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SH A RM IS TH A M OH A N TY

An Island of Doubt
A conversation with Lszl Krasznahorkai

The Hungarian writer Lszl Krasznahorkai is one of the contemporary masters of the
novel. His works translated into English include Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance,
War and War and Animalinside, a text paired with images by the German artist Max
Neumann. All the above translations are by British poet George Szirtes except for
Animalinside, which is by Ottilie Mulzet .
This extended conversation took place in Budapest, June 2011, over two days, in a hotel on
the banks of the Danube. Lszl Krasznahorkai lives some distance from the city. He came
on the first day in the afternoon, with his wife Dorka, a translator. Krasznahorkais
English is good and articulate in the way of great writers often speaking a foreign
language, even hesitantly. He may be grammatically wrong or syntactically awkward, but
he is always able to articulate his thoughts with originality and feeling. Dorka helped him
with specific words or phrases.
I was there with my husband, video artist and filmmaker Kabir Mohanty. we began on a
sunny afternoon. Krasznahorkai was facing the inside, and I the outside, so that while
listening to him talk, I was also looking at the sky and the Danube as the light slowly
waned and fell.
SM: Are you from Budapest?
LK: No, Im not. Actually I know Berlin much better. I was thirty when I could travel to the
West, to Berlin. It was the capital for people with wounds. Jim Jarmusch was there and
David Bowie, Ginsberg, Tom Waits. Ive spent a lot of time there.
I grew up in a small town on the border of Hungary and Rumania Gyula. Satantango and
Melancholy of Resistance were to some extent inspired by this town.
SM: Its been very interesting to hear the Hungarian on the streets here. So different from
any of the Indo-European languages
LK: The Hungarian language in the last 200 years has developed so much one of the finest
languages, compared to other languages of Europe. I often work very closely with my
translators. Not George (George Szirtes) of course. George said No help. Ill take on
everything, but no help, please. (Laughs). When I am working with translators I see how
many possibilities exist in Hungarian. If in French or Spanish there are two possibilities for
something, in Hungarian there are ten. The old Greek poetry, the hexameter, is perfect in
Hungarian. The pentameter also. But the Hungarian language is a lonely language. The
translations into it are many and rich, because we need it. Latin was used widely till the

