[Seagull Books; 2016]
Tr. by Ottilie Mulzet
Chantal Akerman’s 1993 film, D’est (From the East), is an impressionist documentary depicting her travels documenting East Germany and Moscow just after the fall of Communism. Akerman famously declared that she needed to make the film “before it was too late,” presumably declaring that the sense of cultural separation that existed in places without a direct connection with the West would soon be nonexistent. Akerman’s film observes: for nearly two hours the film alternates between sustained shots of movement, as the camera traveling along city streets, gliding over faces, cars, and buildings, and stillness, shots of domestic space, as individuals cook, eat, and clean. László Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens follows a traveler as he chronicles a China that has adopted Western capitalism and seems to have almost instantaneously lost its connection with its own past. Krasznahorkai is too late.
The publication of Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens follows the English translation of Seiobo There Below. Both have been translated by Ottilie Mulzet and offer a side of Krasznahorkai—a Hungarian—that diverges from the preoccupations of the books later adapted into films by Bela Tarr and Krasznahorkai, himself. Based on his travels to China in 1992, the book was originally published in Hungarian in 2005. It follows as a rough companion to The Prisoner of Urga (1992, and, as yet, not translated into English), a book that, as Mulzet describes, introduces the writer’s fascination with the East, specifically in regards to Chinese and Japanese culture. Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens documents the writer’s sense of dislocation and disaffection on his return to China in the first years of the new millennium.
In his first travelogue about the East, Krasznahorkai describes a Beijing, according to Mulzet, “where most people still got around on bicycle, where many of the old hutongs still stood, a society that still felt some tangible connection to its own four-thousand-year-old history; in short: China right before its massive economic boom of the past fifteen years.” Upon his return to China, Krasznahorkai immediately finds something has been irrevocably lost. Much has changed — following the influx of the Western market and the values associated with that economic system, he finds China has slowly lost the sense of the individuality of it culture. Its connections to its own past, where once implicit, now must be called upon and noted. The culture of China, where it once, he believed, followed an unbroken line, has now been severed. To experience Ancient Chinese culture, one must now regard it as a “past,” now linked with present modes of being.
Perhaps perversely, Krasznahorkai’s travelogue is written in the third-person. He does not write directly of his experiences in China, instead creating a cypher, the Hungarian poet László Stein. This alter ego allows Krasznahorkai to work at a remove, clearly noting the specifics of his character’s perspective. Instead of writing a first-person account of his travels, in which a subjective point-of-view becomes the realm in which a documented reality is constructed, Krasznahorkai writes a (seemingly) objective account of a man’s travels. This person has thoughts, ideas, and opinions about the places he is traveling, but they are “his,” not the book’s per se.
Destruction and Sorrow follows Stein (and his unnamed translator, also Hungarian) as they visit a variety of cities, villages, monasteries, temples, museums, and libraries. The main thrust of the book involves Krasznahorkai placing Stein in conversation with a series of Chinese people, knowledgeable in some way about a specific area of Chinese cultural life. His views, the views seemingly constructing the depictions of place and people, are considered in conversation with people intimately connected with questions of China’s cultural heritage. Often, though, Krasznahorkai gives Stein time to simply visit a place: walk, look, and experience, and describe, through his meandering sentences, a sense of it.
