reviewed by Paul McRandle

IT’S NOT ENTIRELY BAFFLING why Laszlo Krasznahorkai has gone ignored in English-speaking countries. He writes very long sentences, without indenting for paragraphs, in Hungarian. Of his five novels, three are in print in Germany (his The General Theseuswon Best Book of the Year award there), but in English there’s only The Melancholy of Resistance. Unless you stumble across the book by chance, you’re slightly more likely to have seen the movies Satan Tango and Damnation which Bela Tarr made from his novels. Yet The Melancholy of Resistance is so completely imagined, so mysteriously compelling and humorous, it recalls Doestoyevsky and Kafka. And he’s no imitator; Krasznahorkai’s genius for making the metaphysical material and the material metaphysical is entirely his own.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai 


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The story of The Melancholy of Resistance is straightforward: a great truck hauls a stuffed whale into a decrepit town, mayhem follows. But Krasznahorkai is fascinated with the resistance a sentence can offer to the passage of time; he details events such as the pounding of a nail with insane precision. In the two days which occupy much of the book, the author watches rats devour bread, ponders garbage, deconstructs the well-tempered scale, and portrays a bar game where drunks play the sun, earth, and moon in eclipse, all while somehow never losing his concern with what will happen to these hapless people. Events are mostly caught up with a would-be village idiot, Valuska, and the embittered musicologist in retirement, Eszter, who care for each other more deeply than anyone else in the village is capable of. By temperament opposites, both crumble as the city is overwhelmed. The whale and the circus crowd, however, remain ungraspable, the carcass no attraction, and the audience driven on by their loyalty to a mysterious figure, the Prince, who might be the devil were it not that others are much more fiendish.
But it is the tension between the magical and the mediocre which lies at the heart of this book and is well displayed in a description of sleep:

The washbasin no longer existed, neither did the untouched glass of bicarbonate; the wardrobe, the clothes-rack and the stained towel thrown into a corner all disappeared; floor, walls and ceiling had no more meaning for her; she herself was nothing but an object among objects, one of millions of defenceless sleepers, a body, like others, returning each night to those melancholy gates of being which may be entered but once and then with no prospect of return. She scratched her neck–but she was no longer aware of doing so; for a moment her face contorted into a grimace–but it was no longer aimed at anyone in particular; like a child crying itself to sleep she gave a brief sob–but it no longer carried meaning because it was only her breath seeking a regular pattern; her muscles relaxed, and her jaws–like those of the dying–slowly fell open . . .

There is something relentless about The Melancholy of Resistance, both in its neverending paragraphs and in its slow yet inevitable progress towards tragedy. Would that the release of his other works in English might proceed just as inexorably.

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