Throughout the past hundred and fifty years or so, as the stage for modernism was set and more and more of the populace began to engage in literary and artistic pursuits with the rise of widespread literacy, the drive to and difficulty of portraying societies as fluid groups and a character unto itself has been an ever-changing and ever-difficult task for the writer. The main characters of stories moved from the aristocratic and powerful to the experience of the everyman, and as the horrors of the 20th century’s world wars and constantly alienating structures of society increased, so did the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of our experiences move exponentially out of reach.
László Krasznahorkai’s final novel, BARON WENCKHEIM’S HOME COMING, is a successful and boggling attempt at trying to encapsulate the entirety of our modern era’s anxieties as they sweep through a man, a culture, our technology, tradition, and the mistakes of our past. This book is very difficult to pinpoint and describe on a surface level – such as where the plot begins and ends, and who the ‘main’ characters are. But ultimately, it is an indictment of the destruction of our identities and how we can rebuild them into some homunculus of culture and integration in a world ravaged by late-stage capitalism. The narrative’s camera sweeps among and through the characters of this novel as they experience today’s horrors of existence. Some question it, some find humor in it, some indulge in violence, and some the dog-and-pony tricks of the press and legal systems. We are treated to moving among the Hungarian crowd as disillusioned Hungarians ourselves, and it is no small feat that Ottilie Mulzet’ s English translation from New Directions did an incredible job of contextualizing and energizing Krasznahorkai’s confounding prose and characters.
In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of some of the great Russians that I have read in my life such as Dr. Zhivago or Anna Karenina. Sweeping in scope and scale, the ability to translate a culture and its values and complexities through writing can be overwhelmingly difficult. The masters of the time would introduce hundreds of characters, many of whom we would only see momentarily to build a mise en scene that completed the novel’s beautiful identity as we walked the streets and experienced war alongside the deeply flawed characters. But today’s world is a lot different, with an internalism that seems to be on the micro and macro scale with an internet, economy, and leadership much different than the world of the past five thousand years. Krasznahorkai has somehow created a bold new paradigm for how this world and its inhabitants can be portrayed on the page by seemingly setting us up alongside his loom and spitting out character after character as he disassembles and reassembles the machinery in real time while making an incredible tapestry of Hungary, the hive-thoughts of the nation’s people, and the desire to pull a thread and unweave it at the bottom and feed the thread back into the loom before us. This book is an exquisite magic trick of thought, existence, politics, and an almost hilarious reflective cynicism.
I have read somewhere that Krasznahorkai suggested that if he died tomorrow – and he had said that this was going to be his last novel – that he would die happy knowing he left the world with his best work. He included the other two volumes of the trilogy that preceded this volume in his statement, and while I have not read them, I can also indicate that you not only don’t have to but that he is truly retiring with a work of writing that is absolutely incredible. It is a triumph of Hungarian literature, a triumph of Jewish literature, and a vast, funny, complicated, and celebratory portrait of what it means to live in the cold, commodified, irrational world of today. I don’t know how he did it, and how he did it so well with such momentum, but it is a truly amazing thing to behold.