When Animalinside (2010; tr. from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, 2010) arrived in the mail, I didn’t know what to make of it. It’s a beautiful book, even though it’s staple-bound (this was published by New Directions in collaboration with Sylph Editions for Sylph Editions Cahier Series — see an example here), it is still one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve seen this year (nicely following New Direction’s releases of Robert Walser’s The Microscripts and Anne Carson’s Nox last year). When you open the matte cover, inside are a series of wonderfully textured pieces of art by Max Neumann (the back of the book says that they used “a deluxe seven-stage printing process . . . to reproduce the stunning Neumann images”). Accompanying the images are 14 short texts by Krasznahorkai. This book (or booklet, if you like) came about when Krasznahorkai wrote a response to one of Max Neumann’s paintings that Krasznahorkai had hanging up. This, in turn, inspired Neumann to create more art pieces, each using the armless, lunging hound-like creature you see below. Krasznahorkai then wrote short segments for each of those pictures, and we are fortunate to benefit with their end product.
Two of Krasznahorkai’s books are available in English from New Directions, and another is due out later this year. However, I haven’t read them yet. That’s a big yet there; so much did I enjoy what I found in Animalinside that I’m sure I’ll be reading The Melancholy of Resistance and War & Warvery soon. Still, I’m writing this post as a reader who has, on the one hand, no experience with Krasznahorkai I can use to engage with this little book; on the other hand, I also no preconceptions about Krasznahorkai’s work and can say that, if you haven’t read him either, that shouldn’t stop you from reading this one.
On the topic of reading Animalinside: this is a limited edition. Only 2,000 copies are out there. I’m sorry; I will be keeping mine and keeping it safe.
Back to when this book arrived in the mail and I didn’t know what to make of it. After the short preface by Colm Tóibín I find a strange picture of a simple three-dimensional space. Hulking there is a solid black, two-dimensional beast (it’s not the armless one above yet); it stands in the room at some strange angle that is all wrong. Under the image is the first section, and I give the first few lines a skim:
He wants to break free, attempts to stretch open the walls, but he has been tautened there by them, and there he remains in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing else to do but howl, and now and forever he shall be nothing but his own tautening and his own howling, everything he was is no more, everything that could shall never be, so that for him there is not even anything that is.
I was certainly intrigued, but also a bit wary. Is it going to be a bit too artsy for my tastes? Would this abstract text accompanying the (fantastic) abstract images open up for me? Is this going to be a run-on rant?
Quickly, though — very quickly, despite a bit of wariness – I was taken in, propelled forward by the text and the images on the page. It’s a beautiful nightmare; a very unique experience.
Before I had any idea what was really going on (and I admit, it’s not necessarily all clear to me even now), I was simply enjoying the imagery and the prowling menance that, at first, is locked up in that room. The first section is told in the third person, but soon the beast is speaking, and he’s speaking to the reader, speaking right to the reader’s disorientation.
[. . .] you know nothing, nothing, but nothing, about anything, because you don’t even know that you’re thinking about me, because you don’t even know if you should be afraid now or not, or if you should be terrified or if you should be anxious [. . .]
It’s important to remember that all of this is accompanied by images that are themselves disorienting. There’s a calm surface, but details and just the strangeness of the images subvert any calm to build up, initially (before it gets downright terrifying in its imagery), a slight anxiety. We don’t hear the creature howling, whether in mourning or to threaten, but how can we look at the image and not imagine it.
Krasznahorkai’s text does not necessarily remain abstract. This beast is threatening absolute destruction, and not just physical: ”no verb at all shall ever be heard again[ . . .]”
But that’s just the narrative. It’s how Krasznahorkai (with Neumann) gets to that ultimate destruction and what we see there when we get there that makes this book a work of art and not just an accomplished post-apocalyptic image. The short segments are filled with repetitions, in the best sense. Apparently Krasznahorkai told his translator, “There are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS.” I’d say it was successful; even in translation, there’s a rhythm throughout that intensifies or retreats slightly, depending on the moment.
Animalinside is also filled with contradictions, and these supply what to me is the most interesting and worthwhile substance here. At first the beast is ranting because he’s imprisoned somehow, in the next he covers infinite space — and he’s coming! And in one moment he’s coming from the outside, in the next he’s already inside us. There, he’s predicting the end of all things and then here he is lamenting infinity. Finally, we get that last section when “no verb at all shall ever be heard again.” Of course, he’s speaking and we are listening, so what has really been lost? What is the significance? And that is the frightening answer.
I don’t believe Animalinside will be for everybody, though I think it’s one of the more interesting books I’ve read (and looked at) this year, and I’d certainly recommend it even to those wary of it.