Monday, January 24, 2011

Douglas Messerli | The Frightened Rabbit Flattens Against the Grass (on Laszlo Krasnahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance)

Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Valuska as realized in Bela Tarr's Werkmeister Harmonies,
based on Krasznahorkai's novel

by Douglas Messerli

László Krasznahorkai Az ellenállás melankóliája, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes as The Melancholy of Resistance (New York: New Directions, 2000

One of the major publishing events for the US and Canadian audience of 2000 was the publication of László Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance. This spellbinding, phantasmagoric fiction is so powerful, that even now, weeks after reading it, I feel its effects.

The story is somewhat complex, but not as crucial as it may seem, the characters, the scene, and Krasnahorkai's tumbling sentences mattering far more than plot. Indeed, throughout it is the language that seems to be the subject of this book, the black ink broodingly charging across the page (Krasznahorkai resists periods almost as he might the plague) like an army, as opposed to the slightly stumbling amble of its loveable hero Valuska, who makes his way through the town, head-down, dreaming of the planets and stars.

Valuska Plauf, to most of the townspeople and even to his mother, is an idiot. But observing him in his first scene—as he ducks into a local pub to perform, using the drunks around as actors in a rudimentary theatrical representation of an eclipse—we quickly grow to love this oaf nearly as much as his employer-mentor, the town's composer-genius, György Eszter.

'We are standing in this...resplendence. Then, suddenly, we see only that the round disc of the Moon...' here he grabbed Sergei and propelled him from his orbit round the house-painter to an intermediary position between the Sun and the Earth, 'that the round disc of the Moon...creates an indentation....a dark indentation on the flaming body of the Sun...and this indentation keeps growing... You see?' ....'You see...and soon enough, as the Moon's cover extends...we see nothing but this brilliant sickle of sunlight in the sky. And the next moment,' whispered Valuska in a voice choking with excitement , running his eyes to and fro in a straight line between driver, warehouseman and house painter, 'let us say it's one p.m....we shall unexpectedly...with a few minutes...the air about us cools...Can you feel it?...The sky darkens...and then...grows perfectly black? Guard dogs howl! The frightened rabbit flattens itself against the grass! Herds of deer are startled into a mad stampede! And in this terrible and twilight...even the birds ('The birds!' cried Valuska, in rapture, throwing his arms up to the sky, his ample postman's cloak flapping open like bat's wings)....'the very birds are confused and settle in their nests.'

Delivering clothes and food for Eszter, who has long before moved out of his dreadful wife's house and life, Valuska is the caring and loving being that the great hermit holds near, the one being who represents to him the possibility of salvation for mankind. Valuska's portrayal of a horrifying eclipse, in some senses, is a kind divination of the forces at work around him.

Indeed from the very beginning of this fiction, Krasnahorkai presents a rabble that puts fear into any God-fearing being, particularly threatening Valuska's mother, the orderly Mrs. Plauf, forced to take a train ride, and terrified of the experience. She returns to the comfort of her over-decorated and clearly quite kitschy home to break out the preserves she has long-before bottled, afraid that her son, whom she has disowned, may attempt to return.

Valuska, too sweet and innocent to see the evil brewing in the world around him, cannot even comprehend the chilling changes that seem to be occurring throughout the town. A great tree has fallen, filth has piled up throughout the streets, and, on the day of this fiction's events, a circus has settled into the main town square, attracting a huge contingent of outsiders, who sit in the dark quietly staring as they await to see the circus' major attraction: a gigantic stuffed whale!

Eszter's wife, meanwhile, is making plans of her own to take over the town and become a political force. Her plots include Mrs. Plauf, primarily because she wishes to reach her husband through Valuska; the Chief of Police, with whom she is having an affair; and her husband, who she believes will fortify her position among the city leaders. It is she who has invited the circus to town.

Valuska is awed and slightly terrified by his viewing of the whale, running back to Eszter to tell him what he has seen, only to be interrupted in his voyage home by Mrs. Eszter and her fascistic plans. When Eszter perceives what her intentions are, that she intends to move back into his house and claim her position as his wife, he has no choice—and just like Valuska, finds it difficult to resist the strong forces of evil around him—but, with the boy in tow, to leave his house temporarily for the first time in years! What he sees horrifies him and, ultimately, the readers, as we suddenly are forced to see that the world outside his book-lined, music-loving house has fallen into ugly disrepair. Eszter can hardly bear the appearance of things, and quickly retreats to the house, struggling to erect a barricade of boards from within to protect him from what he has just witnessed.

Valuska returns to the circus, hoping to catch a glimpse again of the whale, but what he sees in the faces of the waiting campers, come to town to see the show, frightens him. Summoned by Mrs. Eszter to her barren apartment, he discovers the Police Chief in a drunken stupor upon the bed, while Mrs. Eszter and other town leaders confer about what they now see as a dangerous situation abrew. Commanded to visit the Police Chief's children and put them to bed, then to return to the square and apprise the situation, Valuska is torn between warning his dear friend, György, or carrying out his new "duties."

He chooses the latter, becoming witness to the violence and menacing behavior of the children and overhearing a conversation between the circus manager and a strange unseen figure, The Prince, who speaks in an unknown language, and who apparently is about to use the mob for his purposes of creating chaos.

Transformed by his experiences, similar to Mr. Eszter's shift in focus, Valuska runs off to tell Mrs. Eszter and others of the possible "revolution," only to be grabbed up one of the leaders of the already destructive mob that has begun the night of terror. By the time the planets have shifted into the following morning, the mob has destroyed much of the town and killed several individuals, including Valuska's mother, who has taken to the streets to find her son.

Although the rabble has worn itself out, the army is called in to aid in the town's protection. Valuska awakens to comprehend that he has played a role in this terrible mayhem, suddenly demanding he realize that the gloriously ordered world of the heavens is all a myth, that there is no natural goodness or objective faith to be found, not even within himself.

Mrs. Eszter quickly takes charge, falling in love with the commanding officer who has temporarily taken over the city and who convenes a criminal court. Valuska has been told to scurry away, following the train tracks, but he is caught and, through Mrs. Eszter's decree, incarcerated in the mental hospital.

Eszter retreats to the room where Valuska slept, while his wife takes over the house to begin her not-so-subtle dictatorship. The book ends with her speech over the grave of Mrs. Plauf, the woman she detested, but who now, in her political doublespeak, she describes as the town hero.

In short, evil has won out over those who dream and wonder about the harmonies of the universe. In Krazahorkai's bleak tale, the world can possibly be cleaned up on the outside, but remains rotten within. Yet we do not fall into despair over his fable, for we have seen something that the others cannot, that the true heroes of this world are the weak, the beings who cannot resist these dark forces, but at least have attempted to reach for the skies. As the title suggests, the resistance of such evil is nearly always a melancholic action. For it "passes," "but it does not pass away." It survives, strangely enough, in those least likely to survive.

Los Angeles, January 23, 2001
Copyright (c) 2011 by Douglas Messerli

1 comment:

  1. Bela Tarr's film of this novel, "Werckmeister Harmonies", is wonderful. A rare instance of a great book sparking a great film.
    Ken Edwards