But, though written in the third person, each location functions to prop up some facet of Stein’s thoughts on this spiritually and culturally bereft modern China. Each chapter evokes a new city, a new monastery, a new mountainside. “Nanjing is always hopeless,” the narrator proclaims. Nanjing’s hopelessness is elaborated upon until its weariness on Stein is strewn into the weightiness of Krasznahorkai’s unbroken sentence:
Not only on 5 May 2002 is Nanjing hopeless; Nanjing is always hopeless, because there is nothing, really nothing that is more hopeless than Nanjing: the endless millions of people, the dark, shabby streets, the pitiless, coarse, crazed traffic, the merciless minibuses with the exhaust streaming out onto the passengers—who can only find a place to sit at the back which, for some mysterious reason, is raised—the exhaust streaming out with such strength that only the most hardened can bear it, or the most exhausted who assume this sacrifice so thy may sit down; the whole thing is hell, and the chilly metallic atmosphere on these buses is hellish too, the grimy face of the bus drivers and their filthy white gloves, their immovable, merciless, unshakeable indifference, just hell and hell and grime everywhere, on the walls of the barracks-like house, on the tables in the restaurants, on the flagstones, on a doorknob, on the side of a teacup, the litter and sticky filth in the back kitchens of the restaurants and the small canteens, the back kitchens that a customer or foreigner is never allowed to enter because they would never believe their eyes if they saw where the meat and the vegetables were being chopped, and they would never eat again; and horrifying as well is the spirit of the so-called new China: as one of its most characteristic signs—in the form of the world’s most dispiriting glittering department stores—stands her on the main street, disgorging the most aggressively nauseating Chinese pop music, it relentlessly attacks from the loudspeakers, and as if every single street and corner in the city has been shot up, really, as if every single nook has been amplified with this sticky infectious loathsome phonic monstrosity, and this is only the earth, which is below—because this has not been mentioned yet: the sky, not a word has been said about the sky, that grey block-like heaven about them, heavier than lead, through which the sun never, but never, breaks through, and even if it does, so much the worse because then it just makes so much more visible what is her on these streets, in the millions and millions of buildings on these streets, in the millions and millions of wretched flats inside, and what is inside this world of innumerable multitudes of writhing, rushing, hurrying impassive faces . . .
Like Krasznahorkai’s fictions, his sentences (or in this case, series of clauses) conspire together, in a kind of interlocking state of indecision, building a sense of elusive, strangled exasperation. Where moments and encounters are described almost exhaustively, they still end up feeling slightly unformed and in flux. As his words (and, by nature, his world) build, the narrator’s language circles around and around Stein’s perception. By writing in the third-person, and focusing on the character of “László Stein,” Krasznahorkai refrains from being conclusively subjective or conclusively objective. Stein and Krasznahorkai, or the presumed narrator, express disgust and bewilderment, in addition to a kind of perverted righteousness, by referencing China’s cultural decay. After finding some pleasure in a visit to the town of Hangzhou, Stein is relieved to head back to the decay of modern China. Krasznahorkai writes: “Everything is perfectly fine, he reassures the interpreter, and in a few days…they [will] set off in order to entangle themselves back into reality…back to the feeling—in the embittered words born of human dignity and serenity—that for them, here, in this China, with their own great love for the exquisite treasures of this culture, there is nothing, but nothing for them to look at anymore.”
A prescient observer will question the assumptions Stein makes in his understanding of this unbroken line of Chinese culture. His assumptions are questioned, continually, in the figures he visits, from theater directors to professors of literary history to museum and library directors. Stein speaks about his hesitations and his concerns about the devaluation of a previous way of life, a way of life, these figures assert, he may have some familiarity with but which was not one in which he actually lived.
Stein allows the various artists, poets, scholars, and monks, among others, to elucidate their ideas. He gives them, as in a play, dialogue that is set off from the main block of prose. Stein responds to them, but he does not speak. Rather, his speech is described, as the cities or buildings or roads are. His questions and interrogations are woven into the prose paragraphs that break by the uninterrupted dialogue of those he talks with. Stein’s companion translates Stein’s language. He also translates the language of the Chinese speaker. Subsequently, Krasznahorkai translates these events, presumably taken from a travel experience he had, into a series of set pieces that include a narrative thrust. (And in addition to these two translations, the English reader experiences a translation from Hungarian into English [of conversations spoken in Chinese]).
In conversation, Stein talks past people, looking for specific answers to questions he already seems to know the answer to. He listens as various speakers either ignore or reframe his question. In a conversation with Yao Luren, a professor of literary history in Shanghai, Stein asks, “What does [Yao] see in general being the essence of culture?” Yao’s response: “It is enchantment. Chinese culture was always a continuum, it never became Westernized. Nor will it now. Because tradition is stronger than you realize.” As Stein prods for answers he speaks with frankness, often realizing only immediately after it has been posed that a question was rude. Following Yao’s response, “Stein feels that their conversation is a kind of free fall where, however, he is the only one who is falling. He begins to lose his patience; he begins to forget that this is exactly what he should not do — if he feels he wants to make himself understood — so that, well, he confides to Yao that he would be ecstatic if he could sense the strength of this tradition. It’s just that, he answers woefully, he only experiences the opposite.”
