REVIEW: A Hungarian Writer Who's Nearly Impenetrable, but Well Worth the Effort

The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai

New Directions Books 128 pp.

By Michael Landes

Where to begin with László Krasznahorkai? Many never begin with him at all, not just because he is a Hungarian author in translation who only really entered the mainstream last year, but especially because of his absurdly dense style and thick prose. His larger novels are, simply put, monsters to get through, and can leave you feeling like a second-grader struggling through his first chapter book. But in every case, the effort is worth it. Krasznahorkai is one of the most important living writers today — an assessment confirmed last year, when he was awarded the Man Booker International prize — and to pass over his two new novellas would be criminal.

But honestly –– where do you begin with him? Most begin with his sentences; his long and contorted perversions of language that, in their constant struggle to reach the truth of some crucial matter, consistently fall and die at the period. George Szirtes, who translated The Last Wolf and most of Krasznahorkai’s other works into English, has called his style “a slow lava-flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” The Last Wolf fits this description at least partly: the entire novella is a single seventy-page sentence, but one that races manically and carries the reader across continents and decades seamlessly.

Krasznahorkai has a love for elderly male academics with uniquely specific obsessions: his early novel The Melancholy of Resistance features a piano teacher who dedicates his life after retirement to rediscovering Bach as played on a piano of equal temperament (rather than the “correct temperament” used on pianos throughout history), and War & War stars an archivist whose purpose in life is the publication of a discovered manuscript, a manuscript with the answer to the meaning of life.

His new novella The Last Wolf is in this tradition — a tale told in a Berlin bar by a failed philosopher, pulled from the depths of poverty and flown to Spain by a foundation that wants him to write “something about the region” of Extremadura. There he dives into the tale of the last wolf in the region, an interest sparked by a single sentence in an article on the flora and fauna of Extremadura: “it was south of the River Duero in 1983 that the last wolf had perished.”

Krasznahorkai’s heavy, Dostoyevskian characters are just one common feature of his books. Another even more consistent pattern is the failing rural (and almost always Hungarian) community, with several books starring towns similar to Krasznahorkai’s remote birthplace of Gyula. The second of his new novellas, Herman, includes both a small and vulnerable community and a manic lead character––the titular Herman, who turns from a talented game warden near retirement into the terror of his hometown after an attack of conscience on behalf of the hundreds of animals he’s killed.

Krasznahorkai is not much for obeying narrative rules. The chapters of Satantango, his Man Booker Prize winner in 2015, count up and back down again; Melancholy of Resistance begins by following an utterly irrelevant character for twenty pages. This sort of disregard for writerly conventions is what splits Herman into two sections, one following Herman strictly and the second following a group of hedonistic soldiers with female companions into the town of Herman’s terror.

Krasznahorkai also offers up unreliable narrators, both third-person and first-person, through one of the unnamed soldiers — whose narrations come into doubt as these two accounts of the life and death of Herman align on enough counts to be recognizable, and diverge on enough points to be questionable. Herman’s identity is known to the town much earlier in the second telling of the story, and the conclusion to Herman’s rampage is also notably different.

Krasznahorkai’s writings are not only profoundly dark — Susan Sontag called him a “contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse” — but stylistically and thematically unsettling.  In forcing the reader to question his or her own reading of his work, Krasznahorkai succeeds in one of the most important tasks of fiction: he makes us question the world around us and the realism we take for granted, replacing our comfortable sense of our surroundings with his dark image of humanity on the verge of breakdown.

Michael Landes is a New York-based writer.