The Gap Between the Cymbals

László Krasznahorkai, trans. John Batki, Chasing Homer

New Directions, 96pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780811227971

reviewed by Gertrude Gibbons

‘Killers are on my trail, and not swans, of course not swans, I've no idea why I said swans.’ In the abstract to László Krasznahorkai's Chasing Homer, the speaker's voice is immediately put to question. They do not have control of what they are saying; they do not know why they are saying it. Their words run away with themselves, thoughts falling ahead or behind, as though mouth and mind are out of sync. In the background of these opening words are the falling beats of Szilveszter Miklós's percussion (accessed by a QR code at the start of each chapter). They tumble, unravel, and this has a bidirectional effect on the way the chapter is read; with commas and dashes but no full stops, the words appear to tumble themselves.

‘I don't care, that's what jumped out, so that's what I keep saying to myself, killers not swans.’ The swans are a way to describe the killers by negation. Perhaps the apparent randomness, where words are thrown out without needing to mean anything, suggests an attitude to the transference of thoughts to paper; where natural interruptions and the process of refocusing are just as important as linear thoughts. The first of Max Neumann's paintings in the book — this is a multisensory work — complements this idea: a human figure with thick black lines across mouth and eyes, like the black tape of censorship.

The speaker repeats the phrase: ‘killers, I'll say rousing myself, not swans, coming to my senses again, my vision sharp again, my hearing keen as ever… All my senses are still so vital to me.’ In Chasing Homer, senses are key. With its seductive inclusion of sound and visual work, this slender volume can be described as a ‘total artwork’. From the beginning there is a synthesis of the senses making up the atmosphere of the work as a whole.

The strange denial of swans recalls Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘swan sonnet’, a work full of contradictions. In the poem, a swan is trapped in a frozen forgotten lake haunted by flights which have not yet flown. The ghosts of possibility haunt this forgotten space — an idea echoed by Chasing Homer. In one chapter, the speaker considers the meaning of insanity. Their description articulates a sensation that I felt throughout the whole book: ‘. . . your relation to your own insanity is best characterized by a perpetual ambiguity, wherein you yourself, as well as your insanity, exist in a permanent, billowing state of potentiality. . .’

With most chapters consisting of single sentences, uninterrupted by full stops, the writing also floats, ‘billowing’. It unravels, clause after clause, delaying the destination of the full stop. This denial or procrastination is frustrating; it conveys a reticence in reaching an end, or an uncertainty about where the end is. Yet with the punctuating music between chapters and long sentences which add to the fall and speed of words, an end is promised, an end forever suggested but which shows no sign of arrival, a ‘perpetual ambiguity’, running in precisely such a ‘permanent, billowing state of potentiality’.

The state of apprehension which this generated reminded me of one of the most heart-stopping sequences in cinema: the Royal Albert Hall scene in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). An assassin is waiting for a cymbal crash to cover the sound of his gunshot. The scene is ten minutes of suspense: Doris Day as Jo at the edge of the hall knowing the killer is there and unable to do anything about it, her face moving from furrowed desperation to silent tears of despair; a woman in yellow beside the assassin reading the musical score, finger running along the lines of notes; the crescendo of the music; the percussionist getting ready with his cymbals, holding them shoulder-width apart; the man in the corridor hurrying from locked door to door trying to save the victim. As the musical tension builds and the gap between the cymbals hovers, the gun appears from the dark, ready to shoot. In Chasing Homer, the narrative appears to take place in that metaphorical gap between the cymbals. ‘Because there's nothing between two instants,’ says Krasznahorkai’s speaker, ‘because from one instant to the next, such a focused state of being remains uninterrupted, nonstop, ongoing.’

Are the soundtracks and paintings clues to the reason for the chase, or the destination of the run? They slow the fast pace of the text, interrupting the reader's movement with the speaker. These interruptions raise questions about the ‘total artwork’ — in particular how it has to balance different relationships with time. Inevitably the vivid, full-colour paintings feel more immediate than the soundtrack, which requires a separate device — a phone to scan the QR code, or a laptop to find the links given at the back of the book. Short of having a musical score, it would have been impossible to dictate where in the text the music falls; the paintings, on the other hand, are readily and instantly accessible to the reader's sight.

This natural disparity asks whether text, music and illustration can work simultaneously and without hierarchy. If I were to think in terms of musical texture, then the question would be whether the relationship between components is homophonic (melody and accompaniment) or polyphonic (multiple simultaneous lines of independent melody). The relationship in Chasing Homer, I think, does not fit into either of these categories. Though at times Miklós's percussive tracks, the text and Neumann's paintings work simultaneously like a Bach fugue, or complement each other like a singer with piano accompaniment, it is most like what composer Panayiotis Kokoras called the ‘holophonic’. Etymologically related to ‘whole’ and ‘sound’, this is a type of musical texture in which independent components are synthesised to work as a whole and possibly three-dimensionally. Kokoras illustrates this in Susurrus (2011), which also shares experimental similarities to Miklós's compositions. The visual and auditory elements of Chasing Homer perform together in a similar way to this texture, with the punctuation of Krasznahorkai's sentences providing the rhythm that binds the voices of these parts into a shared three-dimensional space.

But whose voice is whose? Chasing Homer has an overwhelming sense of the disembodied; a haunting feeling of not having ownership over body and voice. ‘I never feel that my life is something that is mine, something that belongs to me,’ says the speaker. This idea is enhanced by the relationship between word and image, with Neumann's faceless and spectral paintings. For example, the end of the second chapter, ‘Faces’, has a painting where a figure in profile appears to be sticking out an icy blue tongue. His hollow eye and hairless head suggest a phantom. The blue tongue, so cold, takes precedence as the only thing of colour. Turning the page, the speaker recounts his education in things that he didn’t actually need. He begins with the languages, largely ancient and obscure, he had learned, before continuing to say he'd ‘been obliged to steep myself in Euripides and Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle. . .’ It is as though these studies were also forms of language. The tongue, voice, does not seem to belong to the nameless speaker, just as Neumann's painted tongue does not belong to a particular face, only an outline.

Perhaps it is the chase that gives him his own voice. The title Chasing Homer suggests a run towards something, rather than the fleeing away. As the pursuit continues, there is a transition to a ‘real’ landscape, with lefts and rights and ‘real’ street signs, until finally reaching Odysseus' cave. The turning point occurs as the speaker hears a tour guide fervently reading Homer in a bar to reticent tourists. The guide (whose voice is distinguished with italics) critiques the work as he reads it: ‘look here now, this is Homer, it's not me speaker, but Homer himself, understand what I'm saying?’ As he shuts the book with a ‘theatrical gesture’, Chasing Homer's speaker suddenly feels liberated. In some kind of witnessed (seen and heard) exchange of voices, or the theatrical use of quotation, the speaker is no longer being chased; they have (perhaps) escaped.

Gertrude Gibbons is a writer based in London.