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Anticipating doom: what can László Krasznahorkai’s novels tell us about the refugee crisis?

Anticipating doom: what can László Krasznahorkai's novels tell us about the refugee crisis?

László Krasznahorkai is known for his demanding, existential novels and his long-standing collaboration with Béla Tarr. But, despite the author's protestations to the contrary, his books have foreshadowed much that has unfolded in Hungary in recent years, says John McIntyre

7 December 2016
Text John McIntyre

When the writer László Krasznahorkai said on Hungarian television two years ago that Hungary has been “showing its uglier face” over the past 25 years, it was something of a surprise. This wasn’t due to Krasznahorkai putting a provocative gloss on recent history. The surprise was that he was directly commenting on still-unfolding events, compared to the detachment he maintains in his work. Yet this seeming disembodiment from the facts on the ground paradoxically results in greater emotional intensity and tempts readers to reach for connections that the writer himself disavows consciously planting in his work.

Indeed, when the scholar Paul Morton asked in a 2012 interview for The Millions if “it [would] be a mistake to see premonitions of Hungary’s current political situation in the pages of your novel [Satantango]?”, Krasznahorkai replied that, “The idea of a political message in Satantango was as far from my mind as the Soviet empire itself. I was only concerned to explore why everyone around me seemed as sad as the rain falling on Hungary and why I myself was sad, surrounded as I was by such people, in the rain.” The poet George Szirtes, who is behind most of the English translations of Krasznahorkai’s work to appear thus far, told me Krasznahorkai “deals with the current situation in terms of allegory as in The Last Boat and Someone’s Knocking at My Door...The big novels…are prophetic in a sense. They are visions and apprehensions about the nation’s soul and as much about the condition of Hungary after Stalinism as about now. But reading them makes more sense of the current situation, and it’s far from comforting.”

Still from <em>Satantango</em> (1994), dir. Béla Tarr” src=”” style=“width: 1000px; height: 603px;” /></p>

<p>Indeed there is something prophetic in Krasznahorkai’s work, a sense that the already vulnerable world may at any moment come undone, may fall apart like a fighter’s face in the late rounds after one blow too many. Though it’s a mistake to single out a particular work and portray it as, say, pure political allegory, his work offers a moody, impressionistic vision of Hungary approaching the millennium, a series of hints and glimmers, gleanings from the mood in the air. </p>

<p>“You will never go wrong anticipating doom in my books, any more than you’ll go wrong in anticipating doom in ordinary life,” Krasznahorkai says, and in the past year or two, the anticipation of doom has grown in Hungary. The arrival on the continent of refugees from Syria heightened fears ranging from the clash of cultures to the prospect of terrorism taking root, either by way of the new arrivals or their subsequent generations.</p>

<p><img alt=Satantango (1994), dir. Béla Tarr” src=”” style=“width: 1000px; height: 603px;” />

But where Krasznahorkai’s worlds are populated with shadowy threats, President Viktor Orbán and his government have sought to dramatise the threat in visceral terms, via widespread advertising. The sheer number of people arriving, coupled with ads that emphasised the dangers these individuals allegedly posed, gave rise to panic. A razor wire fence went up along the borders with Serbia and Croatia. A government spokesman characterised a group of asylum seekers, many of them women and children, as “an armed mob…using kids as a human shield”. Orbán claimed the government’s aim was to stop human traffickers. It all felt uncannily like they were responding to a passage from Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside, a short prose work he wrote to accompany a series of paintings by the German artist Max Neumann, of a fierce, muscular black dog which lacks front legs:

Shut your gates tight, and plug up the cracks, put up the beams and bring out the barbed wire, and protect yourselves from all sides, but know that you lock up in vain, you plug in vain, you raise beams in vain and you wrap wire in vain, for that chink, that groove, that crevice which would be an obstacle for me does not exist; but it is just for that reason that you should barricade your gates and board up your windows, brick up your windows and protect yourselves, because I will break out, and I will arrive, and of course lock up your children as well, and of course arm yourselves with many weapons, and organize your defence, and station the security guards, pull up the cordon and put the land mines in place, just go ahead and do it, just get ready, but whatever you do against me is in vain…because I am coming, one day I will be here, maybe not in one form, but immediately in two or three, or in four, one day I shall come, and I shall lacerate your faces, because I am ruin.

Still from <em>Satantango</em> (1994), dir. Béla Tarr” src=”” style=“width: 1000px; height: 565px;” /></p>

<p>It’s natural to long for security, for reassurance in the face of a threat; perhaps an amorphous threat, one ill-considered and dimly understood, more often invites a saviour of some kind, in this case a strongman in the guise of Orbán. Krasznahorkai recognises this dynamic in <em>Satantango</em>, when a mere handful of residents remaining on a failed collective farm face their dim prospects. Irmias, who they’ve all thought dead, will chart a better course. He has certain rhetorical gifts, after all, and it’s not as if they have the wherewithal to lift themselves out of the mess in which they’ve landed. They fail to even imagine his self-interest — he’s little more than a state informant — and he sets about fleecing them, all while they look to him for guidance. Faced with doubts that the farm’s inhabitants own enough to make the fleecing worth the effort, Irmias assures his compatriot that, “peasants always have something”. </p>

<p>Orbán’s con differs from the one Irmias plans; he trades baldly on the rhetoric of blood and soil. His moves to consolidate power along populist lines have the trappings of legitimacy. The question of whether to accept the EU’s migrant quotas without the approval of the Hungarian parliament was put to a referendum in October. Szirtes, who arrived in Britain with his family in 1956 as an eight-year-old refugee himself, assessed the referendum bluntly: </p>

<p><em>Hungary is not genteel, nor are the questions so simple. However phrased the referendum question, the rhetoric comes down to: do you want to be murdered in your beds? Do you want your town taken over by rabid Islamists? Do you want your women to be molested and raped? Do you want foreigners to take your jobs? And, of course – and here it chimes particularly well with our own referendum – do you want bureaucrats in Brussels telling you, the proud (Hungarian/British) people, what to do? </em></p>

<p><em><img alt=Satantango (1994), dir. Béla Tarr” src=”” style=“width: 1000px; height: 603px;” />

More than 98% of those who voted chose not to accept the EU’s migrant quotas, yet abstention from voting by over half of the population invalidated the referendum on constitutional grounds. Perhaps a portion of the body politic of any country can be roused to antipathy, and once roused, the way back to tolerance is a ragged path. Despite the failed referendum, Orbán submitted a constitutional amendment to ban the resettlement of refugees in Hungary. Members of the opposition Jobbik party refused to vote on the first iteration of the amendment. They sought to stiffen the restrictions still further, to do away with a provision allowing immigrants to buy residency rights. The fate of the amendment, and more significantly, the refugees it seeks to exclude, remains unsettled.

Those in Hungary so bent on keeping refugees away seem to have forgotten the fate of their near-cousin, the late writer Joseph Roth, and how it pained him so to be exiled from the then-Austro-Hungary he loved so much. Too many in Hungary are numb to his lament in “Rest While Watching the Demolition,” but those unable to return to Syria and unwelcome in Hungary surely understand:

Now I’m sitting facing the vacant lot, and hearing the hours go by. You lose one home after another, I say to myself. Here I am, sitting with my wanderer’s staff. My feet are sore, my heart is tired, my eyes are dry. Misery crouches beside me, ever larger and ever gentler; pain takes an interest, becomes huge and kind; terror flutters up, and it doesn’t even frighten me anymore. And that’s the most desolate thing of all.

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