The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is a trickster, a jester entertaining an unhappy court, his sentences elongated to the point of absurdity, and absurdity is very much the man’s point. In The Last Wolf & Herman, published in English by New Directions Press in 2017 (the translators are George Szirtes and John Batki), the first tale is a long story/short novella, The Last Wolf (published in Hungary in 2009). It unfurls over a single sentence covering seventy pages and conjures thoughts of one of Krasznahorkai’s heroes, the Austrian master Thomas Bernhard. The philosophizing in The Last Wolf recalls not just the tar-black humor of Bernhard but also a more ebullient and insuppressible Thomas Mann. Krasznahorkai is a joker but not a quipster or aphorist.
No longer an underground or underappreciated writer, Krasznahorkai’s bookshelf now inspires debates about which is the piece de resistance. At 126pp, The Last Wolf & Herman is the most accessible entry point for the reader seeking introduction. In 2019, his magnum opus Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming won the National Book Award for translated literature here in the states, and his first novel, Satantango, has become canonical partly due to its seven-hours-plus film adaptation by Bela Tarr. The book Satantango has a pugilist’s presence so sinewy and dextrous that it is fair to call it a leaner and meaner Ulysses. And if Joyce’s is the great brocade of Irish prose and poetry, Satantango is Hungary’s conflicted post-Soviet dance of inebriation followed by hangover—elegiac, herky-jerky, a requiem played on an untuned organ. The shambolic structure in The Last Wolf is similarly hangdog, a moan-croak barcarolle that enlivens.
‘Mordant humor’ is almost a clichéd phrase now, but Krasznahorkai’s works inhabit it inimitably. The humor crosses from mordant to morbid, even dour, but his fiction never becomes dull or self-pitying and his ensemble works glow with lividity. The Last Wolf & Herman furnishes a tasting menu of three texts, the 2009 novella and two connected Herman tales from 1986, an ideal sampler of early and later vintage. The avant-garde sentence length is the most immediate quality, but a few pages in it becomes unnoticeable. You hold the thin, chapbook-like volume in your hand and the dense prose resembles a well-marbled steak of uninterrupted word sprawl, yet the triad of stories collected here are anything but a ramble.
A purposeful arrangement of well-chosen signifiers, what makes Krasznahorkai’s style so appealing to the maximalist Tarr (who also adapted The Melancholy of Resistance as Werckmeister Harmonies and collaborated with Krasznahorkai on Damnation and Silver Bear–winner The Turin Horse) is the uniting formalist premise that separation is not inherently superior to run-together-ness. The uninterrupted style manages, in Krasznahorkai, not to bury but to augment the content.
The Last Wolf begins with literal laughter and takes place primarily in a bar, told in prose so propulsive as to be hypertensive. The patrons, including the storyteller, are drinking out of habit. Not addict drinking, not celebrant drinking, and the closest thing we have to a protagonist is not drinking himself stupid only because he can’t afford to. Imbibing to turn off the unceasing brain is often the default mode in Krasznahorkai.
Invention mingled with standbys grows erumpent as well. Have you ever heard the adjective “grubby” applied to a computer? You do here, a flash of funky mushroom in a more expected forest of grumbling Hungarian barkeeps and the tipplers who talk at him in rant-stories. Here the tale is told by a professor, one the bartender wants to stop listening to “because he really couldn’t bear … hopelessly complex, labyrinthine thoughts and sentences, but never mind, he thought, and watched.” This might as well be Krasznahorkai’s mission statement, his works filled with professors (usually distorted proxies for himself) and passive observers, gazers at the political machinations of regents (Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming) and con men (Satantango), at the art world endeavors of insane manuscript hunters (War & War), at actors in Japanese Noh theatre (Seiobo There Below), and at surreal circuses (The Melancholy of Resistance), and always at departures and returns to Hungary where acts of violence are aimed both at others (including animals) and at the self.
The Last Wolf’s professor watches through bus windows, that most proletariat mode of transport, thinking of his fellow citizens as rubes begging not to be depicted as figures of ridicule in “this once historical wasteland, this centuries-old nest of human misery that has set out on a new path, a new chapter in its story.” Krasznahorkai ironizes collective desire in The Last Wolf as the professor confesses early on that he is too old and exhausted to write, brought low and realizing that all he has left is his base, animal desire. Language itself, he has decided, is corrupt, “these last few years, a descent from the height of an academic chair to the depths of impersonal dreariness.” Even philosophy, according to the professor, has degraded into motley rubbish and new-agey lies. Achievements mean nothing, he says, and to be smart is to realize how defeated we are, but as the professor begins the tale of the last wolf in the Extremadura province in Spain, the fiction takes a remarkable turn toward redemption.
