The Melancholy of Resistance
by László Krasznahorkai (Az ellanállás melankóliája, 1989)
translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (1998)
New Directinos (2002)
314 pp

I‘ve had Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance on my shelf for some time now. I have been anxious to read it, but its 314 pages of single paragraphs (there are a few breaks) left me wary. But along came Animalinside (my review here); at just over thirty pages, it was a great way to read a bit of Krasznahorkai without having to commit to such a long text. I liked it so much that almost immediately I pulled down The Melancholy of Resistance and, never-ending paragraphs be hanged, plunged in. It took me a while to read, but it was time well spent — it was an experience.

First things first: I’m happy to say that once began, the single paragraph thing wasn’t a hurdle at all. The first section of the book is simply amazing, and I was pulled into the book and propelled forward, even though it was late at night and I was just dabbling with the idea of starting the daunting book.

It begins on a train platform. The train is late, and Krasznahorkai shows how such a thing can bend our perceptions, making it “reality, only more so.” The tension builds nicely, much as it does when you’re waiting for a late train and a bit of unwelcome chaos disconcertingly enters the day.

To tell the truth, none of this really surprised anyone any more since rail travel, like everything else, was subject to the prevailing conditions: all normal expectations went by the board and one’s daily habits were disrupted by a sense of ever-spreading all-consuming chaos which rendered the future unpredictable, the past unrecallable and ordinary life so haphazard that people simply assumed that whatever could be imagined might come to pass [. . .].

Is that exaggerated? I’m not so sure. On the platform stands Mrs. Plauf, one of the unfortunate victims of the late train, and she accutely feels the threat. She’s at a strange platform simply trying to get home, and this train is going to get her there uncomfortably late at night. That is, if it comes at all.

It’s such a familiar event, the delayed train, yet Krasznahorkai goes underneath the surface and shows just how familiar the physical anxiety (that we tend to forget once the event is past) is as well, how a late train, particularly at night, takes someone out of their daily reality into some threatening altered reality. The concept is nice, and Krasznahorkai brings it out in exceptional prose, filled with long sentences and digressions that force the sentence to pivot and either tighten or loosen up, taking the familiar and bending it.

Anyway, the train does arrive, and the tension deflates a bit, though Krasznahorkai doesn’t let go of the bewilderment, doesn’t allow us to forget that something is amiss.

[. . .] they all relapsed into a jokey indifference, the dull insensibility that ensues when one has been forced to accept certain facts, which simply goes to show how people behave when, having failed, infuriatingly, to understand something, they try to suppress the fear caused by genuine shock to a system which seems to hvae been overtaken by chaos, the nerve-rackingly repeated instances of which may be met with nothing but withering sarcasm.

Mrs. Plauf, slightly relieved, but, as the passage above shows, still shocked, takes her seat on the train. It only gets worse. On the crowded train, one man in particular has his eye on her. I won’t go into details, but it’s a terrible train ride home for Mrs. Plauf — everyone is tired and on edge, and some things happen she can hardly believe — but it’s a superb section for the reader.

I began this review with this section of the book for a couple of reasons. Obviously, this is how the book begins, so it seemed appropriate (as usual) to start the book review there too. However, this train ride is not necessarily essential to the narrative we’re about to read. In fact, the narrative we’re about to read can be summarized almost more succinctly than the train ride. On its most simplistic level, this book is about a small Hungarian town that is put on edge when a tiny circus comes to visit. The circus’s main attraction is a giant, dead whale. The circus also brings with it a gang of rabble, drawn on by The Prince, a member of the circus crew who quietly speaks gibberish that is then translated by a factotum. The residents are afraid, but one in particular, Mrs. Eszter, sees an opportunity, provided there are hostilities.

Mrs. Eszter is truly an awful character, wonderfully rendered here. One of the first scenes with her shows her first having sex with the chief of police and then, when he’s gone, simply sleeping. We spend a few pages watching the room around her ugly form as she sleeps, completely out of control, completely out of character, a harmless human lump completely inert.

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in the book by now, and a lot of time in this review, without actually introducing two of the principal characters: György Eszter, Mrs. Eszter’s estranged husband who has retired completely from society, and Valuska, the “terminally lunatic” son of Mrs. Plau. We will follow Eszter and Valuska’s perspectives through the largest section of the book, “The Werckmeister Harmonies.”

Valuska is the village idiot. He’s known best for his emotional treatises on the sun and moon, for the beauty he finds in their order, and for the confidence he has in beauty and purpose. Eszter comes from the other side; he once directed the music school and has since completely given up on any idea of order or harmony. He and Valuska are unlikely friends, each trying, kindly, to convert the other.

There is so much to discuss, so best if we move along. The whale. It echoes Moby-Dick (my review here); it is unknowable, you can’t see it all at once, etc. That much is explicit. But even more, the whale brings to mind The Leviathan, Hobbes’s treatise on anarchy and central power. We know it’s coming; soon the rabble becomes uncontrollable (perhaps The Prince uttered a command — but The Prince doesn’t command) and the whole town is overtaken by anarchy. There’s a powerful passage where one of the rabble describes their chasing a man, his wife, and their daughter through the town. They delight when they see the scared man begin to doubt his fear (they wouldn’t do anything to him and his family), but they delight even more in not completely allowing his fear to subside. It’s awful, and reading it is a visceral experience of the highest kind.

The anarchy is inexplicable, even to those creating it: “however we looked for it, we could not find a fit object for our disgust and despair.” Much of the book is self-contradictory. It often baffled me, but not in a bad way; after all, being baffled is part of the point.

Beyond the ideas, beyond the long, fantastic sentences, there are the unforgettable images. I mentioned that terrible train ride, but we later walk home with Mrs. Plauf as she sees the dirty streets and a sign announcing the arrival of the whale. We looked briefly at Mrs. Eszter sleeping; we later see her eating brandy soaked cherries. That might not sound like much here, but in context it is certainly memorable.

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