Saturday, November 4, 2017

Herman the Game Warden/The Death of a Craft

I'm reading a very small volume of short stories by László Krasznahorkai. Two of the stories are about Herman, a game warden in a rural Hungarian town. In the first story, Herman the Game Warden, prior to his imminent retirement he is assigned to remove unwanted predators from an area known as the Remete woods. He goes about the job methodically, having special traps made by a local blacksmith and using esoteric trapping techniques known only to experts such as himself. He easily captures, kills and disposes of feral cats, wild dogs, foxes and other species that have been deemed inappropriate by the authorities. Then suddenly he has a change of heart, almost a religious conversion, that causes him to believe that he should not be killing these animals. Rather, he decides, the townspeople are the problem. He stops trapping animals and instead begins setting up traps in town, which injure the residents, who subsequently search for the culprit. Eventually they find him, and Herman is shot. In the second story, The Death of a Craft, the same basic story is retold, with some of the facts changed, from the point of view of a sybaritic group of officers and their girlfriends who have arrived in town to visit a dying mother and engage in a short winter excursion to stifle their boredom. When the visitors learn about Herman, they become engrossed in his capture and join search parties in his pursuit. The ending of this version is different, with Herman leaving a trap near the altar of the local cathedral and then disappearing:

The disquieting question, whether "Herman" had intended the trap for those approaching the altar or perhaps for Christ descending from the cross, was to remain unanswered, because the demon, the ever tormenting, absent antagonist to our heroic struggles, had most likely left town early that morning, never to be heard of again.

These two stories were first published in 1986, early in Krasznahorkai's career, and, as short stories, are less complex than his better-known works. Herman the Game Warden seems heavily influenced by Kafka, with a description of a specific kind of insanity and a narrative with a claustrophobic focus on one person's obsessions. I don't find it particularly interesting and see it as an early experiment in writing, though it does show Krasznahorkai's interest in the macabre and his respect for Kafka. The Death of a Craft is of greater interest to me and demonstrates some of Krasznahorkai's skills. As in his longer works, it shows how he can shift gears and take a completely different perspective on a series of events. This allows him to produce richer fictional environments, because each character is seen to inhabit a different reality. In ordinary fiction, there is usually a presumed collective reality that the characters agree on, but this is not the case with Krasznahorkai, and it enables him to convey a complex realism with overlapping perspectives that don't fully converge. In The Death of a Craft, you get numinous hints of how Herman perceives the world, along with the perspectives of scared townspeople and some visiting adventurers.

In a sentence-by-sentence comparison between Krasznahorkai and Kafka, it is difficult to reach a conclusion regarding quality, since they are writing, respectively, in Hungarian and German, and I am reading English translations. Moreover, in this volume, Krasznahorkai has two different translators. My sense is that George Szirtes is one of the best translators of Hungarian into English, and I'm not so sure about the other, John Bakti. In the translations I've read of Kafka, his writing always seems extraordinarily precise compared to most writers, and I'm not confident that Krasznahorkai reaches that level. In any case, I consider Krasznahorkai the better writer of the two, because his use of multiple perspectives is beyond the scope of Kafka. Kafka himself knew that there was something seriously wrong with his work, probably because he recognized that it was constrained by the kind of mental illness that precipitated it. Krasznahorkai may also have some psychological baggage, but, if he does, it is less debilitating to him than is the case with Kafka.

The main problem that I have with Krasznahorkai so far is that, in what I've read, he is confined to rural Hungary and poorly-educated people. His use of multiple perspectives could be put to better use in a more-developed country with a better-educated population, which would be much more challenging but could possibly produce more spectacular results. However, as I've said, no writer is omniscient, and Krasznahorkai, like any writer, is limited by his background.

The reason why I appreciate the use of multiple perspectives is that it is uncommon now in a time when it is more relevant than ever. In a politically polarized era, it would be useful if people were more aware of how their worldviews differed from those of others. In many American towns there are people living right next door to each other who have completely incompatible perspectives. One household may consist of liberal atheists who support economic equality and the protection of the environment, while detesting Donald Trump; their neighbors may be conservative Christians who attend church regularly, believe in American exceptionalism and love Donald Trump. These two households may have nothing in common, but you would never know it from the appearance and proximity of their houses. Furthermore, there are several factions, including corporations, special interest groups, political parties, religious organizations and the Russian government, which have focused specifically on manipulating people's worldviews to serve their interests; unity of thought is being undermined constantly today. I think it would be beyond the capability of most writers to write a novel that realistically portrays both liberals and conservatives on their own terms, without taking sides, though such a book could be original, insightful and sardonic if a talented enough writer were around to execute it. I am often amused by disparities in outlook when I watch PBS NewsHour, and Judy Woodruff routinely acts flummoxed by the latest random shooting, terrorist attack or political imbroglio, even when it takes little imagination to sense why someone might do something that you wouldn't. The news media pretend that there is one narrative that fits everything, but, if there is, they certainly haven't found it. You don't have to dig very deeply to see that the world is far more complex than we are led to believe.

There is one more story in this book, and I'll write about it later.

No comments:

Post a Comment