Thought cannot be abandoned, no matter how much we try to drink it away, and even with age, desire persists. We’re prisoners for life, so why not chase, why not intellectualize, why not document? In Krasznahorkai, myth and history are indiscernible; all stories are cons. Chanclon, the hunter first awarded the title of slayer of the last wolf, has committed most of his living space to a vitrine housing the corpse of what may or may not be the titular creature. We hear Chanclon tell his version of the story to the professor as the beast’s corpse sits there listening to the (disputed) story of its own demise trill off its killer’s lips for what the professor knows must be the umpteenth time.
How long can any of us, the professor asks, really concentrate on one single thing before it becomes “a broken sequence of perfectly mundane thoughts”? We then enter the consciousness of the barman, who believes that the worst part of his job is the “being alone and waiting.” At this allegorical moment (what is life, if not being alone and waiting), the professor reveals that the wolf killed by Chanclon was (most likely) not the last wolf killed.
Hijinks ensue until the last word on the last wolf is given to the professor by a Spanish warden named Jose Miguel, who stokes the professor’s curiosity. The professor cares little if what he’s told by Jose is true, he just wants to know how the story ends. The story does not resolve with the dramatic climax of a work like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which uses a postmodern twist to interrogate the reader’s misprisions and draw attention to the ineffability of truth or the manipulability of history because by this point in Krasznahorkai, the barman has fallen asleep and the story-within-a-story construction unveils a parable about the value of humor in facing resignation, neither quite repelling nor absorbing it. The Last Wolf is a story of recursion, “scabrous and musical,” as Krasznahorkai’s Booker citation deems. And if the best we get is an approximation of truth, this Beckettian and claustrophobic mood piece satisfies the literary intellect.
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The first of two Herman short stories is called “The Game Warden.” Like the second, called “The Death of a Craft,” it is all one paragraph, but not all one sentence. “The Game Warden” is an allegorical tale wherein the titular trapper, Herman, confronts a lurking fear of irrelevance. A perfectionist, Herman is superb at his job, and “guarding the splendid mysteries of an ancient craft gradually sinking into permanent oblivion” is certainly hard to read as anything other than a factotum’s lament regarding the decline of the novel. Herman’s profession, like his author’s, has been “fading for some time and losing relevance.” Herman has a plot-instantiating nightmare about a carrion pit that he built in his waking life. Like the protagonist of The Last Wolf, “it was of no use to get dead drunk in the grimy back recesses of taverns on the outskirts—it appeared he was beyond all help.”
In the midst of this metaphysical crisis, Herman seeks help from a physician who pronounces that Herman’s body is in fine fettle; it’s his mind that’s troubled. The warden traps a fox and sees its pain as opening a deep truth he had previously not perceived: order and civilization are scrims laid over a pullulating mass of murderous chaos, a hellish existence where we are all atomized and alone, and in that state forever.
Herman thereby vows vengeance. “I must deliver justice” becomes his newfound creed. He will protect the Remete Forest and its splendor of flora and fauna from human hunters, and he will do so with lethal force. He arranges machine gun nests in the deepest parts of the forest and litters the surrounding fringes with steel-jawed traps that break the legs of the local townsfolk, including children. The warden thus becomes a hunter of humans, embedding himself in camouflage way back in the woods, a figure both Heideggerian and Kurtz-like. After getting dimed out by a blacksmith and a dam-keeper, a search party gathers and alights.
Holy Fool Herman hears of the children he has disfigured and realizes that he wasn’t protecting the forest, restoring harmony, or bringing order to nature, but contributing to its accelerated breakdown. It is a revelation, an ignition of self-awareness. He realizes his mind is a scrambled mess of disorder and has a spiritual epiphany.
His guilt transmogrifies into grace, an example of Krasznahorkai lampooning the literalism of Christianity/Catholicism. Herman vows to surrender because universal compassion is the goal, but just as he pledges to right himself, reemerge, and spend every waking moment committed to broadcasting deep and abiding truths, he’s shot to ribbons by the search party, riddled with bullets that for a moment hold him aloft. The allegorical allusion here is to the momentary fame and/or legacy of an artist/novelist, all our creations doomed to thanatopsis, much like God’s.
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“The Death of a Craft” is the shortest of the three pieces. Lively and precocious, even capricious, it calls to mind Cesar Aira at his most spry and witty. Our POV is the first-person plural, a natural fit for a Brechtian assembler like Krasznahorkai. It allows a drollness to permeate the story even as the title again alludes to an allegorical level concerning the author’s function, the role of the writer in society. “The Death of a Craft” exhibits a novelist ascertaining a world in which his artform is increasingly trivialized and marginalized, on its way to a lower status even as tales of its “extinction” (like the last wolf’s) tend to be rather tall ones.
