Books Limited, 1998
the list of memorable first sentences, the first sentence of Laszlo
Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance
least an honorable mention. It is 174 words long. And rarely does
a shorter sentence make an appearance in the book.
The story centers around a circus
show's visit to a small town somewhere in the Hungarian countryside.
The act boasts as its main attraction the body of "the largest
whale in the world" and is accompanied by a mysterious and
grimly silent group of followers. The heart of the book lies not
in story, however, but in mood. The tone of Krasznahorkai's novel
is dark, the tale cynical yet still touching. Written in a difficult,
elastic style, The Melancholy of Resistance
takes some effort.
Nevertheless, this unheroic saga of entropy makes for a strangely
The action takes place during
an unseasonable cold spell. The characters circle round and round
with the body of the whale their pivot and we see their world disintegrate.
Stubborn in the face of danger is the musician Mr. Eszter, who,
disillusioned with the twelve-tone scale, shuts himself up in his
apartment in a "strategic withdrawal in face of the pathetic
stupidity of so-called human progress." At the forefront of
the fight against weakness and vacillation (and untidy yards) is
his Machiavellian wife, Mrs. Eszter, whose social elevation to president
of the women's committee inspires her to try for new heights of
power. She is a deliciously awful figure, and provides much of the
book's humor. And there is Valuska, whose eyes see nothing but the
stars. These and other characters make there way through a town
that is tight with tension and, unaccountably, covered in garbage.
The book looms with a sense
of unaccountable, yet strangely inevitable catastrophe, "as
if some vital yet undetectable modification had taken place in the
eternally stable composition of the air." And behind the body
of the ever-present whale lurks another figure whose hands seem
to hold hidden sources of power. Into a world sordid and pointless,
hysterical and dingy, the body of the whale brings a climax and,
for each character, a change in what was previously a stable universe.
The main characters whose thoughts
we can see are handled mercilessly but skillfully; the reader is
handed off between them infrequently, but transitions are seamless.
The sometimes-inside, sometimes-outside view of each characters
has its benefit. When we are first with Mrs. Plauf, for example,
the discomfort and embarrassment she feels on her train journey
absorbs us. Her outrage seems completely appropriate. It is only
when we have left her and are traveling with her son that we see
her prudery and shallow, fussy nature.
The characters' endless orbits
are traced by Mr. Krasznahorkai with what seem similarly limitless
sentences. Mr. Krasznahorkai is indeed known for length of sentence,
even in Hungarian, where long sentences are common. Mr. Krasznahorkai's
language may be difficult to adjust to at first, but the enormous
loops of sentences begin to acquire continuity after a while. He
handles the wonder and shame of the heartfelt Valuska with delicacy
and pathos. Valuska's blinding sense of joy in the sheer existence
of "the cosmos" is rendered as simple as his friendship
for the bitter Mr. Eszter.
In the best tradition of storytelling,
the characters move from place to place during the action. Only
the whale is immobile. But nowhere does the story take precedence
over atmosphere and language. The description of physical decay
that ends the book, complete with pathological descriptions of rotting
tissues, is almost lyrical. This poem of destruction is actually
crisper than the rest of the text. As a warning, the back copy asserts
that the novel "far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary
writing." In general, Mr. Krasznahorkai's style is heavy, though
never ponderous or didactic. But the story seems to far outweigh
its less than 300 pages. Translator (and poet) George Szirtes has
done an admirable job, and cannot be accused of triflinghe
spent four years on the projectyet the tone of the Hungarian
comes through. The book lacks the concision and clean prose style
of English, and some readers may find it hard going.
The Melancholy of Resistance
was first published in Hungarian in 1989, the year when state socialism
in Hungary and other Central European countries ended, and a close
atmosphere of those pre-1989 times can be felt in the book. Even
the characters, while not exactly stock cliches, are understandable
figures of those times. Mr. Eszter is the refined intellectual,
disgusted with the world, who no longer bothers. Mrs. Eszter is
the successful leader. Reprehensible and with an iron will, she
knows when to use people and she knows what she wants. There are
the brutal military men and scurrying toadies and, of course, the
The gray inevitability of decline,
the militant and self-serving leadership of the ambitious Mrs. Eszter,
and the wasted efforts of Mr. Eszter and Mrs. Plauf to keep the
world at bay all combine to create a mood built equally of tension
and futility. In the midst of this theme of entropy and disintegration,
sits the whale, gigantic and inscrutable -- hardly a subtle figure.
Neither good nor evil, it is a symbol of the inevitable. Resistance
is melancholy indeed. No matter how fantastic and terrible, what
must come cannot be avoided.