BOOK REVIEW: László Krasznahorkai’s War & War

Laszlo Krasznahorkai's War & War, from New Directions
Laszlo Krasznahorkai's War & War, from New Directions
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War & War, from New Directions

Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai took America by storm in 2012 with Sátántangó. That novel became a hit, and even the seven hour film adaptation by fellow Hungarian Bela Tarr garnered a cult following. Krasznahorkai should continue to make waves in the US this year, with his new novel Seiobo There Below due out next month. However, readers interested in approaching this “master of the apocalypse,” as Susan Sontag called him, might want to start with another one of his books from New Directions. War & War (1999) is a magnificent novel that takes place in part in New York, and serves as an excellent first foray into Krasznahorkai’s mixture of the absurd and the ominous.

The first thing that anyone reading this book will notice is Krasznahorkai’s unique style. Individual sections are comprised of a single, buzzing sentence that keeps going and going and going, and yet continually folds back in on itself. The vast blocks of text make the read more difficult, but the fantastic translation of Szirtes and the promise of some revelation close at hand tempt the reader on. Pointlessly long sentences can kill a novel’s momentum, but that’s not the case here. The length and recursive nature of these sentences serve to dislodge the reader from their usual sense of time and history. Krasznahorkai seems to be saying that we, all of us, are part of an eternal moment where the Apocalypse is looming just around the corner.

Krasznahorkai has said in interviews that his long sentences are crafted in an effort to replicate the inner workings of the mind. Conciseness may work in news articles and Hemingway novels, but it’s not reflective of the way we think. Few characters in literature would be a better fit for Krasznahorkai’s style than Korin, the main character for whom the voluminous tumult is certainly apropos. Korin is suffering. It could be argued as to what he is suffering from – social anxiety, depression, possibly schizophrenia. Maybe he’s just an idiot, like his roommate and ‘savior’ in America, Mr. Saravy, would say. But it seems that Korin’s condition is an as-yet undiscovered disorder, one that arises from living in modernity and being hyper-aware. His mind is all too active, his thoughts all over-wrought.

Part of the strength of the novel lies in Korin, with whom the reader sympathizes even as the world he occupies seems cruelly indifferent. The other part resides in the fantastic manuscript that has Korin’s rapt attention and drives most of the action within the novel. Yes, within War & War there is another book, a beautiful but forgotten manuscript that Korin feels he must preserve. In between chapters detailing his efforts to do so are sections from the manuscript that follow four men through different cities, eras, and, fittingly, wars. Korin’s story and the story of the manuscript aren’t exact parallels, but they are close. As the characters in the manuscript move from city to city, so too does Korin. There is this dark feeling of the inevitable, perhaps a descent into Hell, in both.

And the conclusion is in fact inevitable (no spoilers here, but you might want to avoid the back cover of the paperback edition). The trajectory of Korin’s life is determined at the outset, and the reader will get a sense of where everything is going early on. However, it’s not the where that provides the intrigue in this case, but the how. This might be a turn off for those who relish suspense and surprises in their reading, but despite knowing where the novel is going all along, the experience of Krasznahorkai’s expansive syntax and his tightly crafted world makes this book worth the read.

War & War is for anyone who enjoys foreign literature, especially that of Eastern Europe, or who has read and enjoyed Kafka or Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground.

Buy the book here, visit Krasznahorkai’s website here.