Book Review: “Animalinside” — Exploring the Cosmic Intersection Between Painting and Prose

There is an almost Biblical resonance of utter destruction and an improbable, fervid humor in the prose of ANIMALINSIDE as the beast speaks directly to us, its voice moving between trapped panic, cunning hunger, and a vicious savagery.

Animalinside by László Krasznahorkai. Translated by Ottilie Mulzet. New Directions and Center for Writers & Translators, American University of Paris, 40 pages, $20.

By Ellen Elias-Bursac

László Krasznahorkai, a Berlin-based, Hungarian writer and Brücke Berlin prize laureate, is fast becoming a favorite of the community of readers and reviewers who follow intriguing Central European writers in the United States. His book, Animalinside, with a preface by Colm Tóibín, is a stunning work of book art and is well worth reading, both for Max Neumann’s 14 compelling paintings, beautifully reproduced, and for Krasznahorkai’s strange, compelling prose pieces written as a response to each of these paintings.

The project began when Krasznahorkai wrote a prose piece inspired by one of Neumann’s painting of the silhouette of a dog/beast. Then Neumann, motivated by Krasznahorkai’s prose, painted 13 more paintings, each of them centered on one or more dog/beast silhouettes, and then Krasznahorkai, inspired by these, penned 13 more short prose pieces, each one responding to one of Neumann’s paintings. The resulting book of Neumann’s 14 images and Krasznahorkai’s prose pieces is 48 pages in length. If this stunning brief book is your first contact with Krasznahorkai’s writing, it may well not be your last.

Krasznahorkai has already published two novels, The Melancholy of Resistance (2000) and War & War (2006), with New Directions in English translations by George Szirtes. Animalinside was translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Krasznahorkai’s writing was recently given an extensive review by James Wood in The New Yorker, a piece of his was included in Aleksander Hemon’s Best European Fiction 2011, and Animalinside has been reviewed on a number of blogs, such as Bookslut, The Mookse and the Gripes, Goodreads, Waggish.

There is an almost Biblical resonance of utter destruction and an improbable, fervid humor in the prose as the beast speaks directly to us, its voice moving between trapped panic, cunning hunger, and a vicious savagery. Here are a few examples of the texture of this writing:

Image I is of a dog/beast-silhouette, a cutout dog-shape of a creature looking as if its head is thrust out of an open car window, set before a door frame, enclosed in a rectangle suggesting a room, a window frame, interiority. The prose piece accompanying this first image, the piece that set the whole series of paintings and prose in motion, is narrated by a third-person voice giving us the creature’s perspective: “He wants to break free, attempts to stretch open the walls, but he has been tautened there by them, and there he remains in this tautening, in this constraint, and there is nothing else to do but howl, and now and forever he shall be nothing but his own tautening and his own howling. . .”

Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai — ANIMALINSIDE contains an elemental voice and cataclysmic energy. Photo: EPA/TONI GARRIGA

Image III is of a different silhouette, also a cutout-like image of a dog or beast, this time only with hind legs, poised in a forward leap. The silhouette in III is astride stilts looming over human figures, also in silhouette, on a streetscape defined by lamp shapes and the suggestion of a horizon, and is followed by a text narrated by the beast, now in first-person, or is it first-beast, announcing: “So big am I that I extend from the top of one tree to another, I extend from one church spire to another, I extend from one village to another, and if I want I extend from one continent to another, and if I want I extend all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, and if I want I extend all the way across the Pacific Ocean, I extend from the Amazon to the islands of Japan . . .”

Following image X of three tipped-back, dog silhouettes at a rocking-chair angle, appearing to howl at red dots hovering above them, the attendant piece, starting “I’m looking at the stars now, and my two twin brothers are looking at the stars, we look at the stars in the sky, and all three of us howl at the stars we don’t know why but it is good to howl, and it was always like this, when we sat out in the open before being taken inside, it was good during the clear weather . . .” conjures the joy and savagery of howling and the subtle ever-presence of the master.

The servile/savage strains of the narrative voice in the prose piece following image XII cajole and threaten this master: “. . . my little master, give me my little food-dish here, give me my dinner here, and I ask you kindly, my dinner, and every dinner-time of every day and every week and every month and every year, until the point when I’m all grown up and then your little food-dish won’t be needed any more, because then I will rip away your ears, because then I will tear off your nose, because then I will burn out your eyes . . .”

Translator Ottilie Mulzet — she needed to create animal English.

Each of the 14 pieces is, in Ottilie Mulzet’s words, built of sentence-blocks, some of them the length of the entire piece. The flow and cadence of these sentences are testimony to Mulzet’s excellence as a translator. In his interview with her, Scott Esposito quotes Krasznahorkai as exhorting her to “. . . repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS.” She responds, saying the “repetitions are so integral to the text, to its absurdity and irony: they are almost something like apocalyptic mantras.” She speaks of the challenges of translating from Hungarian into English and says that her goal, in translating Animalinside, was to create, perhaps, as one of the many “minor Englishes,” a new “animal English.” The most difficult thing to convey on the translation, she says, was the voice, which she describes as “grave, terrifying, unrelenting, yet at the same time comic in its absurdity.”

Other reviewers have noted affinities with the writing of W. G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño, Jose Saramago, and David Foster Wallace. I would add Miroslav Krleža and David Albahari, both of whom have explored the interface between painting and prose, and both have explored the possibilities of the sentence and the paragraph with some of the same relish and invention. Krasznahorkai brings a manic, cosmic dimension to this tradition, with his elemental voice and cataclysmic energy.

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