There’s a rebellious truculence in Krasznahorkai’s dedication to story. This concluding tale in the volume starts with a telling epigraph: “contra Yukio Mishima.” The Japanese genius was quite the labile artist himself, best known for his serialized tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, and with many of his shorter fictions still just now being translated into English. Mishima was a conqueror of hard-to-define forms, and like Krasznahorkai far from a middlebrow traditional realist. This despite Mishima’s deep love of tradition in his personal life, a writer infamously willing to kill and die for tradition (his violent and public attempt at a samurai coup, and the associated decapitations and seppuku in Tokyo in November of 1970). Krasznahorkai shares a radical’s energy with Mishima, but the Hungarian’s is not a reactionary or traditionalist sort, his radicalism is open, conversational, dialogic, and undogmatic; he’s more of a playful instigator, a bohemian monkeywrencher appropriating the tools of poetic epics, like his friend Allen Ginsberg. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PGd5h8Hdeg]
“The Death of a Craft” begins with the first-person plural stating that had the group not accompanied their friend Marietta to visit her dying mother, they may have never heard of Herman, the game warden from the previous story. Their friend’s death is a pretext, their solidarity a union more hedonistic than Kaddish-inspired, and it is via the magnetism of death that the plurality winds up in “that godforsaken small town,” a Krasznahorkai specialty.
They arrive via train, grimy both inside and out, a 200km journey “with Lowlands desperation rippling past our window—a mute idyll hiding a living abomination.” The fluidity of the prose buries the lede. The key concept is the hiding, or the overarching concept of the provenance of that which is hidden, unrevealed, impossible to reduce to an epiphany—this group will never directly interact with Herman but they will wonder about him based on rumor and innuendo, and later contribute to fabrications and fabulism regarding his reputation.
This group is made up of young people, both male and female, a number of them military officers, and they view the excursion as an opportunity for saturnalia.Two members of the group head to the train’s toilet for “fellatious amours” on the way to the small town, and though Marietta is headed there to say goodbye, the other members of the cluster seek road-trip revelry. They will pay their tribute to the dying woman, but mostly because they want to gaze at her death and then commence the embrace of boundless freedom, her status reinforcing their own life privilege. They’re there to behave in a way they see as liberated, while Marietta’s mother is about to be liberated from her earthbound self and as before long Hungary will be liberated from Soviet rule and the Warsaw Pact.
First night in town, their hotel’s night manager sidles over and enters their conversation, an unctuous and obsequious man who tells them that for several weeks the townsfolk have been finding animal carcasses on their front stoops. We are now clearly interacting with the events of “The Game Warden” from a different POV. There’s a lunatic on the loose and the townsfolk assume that it must be Herman. What they don’t know is why he’s doing it or if he will soon begin to do something worse, so the manager urges the kids to hightail it out of town. Their youthful response (basically: Whatever, man) is well-rendered by Krasznahorkai, but then the manager shows them the collected animal corpses as proof. Ironically, until then they had been disappointed by the trip because Marietta’s materfamilias hadn’t died yet. Now, after seeing the dead animals, instead of being scared and motivated to vamoose or maintaining their previous louche ambivalence, their spirits are rejuvenated; there’s drama afoot, giving them a real reason to stay.
The following morning, the hotel’s desk clerk gets his own monologue. He states that he and his fellow townsfolk are simple people, frightened, unable to understand why Herman is doing this. The group of tourist youths view him as a pedantic yokel, but he explains that what terrifies the town is the intentionality of the acts, that Herman isn’t crazy but calculated. “He’s not happy with the way things are,” says the clerk, framing Herman as a revolutionary protesting how “nothing is sacred anymore” in this “godless and lawless world.”
A local priest agrees; it’s “a regular Sodom and Gomorrah” out there, the dead animals “a warning to the sinful.” The visiting libertines blow it all off as the blithering of backwoods plebeians, but they’re intrigued. They go to the local baths and dance nude, a coterie of young provocateurs and exhibitionists. Some in the group are voyeurs only, who sit and watch giddily from poolside. They take aphrodisiac drugs and agree to stay in the town a little longer, mostly to get daily updates from the desk clerk about the increasing carnage.
