Seiobo There Below
by László Krasznahorkai
New Directions, 2013
440 pages / $17.95 buy from Amazon
1. I almost laugh, attempting to write anything about the Krasznahorkai, since I’ve done an interview with the translator for The Paris Review, and feel my work is done here, and also since we are dealing with a nearly 500-page book that lashes out in chunks of twelve-page sentences, transcendent, dazzling, insane, hilarious, vicious and brutal, determinedly unexplainable and unexplained.
2. Transparency is not the hallmark of the Krasznahorkai.
3. But ok. This is the Hungarian writer at the forefront of a renaissance in Hungarian letters, an intense, experimental madman whose books are metaphysical puzzles of stunning originality and brilliance.
4. This is a man with burning eyes and a cheap suit, who shows up at Columbia to a packed house and reads…in the dark…in Hungarian…and kinda actually scares people.
5. There’s a quote from Susan Sontag on the back of Seiobo There Below that calls László Krasznahorkai “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which is intimidating, and doesn’t sound like much fun. Do not be scared away; this book is a pleasure to read, and even funny.
6. The last chapter is named “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” which is a reverse riff on the first phrase of Gravity’s Rainbow, “A screaming comes across the sky…”, and gives an idea of the author’s ambition. The book is an incoming rocket, taking on the small matter of the power and transcendence of art.
7. Krasznahorkai has the interesting idea, though I’m not sure I’m convinced, that good art is dangerous. Art in this book tends to overpower ordinary people or drive them insane. Is this pretentious? Probably, right? Real migrant workers are not often driven mad by the sight of glorious paintings.
8. But then again, I also believe in salvation through art. What is a God without destructive power?
9. Seiobo There Below is structured in a series of sections, mostly about artists making art, a few about tourists or exiles. Sections include a modern-day man visiting the Acropolis, a Japanese Noh actor speaking to his disciples, another Japanese artist making a mask, a stork hunting in a river, a Renaissance painter in his workshop, an immigrant in Barcelona.
10. Some quotes: “…to stand there, to look at this life withdrawing for all eternity into death in the human and natural landscape, and to depict what is before him when he looks up from the blank canvas: that is everything…”
11. “we hear the heavenly weight of these voices falling in infinite density, falling below from there above, like snow, and there we are in this landscape and we are amazed, and we have no words, and our hearts ache from the wondrous beauty of it all, for the Baroque is the artwork of pain…”
12. “…namely, that in place of the evil chaos of a world falling apart, let us select a higher one in which everything holds together, a gigantic unity, it is that we may select, and the Alhambra represents that unity…”
13. Supposedly Seiobo is the Japanese goddess of beauty (I’ve gleaned this more from reading about the book than reading the book itself), and my theory is that the book is her taking a moment to incarnate—across time, during all times at once and in all places—and for a moment be, divine in this fallen world.
14. There is a lot about the movement between above and below, naturally the title is no accident.
15. “…anyone can comprehend that above us and below us, outside of ourselves and deep within ourselves, there is a universe, the one and only…”
16. There are no women in this book, except for one ancient princess who is strangled in an early chapter. And possibly Seiobo.
17. I don’t tend to think that the earth, the world, creation, people, bodies are all bad, though heavens knows you can make a case for it. The very opposition between sky and earth, above and below, human and sacred strikes me as false, so I think the author and I may have different ideas of sacred, though this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.
18. I didn’t feel much mercy from the Krasznahorkai. Maybe that’s something that happens when you un-anthropomorphize the sacred, as I suspect he does. God is art, or some kind of stern and inhuman capacity for beauty, not a nice man in the sky who loves you.
19. Another great thing was how the book looks like a collection of stories—every section is about someone different, they resonate but don’t relate—but is actually and irrefutably a novel.
20. Another quote: “Because not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.”
21. We don’t really know what Seiobo There Below is about. That’s part of the beauty of it.
22 One of the things that feels so wonderful about reading this book is engaging with complex thoughts about our world, like the two points above. You don’t have to agree with Krasznahorkai’s worldview, or even fully understand it, but you can be carried along on the rushing river of the prose, stopping to focus, think, spin out.
23. And about the prose. I notice as I’m trying to quote the book how difficult it is to focus on even in small snippets. The meaning is elusive, and designed to be elusive. This is a writer using language in a totally different way, not to depict, not to explain, but to rewrite your brain, change your thought-patterns, take you elsewhere.
24. Read it, I dare you.
25. My husband and I have taken to calling our toddler The Little Krasznahorkai. Somehow it fits.