'No Amount of Screaming Would Have Helped Us'

by Jude Cook

Heinz Helle, trans. Kari Driscoll, Euphoria, Serpent's Tail 224pp ISBN 9781781256886 £11.99
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, trans. George Szirtes, The Melancholy of Resistance, Serpent's Tail 336pp ISBN 9781781256244 £9.99

Heinz Helle’s first novel, Superabundance, was a succinct meditation on being and consciousness, seamed with black humour; its nameless narrator a puckish and priapic Roquentin separated from his girlfriend in New York. In his second, Euphoria, five old friends embark on a boozy adventure away from the ‘suburb where they grew up together’, only to find themselves stranded in the Austrian Alps in the aftermath of a nameless catastrophe that has brought about ‘the end of the world’, forcing them to confront their own bestial capacities and primal fears. A move into speculative fiction – whose tropes can so often degenerate into predictable, Cassandra-shrill melodrama – might seem like a leap in the wrong direction for a writer who started on such a small, introspective canvas, but it’s clear from the beginning that the doomsday scenario has given Helle more scope for philosophical insight, not less. The same is true for Laszlo Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, whose classic 1989 novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, has just been reissued. Praised by Sontag and Sebald on its first appearance, the mood of impending catastrophe in his tale of a wintry Hungarian town suffering from the undisclosed ‘unusual and anarchic events of the immediate past’, opens up the narrative for transcendent conjecture on the nature of the soul, rather than foreclosing it. Both are writers who knowingly work with the tension generated by an unknown threat – by emotional and geographical indeterminacy – and both skilfully sidestep the clichés of the speculative genre.

Ably translated by Kari Driscoll, Euphoria starts off in the first-person plural, the narrative voice imparting an uneasy sense of duality, as the reader quickly arrives at a shocking image of innocence and juxtaposed with violence. A child playing in the road, and then: ‘After a little while we find his parents, lying in the bushes with their skulls smashed open’. Later, this aggregate point of view happens across a ‘big, empty hall . . . littered with broken glass, abandoned campfires’. It’s only then that the narrative eye narrows, and we’re introduced to the five friends: ‘Drygalski, Gruber, Fürst, Golde, and me.’ Whatever led to these scenes of desolation is never made clear, as the group make their way through the valley: ‘dark green, empty and silent, all the way to the misty Alps.’ From here, images of desolation multiply, with ‘abandoned petrol stations, supermarkets, holiday homes,’ along with ‘bloated corpses’, and a crashed helicopter in woodland, from which the pilot’s body hangs halfway out of the cockpit. Helle’s slow revelation of detail is masterly; the precariousness of the friends’ predicament increased when the displays on everyone’s ‘familiar piece of plastic’ go ominously black. The one item of tech that everyone relies on to stay connected to civilisation – the mobile phone – has been rendered useless. After further grisly discoveries (a nightclub containing ‘hundreds of blackened bodies’), the weather worsens and they are forced to prepare a meal of a ‘headless crow on a stick over a pile of burning leaves.’ At this point, the first of the group to perish is the architect, Fürst: a fine metaphor for the death of civilisation.

Helle’s tale demonstrates how unprepared mankind is for such a global catastrophe, with its group of men in their thirties with ‘advanced degrees in architecture and microbiology, and absolutely no clue’ how to work a boiler in an abandoned mountain station. It’s also made more powerful by alternating the present with flashbacks to the friends’ comfortable, complacent past lives, providing opportunity for some desperate humour: ‘The disco at the youth club, the Turks, the Yugos, the unattainable girls who were probably allowing themselves to be kissed by the Turks and the Yugos . . .’ Later, as they burn a chair for warmth, they conduct a discussion on the relative merits of the porn stars Rocco Siffredi and Nacho Vidal. Rocco emerges as the winner, after it’s decided Rocco would ‘die of sorrow if there were no more women. That’s love.’

