museum guard at the Louvre in the chapter titled, Where You’ll be Looking:
“…she did not belong here or anywhere upon the earth, everything that she, the Venus de Milo meant, whatever it might be, originated from a heavenly realm that no longer existed, which had been pulverized by time, a moldering annihilated, universe that disappeared for all eternity from this higher realm, because the higher realm had itself disappeared from the human world, and yet she remained here, this Venus from the higher realm remained here, left abandoned…” (336)
I believe that my appreciation for the exploration of artistic beauty within the pages of Seiobo There Below’s was heightened by most recent travels to France and Paris where I indulged in my own appreciation for viewing master artworks in museums and architecture. However, it isn’t just my rekindled appreciation for artworks that caused me to enjoy this book. The novel is itself an expression of mastery reflecting Krasznahorkai’s skill and genius. The lyrical beauty of the long sentence and the depth of ideas explored on the page provide their own form of transcendence for any reader open to receiving the visions inspired by Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian-to-English translated narrative mastery.
However, amidst my praise I will acknowledge that this book is far from perfect. I believe that Satantango achieved a breath of visionary perfection and perhaps many of Krasznahorkai’s other books that I have not yet read are equal in the mastery expressed on the pages of Satantango, but I realize that Seiobo There Below is limited in falling just short of the broad scope of its wide vision.
My singular criticism of this book is that Krasznahorkai’s Asian-focused chapters are limited to only Japan whereas his European chapters are diverse in their exploration of France, Spain, Greece, Romania, Russia, Hungary and the Ottoman empire. This is an extensively researched book that adeptly displays Krasznahorkai’s scholastic appreciation of many of the great art works of the history of mankind, but in limiting his Asian focus to Japan and only Japan he reveals that he has a limited understanding or appreciation for the scope and extent of Asian art in comparison to European art.
Of course, as a Hungarian Krasznahorkai is expected to have a broad appreciation for European masterpieces, but for a book that explores the inspiration of artistic beauty with a diversity of time and place across the millennia I expected more diversity of Asia. With such an extensive focus on Japanese temples, Noh masks and Noh acting, I found myself asking where was the focus on Chinese calligraphy, Buddhist sculpture in India and Indonesia, or Cambodia, or countless other Asian creations of beauty? Furthermore, the book completely ignores the breadth of human culture in the Americas and could have easily included a chapter about the Andean stone temples of the Inca or central American pyramids of the Maya or Aztec.
The beauty of artistic creation is present across the globe throughout human history and for a book to jump through time and location exploring that beauty it was disappointing that Krasznahorkai kept returning to Japan and only Japan whenever he explored anywhere outside of Europe. Of course, it would be impossible for a book to cover all of human history without choking itself on its own vision, but Seiobo There Below would have been improved by at least giving at least a slight nod towards somewhere outside Europe other than Japan.
It could be argued, perhaps, that the Fibonacci chapter progression (the 17 chapters are number 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on up to 2584) is a nod toward the infinite progression of the influence and voice of heavenly inspiration across all of human history, but this is only a creative suggestion expressed by this forgiving and imaginative reader and not actually articulated within the pages of the novel. Whatever the intention of the Fibonacci chapters, and despite the novel’s limitation of scope, the novel’s final words in the final chapter best articulate the limitation of human expression, our own mortality:
“…for there is a domain, that of death, the dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall devour us as well, to close it in upon itself, to bury, to consume even our memories, beyond all that is eternal.” (451)
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