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twentieth century, then German, and now it is English. Here, the best writers and poets
translate, not scholars.
Shakespeare for example, such complex work, comes very well into Hungarian.
Recently some of us did a production of Hamlet in a Budapest prison. The prison authorities
told us that these were the best prisoners. Almost everyone there was a killer. Really, we said.
But they were not necessarily criminals. Maybe a husband on a very bad Saturday night.
(Laughs). They had mainly committed crimes of romance. So in the prison, a word like
guilt brought very strong reactions. They didnt react the same way to other words, which
for them must have not been as charged. Shakespeare was for all, the aristocrat and the
prostitute, such complex workTen years ago a very good poet translated Hamlet again.
KM: Georges translations of your work, they have so much energy, presentness, one is
immersed only in the present. It spins out, and then gone, you cant bring it back.
SM: In Delhi, at the Almost Island conference this year, he was telling us at dinner about
translating your work. He said, You know, you get almost to the end and youre really
happy, and suddenly theres a new sentence which goes on for twenty pages...
LK: Ah yesGeorge has suffered, really suffered. He said, Laszlo, I love you, but when I hold
this book (Satantango) in my hands, I tremble. What can I do?
But his English Krasznahorkai is excellent. Sometimes I dont understand it myself, and that
is a very good thing.
You know Browning said, In my youth my work was understood only by two people, God
and me, today only by God. (Laughter)
SM: One of the things Im most deeply affected by as a prose writer myself is how you use the
long sentence. They are not sentences from a contemporary time, neither are they old. It
seems to be the way you approach the world, a philosophical act, not just a literary one.
LK: First of all, you said, the long sentence. To me they are not long. For me its not short
or long sentences, only too short or too long sentences. From my twenties I work in my head,
not as a writer at a desk, no, but as if someone were speaking inside, and this is
unfortunately not a metaphor. I try to make a contact with this speech in my head. If I am
ready to understand and to follow this speech, music, content, after 15-20 pages, then I start
writing it down. One of the reasons my sentences are very long is that I became always closer
and closer to speech. If you are telling me something meaningful, suggestive, you dont use
the dot, you dont need it. The full stop, the comma, these are conventions. Long and short
are conventions.
Think of Kurtags musicMusical notation, borders. Melody has never remained within
these borders. The dot is the same. It is important for me the dot, but so much that I wait for
a point where it is crucial, absolutely necessary.
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My characters never use dots. Gaaddis and Pynchon have also often worked without
punctuation. I dont want to say conventional sentences dont work, they dont work for me.
Faulkner is a conservative writer, what he uses is necessary for him, the short sentence. In
Kafka every sentence is an enigma, and therefore they are long, because I have to stay and
think a long time about them.
Yesterday I was reading a wonderful book the title later and there was a line, What can
be whole only within itself? This is not a short, but a long sentence. (He is quoting a line
from the prologue of SMs novel, New Life.)
As you said, it is a philosophical question, much more than a method or a craft. You are a
writer, you know that language is not just language, but language comes together with
everything else.
Since the Second World War, Western literature, inspired by and including the Americans, is
the literature of reality, of daily life. This is a mistake. And those who imitate this in France
or Germany, do it without the source, they dont know what theyre imitating.
Hungarian literature is only 200 years old. In the late 18th century there was a very big
movement political, spiritual, intellectual. A national ideology was born all over Europe. A
new, modern language was needed, definitely in Hungary, a more plausible language. Before,
the aristocracy used a special version of Latin. But at this time poets and writers came
together to make a new language from the old. This is what I use now, a very young language,
so I have the chance to change it. In Western Europe the reader is more conservative, coming
from much older traditions, but not here. Readers can bear experimentation, a new
constellation of words, we are more flexible.
SM: One very striking thing about your novels. There is always one person the doctor in
Satantango, the music teacher in Melancholy of Resistance, the archivist in War and War
who is educated, who is the intellectual. The rest are underprivileged, often leading the most
devastated lives. Yet you seem to be so equally present as a writer in both. There is so
much truth in both.
LK: They taught me everything I can see now. But only together. The thinkers, and the
devastated people. The heroes in these novels are not the same as me. They all have some of
my ideas and thoughts. The points of view of these thinkers/intellectuals are similar you
are right as is their position in the community. But they have a problem with their
community or society, or even their life. Their deeper problem is with the universe, with the
position of the human being. They are intellectuals only from the point of view of society. In
reality they are people alone in the universe. But they have much more ability than others to
articulate their situation.
But what is the point of their relationship with the universe? Today I see my heroes with
greater understanding than when I created them, and with much more sympathy. I thought
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the doctor in Satantango is the only person in the universe who can articulate the human
