To avert one’s eyes would be nothing short of cowardice

melancholy of resistance book coverThe Melancholy of Resistance
by László Krasznahorkai
translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes

Here we are, my first book for the EU Reading Challenge. I started with Hungary, a country about which I know shockingly little. That is despite Hungarian folk music having played a key role in my childhood.

For several years I performed competitive gymnastics, and for most of that time the music for my floor routine was a piece I knew only as “Czárdás”. This is the name for a particular style of music and dance from Hungary. It’s usually a short piece including both slow and very fast passages – i.e. perfect for gymnastics. Here’s a rather impressive one on YouTube. Sadly the cassette with my 90-second snippet has been lost to the mists of time, but for a few key years in my youth, I heard that tune a LOT. You’d think an intellectually curious young woman like me would have investigated where that music came from, but maybe I was too young to understand that music can have a much bigger role in culture and history than the few minutes it takes to listen to it.

In this novel, Krasznahorkai tells the tale of a small Hungarian town where a foreign circus has arrived, along with a ragtag crowd of followers. The newcomers, and the circus’s advertised claim to have a stuffed blue whale in its enormous truck, add a nervous sense of distrust to a town already on edge. But is the danger anything to do with the circus at all?

“No-one could really believe that thirty years after the Flowering of the Nation, with its high-sounding plans, there should still remain so large a rabble of frightening, villainous-looking, good-for-nothing, possibly threatening characters thirsting after the crudest and most vulgar of miracles…But there was something else: the silence, that stifled, unbroken, ill-omened silence in which not a single voice rang out, and hundreds of people waited, growing impatient, yet obstinately stoical and utterly silent…as though it was of no concern to anyone why everyone else happened to be there, or conversely, as if they were all part of an enormous chain gang in which the ties that bound them negated all possibility of escape thereby rendering pointless any communication or conversation between them.”

The story opens with Mrs Plauf, travelling home from a long trip. The train is moving slowly and she is fearful of the other passengers robbing or attacking her. When the train finally arrives late at night in her home town, she finds that the street lights aren’t on and rubbish is piled high in the streets. A neighbour, Mrs Ezster, informs her that this state of affairs has been worsening for a while. And then, the opening 34-page paragraph finally ends and the narrative switches from Mrs Plauf’s perspective to Mrs Ezster’s.

Using this method of switching between specific perspectives (but always in third person), Krasznahorkai builds up tension and detail of what is happening. Mrs Plauf’s fear becomes Mrs Ezster’s hope becomes Valuska’s confusion becomes Mr Ezster’s over-intellectualising. The overall narrative about the circus and potential mob does reach a conclusion, but not before we learn a lot about life up until now. There’s Mr and Mrs Ezster’s separation, six or seven years ago, and the way he has become a recluse while she has become a public figure. And there’s the enigma that is Valuska.

Valuska is widely joked about as being an idiot, a halfwit, yet we are introduced to him as he uses human volunteers to demonstrate a solar eclipse to a pub full of entranced drunks. He is eloquent on the subject of astronomy, but aside from that lapses into a quiet that could be shyness, or could be lack of interest in the world at his feet. His mother calls him “good for nothing” but he works multiple jobs and volunteers besides. Where does the truth lie?

Valuska, like the town itself, is full of contradiction – light and dark, kind and indifferent – and above all open to suggestion. Which is when a town square packed full of loitering crowd and a circus drumming up excitement and rumours are dangerous things.

Krasznahorkai’s writing is beautiful and unsettling (the translator, George Szirtes, is a poet, which must be the source of some of the writing’s beauty). The lack of chapters and 30–40-page paragraphs, not to mention long, winding sentences, can make it hard work (I certainly took a few days to get going) but on reflection they add to the necessary sense of unease, the feeling that something awful is going to happen and you want to look away but can’t. I was grateful to have some big chunks of time over the bank holiday weekend to dedicate to this book.

“In order to dissolve, to sink and emerge no more, there was one last thing he had to do: he had to draw the ultimate conclusion which was to decide that having arrived at the further shore in the land of blessed calm, he should ‘regard as a victory that which in actual fact was bitter defeat’. He had to retreat to a point of inner security if only because the world outside had become a place of agonizing decay; he had to ignore the itch, the desire to intervene, for the purpose and significance of action were being corroded away by its thoroughgoing lack of significance; he had to distance himself because the only valid response of a sound mind was to protest against it, or indeed to withdraw…while at the same time continuing to pay attention…to look long and hard at it, for to avert one’s eyes would be nothing short of cowardice.”

I am certain that the book must be commenting on the state of Hungary at or shortly before the time of writing. It was first published in 1989, which is the year that Communist rule ended there. But I don’t know enough about the author or the country to be sure. Characters speak of revolution and rebellion, but is it the coming of Communism or the end of it that they refer to?

Back in 2015, Krasznahorkai won the International Man Booker Prize, and shortly after, his English publisher Profile Books sent me three of his works as a celebratory promotion. I’m ashamed to say that they have sat ever since on my shelf of unrequested review copies. Thank goodness for my bright idea of the EU Reading Challenge for making me dig this out. And it means I have two more to look forward to!

Az ellenállás melankoliaja published 1989.
This edition published 2016 by Profile Books.

Source: Profile Books.