The Last Wolf
by László Krasznahorkai (Az utolsó farkas, 2009)
translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (2016)
New Directions (2016)
76 pp

Herman: The Game Warden & The Death of a Craft
by László Krasznahorkai (Herman, a vador, A mesterségnek vége, 1986)
translated from the Hungarian by John Batki (2016)
New Directions (2016)
52 pp

the-last-wolfThis 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.

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By |2018-02-20T16:17:13+00:00November 16th, 2016|Categories: Book Reviews, László Krasznahorkai|Tags: , , , , |11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. fulcherkim November 17, 2016 at 9:43 am

    Thanks, great review. Looking forward to this although we have to wait till January for the UK edition.

    Last Wolf though sounds remarkably familiar – I think a large chunk of it was translated and published previously. Was it in the Music & Literature edition, or even on his own website (there is some interesting material on there).

    Looks like (at least as per the author’s website) New Directions are bringing out his new novel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming as soon as next year, which is great, as well as the rather longer-awaited translation of From North a Hill, from South a Lake, from West Roads, from East a River.

  2. Trevor Berrett November 17, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    That is great news, Paul! I didn’t know this until you pointed it out. I will say that it is not in their first catalog for next year, so hopefully it’s slated for next fall.

  3. fulcherkim November 17, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Looking on twitter, Ottilie Mulzet has confirmed she is doing the translation of Baron Wenckheim.

    I recall her saying before George Szirtes was working on From North.

    I’m looking forward to 2017 already!

  4. Trevor November 17, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    I’m excited for you to get this one, Paul. I know there is much more than I was able to articulate, so I am excited to see your response when you get it!

  5. Birne November 18, 2016 at 2:54 am

    Sorrry to disappoint you guys but those publication dates are not realistic. LK tends to put provisional publication dates on his webpage as soon as he knows a book will be published at all at some point in the future.

    I think that apart from the Manhattan Project we might be so lucky to see the publication of The World Goes On in Mulzet’s translation next fall but definitely not Baron Wenckheim. And I haven’t heard any news at all from George Szirtes with respect to his progress on From North, so no, also not this one.

  6. Birne November 18, 2016 at 3:00 am

    Ah, and Fulcherkim, the Englisch translation of The Last Wolf was originally published on the Words Without Borders website, but was taken down since the New Directions publication.

  7. fulcherkim November 18, 2016 at 4:16 am

    Hmmm. Shame, but thanks for the heads up.

    Think we need to get Murakami’s Korean translator on the case. His last novel came out in Korean a week before the Japanese version. Admittedly he’d need to learn English, Hungarian and master Krasznahorkai’s style.

    And thanks re where I’d seen Last Wolf. I don’t recall being that blown away by it, although in part that’s due to the degradation of the reading experience of scrolling down an internet page vs. a physical book.

  8. fulcherkim November 18, 2016 at 4:32 am

    Incidentally, does anyone know from which works the excerpts translated on Krasznahorkai’s webiste are taken.

    An extract from “Dumn to the Deaf”
    http://www.krasznahorkai.hu/readings_Dumb_to_the_Deaf.html

    And a story The Last Boat which looks like a photocopy from a longer book http://www.krasznahorkai.hu/docs/TheLastBoat.pdf?bcsi_scan_4c5c01dba4894524=1

  9. Birne November 18, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Hey Fulcherkim,

    The Last Boat is from his first story collection Relations of Grace (Kegyelmi viszonyok) back from 1986, which is the same story collection where Herman comes from. A translation by George Szirtes appeared in Music & Literature 2. The version on LK’s homepage is an older not well known English translation that appeared in a story collection along with another of his stories a long time ago: Thy Kingdom Come: 19 Short Stories by 11 Hungarian Authors.

    Dumb To The Deaf is a proce piece which appeared in the Hungarian Quaterly over a decade ago.

  10. Birne November 18, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Sorry, that was supposed to be “prose piece”. I think it is a standalone short piece of prose.

  11. fulcherkim November 18, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks

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