Home » Hungary » László Krasznahorkai » Északról hegy, Délről tó, Nyugatról utak, Keletről folyó (A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East)

László Krasznahorkai: Északról hegy, Délről tó, Nyugatról utak, Keletről folyó (A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East)

As well as having perhaps the longest title of any book on this site, this novel comes quite high up the list of strange novels (but strange in a good way).

Firstly it is set both in a specific time period but also outside time. Our hero is The grandson of Prince Genji. The The Genji we know of is from the eleventh century. However this prince travels on a modern train in Kyoto, as do his retainers. They and he both use modern vending machines. He will see a room containing a TV, a US film poster and bottles of Johnnie Walker whiskey. Yet at the same time, he seems to have traditional retainers (who use the train, wear modern European clothes and get drunk) but who also seem to be numerous and do his bidding (to some degree) in some sort of palace. More than once we are told he lives in previous eras, e.g. the last decade of the Tokugawa (1860s) and, as we shall see, much of the book takes place in what can only be described as a timeless setting.

We follow him as he travels alone on the train. He gets off and proceeds to climb up to a monastery. En route he passes presumably modern houses but all seem to be deserted. He seems to know his way in the labyrinthine streets though he is, we are told, beset by doubts. His retainers will later try and follow him and they fail spectacularly.

Eventually, he comes to an ancient Buddhist monastery. It looks somewhat dilapidated and run-down but seems to be still in operation. However, he searches in vain for anyone to help him. There is evidence of people having been there recently – the abbot’s room, with the TV, US film poster and bottles of Johnnie Walker, a carafe of water and a glass – but there is equally evidence of it having been abandoned. There are birds and we see two mammals (but he does not), a fox and a dog, both of whom die. Why is he here and what is he looking for?

We get a lot of information about the monastery – its architecture, its layout, its history and, in particular its construction, which took many years and required special wood brought in from elsewhere in Japan. Indeed, the protracted and meticulous building process took many years and is indicative of how Japanese culture differed from European culture. Krasznahorkai shows considerable knowledge of temple architecture, history and function (he spent some time in Kyoto as well as elsewhere in the Far East). The whole is described as having flawless harmony.

Meanwhile our prince is making his way through the entirely deserted temple complex, seemingly drifting out of time and space. He examines both the temple but also the plant life and we get a detailed account of the both the geology and botany of the area and how the plants came to be there. The plants vary from ethereal foliage of the Himalayan pines to frighteningly alien and unknowable ginkgo tree stands. It is not just the plants but also the weather. The area is prone to storms and we get a short one here but also an added description of the various storms in the area, encompassing every number on the Beaufort scale.

It is hard work as the the monastery seems to be built on a hillside and he struggles. Indeed he faints from exhaustion but recovers after a short sleep. Still he finds nobody but only evidence that there have been people here. Ther is a statue of a Buddha but only a very small one, not like the large Buddhas often seen in Buddhist temples. All is explained.

Eventually he finds the Treasure House and sees the various sutras, including some damaged as a shelf has fallen. As well as the other modern items he finds a book by Sir Wilford Stanley Gilmore. Sir Wilford has made appearances in other works by Krasznahorkai. The books is two thousand pages long and we get a description of it. It is unusual.

We do find out why he is there. He has a rare and probably unique copy of a work called One Hundred Beautiful Gardens. Ninety-nine of the gardens are interesting but he is particularly taken by the hundredth, a hidden garden. His scholars and experts are called on to identify this garden but they cannot, despite painstaking research. However, someone eventually tells him that it is inthe monastery he is visiting. Is it here and where is it hidden?

So what s this book about? It may be best summed up by a poem by the son of Kobo Daishi quoted in this book:

The Buddha has not left
The Buddha does not come
Search in vain, the Buddha is not here
Gaze into the depths, look for nothing
There are no questions.

For us readers, Krasznahorkai’s great skill is showing a prince clearly out of his time searching in a timeless but very beautiful monastery for a hidden garden which may or may not exist. Every so often our modern time intervenes but is soon booted out again as we slip back to the past or to no time at all.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Magvető Kiadó
First English translation in 2022 by New Directions
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet