By Andrés Hax
I had the good fortune of reading László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance in a state of almost complete ignorance about the author and his works. Some time ago, through a route of links and clicks that I disremember, I came across a video interview with the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, whom I also did not know. Apart from being an exceptional interview, Tarr mesmerized me: his underbite; his accent and his way of speaking in English (“You know, it’s, why I like it to do this film is…”); his blackening, widely spaced smoker’s teeth; his bright eyes; how he expressed his deeply held convictions in a quiet voice; his unpretentious but urgent way of explaining his art and his vision of storytelling. All of it.
After watching the interview, I came across a link to Krasznahorkai, who is a friend and collaborator of the filmmaker. I live in Argentina, where in the past ten years government restrictions have strictly limited the importation of foreign goods, including books, so I reluctantly do much of my reading on an e-reader. I searched for László Krasznahorkai and purchased, blind, the title that I found most attractive and mysterious (although many of his titles fit this description) and began reading The Melancholy of Resistance immediately.
It is a deep pleasure to read an author without any critical preconceptions because you are absolutely free to live inside of the work, to come to it on your own terms, to evaluate it as something new. There are no professors or museum guides whispering in your ear, telling you emphatically how much you should appreciate the experience you are having. You feel no obligation to rise to an important occasion or to enter with servile reverence. Reading The Melancholy of Resistance in this manner astounded me.
What was happening with these very long sentences? How did Krasznahorkai sustain them? Why did he write like that? Clearly it worked, but how? And what of the novel’s mood? How did he convey it, this sense of ever-present menace and danger even as he described the most mundane events? These include a woman in an overcrowded and delayed train, the same woman who arranges her possessions in a tiny, well-kept apartment; a simpleton in a late night bar explaining his theory of the cosmos to a mocking but familiar crowd; an old musician puttering about his home, lost in his thoughts. Then, unexpectedly, the audacity of introducing a kind of traveling circus that comes to town—one whose only attraction is a whale, the corpse of a leviathan, enclosed in a massive trailer that doubles as a viewing room. And onwards toward a massive catastrophe that will surely arrive—but how?—from such simple events in a grey, commonplace town.
There is a magic trick in literature. I don’t want to say in “great literature” because it sounds like I’m selling Cadillacs. I don’t even want to say “Literature” because for some reason that word sounds professorial to me, in a pretentious way. But, anyhow, let’s say there is a magic trick in literature that works. And the trick is this: it puts your mind in a real place. It implants in your being a real memory of place. This is no small trick.
To be more precise, I will give a concrete, personal example. I remember my grandfather’s house. I can walk through it in my mind, room to room, upstairs and downstairs, and remember dozens of details. The furniture, the views through the windows (they carried him in his coffin out of one of those windows), the feel of the different floors on my bare feet, the secret spaces of the house that I explored, like the cellar or the back rooms where the maids slept. This was in Santiago, Chile, in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
This house is absolutely real in my memory, but it does not exist anymore. What was once a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of the city has for years now been engulfed by towering apartment buildings, swallowed up by the megalopolis. This is to say, there is absolutely no evidence in the real world to corroborate my memories of my grandfather’s house. So it is, in fact, and for all practical purposes, an imaginary place.
The point is this: the landscapes of certain novels are just as real to me, in my mind, as the memory of my grandfather’s house. Moby-Dick, for example. I could walk into the room that Ishmael and Queequeg share in The Spouter-Inn and recognize it the same way I would recognize other rooms from my real life. I could go on with dozens of examples, but you get the idea.
So I believe, because my experience has showed it to be true, that literature that works creates real experience. Its intangible residue provides an authentic memory of place.
All of this was a long parenthesis to say that I have walked in the streets of the town Krasznahorkai describes in The Melancholy of Resistance. I know what the light looks like in the winter, and I know the smell of the citizens in their greatcoats as they crowd around the carny show. I have been on the train with the woman at the beginning of the novel, watching her. I know what the bare trees look like against the slate sky. And the slant of the sidewalks and the sheen of twilight of the shop windows of the town center. And even though everyone around me speaks in Hungarian, I understand them—as if through telepathy—all the same.
Beyond these general abstractions, I would like to say one more thing about this extraordinary novel whose main subject is—beyond the plot, which in itself is quite intriguing—the sheer phenomenon of the world’s existence. And that is the mesmerizing effect of the title of the book—The Melancholy of Resistance—along with its epigraph: It passes, but it does not pass away.
What do these two elements, title and epigraph, possibly mean? Even when you finish the book and are stunned in its afterglow, neither is clear. They remain ambiguous. They are open to interpretation.
In the interview, Tarr mentions his love of the artist Bruegel, and in particular his painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Specifically, Tarr says, in his beautiful broken English: “When we see the falling Icarus, and this is the story and this is the title of the picture, and what you see, the Icarus is really the smallest point in the background when he fells to the water, and the front you can see too ugly real people. That’s a kind of philosophy. The story is I don’t know where, because the main issue is in front of you. It’s a kind of dramaturgy…”
The Melancholy of Resistance is about some great event, but I have yet to spy it out. It is hidden. It is a miniature in the background. Is it about totalitarianism? Is it about society’s capacity to delude itself? Is it about the speck, our planet, lost in the infinite void of black space? I think it is about all of these things and more. And I think it will be in my reading life like one of those paintings that you return to over and over again (in some far gallery in an enormous museum) because it always seems brand new and because somewhere on the edges, or in the shadows, it contains a horrible mystery.
But you can never quite put your finger on it.
Andrés Hax is a cultural reporter based in Buenos Aires. He was a staff reporter at Ñ, the cultural supplement of Argentina's largest daily newspaper, Clarín, from June 2004 until October 2014. He is now a freelance writer working for various publications, including Eterna Cadencia's literary blog and the Ideas section of La Nación, Argentina's other major paper.