Vilenica Prize Winner 2014: László Krasznahorkailaslo

The Vilenica jury consisting of Andrej Blatnik (president), Lidija Dimkovska (vice president), Ludwig Hartinger, Vesna Kondrič Horvat, Tone Peršak, Jutka Rudaš, Veronika Simoniti, Namita Subiotto, Tomaž Šalamun, Špela Sevšek Šramel, Aleš Šteger and Jana Unuk awards the 2014 Vilenica International Literary Prize to László Krasznahorkai.


László Krasznahorkai was born in 1954 in Gyula, Hungary. He completed his university studies in Hungary, and has supported himself as an independent author since then. When in 1985 his first major publication achieved amazing success, Krasznahorkai was immediately thrust into the forefront of Hungarian literary life.
He travelled outside of Communist Hungary for the first time in 1987, spending a year in West Berlin as a recipient of a DAAD fellowship. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, he has lived in an astonishing variety of locations. He returns often to Germany and Hungary, but he has also spent and spends varying lengths of time in France, Spain, the USA, England, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, China and Japan.
In 1993, his novel Az ellenállás melankóliája (The Melancholy of Resistance) received the German “Bestenliste-Preis” for the best literary work of the year. From the United States to Japan, critics have acknowledged the importance of his writing. According to Susan Sontag, he is “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse

[and] inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville.” W. G. Sebald had this to say: “The universality of Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.” In 1996, he was a guest of the “Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.” While completing the novel Háború és háború (War & War, 1999), he travelled widely across Europe. The American poet Allen Ginsberg was of great assistance in completing the work; Krasznahorkai resided for some time in Ginsberg’s New York apartment, and the poet’s friendly advice was invaluable in bringing the book to life.
In 1990, for the first time, he was able to spend a longer period in East Asia. Krasznahorkai renders an account of his experiences in Mongolia and China in his works Az urgai fogoly (The Prisoner of Urga, 1992) and Rombolás és bánat az Ég alatt (Ruin and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, 2003). Since then, he has returned many times to China. In 1996, 2000 and 2005 he spent six months in Kyoto, Japan.
Since 1985, the renowned director and the author’s good friend Béla Tarr has completed films almost exclusively based on Krasznahorkai’s works, including the highly successful Satantango and The Werckmeister Harmonies. His collaboration with Tarr continues to this day: Krasznahorkai writes the screenplays, and assists the director in all important decisions.
Krasznahorkai has been honoured with numerous literary prizes, among them the highest award of the Hungarian state, the Kossuth Prize and the “Brücke Berlin Preis” in Germany. In 2008, he was the S. Fischer guest professor at the Freie Universität Berlin and is just now a visiting professor at Columbia University, New York. In recent years he has been nominated three times for the Nobel Prize. He has three children, and since 2005 has lived in Berlin with his second wife, Dorka Krasznahorkai, who is a Sinologist and graphic artist.
Jutka Rudaš: The Traps of Tango

László Krasznahorkai, born on January 5, 1954, is one of the most recognisable contemporary Hungarian authors of international stature. A freelance writer since 1982, he has received all the major Hungarian literary awards, among them the prestigious Kossuth Prize in 2004, as well as numerous tributes from abroad, including the USA, Germany and Japan. His books, translated into many languages, have gained critical acclaim all over the world. Since 1985 he has been collaborating with film director Béla Tarr as a script writer. The films Satantango, based on his eponymous novel (Sátántangó, 1985), and Werckmeister Harmonies, based on his novel The Melancholy of Resistance (Az ellenállás melankóliája, 1989), have secured him a place among the Titans of film. His latest project with Tarr was the monumental 2011 film The Turin Horse, which won the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear and the Competition FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Krasznahorkai’s poetics, melancholy and saturnine, effortlessly carry the reader into the deepest labyrinths of human existence. He is a poet of the marginalised, the lonely, his poetics based on man’s bewilderment in society and time. His meticulous composition sets his characters in an endlessly exhausting, bleak world of existence. This sombre atmosphere is matched by the rhetoric articulating the mood of his works: a rhetoric of ellipsis and aposiopesis. Krasznahorkai’s poetic world figures idiosyncratic individuals relegated to the edge of society, the edge of existence. This conjures up an atmosphere of ineluctable meaninglessness, demonstrating a form of the existence which preys on more and more people nowadays.

