Friday, August 26, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "To Begin Is to Never End" (on László Krasznahorkai's War & War)

sculpture by Mario Merz

by Douglas Messerli

László Krasznahorkai Háború és Háború (Budapest: Magvető, 1999). Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes as War & War (New York: New Directions, 2006).

Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai’s War & War (Háború és Háború), first published in 1999, is a story of a total failure, a fool named Korin. Krasznahorkai’s “hero,” who works, similarly to the anti-hero of José Saramago’s 1997 novel All the Names, as an archivist—a man who, like one of Eliot’s living dead, is afraid not only to “eat a peach,” but is fearful of literally “losing his head” which, he is absurdly told by doctors, is only tangentially connected to his spine and will ultimately break loose and fall off.

The fiction begins with what will be a series of attacks on the “hero” as he is surrounded by members of a brutal young gang who attempt to rob him and are willing and ready to slit his throat. But the strange, incoherent story Korin begins to tell—the complexity of which the author suggests throughout his work by dividing his fiction into 2-3 page units, each consisting of one long, rambling sentence—strangely transfixes them, not so much because of its (im)possible content, but because of the intensity with which the old man speaks. To the young gang members he is a human specimen so ridiculous that they are fascinated by his absurdity, and, in listening to his tale, like Scherezade’s Schahriar, spare his life. Little do they imagine that he has a large sum of money sewn into the lining of his outdated and filthy greatcoat.

In the very next scene Korin repeats his verbal assault, this time in the company of a good-looking flight attendant to whom he, apologetically and, once again, somewhat incoherently, attempts to tell his life story. Apparently he has discovered by accident a manuscript in the archival files that has completely transformed him. As he reads and rereads this mysterious fiction, filed mistakenly with other family records, Korin realizes a new purpose in life. Abandoning his job, selling all his possessions, and attempting to escape the authorities he believes are determined, because of his condition, to deny him travel, our hero eludes his invisible trackers through a series of meandering train rides, ultimately arriving in a Budapest ticket office in hopes of continuing on to New York.

Because he has no visa he is forced to procure a quickly issued one at great expense. The travel agency, moreover, cannot assure him of space on a plane for the next few days. His intense conversation with the stewardess in the agency offices and his idiotic determinedness, however, work in his favor, and miraculously he arrives in New York.

Arriving without luggage and with no clear destination in mind, he is whisked away to security where he finds himself face to face with a disinterested Hungarian interpreter, who, like the others before him, is bored and transfixed by Korin’s attempts to explain himself. The interpreter loses his job because, recognizing the incompetence of the man he questions, he hands him his personal business card, containing his home address.

Not without further ado, Korin makes his way through the terminal and is delivered up by taxi to a Bowery flop, where for days he holds up before attempting to adventure out into the Manhattan streets. When he does leave the room, the event ends in a fearful encounter with the abject poor seemingly incarcerated in a nearby flophouse, and in horror Korin calls the number listed on the interpreter’s card. Since the interpreter now has no income he agrees to let a room to Korin and even helps him to set up—in what has been the secret aim of the man’s confused wonderings—a website where the former archivist hopes to post a copy of his discovered manuscript.

Perhaps the most poignant and intense moments of this episodic work occur in this apartment where the interpreter lives with his mistress—an abused Hispanic woman—who, knowing only a little Hungarian, nonetheless silently endures Korin’s breakfast litanies about his life and the mysterious manuscript he is determined to post to his website for posterity.

Gradually Korin becomes aware of the beatings she endures and the nefarious activities of his landlord, but, in his obsessive single-mindedness, he has little power to change the course of their fate. A friendship between the “hero” and the woman, however, develops, even if the words he shares with her have little meaning. Once more, the intensity with which he tells his story is what seems to matter. The reader, however, begins to perceive the nature of his literary discovery: a tale of four men (Kasser, Falke, Bengazza, and Toót) who voyage freely through time, in each story discovering a near-paradiscal society (the mythical Kommos and the historical Venice) or architectural wonders (the cathedral of Cologne and Hadrian’s Wall) that in the midst of their admiration are destroyed soon after the appearance of an enigmatic figure (Mastemann). We recognize that each version of the tale reveals the same message, that cultural and societal achievement and harmony is perpetually destroyed by evil. But Korin is confused by the various stylistic maneuvers of the storyteller, particularly in the last section, when the narrator—not unlike how others have perceived Korin himself—seems to go mad, jumbling together various lists and information that transgresses against any coherent message the story might wish to convey.

