Quartet Books Limited, 1998
ISBN: 0-7043-8009-9
In the list of memorable first sentences, the first sentence of Laszlo Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance deserves at 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 enthralling book. 
      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 trifling—he spent four years on the project—yet 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 innocent. 
      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.