Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens

imagesLászló Krasznahorkai, 2004
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, 2015

An author with a voice and perspective unlike any other, Krasznahorkai writes compelling stories that are a special blend of the macabre and the beautiful. His narrative style is characteristically unique in that he often writes in meandering and intoxicating sentences that twist and turn for pages without hardly taking a breath. Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is very different from Krasznahorkai’s novels in that it is a semi-autobiographical travel narrative told in the third person about a Hungarian poet named László Stein traveling through modern China in search of the presence and influence of its classical culture.

Most notable is the lack of long, meandering sentences that is so characteristic of Krasznahorkai’s style as much of the book is written in dialogue between various peoples he interviews and short reflections on the ancient scenery hidden amidst the hustle and bustle of modern China. The style does make this a much quicker and easier book to digest than his very rich and meaty novels, but the novelist’s dark and bleak perspective is still present.

Why read this book written by a Hungarian novelist about a Hungarian poet in modern China? The title, Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens may seem clunky and mysterious, but the footnotes reveal that the phrase “‘All that is beneath the Heavens’ was a name of the ancient Chinese for the world, which in their eyes was identical with China itself” (271). The destruction and sorrow is depicted as the Chinese nation’s disconnection and disassociation with its own history and endangered cultural heritage as the rush towards modernization and the pursuit of capital supplant the identity of all that is beneath the Heavens. This theme can be applied beyond the subject of China and as accurate depiction of mankind’s crisis with contemporary modernization.

For those uninitiated in Krasznahorkai as a writer, a Hungarian traveler’s criticism of China’s disassociation with the wealth of its classical culture may appear as elitist or judgmental, but the themes that explore the merits of artistic beauty coupled with the detritus of a declining cultural heritage are topics that adeptly plague the works of Krasznahorkai. In these pages his interest in China’s rich heritage is portrayed with great respect and reverence alongside a sympathetic disdain for the mass consumerism and commercialization of sacred and once beautiful sites.

The opening page’s introduction proclaim that “there is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called South-western Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on 5 May 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing” (1). Stein is traveling to the temples of Jiuhuashan amidst a tragically archaic and frenetic world filled with travelers in a confusing system of disorganized order in which buses stop inexplicably and all travelers follow each other lemming-like from one bus to another. In a moment of reprieve from the spectacle of chaos, Stein idealizes a monk sitting peacefully in the crammed bus he shares but later is disgusted to find that the same monk attempted to short-change Stein’s bus fare as a vulture capitalizing on the rich pockets of an obvious foreign traveler . This opening scene sets the tone for what is to come in this book’s exploration of the dichotomy of what appears and what is; not all is what it seems in the idealization of the ancient and profane as the corruption of capital has supplanted the ideal of what one would expect of Buddhist monastery ideals.

Many of the famed sites are afflicted with the spectacle saturated by consumer tourism as “the buses pull in and pull in and pull in, one after the other, without stopping, they begin to stream outward as if from some bottomless sack, and tourists begin to flood in, inundate, fight their way inside, as hundreds of newer groups arrive relentlessly like an attacking army” (101). At each of the many sites that Stein visits monks are busy hawking cheap throwaway souvenirs and the temples and statues have been cheaply remade with poor quality cement that is a vague and faint misappropriation of the beauty and artistic quality endowed in the original temple/pagoda/garden. In his travels there are also sad-satirical moments, such as the visit to the famed Ningbo library, celebrated as China’s oldest private library, only to find that the library buildings are empty of books or scrolls as all the texts have been moved offsite from the beautiful library grounds to an environmentaly controlled warehouse thereby making the library a charade. There is also the sad reflection on the celebrated construction of a massive golden lotus throne in Shanghai that is essentially a symbol of an empty throne devoid of the presence of the Buddha, suggesting that Buddha has left the city.