problem. In the music teacher, in The Melancholy of Resistance, there is an irony. His real
story is not his judgment of the world, his problem is he is blind to the beauty of young
Valuska, blind till the end, when it is too late. This is his real tragedy.
Perhaps this is the problem of the intellectual or even the artist. We feel we have to show the
world something but really we have another task. To sit quietly by a river and hear its
sound, look at its surface, to see the light move on the water. This is more important than the
great and little judgments of the world, or great political judgments. Especially, to
understand my wife, my friend, the people closest to me, to be in a position where you give
only from yourself, something which is yours and nothing else. The judgment of the world
happens when you are young, but at my age the only task would be to ask, in sympathy.
Sympathy is the only correct reaction at my age. Experience over the human ages has never
changed. Youth, old age, death, nothing has changed over the centuries. These things are
absolutely the same.
And besides this, one other thing. To be curious. I am very curious. I am right now extremely
excited, because over the last weeks I began studying the structure of a drop of water. I began
to read physics, mathematics, geometrySuddenly it became clear to me that this
structure of a drop of water is one of the most difficult problems for modern physics. I found
a genuine scientist and asked him about this. He said, Oh, Laszlo, this is the most
problematic question. I wanted to write about my journey to Varanasi. Because I have never
been there. And I wrote something. The main theme is a drop of water from the Ganga. After
that I was more interested in what the drop looks like. For a month Ive been only with this
question, because no one knows the answer. Ive been learning physics, quantum physics,
geometry.
One week ago I met with my physicist friend again. Leave me alone, he said. He did tell me
though that as scientists understand it now, the whole universe is very anthropomorphic. In
the last five years it is clear that in nature there are many relations between different
elements. That is, the universe is a closed whole, but there are nonclosure relationships
between things within it, even between the elements in an atom. Two quarks for example.
If I hear this I have to think of the Buddha. I try to understand what he could have said in his
Magadhi language. I am unsure. Suffering, this is the main word for me. I find many
connections between the Buddhas thought and modern physics. Perhaps he didnt mean
suffering from something in the common human sense, but suffering something. If I touch
this glass of water it suffers my moving it, the atoms in the water form a new constellation.
Im simplifying it, also because Im speaking in English
SM: Are you saying that the Buddha was talking of a relation between things?
LK: Yes. I am really trying to understand this. One cant trust the student to convey exactly
what the teacher said. We have to admire the culture of writing, but there comes with it also
a misunderstanding. That is also a reality.
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We must never forget that writing is not the fact behind reality. How water flows is
beautiful and interesting but this is not the same as the fact of the movement.
European culture is a culture of misunderstanding. We have had many great philosophers,
writers, poets, with very subtle ideas. But the whole history of our culture is a history of
misunderstanding. There are thousands of examples. Maybe this is true all over the world.
We are rich in false history.
The line from Heraclitus, You cannot step into the same river twice. How many
misunderstandings! It is a sentence from a constellation, a complex context. Europe is full of
this. It is like a dangerous dark room. You have to move but everywhere there are dangerous
obstacles, and no light.
Buddha says there is nothing we have to understand. In that sense the fundamental things
have not changed. I am not here to say something about death, but about the fear of death.
But the machinery of misunderstanding begins immediately to work. (Laughs).
SM: This is a tendency in the highly educated. There is a well-known Western scholar who
talks about the Upanasadic philosophy, and the idea of moksha. He says Indians came to this
thought of freedom from the world, the cycle of life and death, because life was very difficult
in a tropical climate, there was disease and heat and death!
LK: (Laughs). You dont know. Because there is nothing to know to understand. This is not
my jobthe universe is an enigma. Lao Tse says do what a stone does, or a river, or a flower.
Every great thinker has told us that nothing exists, no fact. If you think about a car accident
you will have a hard time explaining how everything came together to make it happen. If we
cant explain an event of daily life, how can we think about the large questions of the
universe? Perhaps better to begin with daily life to begin with Dorkas eyes. They are
enigmatic or your eyes.
In Zen we dont have to understand, enough to say a thing exists. But that is not enough. Its
a little cynical. What Buddha says is much more helpful. Zen says, when you suffer from
injustice, poverty, fear of death, they say be calm, take a posture, forget everything, what
does that mean?
In our writing for example there is a responsibility. There is a very thin line we ride. In the
prison for example, they stayed and I left. In most things in life we are powerless with our
art, culture and science. In the last ten years, I write as beautifully as I can, every sentence.
But this is not enough. Not that I have to do something different. You have not the power to
change things, not even the smallest. I write a good book, you write a good book, Homer
wrote, and everything is constant, the same. So Im a little bit uneasy, restless, uncalm.
Weve talked a lot.
SM: We have