The clerk becomes the 1980s rural Hungarian equivalent of the internet or the smartphone. Through this level of remove, they grow to see Herman as a folk hero, fanatically professional, an expert (like a professor or an author) “who relied on ancient traditional methods to build his contraptions.” The libertines are the equivalent of the hipsters at the vinyl shop, the young folks who refuse to read books on a Kindle, the vintage raiment seekers, the Tinder addicts.
This throws into light Krasznahorkai’s own viewpoint and it cements the arrangement of the Mishima dedication as well. The young people relate to Herman via their privileged urban nihilism, “pioneers in a world only hesitatingly liberating itself from the controlling machinery of goodness” even as Herman’s motivation is spiritual. The LOL Nothing Matters worldview of contemporary online anarchists as it contrasts with a more communal and subversive definition of the term (Herman is like a solo squatter, and the townsfolk then more like the preexisting subversives who’ve claimed a building as theirs and who find his worldview too radical and monastic even for them) and the geopolitical restructuring of modern Hungary is hard not to hear proto-rumbling beneath this prose. There’s even a Blakean level, as Herman is as obsessed with restraint as the vacationers are with indulgence, with “philiac fulfillment, unbridled pursuit of pleasure, the ceaseless apocatastasis of an Eden missing from primal imagination, and took refuge in transgression.” The young tourists and the old game warden are foils. Herman is guided by timeless principles that metastasize into hubris as he compulsively monumentalizes destruction, with the idea of a “monument to chaos” a brilliant oxymoron deployed by Krasznahorkai.
The hotel manager asks the youths (many of whom were essentially aristocrat-class military officers in their day-to-day lives back in the city during a time when the Berlin Wall still stood) to take part in the hunt, so they load up their service revolvers and join the fray. They are hunting not out of Herman’s earnestness nor out of fear, violent hatred, or desire for vengeance, as the locals are, but for sport. They’re sincerity-addicted and sentimental in their parasitic and expropriative quest for authenticity and experience.
In this story/version, however, Krasznahorkai does not conclude with Herman absorbing a hail of bullets as in “The Game Warden.” This time around, Herman willfully lays down his arms after placing a last trap in the church. Relinquishment of an ancient craft becomes a spectacle. The trap is situated up front, near the altar, at the foot of a giant cross, the placement so perfect that the approaching hunting party cannot tell if it has been set for them approaching the cross or for Christ descending it, an uproarious moment that interrogates its own contrivance.
The demon Herman, as the God-fearing townsfolk call him, has already absconded (like God in a Nietzschean universe), leaving that question of his intent unanswered (as any good world-creator, like, say, a writer, should). The youths leave and, years later, in reflection, they muse about their trip to the small town, saying that the locals have probably already forgotten it, whereas they recall it as a signature moment of their lives. It’s The Big Chill as horror comedy in the time of János Kádár—Marietta herself having died in the interim between the occurrence of the events and the telling of the tale.
Their trip was incepted by accompanying Marietta to witness and attend her mother’s death in proper time, but her mother, it turns out, didn’t die then, and soon Marietta herself passed before her time, and randomly (she dies in an accident), a fitting last image of chaos trumping order in the Krasznahorkai-verse, a story rendered with real panache and, all told, the best, or at least the most trenchant and incisive, of the three tales collected in this volume.
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Uncompromised, unsentimental, and as aware that the lapidary and fluid prose of literary realism is itself a gambit as he is that just because one writes long, even interminable, sentences does not mean the larger construct has to be impenetrable or unnecessarily baroque, Krasznahorkai reveres his forbears while trying not to imitate them. “I wanted always to make some absolutely original thing,” he is quoted in the New York Times, “I wanted to be free to stray far from my literary ancestors, and not make some new version of Kafka or Dostoyevsky or Faulkner.” The parapets of the uninfluenced are inaccessible or imaginary to someone as obviously well-read as Krasznahorkai, who is also on record that he aims to be apolitical, but as his novels have grown more popular–now translated into English and cultishly seized upon by Western scholars and readers–he’s considered extremely political by the right-wing populist-nationalist-insularist government in present-day Hungary, a continuing irony for this unique visionary in world letters. The Last Wolf & Herman is a perfectly sized appetizer to a bounteous feast of a personal canon, an apical literary table with few members in its cohort, its author a paragon of postmodernism in the writing sphere today.
The Last Wolf & Herman
by László Krasznahorkai; translated by George Szirtes and John Batki
New Directions; 128 p.
Sean Hooks was born and raised in working class New Jersey, about ten miles west of New York City. He holds a BA from Drew University, an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA from Loyola Marymount University. Presently, he resides in Los Angeles. He has published fiction, essays, reviews, articles, and interviews in various venues. His website is www.seanhooks.com.