Safely ensconced in the interpreter’s apartment, where he is forbidden late afternoon and evening use of the computer, Korin ventures out, gradually exploring the unfathomable city around him. When, accordingly, he has finished posting his tale, and, after suffering, along with the interpreter’s lover, a series of strange events wherein intruders suddenly remove all the apartment’s contents, followed, a few days later, by new intruders delivering boxes that fill the small living space, the “hero”—piecing together these events with his discovery of a large cache of money hidden behind a piece of tiling in the toilet—escapes what has been his only home in this new world in order to seek someone in the Hungarian community who will sell him a gun, presumably to accomplish the suicide he has promised earlier in the narrative.

But even here, Korin reveals his incompetence. Hooking up with a slightly mad figure of the streets (a man who places manikins in various artfully life-like positions throughout the neighborhood) our “hero” stays the night with his newfound friend, awakening to discover photographs of work by the real-life artist Mario Merz upon the walls of the man’s apartment. One of Merz’s tent-like environments so moves Korin that he determines to travel to Zürich where he believes the author resides to seek out one of the structures in which to kill himself. If he has previously been blessed by a sort of innocent madness, armed with his new, negative resolve, Korin is no longer blessed and is finally robbed and left for dead on the streets; without money, he returns to the interpreter’s apartment to discover that both the man and his mistress have been brutally murdered. Now perceiving (or perhaps only sensing) what the murderers have sought, he removes the money from behind the tile, and uses it to pay for his final journey.

In Zürich he discovers that Merz himself does not live there, but that one of his artworks—pictured in the photographs—is housed in a nearby museum. Korin, however, has grown even more deluded—interpreting the strange disintegration of his manuscript’s narrative as an evocation and expression of madness that has overtaken the world and believing that the characters from the fiction have joined him in person to seek “a way out.” He finally finds a way to purchase a gun and makes his way to the museum. Arriving in the middle of the night, Korin attempts to enter the museum, while the guard explains that the building is closed until the morning. Fearing, however, that the late-night stranger may be an artist or even a guest curator, the guard calls the director. Unable to gain access to the museum, Korin seeks shelter in at all-night bar, where, brandishing his gun, he shoots himself in the arm. Even in suicide he fails, although the shot so terrifies him that he collapses, remaining unconscious; the book ends without answering the reader’s questions about Korin’s condition: “Later they took him away.”

What we do know, however, is that Korin ultimately does succeed in suicide, for a plaque within the Schaffhausen Museum testifies: “This plaque marks the place where György Korin, the hero of the novel War and War, by László Krasznahorkai, shot himself in the head. Search as he might, he could not find what he had called the Way Out.” The plaque, strangely enough, seems to indicate that, finally, someone has made sense of Korin’s story, that his life has mattered; if nothing else, it testifies to his heroic attempt to escape from the horrible fate of the world revealed in both the archivist’s manuscript and in the novelist’s fiction wherein the tales are embedded.

In fact, the sensitive reader—and anyone who has persisted in reading Krasz-nahorkai’s bleak tale, perhaps by definition, is such a reader—has perceived, Korin may be an idiot, but like Erasmus’ man of folly, he is a Christ-like figure, a man of deep compassion, belief, and hope. He is a wise-fool, desperately seeking in a world of fleeting fragments a unified vision that will give meaning to life. Even if his magnificent posting will never be read—and with the death of the interpreter who has sworn to keep the website alive, one can only suppose that eventually that website will disappear (indeed a visit to results in the message: Please be informed that your homepage service has been called off due to recurring overdue payment. Attempted mail deliveries to Mr. G. Korin have been returned to sender with a note: address unknown. Consequently, all data have been erased from your home page.)—it is the effort to share his discovery that truly matters. In his reading—even his misreadings of the work—Korin has himself become a creator, and in that creation, that recreation, he has brought purposefulness to life. Through each of his absurd attempts to relate information, Korin reveals the transformative power of storytelling itself. It is not just the story that matters, perhaps not even the story that is important, but the telling itself, the very act of creating fiction can completely change lives.

