“You Have Gambled Away Your Luck Upon the Earth”

08/10/2011 4:00 AM |


By Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann; Trans. Ottilie Mulzet

New Directions

A white hound-like creature with no front limbs is poised to leap from a black background. Devoid of detail or definition, the white body appears frozen, locked in an unbreakable stasis. Its destination is unknown. Laszlo Krasznahorkai wants it this way.

Animalinside, the Hungarian novelist Laszlo’s Krasznahorkai’s newest work, is unlike any other book you’ll hold in your hands. New Directions’ edition is 39 pages long and it would be wrong to classify the work as a short story, novelette, or even pamphlet. Krasznahorkai, who critics have regarded as a spiritual heir to Samuel Beckett, isn’t interested in you trying to classify it, either. After Krasznahorkai penned a letter to the German painter Max Neumann praising a painting of his, Neumann was inspired to create many more pieces like the first— a canine creature lacking front limbs. In turn, Krasznahorkai wrote prose sketches derived from the haunting, enigmatic images, producing fourteen brief chapters that mirror fourteen of Neumann’s images. This is Animalinside.

“I’m straining more and more, and always forwards, and always in an outward direction, and at one point I will break out, and that will put an end to all nice thoughts…because my coming is violent,”the ever-shifting narrator tells us. Who or what is he, or it? Animalinside offers few hints: when the book opens, the narration is in the third person, describing a being trapped in a metaphysical prison, able only to howl with pain because it has been denied a past, a future, and even a relation to space, physical or mental. But this creature soon speaks directly to us, in a brute and penetrating voice. This narrator may be human, animal, or an abstruse presence that language alone cannot capture—perhaps the fate awaiting us all.

Krasznahorkai’s prose, lucidly translated by Ottilie Mulzet, conceals brilliantly any fixed interpretations of a visceral narrator who promises that “one day I shall come, and I shall lacerate your faces, because I am ruin”in cascading, page-long sentences of stark and elegant brutality. In chapter VII, the narrator equates itself to a force inside us all, one that threatens to rupture the manufactured gentility human beings strain to assume. This is pared with a painting spanning two pages: a silhouette of a human looms on the left, tilting toward the recurring black canine, this time ascending over a reddened blotch. Krasznahorkai, who spent his formative years in Communist Hungary, is no idealist. Much like his European contemporary Jose Saramago (who himself supported Communism), he unearths the raw, atavistic instincts that pulse just below modern man, waiting for a trigger to unleash potential carnage. The Holocaust, after all, was engineered by arguably the most technologically and culturally advanced civilization on Earth.

Equally jarring are Neumann’s two-dimensional paintings. In each painting, that legless dog figure appears on a bleak background dripping with the apocalyptic ambience of the prose. In chapter VIII, four of the creatures, painted black, are in the midst of a leap against a watery red background that suggests either a sky alight with a setting sun or smeared blood. Their frozen leaps are accompanying a narrator that can, through Krasznahorkai’s artistry, undergo a shift from incomprehensible monster to existential victim. The narrator, dreaming “for this arc, I love the air, and I really love this arc in the air, this arc is invisible, this arc is described by me, I am inscribing it into the air”admits to horrible loneliness, taking fleeting satisfaction in the leap before descending back to the earth to rip apart anything in its path.

The narrator quantifies itself through what it is not (“I don’t fit into your brains, I don’t fit into your souls, I don’t fit into the moist membranes of your eyes”) and disavows all that is infinite, telling us “the infinite is a deception in space, the infinite is a deception in measuring, and every aspiration to the infinite is a trap,”thus seemingly rejecting God. Since infinity is no more than a deception, the narrator wishes for an end to its nebulous longing and perpetual search. It wants to rest, but it cannot. Even death would not be a reprieve.

What, exactly, does it long for? Krasznahorkai does not say. For all the bluntness of its sensibility, Animalinside still feels impressionistic and amorphous, like its narrator. When the narrator and another creature preside over a world where “we devoured everything, we killed everything, we destroyed everything”and only the bare earth remains, the question of why will inevitably be asked. Why emptiness? Why destruction? Entropy torments every generation. Animalinside is yet another text to give entropy its eternal due.