The book is nominally about a circus that comes to a small, anonymous, Hungarian town. The circus has two main features: first, a really huge cadaver of a whale (yes, that would be a Leviathan); and second, the Prince, a homunculus-like figure who sows nihilism and violence, and eventually stirs the town’s people into a frenzy of rioting and killing, which is responded to in kind by the police.
Through this pass two sympathetic figures, the naive man-child Valuska, who does performances of the heavenly bodies in motion for bar patrons, and his mentor Mr. Eszter, who is obsessed with a project of retuning a piano to “natural” harmonies and abandoning the well/equal-temperment that was used as the basis for what Krasznahorkai evidently considers to be the peak of aesthetic achievement, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Krasznahorkai’s explanations are not especially clear, which is unfortunate, since it’s clearly the major metaphor of the book.
For reference, this explanation seems good, and for those of you with time on your hands, this essay on “Pythagorean Tuning and Medieval Polyphony” seems awfully interesting. The Chicago Reader offers a somewhat-helpful summary, and while this may not be helpful, it’s pretty amusing. The first piece concludes with a great passage:
There are four main reasons why modern scholars have lost interest in the question of what is the best tuning system. First, in the 1930s, Carl Seashore measured the pitch accuracy of real performers and showed that singers and violinists are remarkably inaccurate. For non-fixed-pitch instruments, the pitch accuracy is on the order of 25 cents. Yet Western listeners (and musicians) are not noticeable disturbed by the pitch intonation of professional performers. Secondly, on average, professional piano tuners fail to tune notes more accurately than about 8 cents. This means that even if performers could perform very accurately, they would find it difficult to find suitable instruments. Thirdly, listeners seemingly adapt to whatever system they have been exposed to. Most Western listeners find just intonation “weird” sounding rather than “better”. Moreover, professional musicians appear to prefer equally tempered intervals to their just counterparts. See the results of Vos 1986. Finally, pitch perception has been shown to be categorical in nature. In vision, many shades of red will be perceived as “red”. Similarly, listeners tend to mentally “re-code” mis-tuned pitches so they are experienced as falling in the correct category. Mis-tuning must be remarkably large (>50 cents) before they draw much attention. This insensitivity is especially marked for short duration sounds — which tend to dominant music-making.
But no matter, since Eszter’s obsession is with finding the harmony of the spheres and returning to mathematically pure intervals; all those nasty intervals are to him the indicators of “an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn.” But he doesn’t have much luck; in his purer tunings, Bach sounds awful.
After the riots, order is re-estabished by Eszter’s estranged wife, Mrs. Eszter, who cheerfully and aggressively implements new martial law in light of the need to exert control over the town. She is the sort who was born to fill a power vacuum, and she stands in opposition to both Eszter and Valuska, representing the human capacity towards control, organization, and power; she’s effective, functional, but brutal and arbitrary. Just like the imposition of equal temperament on music (it is all but said).
And when Mr. Eszter retunes his piano back to equal temperament at the end of the book so he can again hear the glory of Bach without his ears bleeding…you can guess what that means. Krasznahorkai’s moral position is ambivalent, but his ideological layout seems to still be derived from Hobbes (and to some extent, Burke): we are given limited natural tools out of which we construct edifices that can reach heights of beauty as well as oppress and dullen. But they remain arbitrary, able to be torn down and built back up. Eszter’s appreciation of equal temperament is as good as it’s going to get.
(I don’t agree with this; I actually think there are significant problems with this metaphor, but the book offers enough to chew on that I’m willing to take it on its own terms.)
Krasznahorkai manages to end the book with a masterstroke, though, with a stunning, sustained description of the body’s biology, which he reveals as a more precise metaphor than temperament. The drama offsets the nagging feeling that Krasznahorkai has left a few loose ends hanging. For the record, Eszter ends up fine, and Valuska is beaten but alive.
So I think about this book while watching television and seeing the statue go down for the Nth time, and the looting and the anarchy and the celebrations and the violence, and I think the book may be too nihilistic, not for its painting of inherent natural imperfection or the implication of destruction in every creative act, but for its lack of differentiation: to use the metaphor, for being unwilling to distinguish one tuning from another. The resignation, or lack of attention, makes the book dark for the wrong reason. In pursuing an ornate Faberge egg of a metaphor, Krasznahorkai loses sight of a complex anthropological standpoint and ends up as a reductionist. The book sets lofty philosophical goals and makes immense progress towards them, but I do not find it fully-formed.
As a footnote, the movie adaptation, The Werckmeister Harmonies nearly obscures the main thrust of the book and goes for a more tepid, sensory approach, turning the complexities of the book into a parable.