The Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai has only lately become known to Anglophone audiences, through the masterly translations of George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet. Work written and published in the 1980s, during the corrupt and cynical last days of so-called ‘goulash communism’ under János Kádár, began to circulate in English in the early 2000s. In Sátántangó, War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance, readers were introduced to nightmarish, purgatorial worlds shot through with millennarian anxiety and a hopeless mystical yearning for the divine. Then, in 2013, the massive novel — or perhaps more accurately a cloud of novellas — Seiobo There Below (published in Hungarian in 2008) revealed a writer who had spent a decade travelling in China and Japan, and whose engagement with Buddhism had transformed a sensibility formed by Kafka, Christian eschatology and central European Absurdism. Now, after the award of the 2015 Man Booker International prize, which cemented his reputation, comes a pair of novellas, ‘The Last Wolf’ and ‘Herman’, one recent and one from the 1980s, both dealing with hunting and the relationship between humans and the animal world. For those who may not wish to plunge into the swirling currents of Krasznahorkai’s longer fiction, they provide a taste of the many pleasures of his writing, and a way to compare his early and late styles.
Krasznahorkai has stated that the full stop ‘doesn’t belong to human beings, it belongs to God’, and he is nothing if not respectful of the deity’s property rights. The more recent of the two stories, ‘The Last Wolf’, is written in a single tumbling, propulsive sentence. It is a testimony to Krasznahorkai’s craft (and that of George Szirtes) that the effect is more like following the natural rhythms of speech and thought than of being subjected to a showy diplay of writerliness.
The narrator is a washed-up philosopher who is droning on to a bored Hungarian barman in ‘Hauptstrasse’, a bleak and blasted version of Berlin. He tells the story of an unexpected invitation from a Spanish foundation — unexpected because of his decline into cultural insignificance — which led him to try to trace the story of the last wolf to be killed in the remote countryside of Extremadura. His search for the truth (Where and when was the wolf killed? By whom?) was also a respite from the purgatorial ‘life without thought’ that he is now enduring.
The second story, ‘Herman’, translated by John Batki, deals with a game warden who has been employed to trap ‘noxious predators’ in a badly managed woodland that has begun to revert to an impenetrable thicket. Enthusiastic and skilled, he sets about his work with gusto, until he suffers a crisis of conscience that leads him to question whether killing animals on behalf of people is indeed a way of ‘restoring order’, or in fact a final breakdown of morality. His desire to rebalance the world leads him to take drastic and violent measures.
It’s a curious and affecting story, which Kraznahorkai has chosen to tell in two parts, the first from the point of view of the warden and the second from the very distant point of view of a group of libertines who are guests at a local hotel, searching for a ‘total liberation of the imagination’. The two versions of the story offer a reminder that one person’s all-consuming moral crisis is, for another, merely a source of diversion and amusement. Together, ‘The Last Wolf’ and ‘Herman’ raise a set of spiritual questions that affirms their author as one of the most important — and eccentric — writers working today.