The Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, whose sentences roll out over paragraphs in what his translator George Szirtes has called a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type”, won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize recently for his “achievement in fiction on the world stage”.
Chair of judges Marina Warner, the British academic and writer, compared Krasznahorkai’s work to Kafka – the author’s own personal literary hero – and Beckett.
“I feel we’ve encountered here someone of that order,” she said. “That’s a trick that the best writers pull off; they give you the thrill of the strange … then after awhile, they imaginatively retune you. So now we say, ‘it’s just like being in a Kafka story’; I believe that soon we will say it’s like being in a Krasznahorkai story.”
The Britain-based biennial Man Booker International Prize is worth £60,000 (RM334,000), and is intended to honour a living author for his or her body of work, either written in English or available in English translation. It has gone in the past to Ismail Kadare from Albania, Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, two Americans, Philip Roth and Lydia Davis, and one Canadian, Alice Munro.
Krasznahorkai was one of 10 writers shortlisted for this year’s award, alongside authors including India’s Amitav Ghosh, Libya’s Ibrahim al-Koni, Mozambique’s Mia Couto, and America’s Fanny Howe.
“We really would have preferred not to have to choose a winner – every one of the 10 writers is really remarkable in different ways, and there really isn’t any of them who doesn’t reward reading, who couldn’t have won the prize,” said Warner.
But Krasznahorkai, she said, is “a visionary writer of extraordinary intensity and vocal range who captures the texture of present-day existence in scenes that are terrifying, strange, appallingly comic, and often shatteringly beautiful”. He has also, she added, “been superbly served by his translators”, George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet, who will share the £15,000 (RM83,800) translators’ prize.
The author’s first novel, Satantango, was published to huge acclaim in Hungary in 1985, and later adapted for the cinema by the filmmaker Bela Tarr, in collaboration with Krasznahorkai. The bleakly comic story of a dismal Hungarian town whose drunken inhabitants are taken in by a visitor who may be the devil, it was not released in English until Szirtes’ 2012 translation.
Krasznahorkai followed it with 1989’s The Melancholy Of Resistance – published in English in 1998 – in which violent hysteria follows the arrival of a circus with a dead whale in a small Hungarian town. It won the German Bestenliste prize for the best literary work of the year; the Man Booker International judges said in a statement that “the book as a whole could be described as a vision, satirical and prophetic, of the dark historical province that goes by the name of Western civilisation”.
The author has gone on to win a host of other literary prizes, including the highest Hungarian state cultural honour, the Kossuth prize, and the Best Translated Book award in the United States two years in a row, most recently for Seiobo There Below, published in Britain last month, in which the Japanese goddess Seiobo returns to Earth.
“The Melancholy Of Resistance, Satantango and Seiobo There Below are magnificent works of deep imagination and complex passions, in which the human comedy verges painfully on transcendence,” said Warner.
“He has two different periods, the earlier one, from the 1980s, when he wrote apocalyptic, dark, brooding novels about small towns, small people being destroyed. Then he moved into a luminously beautiful phase, from which we’ve got Seiobo in English. It’s really an extraordinary book.”
Warner called Krasznahorkai’s prose “absolutely stunning”, and a “thrilling” experience to read.
“This extraordinary style he has, which people sometimes object to – if you think of it like music, the piece begins, and at first you don’t know where you are, it’s unfamiliar, and then it begins to feel natural, the rhythm keeps puling you along,” she said. “He’s difficult in the same way Beckett is difficult, or Dante is difficult. Kafka also has that quality.”
Satantango’s epigraph is taken from Kafka – “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting” – and the author said in an earlier interview that he has “only one” literary hero: “K, in the works of Kafka. I follow him always.”
He told literary magazine The White Review, in an interview with Szirtes: “When I am not reading Kafka, I am thinking about Kafka. When I am not thinking about Kafka, I miss thinking about him. Having missed thinking about him for a while, I take him out and read him again.”
In a statement, Warner and her fellow judges, SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) professor Wen-chin Ouyang, authors Nadeem Aslam and Elleke Boehmer, and The New York Review Of Books Classics editorial director Edwin Frank, praised Krasznahorkai’s “extraordinary sentences, sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths, their tone switching from solemn to madcap to quizzical to desolate as they go their wayward way; epic sentences that, like a lint roll, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things as they accumulate inexorably into paragraphs that are as monumental as they are scabrous and musical”.
Krasznahorkai has been published by small imprints in English translation, with Tuskar Rock releasing Seiobo in Britain, but he counts some major names among his fans. Celebrated German writer W.G. Sebald said that “the universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing”, while influential intellectual Susan Sontag called him “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville”.
Warner says she thinks Colm Tóibín, who set up Tuskar Rock with his agent Peter Straus, got so frustrated that no one was showing an interest in publishing Seiobo in English that he decided to do it himself.
“It’s partly our Anglosphere provincialism, because we have this dominant language … but most of these writers are absolutely celebrated. Ibrahim al-Koni has won a huge amount of prizes everywhere, so has Krasznahorkai. But translated fiction is still a very small percentage in the English publishing world.” – Guardian News Service