Book Review: László Krasznahorkai’s “The World Goes On” — Migrations of the Spirit

It is proof of the translators’ skill that Krasznahorkai’s sentences work as well as they do.

The World Goes On, László Krasznahorkai. Translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes. New Directions, 311 pages, $27.95.

By Ellen Elias-Bursać

I was packing for a long stay in Europe as I began to read The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai. I’d set out my suitcases and was on my way to take boots to be re-soled at a shoe repair place in Central Square when I read, on the first page of the first story: “…two suitcases will be precisely enough, stuff everything into two suitcases, then click the lock shut so I can dash to the shoemakers and re-soling, and re-soling, and re-soling again, boots are needed, a good pair of boots, and in any event one good pair of boots and two suitcases are enough…” “Wandering-Standing,” with its incantational repetitions, haunted the preparations for my trip.

I continued reading The World Goes On once I arrived in Croatia while riding Zagreb trams and buses. The stories, translated fluidly by John Batki with additional translations by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes, eddy with movement. Roads, highways, paths, and rivers figure large in this collection, as do driving and riding in cars, riding on buses and trains, and even travel by space capsule. And the persistent sense of motion is heightened by the pages-long rolling sentences.

In the story “Nine Dragon Crossing” a simultaneous interpreter from Hungary on assignment in Shanghai finds himself, drunk, wandering through a massive, tangled clover-leaf intersection. The sentence structure follows his inebriation and gradual sobering so convincingly that the reader is verging on a hangover by the story’s end. One of my favorite moments: “… and since he was a simultaneous interpreter with a specialty in traffic and transport systems he had a good hunch by now about where he found himself except that he refused to believe it, for after all there was no way he could be here, he shook his head metaphorically, for of course he could not actually do so on account of the pain…” It is proof of the translators’ skill that Krasznahorkai’s sentences work as well as they do. They aren’t just plausible grammatically — they propel the narrative and give the prose its sense.

The narrative eddy is enhanced in “One Time on 381.” We follow the protagonist after he abandons his wheelbarrow at a marble quarry in Portugal and sets off to walk down highway 381, where he is greeted by a soundscape in which the drone of traffic and din of construction equipment provide the backdrop for the protagonist’s sound dream of silence and forest: “ …he had always known about the forest, sometimes when he woke in the middle of the night he would hear the forest in the distance, just as he did now, more and more distinctly, although the birds remained silent the forest still had its own kind of silence that one could hear, a sustained mute sound from the direction of the south, of course not really a sound, nothing but an undercurrent, tidings, a sigh that never ends, coming from the south…” Reviewers (such as Idra Novey in “’The World Goes On’—and So Do the Sentences,” NY Times, January 12, 2018) often focus on the long sentences. I enjoy them, but I find that sounds, smells, and colors permeate Krasznahorkai’s prose. For instance, the sudden insertion of the sound of water splashing in “That Gagarin,” while the protagonist is searching for research material at a library, makes the words jump off the page: “…everything is so sharp and clear, like a splashing mountain brook in the dark…”

In “A Drop of Water,” the protagonist describes finding himself in Varanasi, a city on the banks of the Ganges. The story takes us through the narrator’s horror: “…for him the Ganges is not sacred, he does not know what it is, nor does he want to know, the Ganges is a river carrying dead dogs and dead humans, moldy shreds of linen and Coca Cola cans, lemon yellow flower petals and planks from a flat-bottomed boat, anything, everything, and forever…” It ends with his determination to find a way to leave: “Using the utmost caution first he looked, then he slipped out of the door, tiptoed downstairs, sneaked past the reception desk of the empty hotel, stepped out into the street and turned at the first corner, then turned at the very next again—making sure that it was not four times, and not always to the left, or to the right, this is what screamed like a siren in his head, this thought, not four times, not in the same direction, because then there is no escape, I will be back where I started.” The thwarting of movement reflects the story’s pain.

In the context of travel and movement, one of the last stories in the collection, “That Gagarin,” is, aptly, about a protagonist who is obsessed with space flight. Ultimately, the mental patient’s yearning to fly out of the mental asylum where he lives does not take him aloft: “…as I don’t want to spend even one more day here, and since I already know that it won’t work from ‘my usual window’—that is, for me to open the window, step outside, push myself off, and there you have it, up I go—instead, after I’ve finished with everything (…), then I’ll open up the window here on the sixth floor, step outside, push myself off, because whatever doesn’t go up with all certainty goes down.”

The World Goes On is not a volume of travel writing. The stories are dark and pensive and internal. But the protagonists seldom stand still and the fluidity of the prose, the cascading sentences, the many locations in Kiev, Shanghai, Varanasi, and Hungary create a constantly shifting backdrop for the collection’s visions of the migrations of the spirit.

Ellen Elias-Bursać has been translating novels, stories, and nonfiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers for the last twenty years. She has translated three books of David Albahari’s writing: Words Are Something Else, 1996, awarded the AATSEEL Award in 1998, for best translation from a Slavic or East European language; Gotz and Meyer, 2004 (Britain) and 2005 (US), awarded the National Translation Award by the American Literary Translation Association in 2006; and Snow Man (Canada) in 2005. She has also translated writing by Antun Šoljan, Dubravka Ugrešić, and Slobodan Selenić. She has co-authored a textbook for the study of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian with Ronelle Alexander, and has written a study on poet Tin Ujević and his work as a literary translator.

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