His masterpiece, Satantango(Sátántangó, 1985), is a representative, paradigmatic, canonised work of contemporary Hungarian prose. It was in this novel, his first, that Krasznahorkai shaped a new literary genre, modifying the structure and function of the novel and, above all, its narration and language. The very title – &39;The Satan Tango’ – carries strong symbolic undertones, alluding to the Argentinian tango, which is based on one step forward and one step back. This jinxed, repetitive tango step – impetus and stagnation – provides a narrative framework for the whole novel: the characters are caught in a satanic circle, where staying and leaving are equally impossible. In Krasznahorkai’s novel, this tango is the dance of prospectless characters in the depressing backwater of the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld), in a sordid tavern where a group of lost souls are waiting for their saviour, hoping that the appearance of a resurrection prophet may prompt a decisive turn for the better in their circumstances, in mentality, and in society. A crowd caught in a world from which it sees no escape, a crowd that has lost every sense of purpose, is waiting for a saviour to give meaning to their lives. At last there appears the prophet Irimiás, a symbolic figure alluding to the Biblical Jeremiah. The characters believe and follow him unconditionally until they realise that he is a mere impostor, exploiting their vulnerability and human degradation.It is this unexpected, extravagant stroke of good fortune, this seeming godsend, that supplies them with a clear roadsign, with possibilities of escaping their otherwise hopeless and unbearable world. Souls inured to anxiety suddenly taste a (false) promise of the great wide open. Irimiás briefly changes their perceptions, their states of consciousness: the figures trapped in the misery of a prospectless, helpless past are quick to surrender to the hope of a better future. Irimiás is nothing but a manipulator of human souls, adept at handling people who have been deprived of all human dignity and thrust on the edge of survival. Such people are not difficult to cheat with promises of the world’s loveliness and with false hopes of a better future, all supposedly within their reach if they will but obey. Since the figures move at two narrative levels, at the level of degradation and the level of waiting for a miracle, the Satan Tango whirls with consummate skill on the dance floor of a polarity which signals both hope and mistrust.

A similar textual (fictive? real?) world opens up in The Melancholy of Resistance(Az ellenállás melankóliája, 1989). Together with its characters, one would feel an urge to bolt if it was not for the author’s devices, subtle, self-reflective, sometimes bitterly ironic, which carry us again to the plains of Hungarian Alföld. The book describes the arrival of a travelling circus which sports two main attractions: a giant whale and a dapper diminutive prince. The elements of the novel are hollowness, bewilderment, renunciation, hopelessness, mistrust, fear, violence, power-hunger. The characters, who admire and fear the whale at the same time, are most agitated by the rhetoric of the Prince, who furiously rants at the weak and oppressed crowd. At a symbolic level, the book depicts the translation of power, with the gradual disintegration of the old order and the rise of a new, dictatorial regime. What emerges is a dark picture of the human present and future, which allow no room for idealism and virtually blur the demarcation line between killers and victims. Reading the novel, one wanders among the debris and misery of apocalyptic visions, sensing a complete blockage of the mind and common sense. The novel raises a number of philosophical, ontological questions: Is the world really so dark? Does evil cling so strongly to the irrational and irrational? Is evil at all capable of gazing keenly into the crystal clear night, or is its gaze entirely blinded by a conceited absorption in its sovereignty over this world? The sombre, chilling tonality of the novel’s murky world is enhanced by the realisation that the ontological decline of the world makes every step hopeless. And yet all this gloom is brightened by the author’s peculiar humour and irony, often a strong self-irony. The novel won the 1993 Bestenliste-Preisin Germany as the book of the year.