Throughout the book Stein interviews many scholars, monks, museum directors, writers and other learned dignitaries in a  quest to understand the Chinese people’s connection with their cultural heritage. Most of these conversations are a disappointment to Stein as he fails to hear his interviewees acknowledge or accept that the fast-changing capitalistic leaning growth of the rising super-power is affecting the nation’s connection to their past or their roots. One such conversation is remarkably different and stands out as a flagpost that illuminates Krasznahorkai’s intention in this book. The conversation with the intellectual Xi Chuan in the chapter titled “Today It’s Over, but That Didn’t Start Just Now” covers many topics including the moralities of major religious or philosophical ideals such as the respect for authority in Confucianism, the ideal of love for other in Christianity, the Buddhist recognition that overcoming suffering by acknowledging that all is essentially empty. Each of these core ideals have had an influence on the moral order of society but China’s contemporary trajectory towards modernity and global strength has moved on a perilous trajectory away from any of these moral foundations:

“But where is the axis of this morality – that is my question. The pace of change is enormous. All the old things have collapsed. I was in India. They greatly appreciate what has happened in China. They appreciate the development, the enormous speed of development. But the reason for that is: we had Marxism! Marxism, though, is gone now, there is only a new modernity with its own specialized morality not supported by anything. The whole thing is just hanging in the air. All the older moral principles, including Marxism, were based on something. Today, principles exist but there is nothing holding them up. That is really dangerous. The problem is not that there are no principles but that behind these principles there is a void.” (176)

I believe that the main emphasis of this book is best captured in the quote above. Behind all of Stein/Krasznahorkai’s interest in classical Chinese heritage and arts and his disgust toward the rampant consumerism that has usurped the culture,  I believe that he is greatly concerned about the Chinese nation and its loss of identity amidst the rapid pursuit of wealth and modern development. He has written this book as a signpost indicating that China, a nation that prides itself on being the longest standing continuous civilization, has chosen a path that is at odds with its own history. What will come of that decision is still unknown. Perhaps it is the best for the people benefit from their nation’s new economic strength as a springboard out of their past of poverty, but is material wealth more valuable than the cultural wealth of heritage?

I recognize that I have interchanged the names Stein and Krasznahorkai throughout my discussion above. The book is written by the author Krasznahorkai who did actually travel through China and Asia during the 1990’s and the turn of the century, however he has chosen to use the pseudonym Stein in this book as a device to add a dose of narrative disconnection from the events and perspectives depicted. Stein could be criticized as being a bit of a curmudgeon and an elitist while removing himself from the narrative Krasznahorkai avoids such personal criticism. However, I believe that in writing this work Krasznahorkai is displaying his investment and concern for the Chinese people and the Stein pseudonym is primarily used as a plot device to add a bit of fictionalization and idealism to what could be considered a travel book. Notably, I had criticized Krasznahorkai in my review of Seibo There Below for omitting the breadth of Asian culture from his novel and had considered that he was only concerned with Japanese culture, but in reading Sorrow and Destruction I now understand that Krasznahorkai is greatly invested in the Asian cultural heritage in writing Seiobo he must have been conflicted about presenting a reflection of beauty from his conflicted perspective of China.

Finally, I feel the need to add a personal reflection that I gained from this book. As a young man I had traveled briefly in Shanghai and the historical region of Hangzhou in the winter of 1998-99 during roughly the same time period that Krasznahorkai was traveling through these same regions. I had traveled with a friend and stayed with her family in the local’s neighborhood far from the tourist locales of Shanghai. The city was undergoing much change during that period and felt like a massive construction site with vast areas being bulldozed to make way for new modern skyscrapers and it was an odd experience. I fully appreciate Krasznahorkai’s perspective because the scale of growth and development I witnessed was spellbinding. I greatly appreciated the travels we made to Hangzhou as an escape from the hectic sites of Shanghai to be among the green hills, view the ancient wooden pagoda of Leifeng Ta, meander through the Buddha carved caves of Feilai Feng, and float on the pristine waters of Xihu West Lake. In the book Krasznahorkai did speak of these locations as “beautiful, indeed breathtaking, and that something has remained of everything here, like a kind of hint,” (107) and his reflections sparked fond memories of my past travels.

There were moments in my travels that stood out as sublime and surreal, totally unique to China of that particular moment in history, such as when a man in the streets of the major metropolis of Shanghai walked up to me to touch my face as though he had never seen a white man before or to witness the famed bicycles toting loads of equipment and gear alongside a major highway filled with modern trucks and cars. The country was certainly at a crossroads in identity and I am certain that China of 2017 is vastly different that it was in 1999 of my time or 2002 of Krasznahorkai’s. Having had the opportunity to see both the chaos of a developing Shanghai as well as one of the few unspoiled ancient sites that Krasznahorkai appreciated fully enriched my appreciation for his great concern in the dichotomy of the unchecked forward progress of the continuously developing China.





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About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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