The novel really becomes remarkable when Helle extrapolates philosophical debate from the dire situation. The conversion of matter into fundamental particles, as the men face their own deaths, is hinted at obliquely when the narrator watches the blazing chair: ‘You can no longer tell that the thing that is burning there was once a chair’, giving him hope that his essence may survive somewhere in the universe. The book ultimately questions why mankind shoulders on in the face of such futile odds: ‘All in all, we don’t much care for this world any longer. But still we continue diligently to take one step after another into it.’

It’s this metaphysical dimension that raises the book from a business-as-usual Ballardian apocalypse-scenario novel. The release of man’s bestial appetites and destructive powers in the face of annihilation are not as surprising as his sudden propensity for higher thought as society’s constraints break down. Unlike Golding in Lord of the Flies, Helle also suggests our higher natures make an appearance in the face of catastrophe. In addition, his decision to use the present tense presses the reader’s nose relentlessly against the glass of the near-future, making us believe it could all happen tomorrow. We constantly ask: what has happened and why? Also, how would we bear such terrible events ourselves? For Euphoria’s unnamed narrator, it precipitates intense meditation on the nature of matter and time – a survival mechanism, perhaps:

Time goes by. I don’t know how that happens. I have no idea how it works, what physical process it is that causes that tilt, that teetering and falling from soon into now and then and then and then.

With death so near at hand, he can’t help but take fresh notice of ‘the world in all its indifferent, unadorned thereness.’ By the end, a fatalistic serenity has fallen on the group as they make their way through a devastated, snowy landscape, towards either redemption or destruction: ‘But somehow it makes us happy to see the world continue to do what it does completely without our assistance.’ As the men become ‘a single will distributed among several bodies,’ the narrator recalls vivid images from his own youth in a stunning, luminous conclusion that will haunt the reader long after the final page is turned.

Many things link Helle’s project with Krasznahorkai’s, but the central one is the emphasis on reflection rather than a driving plot, while utilising well-worn scenarios. In The Melancholy of Resistance, published in the politically explosive year of 1989, the uncertainty of Europe’s future is almost a tangible property. Naturally, hope is part of this admixture of chaos too: ‘We are on the threshold of a more searching, more honest, more open society.’ But predominantly there is the looming threat of the apocalypse; whether nuclear or millennial, it isn’t clear. The book centres on a small, unnamed Hungarian town during a freezing November, in which the inhabitants battle with a mysterious threat, unmediated by the faceless ‘authorities’. There is talk of the ‘ever more frightening events of the past months’, and ‘the coming catastrophe.’ Society is seen as a ‘system which seems to have been overtaken by chaos’, by an indeterminate ‘state of anarchy.’ When the lights go out, ‘the place assumed the look of all cities under siege.’ Among these inhabitants are the elderly Mrs Plauf and her savant son, the postman Valuska. While Mrs Plauf is tyrannised by the fascist Mrs Eszter, it is advertised that a travelling circus will visit the town, with a single exhibit: a great, desiccated whale. The significance of this whale has exercised Krasznahorkai aficionados since the book’s first appearance. The mitteleuropean strangeness of the image is cinematic, conjuring the striking, anomalous objects found in the landscapes of films by Angelopoulos or Tarkovsky. As a symbol, it powerfully evokes Melville’s white whale – a complex figure, amalgamating destroyer and saviour. It also echoes Hobbes’ Leviathan, and the promise of a coherent, properly egalitarian society. A final resonance, given the whale’s context in the travelling circus, may also be panem et circenses; the appeasement of the proletariat. Indeed, the reaction to the whale’s arrival is incredulity and outrage: ‘A circus? Here?! When the end of the world was all too imminent?’ Perhaps, as Hemingway commented on The Old Man and the Sea, ‘The fish is a fish’. However, while the world of Krasznahorkai’s books so often seems to be post-meaning, post-paraphrase, the ‘enormous, inevitably ill-omened’ whale occupies a space in the reader’s mind that endlessly generates speculation.