It is into these same murky depths of existence that we are spirited by yet another of Krasznahorkai’sworks: his tour de force, War and War (Háború és háború, 1999). We descend into the labyrinthine life of an archivist, Dr György Korim, whose fortieth birthday is marked by the fatal recognition that he understands neither himself nor the world. Suddenly oppressed by reality as a gnawing burden, he comes across a mysterious manuscript in the archives and sets out on a journey, driven by a search for the meaning of life and a desire to decode the text. His guide is the Greek god Hermes, a mysterious, elusive, gloomy gentleman. Krasznahorkai’s novel of mysticism and mystery thus takes us on a stirring descent into its many layers and traps. Korim’s plan to commit the text to eternity by typing it all on the world-wide web can only come to fruition if he heads for the centre of the (Internet) world, for New York. Copying as an act of explication and comprehension leads him to realise that the work of the unknown scribe is about him as well, that he, too, is part of the story, in which he reads his own life. War and War thus evolves into a novel within a novel, doubling the fictive world through a magic game. Copying the manuscript, Korim realises that there are parallels between the textual world and the real world of his surroundings: the protagonists of the manuscript, the four angels, struggle and long in various ages and places for the very causes that he has espoused: peace, tranquillity, beauty. But all four are shadowed by Mastemann, the angel of fear, spirit of destruction, prince of darkness. Korim finds an exit from the intolerable external world in art: in recording the text online, under the title War and War.

In 1990, László Krasznahorkai lived for a while in East Asia, mainly Mongolia and China, and later, in 1996, 2000 and 2005, in Japan. The encounter with Asian culture inspired his novels The Prisoner of Urga (Az urgai fogoly, 1992) and Ruin and Sorrow beneath the Heavens (Rombolás és bánt az Ég alatt, 2004) as well as a short story collection, Seiobo There Below(Seiobo járt odalent, 2008), which was awarded the German Brücke-Berlin-Preis in 2010. These stories take us into the mysterious depths of art, the timelessness of the divine, highlighting the cultural diversity of the Eastern and Western civilisations. With a stunningly detailed knowledge of the cultural and historical backgrounds, the tales of Seiobo, tinged with a deep melancholy, depict surprising events from various – Biblical or historical – periods, cultures, mentalities. The collection of 17 stories foregrounds the issue of art, the inquiry of artworks into art itself. For Krasznahorkai’s pessimistic narrator, a world of chaos and decline renders even art and beauty intangible, unspeakable and redundant.

László Krasznahorkai masterfully depicts a choreography of traps, an anatomy of destruction, an apocalyptic vision of the world. And yet, for all his gloomy, tragic picture of human hopelessness, his rhetorical techniques and intellectually charged discourse make his works a delight to read. His texts rest on the beauty of classic narration. His poetics create a narrative about a living tissue, reflecting the social dynamics carrying the germs of imminent destruction. A society corrupt and stupid to the marrow, a total eclipse of human ethical and moral dimensions, human relationships which cause pain to the individuals at every moment – all this is articulated in László Krasznahorkai’s novels to aesthetic perfection.His works construct the micro story at a macro level. The stuffy atmosphere of perspectivelessness spreads from its original microcosm, provincialism and degradation to the macrocosm, a larger dimension, enveloping the state and world. The works allude to the East European model of society and societal changes, a burning issue nowadays as it has a global impact.The political battles, lies, demagogy, the masked promises manipulating millions of people and pervading their lives penetrate into the human depths, triggering true life catastrophes. Krasznahorkai’s works are virtuoso depictions of an apotheosis of villainy, of the decline of the human and social psyche and morality. The characters are accurate portrayals of contemporary man, but they are timeless as well; they are both literary and non-literary.

Translated by Nada Grošelj

photo © Gyula Czimbal Budapest