Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: hungary (page 3 of 5)

Attila Bartis: Tranquility

This book just won the Three Percent Best Translation of 2008 prize, and while I can’t speak to the translation (though I have it on good authority that it’s excellent–thanks GJ), I was happy to have it win, being a booster of Hungarian lit in general (and Laszlo Krasznahorkai in particular). Jeff Waxman describes a not-uncommon worldview of Hungarian literature when he says, “Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.” Hungarian director Bela Tarr said it even better:

And back then I thought “Okay, we have some social problems in this political system – maybe we’ll just deal with the social question.” And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It’s just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us…I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

And it’s fair to say Bartis subscribes to something on the order of this view. What he brings to Tranquility that is very much his own is hysteria, at a level that is rarely encountered at such sustained length. Bernhard is a good contrast: while Bernhard’s narrators are obsessive, ranting, and irate, they are very rarely hysterical. Bartis’s breathless portrayal of unrelenting stress and compression owes the most, I’d say, to Celine and his spiritual disciple E.M Cioran, with a bit of Portnoy’s Complaint (namely, the end) mixed in.

And with a book that is pitched so consistently at the level of hysteria, Bartis has to keep the changes coming so that the tone does not become monotonous. The story of Andor, a middle-aged man, and his exceedingly unhealthy realationship with his mother and only slightly healthier relationships with several women careens around just as Andor careens between the three women in his life (and the one absent one, his sister), never settling in one place long enough to set up a sustained narrative. This is evidently intentional, as the plot necessarily cannot get started with such a tone at work. Any concession to traditional narrative dynamics would wreck the effect, and this book is all about effect.

Such a sustained howl can become numbing or exhausting; at times Bartis piles on so much pain that the book risks becoming a shaggy-dog story. It’s ultimately Andor’s relationship with his mother, and the sheer acuity and inexorability of it, that holds it all together. The other women are sweet relief in comparison. For Bartis, it seems that that level of hysteria, that sheer limit at which there is no appeal to reason and no possible escape, is fundamentally fostered in the mother-son bond.

Miklos Jancso: The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest

And then there’s this puzzler. Made in 1999 after a long break, this film sees Jancso and longtime writer Gyula Hernadi abandoning any indicators of their previous, consistent style. Most notably, there are no long takes in this film, making it nearly unrecognizable as a Jancso movie. Instead, we have 105 rather long minutes of sub-Beckett hijinks acted out by two evidently well-known Hungarian comedians (both were in Kontroll), interspersed with cameos from Jancso and Hernadi themselves. The movie doesn’t seem to go anywhere, though there are plenty of odd, deadpan jokes and oblique references to Hungarian history which were lost on me. (Odd that this movie’s slapstick travels less well than the art-house seriousness of Jancso’s earlier work.) Still, the general baseness of the dialogue between the two plays out as a constricted version of Bob and Ray, or perhaps more aptly Bouvard and Pecuchet.

Who knows? Jancso was pushing 80 when he made this, and such a drastic late-career shift is hard to figure. The cold hand of death? Senility? Boredom? Maybe I’ll have a better idea when I’m 80. But for now, I’m not rushing out to see the four sequels.

Andrew Horton has two articles, one on The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest and one on the fourth sequel, The Battle of Mohacs, which just happens to be about time travel.

Miklos Jancso: God Walks Backwards

A later film from Jancso, dating from 1991 and very topical at
that. It deals very specifically with the fall of Communism as
embodied by the Soviet coup against Gorbachev of that same
year. Jancso was nothing if not au courant; God Walks Backwards
is dizzying in its simultaneous immediacy and depthless irony.

Most of the film takes place in and around a mostly empty mansion
staked with television screens and cameras, as the old Communist
guard, newly-minted democrats, and hedonistic, cynical youth play out
the end of Communism as a farce. The democrats are hypocrites, denying
their past complicity to buy into the latest set of rhetoric that will
keep them in power. The hard-liners are clueless and pathetic; they
tremble just as the leaders of the coup did. And the youth walk around
with a video camera and a silent, naked woman in tow (sexist, yes, but
too true), shooting the action as though it were for nothing but their
own entertainment. Jancso’s long shots pass over the television
screens that present both the action in the mansion and the concurrent
broadcasts of the Soviet coup. A tank rolls into the yards with a rock
star on top (and that naked woman again), and these “democrats” kill
everyone, including the youth.

