Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai

By Madeleine LaRue
New Directions, September 2013

Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without ruin.
— Sophokles, Antigonick, trans. Anne Carson

seiobo_there_below_300_462A Japanese goddess descends to earth in László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, bearing the fruit of immortality from her heavenly peach tree — but no one notices. She has come to grace the performance of a Noh play that, like Krasznahorkai’s book, bears her name, but though the actor who dances her role has prayed for the opportunity to perform this piece — “I Give Up My Fate Entirely!” — he does not see how his prayer stands manifested beside him.

There are books that, though fantastical, are nevertheless so profoundly continuous with reality that we cease to read them as fantasy. In Krasznahorkai’s breathtaking novel, the sacred exists; Seiobo, who narrates her journey herself, is a fact, just as the actor and the audience are facts. A later narrator offers us the guiding principle of this, our own, reality: amid the “forbidden symmetries” in the halls of the Alhambra, he observes that “something infinite can exist in a finite, demarcated space.” The god is there in the theatre. Seiobo There Below itself is a finite, demarcated space, but in it something infinite exists.

The latest of Krasznahorkai’s full-length works to be translated into English, Seiobo There Below is a confrontation with the vast, and therefore with vulnerability. In each of its seventeen chapters, the novel describes a process of artistic creation, from the making of Russian icons and the reconstruction of the Ise Shrine in Japan, to the attribution of Italian Renaissance paintings and the carving of Noh masks. Krasznahorkai’s erudition is staggering, but the way he relates the choosing of the wood for the shrine, or the restoration of a canvas, is so attentive and so modest that is sidesteps pedantry entirely, and instead participates in the very concentration it describes. The chapters are numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two before it, and indeed, Seiobo There Below compounds and reinforces itself ever more rapidly, its scope soon defying human proportions.

The artworks Krasznahorkai describes are not only objects, but vessels of a sacred impulse: they are body and soul. The protagonists of the novel — artists, academics, and vagabonds — seek out these works, yearning for transcendence, and are instead crushed by terrifying facts: first, the fact of the work’s existence, its material undeniability, and second, the fact of its radical spiritual loneliness. More often than not, the encounter with art and/or the sacred ends in existential disaster. These former channels to the gods have been closed; they have become nearly empty signifiers. In the chapter “Where You’ll Be Looking,” for example, a guard at the Louvre wants nothing more than to spend eight hours a day looking at the Venus de Milo. But he knows that the statue

did not belong here, more precisely, she did not belong here nor anywhere upon the earth, everything that she, the Venus de Milo meant, whatever it might be, originated from a heavenly realm that no longer existed … and yet she, this Venus from this higher realm remained here, left abandoned ….

We do not want the sacred anymore, Seiobo asserts; we have chased it away. But we left a memory of it in these objects, and when we demand something from these memories, we forget that they have the power to destroy us.

The tension between order and chaos has been central to all of Krasznahorkai’s books available in English, Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War. In Seiobo There Below, this tension takes on its most moving and elegant form. Entropy, for Krasznahorkai, is the ultimate destiny of the universe, and art is necessarily in its service. Many characters in the novel are initially attracted by an artwork and the sacred force within it and compelled toward it, only to be overwhelmed by its presence, and then, in the attempt to retreat, paralyzed or annihilated. Some become forces for evil: one chapter is ominously titled “A Murderer is Born”; in another, an artist carves a theatre mask, never understanding that “what his hands have brought into the world is a demon, and that it will do harm.”

The demonic is the shadow of the sacred, and Krasznahorkai does not let us forget it.   He is no stranger to darkness; his work is famously bleak. But with Seiobo There Below, he reminds us of an observation of John Berger’s, once made in relation to Goya: “The despair of the artist is often misunderstood. It is never total. It excepts his own work.” In Krasznahorkai’s case, it excepts not only his own work, but also that of countless others, named and unnamed, from both the east and the west. Small, understated gestures throughout the book remind us that it is love, not fear, that drives us to art. 