China’s past, incidentally, has and continues to be inextricably linked to its present. As the Belgian-Austrian sinologist Simon Leys writes, “China is the oldest living civilization on Earth.” The Chinese language works as an unbroken link to its Ancient culture, as people continue to write and think in a system that remains explicably linked to old ways of being. Monuments in China do not serve the same function as in Europe; they do not function as a physical expression of time’s passing. Leys claims that Chinese culture’s survival is not due to visual reminders of the past through preserved monuments. Most Chinese buildings are not thousands of years old; many are made of wood, not a material that ages well. Language, and its preservation through a clear, continued line of use, preserves a sensibility that links speakers directly to thoughts, feelings, and ways of being of the past. There is a continuum of sensibility that is instantly called upon when one speaks a language that has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years.
Calligraphy in China functions as a visual art and cultural practice directly related to language. It is, according to Leys in an essayon the form, “intimately linked with Chinese language; its full appreciation may at times require a certain familiarity with a rich and intricate network of historical philological and cultural references.” Stein, interestingly, admires calligraphy, but acknowledges his own ignorance. Upon visiting a famous calligrapher with a group of fellow artists and writers, they each admire his artworks. “Stein as well,” Krasznahorkai writes, “who, among those present, knows the least about calligraphy, although he is capable of understanding it, after a while, with the help of another guest who is introduced to him by a Chinese living in Europe, and whom he has met here for the firs time, is able to say: that what he has seen here, the speed of the contours, the plangent rhythm of the two signs, the black ink burning on the white paper, the pure natural impulse of the brush’s movement, the exact harmony of the proportions, that all this together is truly amazing!” Stein sees the form of the movement, but in its relation to the meaning the text conveys he can not understand.
Translation is literally embodied in the form of Stein’s translator. In speaking in his own tongue, Stein needs his translator to transmute and relay his disaffection. Stein’s own dissatisfaction is relayed through the voice and words of another person, and the translator is often hesitant to directly translate what Stein has asked, being in actual contact with the person the question is thrusted upon. There is an immediate loss in this translation function. The spontaneity that imbues conversation with its purpose does not exist. The speakers each must wait, patiently, and attempt to construe some meaning from gesture or tone, before listening to an altered version of the original message.
In, if perhaps indirectly, meditating on the limitations of the traveler, the book asks how one enters into a society, especially one as enormous and multilayered and unable to be constrained. The traveler attempts to, within a relatively short span of time, piece together a comprehensive understanding of cultural life. Especially a cultural life that he or she will eventually and inevitably exit. Stein views Chinese culture reductively, even as he admires it and compliments, as somewhat static, never quite dynamic.
In the opening section of the book, Stein and his companion are introduced in the midst of a long bus journey to Jihuashin. As “two white Europeans” they have a hard time understanding the logic of the trip. They, Krasznahorkai writes, “cannot understand any of this at all, they cannot even understand how a bus route like this operates.” It stops and starts at random, seemingly picking up any passenger on the road, their journey “slowed down by so many unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences.” As the chapter comes to a head, Krasznahorkai describes a passenger sitting a few seats in front of Stein and the translator. As a heavy rain pours outside the bus, this passenger decidedly keeps the window open. The other passengers look around in confusion. A man walks up to her and shuts the window, but after he moves back to his seat, the woman immediately reopens it again, letting the wind and rain back into the moving bus. This bewilderment at another person’s behavior frames Stein’s experience of China: how much can he truly know? He can only see and experience, talk and learn from other people. China has, obviously, changed, and is changing, but there are still gestures unexplained, left unexplainable.
Patrick Disselhorst is a writer currently living in New York.