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LK: Shall we go for dinner? How big hungry are you?


The second day of our conversation. We meet in the morning, and this time we sit in the
courtyard cafe of the hotel, under the trees. It is sunny at first, but very soon it begins to
rain. We sit under a large umbrella and continue our conversation. Dorka is busy and has
not accompanied him. So he has brought a HungarianEnglish dictionary along.
SM: In all your works you talk about something apocalyptic a coming cataclysm but I
receive belief from your books, not religious belief, but belief all the same.
LK: It is not so easy to speak about this.
You know Thomas Bernhard said, If an airplane crashes, every minute there are less and
less non-believers in the airplane. I think the last phase is not death but fear of death. Ive
lost many people, friends, family, masters. What they had in the last phase was mainly
hatred against life, or fear, or they lost interest in living.
I understand very well what it means to believe in something. In China and Japan I had my
first transcendental experiences. But its very important for me, this question. After these
transcendental experiences I was very confused. What happened there? Until today I havent
found the answer.
My position is this. I know there are some holy persons in this world. I believe in these holy
people. But I dont have belief in their beliefs. I can believe only in people. This is my
position. To deal with fear of death rather than deal directly with transcendence. My task is
to understand people who believe in something. As a task it is enough. My first feeling when
I look at them is not that I can also believe, but rather an empathy with them.
SM: I do find Bernhard dark.
LK: Well, he hated the world, I never. Sometimes only a little bit! (Laughs). Here we are, it is
raining, it is green, there are wonderful men and women aroundActually I knew Bernhard.
His grandfather was a holy man for him. But Bernhards hatred of the world was a barricade,
he was not strong enough, he was so sensitive that in any direct contact with the world he
would not be able to protect himself and so this hate.
From his youth he had an illness, a lung ailment. But so many people have illnesses. This
lung illness is also romantic in the German world a holy illness. The illness of a genius.
Bernhard, I loved him. But I had to hide this feeling. He would be very angry if he knew I
loved him. It would be an absolutely idiotic thing for Bernhard. One more thing. His soul did
not have trust. He had no trust in people. That was his real illness, not the illness of the
lungs.
My own work you are right is very different. Bernhard was a poet, not a writer. A poets
task is to deal always with himself. Me, Im a writer, I deal with the universe.