The reader perceives this already in the first scene, where the gang of young thugs, seemingly entranced by Korin’s storytelling even as they disdain it, begins to tell their own tales the next morning about the old man and his bizarre behavior. The stewardess has her own tales to tell about the silly man who entertained her while she was waiting to accompany a disabled traveler; but we perceive also how she is touched and moved by Korin’s words. Even more affected by the storytelling is the interpreter’s companion, who in the midst of abused life, waits patiently each morning just to hear the boarder’s words, touchingly revealed several times in the work, particularly as she turns her bruised face toward him and, in the last scenes, they lay together upon a bed in a gentle conspiracy of hope against what they both recognize are destructive acts by the master of the house, who parallels the Mastemann figure of the War & War fiction.

Korin’s great discovery, the source of both his joy and desperation, evidenced in his suicide, is that all of life matters, all life is “of equal gravity, everything equally urgent,” a fact that any artful storyteller and reader recognizes as the truth. It is no wonder that Korin hardly knows where to begin and has no comprehension of how to end once he has started. As for Scherezade, once the telling has begun, once one has embarked upon the perilous voyage of the imagination, there can be no end but in death. 1001 nights do not cease in a mere two years and nine months; for the ancient Egyptians the hieroglyph for 1000 represented “all,” and one more than all, accordingly, stood for an infinity. There is, alas, no “way out,” no ultimate redemption for Scherezade. The characters of Korin’s discovered fiction are blessed as well as doomed to begin again and again in their search for paradise, in their foolishly wise search for a world in which everything matters and all is of equal importance.

Los Angeles, August 9, 2006
Reprinted from First Intensity, No. 22 (Fall 2007).

Copyright (c) 2006 by Douglas Messerli


  1. A very nice summary of the novel and of some of its concerns. I am slightly confused about your chronological order. Even though the "Isaiah Has Come" text was placed at the end of the novel by the English publisher (for whatever reasons) it does not come in chronological order after the events of the main novel. On the contrary it works as a kind of prologue to the novel (see also the author's webpage for an introduction, in particular it is interesting to note that it was published in various journals before the novel even came out) and describes events that took place a long time before the main novel. Please compare Chapter 6, Section 26 of the novel. While still being in New York Korin explains that the scar on his hand comes from a self-inflicted gunshot wound from when he shot at his hand a long, long time ago. The Isaiah text details those events as they happened in a bar probably somewhere in Hungary long before his travels to New York. If I remember correctly there are other details in the novel as well as in the Isaiah text that confirm this.

  2. Birne is completely correct.

    Thanks for posting what the plaque says. I was trying to find a video of its unveiling but I can't seem to find it anywhere. After reading the novel, and even though I now know what the plaque says, I kind of want to see it for myself as well. So I'm thinking of visiting the museum some time. Is the plaque still there? There really was a plaque, right?

    War and War is my favorite novel. I gave my copy to someone I met who's going through some trouble. I hope he's still okay. I found some comfort in the protagonist's plight, though I know it's an overall dark story.

  3. Hey George,

    War And War is also my favorite of his works.

    The plaque with it's inscription in English and German can be found here:

    here you can also find a video in German of the unveiling:

    (you can play this file with the VLC player for example)

    All of this, including English excerpts of the novel and the full Isaiah Has Come text can be found on the author's webapge, here:

    If you navigate this page you can also find the complete book in Hungarian or German including the Isaiah texts, the videos and pictures. Just click on "War And War Online" then either on the Hungarian flag or the German flag.