It is the most effective presentation of Debordian spectacle
in film that I have ever seen, revealing Michael Haneke as the amateur shock artiste that he is, and more remarkable given that Jancso
abandoned his more classicist leanings to adopt an uglier, harsher
contemporary style, all electricity and hum. (Though shot on film, it
often looks amazingly video-like.) There are the obvious points about
the inevitable hypocrisy of the transition from Communism to something
else and of the emptying of the assorted rhetoric. The fragmentation
brought by perestroika is there too, in more comprehensible form (to
me, at least) than in Kira Muratova’s The
Asthenic Syndrome
. For such a blatantly political and allegorical
film, Jancso never does bring a polemic to the table, and the final
self-reflexive scene, in which the actors and crew themselves are
subsumed first by decadence and then by machine gun fire, is Jancso’s
acknowledgement that such sincerity could never be: they too are an
instrumental part of the joke.

Miklos Jancso: Winter Wind (Sirokko)

Jancso is already in my pantheon of genius directors, all the more
from coming out of the backwaters of Eastern Europe under Communism; I
can’t think of another of his contemporaries that even approaches
him. The Round-Up is a brilliant, taut exercise in Kafka-esque
consequentiality, and The Red and the White is simply one of my
favorite films of all time.

Winter Wind is not as narrative as The Round-Up, nor
does it have the formalized brutality of The Red and the White,
but it is from the same period as them and qualifies as a minor
masterpiece. The historical background, only given at the very start
of the film, is that between the two world wars, Hungary is providing
assistance to Croatian nationalist separatists who wish for an
independent Croatia separate from Yugoslavia, which in 1929 was made a
dictatorship under Serbian King
Alexander
. The film takes place on the Yugoslavian-Croatian
border, where Hungarian-supported Croatian terrorists are making raids
into Yugoslavia and conducting assassinations and such. Our hero,
Marko, returns from a raid and spends the entire movie in a Hungarian
safehouse with compatriots and Hungarian officials. He distrusts them
all intensely and interrogates (or kills) them, until…well, his
fears are well-founded, that’s all I’ll say.

Marko is defined by two characteristics alone: his nationalism and
his paranoia. Any other trait has been completely subsumed into the
service of these two aspects, and he is monomaniacal in his
obsessions. (The one funny moment involves his hatred for his
compatriot’s pet dog, which has been irritating him all the time in
the safehouse. A new terrorist trainee shows up and Marko, to test his
marksmanship, tells him to shoot the dog.) He separates himself from
all the other political figures on the grounds that no one is as pure
in their fervor as he is. Everyone else is using him and his cause.

He’s right. There is never a moment where he is taken aback or
surprised; his comprehension of the situation is total, as is his
paranoia. The only people to whom he shows a degree of trust are the
wholly powerless: a handful of Croatian children whom he trains to
kill and an abused prostitute sent by the Hungarian government to
service him. (He’s not interested.)

The movie is not about development; like The Red and the
White
, it’s a visceral portrayal of a situation. The brilliance of
it lies in how Jancso communicates the abstract conflict between the
idealists and the realpolitik sorts with pretty much no explicit
political speech. It is conveyed through their mannerisms, their
stances, their confidences and their paranoias.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War

I said I’d been holding off reviewing this book, originally published in Hungarian in 1999 but only translated into English now, until I knew more of what to make of it, and I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet. But the past week has been personally rather lousy for me, and overlapping as it does with the conflagration in the Middle East between Israel and, well, nearly everyone else, War and War has been at the front of my mind in ways that I cannot totally quantify. The way it treats the amorphous yet concrete intersection of the personal and political is so convincingly evocative of my current admixture of petty personal woes and fatalistic political worries that I have to say that it is the book for now.

I thought Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance a fantastic book, a haunting and violent political allegory that had more to say than a hundred contemporary books. I wrestled with it as I do with Musil, Riding, Gass, and too few others. In its sweeping, uncanny world, it is the book J.M. Coetzee has tried to write several times, but never quite succeeded. (I think Waiting for the Barbarians comes closest.) So I looked forward to War and War, also translated by the poet George Szirtes, as the most promising book on the horizon this year.