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SM/KM: We were talking about exactly this last evening, in almost the same words.
LK: Two continents, European and Indian, always closer and closer. Im very happy to hear
this.
To write prose means a possibility not to deal with ourselves. (Laughs.) There are so many
more interesting people in the world than myself. Im not uninteresting, but others are more
interesting! I had a long puberty when I dealt with myself. I was probably thirty when I was
really an adult. Then came a day when I was less interested in myself than inUncle Joseph.
Or some human circumstance which saddened me. And suddenly there was no doubt in my
mind what I had to write about. It took time. Slowly, to understand my task. I dont like
novels which deal indirectly with the authors personality. I cant bear it. Its different for a
poet. The poet is an open soul for us. When I read a poet I want to get something deeply
personal. I feel a strict border between poetry and prose.
SM: For me, youre one of the great contemporary writers, of which there are few. And I use
the word great very precisely, and knowingly. I so rarely find depth, narrative power, and a
brilliance of language that approaches poetry, as well as a deeply philosophical bent, all in
the same writer.
LK: Ah, but I have a trouble. I am very alone because of this.
SM: Yes, I can imagine.
LK: I am not lonely. Loneliness is not my problem. Maybe I was romantic during the time of
Satantango. But not now. This is the other side of the humus of prose writing. What is our
task with this vertical and horizontal? This is also a responsibility. To give a total picture
about the earth. Im not afraid of talking about my aspirations. I have an aspiration to write a
total picture of our human world. Im interested in what happens at the border of the human
and the non-human. Yesterday I spoke of elements in a relationship of non-closure.
Sometimes I feel there is a non-closure relation between a point in the human world and a
point in the non-human world. I am very interested in this fact. This is also a task for us.
Another side of the question. The most dangerous situation is if you have the feeling that you
have understood something. You dont have to hunt for treasure, to find something. You
have to search, to think. It is not a small task. I am unsure about the great answers. For one
thing, I dont think I understand the great questions. Its not my task. Im a novelist, not a
philosopher.
In the last years I write a little differently than before. In the first novels, till 2000, I tried to
give a piece of human life. Later I have a feeling I dont know that I deal with totality
much more than before. I make some education for the younger generation. (He consults the
Hungarian-English dictionary.) Today she is my wife. (He points to the dictionary.) Instead
of questions and answers it has become more interesting for me to doubt. My main task in
the last five years has been to build in me an ability to remain in doubt. Doubt with my
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questions and answers never a final decision. I would like to travel, to go on the street, with
doubt, doubt, doubt. The ability to hold in our mind or in our life, this ability to doubt, is
unbelievably important. This is not a relativism, but a human absolute. I know we have rain,
but do I really know what rain is, or even a drop? Do we find an answer? No, we dont know.
The final solution is to stay on an island of doubt. I live very well on this island. Almost
Island. (Laughs.) An island with a small connection to a special continent. You can use that
for free, I give it to you. But you dont need it
SM: You have a great interest in the East, in China and Japan. What did the East mean for
you, for your work?
LM: I went to China because I couldnt go to India. The old mathematics, the philosophy had
always led me to India. The first imaginary picture of the non-human existence had always
led me to India, not China. Japan is a very interesting culture, but its origins go to China. I
have never been to India. You know that.
I wanted to be there, where Nagarjuna lived. Where ancient mathematics, philosophy and
astrology, or the first religious thinkers lived. I needed to only know that I was where they
lived. Only to know that I could be in the same place where Buddha lived if he lived. I think
he did.
But through an accident I went to Mongolia. In 1990. Always before me the direction was the
west, America, Western Europe. But this, Mongolia, was something I couldnt imagine as
reality on earth. It was so different. Mongolia suffered much more than Eastern Europe from
the Communist invasion. It was a very dark time in Mongolia. And everywhere the
unbearable smell of yaks. Everything had this smell, whether tea or water.
I was looking at the map at that time, and I decided to go on eastwards to China. A friend
and myself, we went by train to Beijing, through the Gobi desert. A boy from Guyla in
Beijing. I was in an empire, of which I was not seeing everything. Then I understood. I was in
the last working ancient empire. For us history was different, not in one continuous line, but
there is on earth a continuous history from ancient times till today. I was drunk with this
experience. We went to Canton, to Hong Kong. I read a great deal about China, the bad
things, that was also important. After that I went back to China many times.
Some years later I went to Japan. I had a friend who had a fellowship there, and he would
keep talking about it. It was like a dream for me, like an illusion, did it exist? He would talk
about the culture, the politics. I would ask him on the phone, what do you see on the street,
what are the people like, what colors do you see? This friend urged me to apply for a
fellowship. I filled up the form, saying my specialization was in Apocalypse Studies. I got the
fellowship, and when I went there they said thats the reason I got it because of my
specialization. In Japan you must hide your feelings, so I couldnt laugh.
I spent a long time on my first visit, in Kyoto, living with a Noh master. He was like a holy
man, and his family and students were his disciples. They believed in him.
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And Japan fascinated me. There were almost 2000 working temples in Japan, each one
beautiful with gardens, sculptures, paintings. And the Japanese aesthetic of perfection, I had
never seen anything like it. Between perfection and almost perfection there is a space. That is
very interesting. It is the space for craziness. While in Japan I read everything I could about
it, just like when I was in China. I went back several times.
SM: How do you see the novel being practiced in the world today. Do you think it is worn
out, tired?
LK: The old genres of literature are not in crisis. We are in crisis. The old forms are
wonderful. In old Greece there were artists, poets, playwrights, philosophers. They used
wonderful forms. These forms were never in crisis. Only the people there after the 5th
century began to fall, and could not reach the right level of human articulation or human
melody. The hexameter is wonderful, in the 5th century and in the 21st. We are not
wonderful. We have to find new forms because we are in crisis. The novel is okay, the
classical novel too, but people, from Flauberts time, have been in crisis. Readers in
Flauberts time, the people in late 19th century, the people were in crisis. From the late 19th
century people were in crisis and it was problematic to use an old form, because of this crisis.
Now we have lost our ability to write in the same way. And we love the new. To discover new
forms, new possibilities of human articulation.
Krasznahorkais French translator arrives. They have an appointment to work on one of
his texts. Let us say only a provisional goodbye, he says.

________________

Read the first three chapters of the English translation of Satantango, by George Szirtes
http://almostisland.com// monsoon_2008/prose/tango.php

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