At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Mrs Eszter’s husband and Valuska, who wander the stricken town, staring at the stars while attempting to avoid the nocturnal threat of violence. As with Helle, this perambulation in the face of catastrophe results in philosophical conjecture. The intellectual music teacher Eszter sees something in his friend that others don’t:

While the local community “given its natural inclination” regarded Valuska as no more than an idiot, he, for his part, was in no doubt . . . that this apparently crazy wanderer on the highways of his own transparent galaxy, with his incorruptibility and universal, if embarrassing, generosity of spirit, was indeed “proof that, despite the highly corrosive forces of decadence in the present age, angels nevertheless did exist”.

Valuska the holy fool is a stock character of the European comic-philosophical novel, and Krasznahorkai gives him the deepest insights. While Eszter comes up with homilies (‘Faith . . . is not a matter of believing something, but believing that somehow things could be different’), his friend’s stargazing results in the conviction that ‘everything that existed was linked in some fraternal manner, as part of a single thought, to everything else . . . He would see that birth and death were only two tremendous moments in an eternal waking’. This pantheism reaches an exultant peak towards the end of the book, as Valuska consoles himself with

the illusion that . . . the force that drove the cosmos was, ultimately, joy: joy that “from the dawn of time had saturated every planet, every star”, and that they should regard him as one who had assumed that all this was good and that, furthermore, it had some secret core, a central point, not precisely a meaning but some kind of substance or mass, lighter, more delicate than a single breath, whose unforgettable radiance could not reasonably be denied and could be ignored only by those who failed to look.

By those who failed to look. This celebratory tone, at odds with Krasznahorkai’s customary pessimism, reappears at the book’s conclusion in which, after Mrs Plauf’s brutal execution, her body is described (over several pages) decomposing in medically explicit detail, suggesting the hopeful notion that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. ‘Nothing remained and yet not one atom had been lost’. As with Helle’s burning chair, Krasznahorkai’s message seems to be that human beings will persist in their nature, until transformed into something else. Total oblivion is not a quality of the cosmos. The true melancholy of resistance, as seen with Helle’s striving narrator, is mankind’s persistent refusal to give up hope, or the stubborn determination Beckett saw as key to the human condition: You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Both authors catch the authentic note of sadness; of endurance in the face of impossible odds, or as Krasznahorkai puts it in more baroque language:

. . . the continuous and hopeless expenditure of energy in the attempt to suggest that there might be some point to all this rather than be faced by the unyielding, indifferent, universal incomprehensibility of things; intolerable too the inexplicable ground-rules of human conduct. No amount of screaming would have helped us find a chink in the enormous armour of silence that slowly descended on us, so we proceeded without a word, hearing only the scrape and rumble of our own progress over the crisp and brilliant sharp frost, unstoppable and tense to the point of snapping, down those dark airless streets, seeing no one else, never stopping to look at each other, or if we did, only to note a hand or a foot, for we were a single body with one single pair of eyes . . .

Here, the merging of the viewpoint into a singularity recalls Helle and the five friends becoming a ‘single will distributed among several bodies’. The above lengthy quotations also illustrate Krasznahorkai’s most discussed stylistic quality: his endless, serpentine sentences, crammed with clause after sub-clause, encompassing many moods, even whole stories. The novel’s translator, the renowned Hungarian poet George Szirtes, described the author’s writing as ‘a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast river of type’. The experience of reading Krasznahorkai’s rolling, pelagic sentences (all set down without the interruption of paragraph breaks) is both daunting and exhilarating – taking the reader further up the shore of understanding with every swelling construction, but never quite depositing them on the beach of clarity. There is inevitably something tantalisingly opaque and ineffable about what has actually been said. The Melancholy of Resistance is a demanding, complex, mesmerising read – quite unlike anything else in the European canon. Yet amid the linguistic grandstanding and Swiftian disgust, Krasznahorkai displays a tender pathos and affection for his human actors. While he’s satirical and playful with the hapless Mrs Plauf, there’s also an attention to her human frailty as she comfort eats a jar of ‘boiled cherries in rum’ in front of the TV (an image stunningly returned to three hundred pages later, after the conflagrations and philosophical fireworks are finally spent). Emblematic of the struggling everyman in Krasznahorkai’s fiction, Mrs Plauf is finally a ‘simple woman . . . who dared to resist those whom none of us opposed.’