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László Krasznahorkai: Az ellenállás melankóliája (The Melancholy of Resistance)

The novel opens in a railway station in some relatively remote part of Hungary. A crowd of people are waiting for the express train to turn up. It does not. No-one knows why or where it is. It seems to have disappeared into thin air again. Fortunately, they have a back-up, a decrepit old train but one that at least will go. The petite Mrs Plauf who is returning home is determined to get a seat and manages to do so. However she had travelled up first class and now she has to mix with the hoi polloi. She is not happy. They talk loudly, play cards, eat noisily, drink noisily, swear, tell vulgar jokes and the one opposite her is staring at her ample bosom.

This is par for the course. The country is continually faced with all-consuming chaos which rendered the future unpredictable, the past unrecallable and ordinary life so haphazard that people simply assumed that whatever could be imagined might come to pass. We follow Mrs Plauf’s tortuous journey back home. Home seems to be Gyula, Krasznahorkai’s home town.

Things do not immediately improve when she gets to the station. The last bus has long since left so she will have to walk home. Moreover, as she arrives, all the lights of the city suddenly go out. On the journey home, she worries that she is being followed, perhaps by the pervert who accosted her on the train. En route home she does see a strange ad. Apparently the body of a giant whale is to be displayed.

Mrs Plauf lives in a flat where she is very happy. She had been married twice. Her first husband was an alcoholic. They had a son, János Valuska, a boy always in flight, always on the move; with never any improvement in prospect. They are more or less estranged and he seems to be the village idiot though,as we shall see, it is more complicated, a lot more complicated than that. Her second husband sadly died. She is now fifty-eight and happy to have escaped the son, who had made her life miserable and live on her own.

That evening she receives a visit from Mrs Eszter. Mr Eszter suddenly quit his job as director of the local school of music. He took to his bed where he has remained ever since. He informed his wife that he no longer required her household services. She has struggled on her own but things are now improving. The police chief had lost his wife and is bringing up their two children. He is consoling himself with drink and, more recently, with Mrs Eszter (in addition to and not instead of the drink). Mrs Eszter is now planning to become president of the women’s committee and is campaigning for it. However, she needs to be seen to have a viable husband and she visits Mrs Plauf. Mr Eszter seems to have one friend and assistant, Mrs Plauf’s son, Valuska. Mrs E wants Mrs P to persuade her son to influence Mr E to return to the bosom of his wife, She declines.

However, while Mrs Plauf and Mrs Eszter play important roles, the key characters in this book are Eszter and Valuska. Valuska is the postman, delivering letters, magazines and the like. Besides his job and his occasional, unwelcome contacts with his mother, he has two interests. For some reason which neither can explain, Eszter and Valuska are very close. Valuska acts as Eszter’s servant. He fetches his food from the hotel, takes his laundry to Mrs Eszter (she still does her husband’s laundry) and generally acts as his factotum. Eszter sees Valuska as his disciple, teaching him about life. He loved him as a lonely lepidopterist might love a rare butterfly; he loved the harmless ethereal nature of Valuska’s imagined cosmos, and he shared his own thoughts with him.

Eszter may seem to have given up on life but that is not the case. He wanted to forget everything he had had to suffer during the decades of his so-called directorship of the academy of music: those grinding attacks of idiocy, the blank ignorant look in people’s eyes, the utter lack of burgeoning intelligence in the young, the rotten smell of spiritual dullness and the oppressive power of pettiness, smugness and low expectation. However he sees in Valuska a more receptive pupil. He is also interested in Western style tuning of musical instruments as developed by Andreas Werckmeister (called, in this book even-tempered scale and elsewhere equal temperament). He wants to go back to older methods and even tries it out by playing the Well-Tempered Clavier in the older style. It is not a success.

Valuska, meanwhile, hangs out at the local bar, more for for the social interaction than for the drink. The other customers mock his naivety and think he does not notice. He does but he does not care. There is more to Valuska than meets the eye. Valuska is, in the eyes of Eszter ethereal, angelic. Valuska seems to have an interest in the universe and its functioning but more spiritual than scientific. He took it for granted that his great concern for the universe was unlikely to be reciprocated by the universe for him.

But things are going wrong. The universe, at least in Gyula, is not working well. As well as Mrs P’s problems, it is now bitterly cold and not getting warmer. There is rubbish everywhere. Buildings seem to be falling apart. A giant tree crashes down. The water tower seems to be wobbling. Feral cats are everywhere. Supplies are running out and the local government seems to be absent. And then there is the whale, perhaps a symbol of doom. Before it is put on display, large numbers of people turn up to see it. Who are they and where do they come from? Valuska manages to make his way through the crowd and is one of the first to see it. But then things get out of hand.

We hear more than see rumours of rioting. Valuska is caught up in it and assisted by a strange man (his guardian angel?) Is it the end of times? The army is called in and Mrs Eszter and the town worthies are at a loss while the mob creates havoc. But, as Eszter says chaos really was the natural condition of the world . Maybe it was the end of the world: everyone knew that it wasn’t ‘twenty or thirty hooligans’ but the devil’s own chosen who had stormed the defenceless town, and that there had been countless signs and portents of this in the preceding months.

This really is a superb book. Krasznahorkai cleverly gives us an idea of what is going on but leaves us (and the characters) unsure of all the details. Chaos seems to be reining out there but what is this chaos? Official incompetence? People with too much time on their hands? Or the devil’s work?

We also get into the minds in some depth of some of the key characters: Mrs Plauf and her fear of the great unwashed; Valuska and his interest in both the universe and in Mr.Eszter and Mr Eszter and his music but also his life, including his relationship with Valuska and his wife. And what is the role of the whale, the giant director of the carnival and the the manboy they call The Prince? Are they really just a travelling carnival or are they part of the devil’s work? Krasznahorkai is not offering any solutions but does show us what it is like out there and in a nominally quiet Hungarian town which could well be a symbol of the entire world.

Publishing history

First published in 1989 by Magvető Kiadó
First English translation in 2012 by New Directions
Translated by George Szirtes