This book is a beautiful gift from New Directions: a slim but dense, compact but luxurious, double-sided hard cover featuring two thematically linked novellas — The Last Wolf and Herman — written over twenty years apart, from the master, László Krasznahorkai.
Though I don’t believe that this volume was originally intended to come with both stories (I received a proof of The Last Wolf early this year and a few months later saw the news that New Directions had added Herman to the mix), it is now hard for me to imagine these two tales separated into different editions, let alone separated by over two decades. They work together beautifully and provide, I think, one of the best points of entry for those who still haven’t ventured into Krasznahorkai’s dark and tense land. Both novellas are strong in and of themselves, but I believe they will also serve as a primer to the longer masterpieces like Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance.
Which to start with? Well, since I read The Last Wolf first, I’ll start there (though one can easily flip the book over and start with Herman; the book design doesn’t suggest preference for one over the other).
The Last Wolf is a single-sentence gasp with an urgent pace that is wonderfully out-of-step with the place of its telling. Here we have a failed German professor sitting in a Berlin bar, telling snippets of his recent crisis to an uninterested Hungarian barman. Though all the events he’s thinking about and conveying are in the past, the philosopher is still struggling to understand just how he got mixed up in this story in the first place. He’s still struggling to articulate just what he’s discovered. A few months before, feeling permanently washed up, he was shocked when a Spanish foundation dedicated to preserving and honoring Spain’s Extremadura region offered to pay him to travel to the region and write about whatever he wanted, so long as he “immortalize it entirely as you see fit” and “present posterity with some clear picture” of Extremadura:
you might write, might, as we say, give voice to the flowering of Extremadura, this once historical wasteland, this centuries-old nest of human misery that has set out on a new path, a new chapter in its story, and that is all we want
However, even before beginning his assignment, the philosopher suffers a crisis of identity. How could they have asked him? He doesn’t feel he is the right person for the job. Or maybe is no longer the right person, if he ever was:
and he was already on board the airplane when the weight of something in his head began to pull two opposite ways at once for it was clear the whole thing had been his mistake, either that or they had mixed him up with someone else, to which he added the possibility that the person they were confusing him with was in fact him, it was just that that particular “him” no longer existed, so there he was, as he explained to the Hungarian barman once he was back in Berlin
The barman drifts around in the margins, taking care of other tasks, barely listening it seems. But, regardless, I was fascinated. From the very start, the thrust of Krasznahorkai’s single sentence propelled me through the writer’s crisis. He feels he’s a fraud. His attempts to understand the world around him have only shown him how far he is from any kind of comprehension, save his own insignificance. Whatever piece he writes for this job will be inauthentic, if he can even get something out on paper.
But then he finally thinks he’s found the right topic: the last wolf. As he reads about the region, famous for its wildlife, he finds a scientific article that says its last wolf “perished” in 1983. How is this certain? Furthermore, why the word “perished,” especially in a scientific article? This light breath of mystery and poetry invigorates the author, and he dives head first into the myth of the wolves, their course toward extinction, talking to hunters and wardens along the way. The death of the wolves somehow reminds him of his own stunted philosophical pursuit to find some sense in the world, which opens the door to inspiration and insight once again, even if it’s actually demoralizing.
The two-part tale that makes Herman also involves a man on assignment who attains a kind of neurotic interest in the local wildlife. The first part is called “The Game Warden,” and there we learn who Herman is: a game warden slightly out of step with his own time. His dream for retirement is to regain respect for the lost art of taming a land and, uh, working with the wildlife, an “ancient craft gradually sinking into permanent oblivion,” as he clears an overgrown woodland. No one thought he could actually do this, and no one cared, which instills in Herman an intense desire to showcase his craft.
The assignment — although exactly what he had been secretly counting on, despite a lurking fear that his retirement might make them decide they no longer needed him — in the end came unexpectedly, one might say caught him unprepared, for at the time when in the plainest terms sparing all empty formalities he thanked the “wildlife management experts for their trust,” and accepted their mandate, he had felt almost panicked, as one who reached his goal too easily, practically unhindered, without any struggle, for not only had he “privately counted” on this, but this was in fact what he had been expressly planning when years earlier he had first entertained the idea of retirement, hoping it would bring real liberation and a certain latitude “absolutely necessary for the unimpeded unfolding of his abilities, smothered as they had been by fatuous requirements, rules and regulations.”
As amazing as he is at his job, he didn’t expect the toll it would take on his psyche. He begins, slowly at first, to feel that he’s working for the wrong people. Indeed, he’s working for the wrong species: he should be encouraging the wilderness and keeping out humanity. Thus, we enter on a manhunt for the professional hunter, Herman. The second part of this story, “The Death of a Craft,” is an account of the same events but from a different perspective, that of a group of hedonists (bringing to mind the debauched, unwelcome visitors that arrive at the beginning of Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance).
So, with these two novellas arriving under one hard-cover, we get two fascinating looks at the relationship between a man and the nature that surrounds him. These form an interesting link between Krasznahorkai’s work and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which is similarly beautiful and tragic.