Within the inevitable move toward entropy, Krasznahorkai traces a tiny space of freedom, a tiny path from which to approach the sacred. It requires making the world as small as possible, narrowing the vastness down to just this one brush, this blue pigment, this hinoki wood, this mask and this tool, this ancient way based on ritual and unflinching observation. The successful artists of Seiobo There Below make the space in which the sacred can appear as small as possible, so that it is not deadly yet, so that Seiobo can come and say, “I am not the desire for peace, I am peace itself … do not be afraid.” Seiobo There Below is, in its way, a joyful book.

Even for the most successful of these artists, however, the final result of an encounter with the sacred is non-existence. “Ze’ami is Leaving” is a poignant, beautiful chapter about an ideal artistic creation: one that subsumes the artist into it, making him disappear like the Chinese painter of legend who sailed off into his own landscape. Ze’ami, the most revered figure of the Noh tradition and the author of the original Seiobo play, has been exiled from Kyoto, his home. At some point during his solitary, uneventful days, a poem begins to take shape in his head, and when Ze’ami contemplates the silent hototogisu bird, art and nature finally combine with such harmony that it is as if the poem arises by itself:

hototogisu literally means the bird of time, he tasted the word in this sense, nearly twisting it around — the compound signifying the cuckoo bird is the bird of time — to see from which side it would be suitable to give form to his soul’s deepest sorrows; at last he found the way, and the melody began to formulate itself within him — he was just thinking about it, not calling it by name — and the verse somehow formulated itself like this: just sing, sing to me, so not only you will mourn; I too shall mourn, old old man, abandoned and alone, far from the world, I mourn my home, my life, lost forever. 

Ze’ami subsequently turns to prose and writes, essentially, the chapter we have just read. The book that writes itself in our hands is a frequent feature of Krasznahorkai’s work, and here, it allows his own act of creation to join the collection of objects so reverently described, the human archive that will outlast us.

The Ze’ami chapter is followed by one more, number 2584 in the Fibonacci sequence, called “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” in which buried animal sculptures from China’s ancient Shang dynasty screech for all eternity against the “earth-demon” that crushes them and that will one day crush all of us. This brief, disturbing final episode, with its characterization of China as endless and immeasurable, clearly recalls Kafka. But in its tight, coiled fury, it is also reminiscent of Krasznahorkai’s own Animalinside, a collaboration with the German artist Max Neumann (published in English before Seiobo There Below but in Hungarian after): 

and before their cataract-clouded bulging eyes there is not even one centimeter of space, not even a quarter-centimeter, not even a fragment of that quarter, into which these cataract-clouded bulging eyes could stare, for the earth is so thick and so heavy, from all directions there is only that, everywhere earth and earth, and all around them is that impenetrable, impervious, weighty darkness that lasts truly for all time to come, surrounding every living being, for we too shall walk here, every one of us…

Finishing Seiobo There Below is like walking out of a cathedral: its parting gift is a ringing in the ears. This book is magnificent and will outlive interpretation.

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Krasznahorkai’s English readers are doubly fortunate this year to have not only Seiobo There Below, but the arts magazine Music & Literature, whose superlative second issue was devoted to Krasznahorkai, Max Neumann, and the filmmaker Béla Tarr. “Ze’ami is Leaving” appeared there several months before the novel was available, accompanied by a selection of Krasznahorkai’s short stories, speeches, and interviews, all previously unavailable in English, and all as bewitching as his novels.

Of particular interest are the commentaries by Krasznahorkai’s translators. George Szirtes’ essay “Foreign Laughter: Foreign Music” describes his process of translating Krasznahorkai for the first time. The translator of Seiobo There Below, Ottilie Mulzet, whose challenges must have been enormous and whose results are miraculous, gives a brilliant interview in which she explains Krasznahorkai’s relationship to Asia and shares her own insight into his work.

Additionally, Music & Literature provides translations of reviews and essays by French, Hungarian, and German critics, as well as original pieces by Anglophone writers. Though the issue is mainly devoted to Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr is considered in an essay by the Argentinean writer Sergio Chejfec, and Max Neumann is given due praise in a spectacular essay by Dan Gunn, who edits the Cahiers Series that published Animalinside. The volume makes an impressive addition to Krasznahorkai scholarship in English, and will no doubt remain an invaluable resource to his readers for years to come. 

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