Home » Hungary » László Krasznahorkai » Háború és háború (War and War)

László Krasznahorkai: Háború és háború (War and War)

Our hero, if that is the right word, is György Korin. He is forty-four and single. He lives and works in a small town some two hundred kilometres southwest of Budapest. Much of the book seems to be set at the end of the twentieth century. He works in the local records office, where he hopes for a promotion but would really like to be at the centre of the world, wherever that may be (Rome?)

One day, when most of his colleagues have left, he is poking around when he comes across a box. It did not seem to have been moved since the Second World War and was labelled Family Papers of no Particular Significance but what he found in it changed his life forever. While he clearly discovers something of note we do not know what it is unti nearly half way through the book. What we do know is that he feels he has discovered something of such major import that he has to take it to the centre of the world and reveal it there, that centre now being New York.

The initial part of the book recounts his adventures in getting to New York and what he does when he does get there. He has various problems, not least that he is not very worldly and clearly has mental health issues. Also he barely speaks English. However he disposes of all his worldly goods, exchanges the receipts for dollars on the black market and sews both the money and and documents inside his coat and off he goes. Not wishing to be followed or traced he travels in guards vans on the train. At one station he is attacked by a gang of feral children who use razors to attack passengers and German (not Hungarian) slingshots to attack trains. When they cannot find anything worth stealing (his money sewn into the lining), he starts telling them who he is and about his mission and they are mesmerised – till a train they can attack arrives.

In Budapest he spends a night behind the stage where a concert has been held and then goes to the airline office expecting to just buy a ticket for New York as though he were buying a ticket on the local bus, unaware of visas, reservations and the like.

In New York Immigration are suspicious as he has absolutely no luggage but let him in. The Hungarian interpreter takes pity on him and offers to help, which costs him his job but he ends up by providing him with a room in his apartment (for a price), which the interpreter shares with his girlfriend.

What is interesting about these events, apart from the fact that we have no idea what the manuscript contains, is that Krasznahorkai recounts them with considerable intensity, piling on both the details of the events but also Korin’s reactions. For example, as he endeavours to exit JFK airport, not always a pleasant experience but generally manageable, but for Korin it is almost like a journey to Hell as he gets lost, is assaulted and sees armed guards galore.

However once he has more or less settled in with the interpreter (whose name is Sárváry) , things (from his point of view) start to improve. Sárváry helps him buy a computer, internet access and a web host where he can post the manuscript which he does. We learn the details but he also bores both Sárváry and his girlfriend (who is Puerto Rican and does not speak Hungarian) with the details.

The basic story tells of four travellers on a Cretan ship in the Minoan period. They are shipwrecked off the coast of Kommos and are rescued by the locals. They see the place they have come to as a sort of Garden of Eden and when questioned (in Babylonian, the only mutual language they seem to have) imply this place was their planned destination. But then things go wrong as the animals behave badly and the skies darken. The people flee to Phaistos with many aiming for the harbour. Our travellers get a ship to Alasiya (modern Cyprus). Though it is not stated, I am guessing that what is happening is the Minoan eruption of 1600 BCE.

As for our heroes, we do not know whether they make it to Alasiya, for the next time we meet them, without any explanation, they are in Cologne in 1869 watching the construction of the cathedral, first begun in 1248, abandoned more than once and not resumed till the 1840s. The only connection with the previous events is that they see a man called Mastemann whom they had met in Kommos, who puts in an appearance here and in later episodes.

We will gradually follow the four in both time and place. The place is invariably somewhere in Europe though the time varies considerably . This book is, for example the first book I have read that features Corbridge and we can see that Krasznahorkai has done his homework on Hadrian’s Wall.

We see that when they arrive somewhere it is generally nice but it soon becomes unpleasant with, as the title of the book tells us, war featuring strongly and, as they tell us, they were increasingly convinced of the coming into being of this new world, a world born diseased and their path leads but from war to war, and never from war to peace.

But who are they? Korin struggles with this. Why, in any case—Korin’s agitation was evident in his expression—does he [i.e. the anonymous author] describe four characters with such extraordinary clarity then insert them at certain historical moments, and why precisely one moment rather than another, why precisely these four and not some other people; and what is this fog, this miasma, out of which he leads them time after time; and what is the fog into which he then drives them? Korin concludes . The manuscript was interested in one thing only, and that was reality examined to the point of madness. Korin concludes the whole thing was written by a madman, and that was why there was no title page, and why the author’s name was missing. There is an actual website for his work but you will be disappointed when you get there. Here is the disappointing ownership record for it.

While Korin is giving us an account of the four mysterious characters, life is not straightforward for him. He chats away merrily to the interpreter’s partner and, gradually, she seems to pick up at least some of the Hungarian while he can throw in some English words. As we know the interpreter lost his job but manages to find a lucrative job, an alternative that will have dire consequences for all three of them.

Before we get there we get Korin’s take on New York as he wanders round. For example he feels that many New York buildings resemble the Tower of Babel as in Bruegel the Elder’s painting. He will flee New York when things get out of hand, landing in Switzerland, where, of course, things are not straightforward either.

I haven’t gone mad—some light flashed in Korin’s ditch-gray eyes—but I see as clearly as if I were mad. and he sums up his view : They have ruined the world…they’ve ruined everything they’ve managed to get their hands on, and by waging an endless, treacherous war of attrition they have managed to get their hands on everything, ruined everything—and, one should remember, they have seized everything—seized it, ruined it and carried on in this way until they had achieved complete victory, so that it was one long triumphal march of seizing and ruining, right down to the final triumph of the hordes. Who they are is not clear.

As always with Krasznahorkai, this is an amazing book. You might not always know what is going on but that is part of the attraction as even then it is clear that things are awry. When you do know what is (more or less) going on, we are presented with a brilliant account of the world where sanity and insanity mingle but where we can see that the world has more or less gone to hell and who could argue with that?

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Magvető Kiadó
First English translation in 2006 by New Directions

Translated by George Szirtes