War and War is a remarkable novel, and it is drastically different from Krasznahorkai’s previous novel. Stylistically, the huge sentences and paragraphs are there, as is the sheer bleakness and black humor, but this book is far more oblique. It is not an allegory, but neither is it a realistic narrative, nor a fantasy, and as unusual as his past work was, War and War is sui generis. It is intensely personal, and I think it works hard to defy easy analysis. Krasznahorkai was quite explicit about the narrative and thematic construction of The Melancholy of Resistance within the text; here he draws back whenever the text is about to be too conclusive.

The story is odd and spare. A Hungarian scholar, Korin, has located a historical manuscript of tremendous importance to him, and he wants to share it with all humanity. To do so, he goes to New York, the heart of the living world, makes acquaintances with some unpleasant characters, and purchases a computer and web site to post the manuscript. He describes the manuscript at length to everyone he encounters. Korin is quite touched (and out of touch), and by the time of his eventual suicide, one wonders how he made it so far.

The manuscript is something else entirely. We only hear about it through Korin’s descriptions, but it is one strange beast, placing four somewhat nebulous travelers in various historical times and places from Greece to Italy to Africa, usually just before some sort of catastrophe or war. Often their bete noir, the Mephistophelian Mastemann, makes an appearance. The manuscript becomes hazier and more chaotic, according to Korin, until he himself has no idea what to make of it, other than being convinced of its utter importance. His most explicit summary comes towards the end, speaking of the possible author Wlassich and the four men:

It was a way out that this Wlassich or whatever his name is, was seeking for them, but he could not find one that was wholly airy and fantastical so he sent them forth into the wholly real realm of history, into the reality of eternal war, and tried to settle them at a point that held the promise of peace, a promise that was never fulfilled, though he conjures this reality with ever more infernal power, with ever more devilish fidelity, even greater demonic sensitivity, and populates it with the products of his own imagination, in vain as it turns out, for their path leads but from war to war, and never from war to peace, and this Wlassich, or whoever it is, despairs ever more of his one-person, amateurish ritual, and eventually goes completely off his head, for there is no Way Out. (203)

Needless to say, Korin is living this nightmare himself, though in a rather abstruse manner. The severity with which he goes about his life, even the simple matter of traveling to New York and publishing the manuscript, is difficult to bear at times. It is this historical weight, the constant sense of grand war and a society that is too great and heavy with suffering for a person to contain, that is the heart of the book, as inexplicable as it may be. Korin suffers it constantly and acutely. Krasznahorkai does not give any simple explanation, or any real explanation at all, for Korin’s condition, in which the historical and personal have collapsed and are overwhelming him. But the “historical” is not quite what we read in the papers and in books; it is, as Korin says, “the version that has triumphed by stealth.”

As for the Way Out…Krasznahorkai leaves it somewhat open. The end uses a couple of metafictional conceits. One of them is quite a punchline, and the other is touchingly ingenuous. Both reinforce that Korin’s nightmare is meant to be shared, as it is Krasznahorkai’s and his readers’. In his online introduction, Krasznahorkai says:

…there was an unexpected, fierce, poignant vision: a couple of people running for life in timeless devastation and meanwhile taking stock of all that they have to say good-bye to.

The book I started to write in 1992 rests on this vision, and given the feeling I had while working on it that there were less and less people who would grasp the meaning of a vision like mine, from 1996 on I tried to get in touch with them. I had been writing messages for two years and dividing them into separate sentences I had them published in literary journals. Then in 1998 I sent a kind of a last message, a story forwarded as a letter and entitled Megj&#xc3&#xb6tt &#xc3&#x89zsai&#xc3&#xa1s /Isaiah has come/ in which the future hero described the roots, origin and spirit of the novel announced to be published the following year.

Perhaps Krasznahorkai is trying to resituate Beckett and Kafka’s private mirrors of the self in known historical reality, a goal with which I am wholly sympathetic. His open conception of a narrow readership seems in line with this goal, and it matches the book’s concept as well, since Korin and the four travelers are such aberrant figures. I don’t know if I’m included in that readership, but for the last week I’ve felt like I am, felt shaken as Korin does.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