The World Goes On
by László Krasznahorkai (2013)
translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet, and John Batki (2017)
New Directions (2017)
288 pp

Krasznahorkai is one of the world’s finest writers, but The World Goes On is neither his best work (War on War followed by Seiobo There Below and Satantango) nor the easiest introduction (Herman and The Last Wolf). I don’t recommend you start here, as it may be one for Krasznahorkai completists only. But then everyone should be a Krasznahorkai completist!

It didn’t matter if it was fifteen miles from Los Angeles, eighteen miles from Kyoto, or twenty miles to the north of Budapest, it simply sat there, looking sad, watching over its companion, waiting for someone to come along to whom it might explain what had really happened or just sitting and waiting for the other to get up at last and make some movement so that the pair of them might vanish from this incomprehensible place. 

The World Goes On is the translation by a combination of John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes. This collection of pieces was published in this form in 2013 in the original Hungarian, although some of them were published separately earlier, notably “A Théseus-általános” (“Universal Thesis”), the longest piece, a 70-page novella, published in 1993.

This was perhaps the highlight of the collection, a series of three lectures given by an invited guest to a rather mysterious audience, which opens

I do not know who you are, gentleman.
I couldn’t quite make out the name of your organisation.
And frankly, I must confess I am not entirely clear about what kind of lecture you expect me to give here


You are not saying anything.
Fine it’s all the same to me.
Mr President, gentlemen — I shall speak about melancholy.
And I will begin by going way back.

He then relates a tale of a large ghostly tractor-trailer that arrived in a small Hungarian town in the 1960s, “deep in the deepest hellhole of that decade.” Krasznahorkai fans will immediately know, before he tells us, what the trailer contains — the body of a huge whale — as this is of course a re-telling of the events of The Melancholy of Resistance. Although in the lecturer, the speaker scorns the book that claims to explain the events that followed:

I myself can now announce that to claim there is a book that knows, that promises to reveal and narrate to us and only us all that breaks loose in the wake of one of these gigantic whales, is either an insidious effrontery or the vilest drivel, in a word, lies, of course, for nobody knows what really is unleashed at these times, no one, and no book knows that, because that certain something lies completely covered up by the whale.

Mr. Chief Constable, esteemed gentlemen!

As the series of lectures proceeds, he gains no better knowledge of his listeners but increasingly realizes that he is not so much invited as trapped; the second lecture is given, to his distress, with the lecture theater locked, and between the second and third he is not allowed to return home but is rather held, admittedly in comfort, in a basement.

This story is one of a number of echoes of Krasznahorkai’s other works:

The short piece “At the Latest on Turin,” written in the early 90s, was to be essentially reproduced later in the script of the 2011 film A torinói ló (The Turin Horse), made with his long-term collaborator Béla Tarr. “The Bill: For Palma Vecchio, at Venice” has already been published in English as a Sylph Editions monograph, together with reproductions of the paintings of Palma Vecchio. And then there is the short piece “Not on the Heraclitean Path,” which I reproduce below in full (given it has been widely quoted in full in press reviews):

Memory is the art of forgetting.

It doesn’t deal with reality, reality is not what engages it, it has no substantial relation whatsoever to that inexpressible, infinite complexity that is reality itself, in the same way and to the same extent that we ourselves are unable to reach the point where we can catch even a glimpse of this indescribable, infinite complexity (for reality and glimpsing it are one and the same); so the rememberer covers the same distance to the past about to be evoked as that covered when this past had been present, thereby revealing that there had never been a connection to reality, and this connection had never been desired, since regardless of the horror or beauty that the memory evokes, the rememberer always works starting from the essence of the image about to be evoked, an essence that has no reality, and not even starting from a mistake, for he fails to recall reality not by making a mistake, but because he handles what is complex in the loosest and most arbitrary manner, by infinitely simplifying the infinitely complex to arrive at something relative to which he has a certain distance, and this is how memory is sweet, this is how memory is dazzling, and this is how memory comes to be heartrending and enchanting, for here you stand, in the midst of an infinite and inconceivable complexity, you stand here utterly dumbfounded, helpless, clueless, and lost, holding the infinite simplicity of the memory in your hand — plus of course the devastating tenderness of melancholy, for you sense, as you hold this memory, that its reality lies somewhere in the heartless, sober, ice-cold distance.

The link here is in the title and to the stunning piece “Kamo-Hunter,” describing a snow-white heron by the Kamo River in Kyoto, which opens Seiobo There Below:

Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades . . .

The World Goes On is a mixture of philosophical pieces like this and short stories.

One theme common to a number is people trapped by noise and chaos and needing to escape: a worker in a marble mine, a traveler in Varanasi on the bank of the Ganges:

..the hubbub of the street resumes its rule over the city, and this hubbub flares up again like a flame, and indeed it is just like a malignant conflagration that nothing can put out, nothing can abate, alongside speeding vehicles, street philosophers, handbill distributors, and humming thickets of cables crisscrossing the air, the great stars of Bollywood pop music are blaring from radios, TVs, even from loudspeakers rigged on tuktuk cars, they blare ‘I burn on the pyre of eternal love for you’, and in this wildfire of noises he comes to the decision he must leave, because he is in mortal danger here . . .

descriptionand a man in Shanghai who makes the mistake of trying to walk off a hangover in a city not suited to pedestrians, and finds himself trapped in the middle of Shanghai’s rather more spectacular version of Spaghetti Junction, the Nine Dragon Crossing.

In other stories the oppression comes from tedium: an artist visiting an old friend in Kiev, expecting to visit various cultural sights only to find himself trapped in a car with a friend-of-his-friend with an interminable story about the goings-on in the internal audit department of the bank at which he works, or the traveler in Varanasi who, when he almost reaches the banks of the river, is accosted by a prophet-like figure who hails him with the enticing sounding promise that he will explain how each drop of water from the Ganges contains a temple, but then launches into a lecture on the molecular properties of H2O and the science of surface tension.

The collection ends with an eloquent tribute to the wonderful things of this word, but a promise to leave them behind, a view of the future which could be taken as highly optimistic, or highly pessimistic:

I would leave everything here: the valleys, the hills, the paths, and the jaybirds from the gardens, I would leave here the peacocks and the priests, heaven and earth, spring and fall


I would leave here incantation, enigma, distances, the intoxication of the inexhaustible eternities; for here I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming and I don’t need anything from here.

Overall, this is not Kraszhanorkai’s strongest; although pulled together in the form of a coherent work, some of the pieces weren’t originally written for that purpose, and at times it shows.

I would recommend to the beginner to his work instead starting with the novels (e.g. War & War or Satantango) and for his more recent essayistic works Seiobo There Below. But even below par Kraszhanorkai is world class literature, and he is a vital author to read, particularly in these times.

Here are some links to reviews which better express aspects of this book than I can. 

Thanks to Birne for pointing me to this one, in Music & Literature (which once dedicated a whole edition to the author), which explains beautifully how this work fits in with Krasznahorkai’s wider literary project.

See also:

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