It might not be time to write a requiem for postmodern literature just yet, but it probably isn’t too early to wish it well as it heads off to South Florida to spend its golden years playing shuffleboard and complaining about the rising cost of grapefruit. Both a reaction to as well as a derivative of modernism, which saw writers trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world between the World Wars, postmodernism has advanced, as it were, to the point where one-time wunderkinds like Paul Auster have settled on simply writing memoirs about the hell that is old age. There is still some life left in the minor late-period works of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, authors indelibly tied to the nebulous term, but Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai is truly the last of the great postmodern writers that grew up in the shadow of World War II. His latest novel, Seiobo There Below—his seventh available in English and available now in a new translation—is a send up of postmodernism’s systemic critique of progress and also something altogether blissful. Coming from a man famously labeled “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse” (his books carry this phrase on their covers like a badge), this is no small departure.
For the unfamiliar: Mr. Krasznahorkai is the type of author whose prose will leave you breathless, reading line after line, comma after comma. He obviously has some personal vendetta against the period—you can read several pages without seeing one—but the chaotic pace of his writing makes a book like Seiobo There Below difficult to put down, even as it forces you to continuously retrace your steps.
Where his other books can feel dirty, at times suffocating and mired in one place, this latest work is dizzying and globetrotting. It begins with the Japanese deity Seiobo returning to Earth, which she has monitored for generations from afar, to search for perfection: “I put down my crown,” she says. “And in earthly form but not concealing my face, I descend among them.” Seiobo hovers above, searching out beauty, simultaneously omniscient and a participant in the story she’s telling. The reader is treated to wondrous descriptions of grand achievements and small events alike that unfurl and unwind slowly, word by word.
Here is Mr. Krasznahorkai’s account of one character Seiobo observes, a tourist, aimlessly making his way through Venice, stumbling by chance through a doorway: “not a single living soul, only a kind of ornamental staircase decorated with morbid ivy-tendrils that somehow curled, morbidly, upward in the slightly darkened entrance hall.” A page later, as the tourist walks up the steps, he sees a painting of Jesus Christ “looking at him, sitting on a kind of throne in the middle of a triptych.” As he more closely inspects the painting, he notes: “It was, moreover, beautiful—that was the only word for it, beautiful.” He goes on staring at the image for a few pages, to the point where Mr. Krasznahorkai’s long, obsessive sentences become indistinguishable from that which they describe, seeming to enact exactly what the character is doing: staring, staring and staring at a work of art, trying to understand what makes it so beautiful—the perfect summation of this book.
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