Monday, November 29, 2021

Chasing Homer

For a diversion, I read this short novel, which is almost short-story length, by László Krasznahorkai. As with his other writings, it is difficult to make out what he is trying to achieve. I like Krasznahorkai because, while usually obscure, he represents what I think of as the last vestige of the avant-garde, which otherwise was dead by the seventies. This book fills that requirement, not only with his typical frenetic sentences and ambiguity, but with a musical score and illustrations. Of course, as in classic Krasznahorkai, the text itself is enough to baffle most readers, but the music and illustrations are also bizarre.

The story itself concerns the flight of an unidentified individual, presumably male, who is convinced that some unidentified group is devoted to killing him and is actively pursuing him. His strategy is to travel constantly and make spur-of the-moment changes in his travel plans in order to evade them. The story isn't really plausible in the sense that there is no explanation of how he funds his travels, other than by being frugal. The character apparently never sleeps and hardly ever eats. There is no explanation as to why he feels pursued, so the story ends up seeming like an exercise in paranoia and anxiety. In terms of literary precedents, I was reminded of the unfinished Kafka's story, "The Burrow," about a burrowing animal that is obsessed with its safety and is worried about the imminent invasion of its burrow. Kafka wrote that story just before he died from tuberculosis, so one might speculate that Krasznahorkai, himself now sixty-seven, is approaching death. Alternatively, one might surmise that the protagonist is being pursued by a cabal of jealous fiction writers: many must envy his literary success. In the case of Kafka, the paranoia and anxiety in his stories are most likely a reflection of his psychological state. This would explain why he found his works unacceptable and hoped that they would be destroyed upon his death. Krasznahorkai, on the other hand, has adopted this genre as a literary style, and, without more biographical information, it is difficult to tell whether or not his psychological profile matches Kafka's at all. As in some of Krasznahorkai's novels, there is also the possibility that the pursuers are state agents.

At the end of the story, the protagonist travels by ferry to a remote Croatian island, where he overhears a local travel guide attempting to explain to two Japanese tourists the myth of Calypso and Odysseus, from the Odyssey. The suggestion is that the events occurred on that particular island in the Adriatic Sea. Odysseus was held captive, wished to return home to Ithaca, and was eventually released. Finally, the protagonist hikes through the woods to a high point above the sea and observes some divers emerging from an underwater grotto. They notice something dead nearby, suggesting that perhaps the protagonist has fallen to his death. In classic Krasznahorkai style, it turns out to be a large rat, and the protagonist survives.

I am sympathetic with Krasznahorkai because, even though he doesn't fulfill my literary ideals, he is original and challenging, and also a talented writer. I think that he fits poorly within the Western literary canon, but has not made artistic compromises in order to ensure economic success. Probably his writings about isolated and paranoid travelers reflect his poor reception globally, despite having spent time in the U.S., Japan and Germany. Think for a moment what a talented Hungarian writer would experience if he traveled to New York City now and attempted to enter the local literary ecosystem. My impression is that not only do Americans or most Europeans generally not understand art, but that, because of the infiltration of the art world by commercial interests, new art in the traditional sense has been almost nonexistent for decades. If one were a true artist living today, death might be preferable.

Another factor, on which I lack sufficient information to reach a conclusion, is the oppressive feeling that an artist living in Hungary today might feel: conditions were bad through the Soviet era and haven’t improved much since. Thus, Krasznahorkai's writing may be a cry in the dark for artists and intellectuals who are living under oppressive regimes. The latter, unfortunately, now includes the U.S., if you understand the current level of political polarization here and the propaganda that has caused it.

I hesitate to recommend Krasznahorkai to my readers, because I doubt that many of them would share my aesthetic sensibilities. However, if you want to try reading him, I think that "The Last Wolf" would be sufficiently short and accessible and is generally representative of his work.

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