August 2013

Sessily Watt

fiction

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

The 1992 film El Sol del Membrillo, released in English as Dream of Light, depicts Antonio López García, a Spanish artist, attempting to paint the quince tree in his backyard. His goal is to capture the tree when the fruit is perfectly ripe and the sun lights it from a precise angle, a goal whose dependence on timing and luck is hidden by the screen time in which García meticulously arranges weights and lines, used to determine perspective, and then painstakingly sketches in the tree. I was reminded of García's meticulous arrangements and his nearly impossible goal of capturing the everyday ephemerality of a tree as I read Seiobo There Below, a novel bursting with rituals devoted to capturing the ephemerality of beauty.

Within the novel, these rituals primarily take two forms: those devoted to the creation of art or beauty, as García is, and those devoted to experiencing art or beauty. In one chapter, Ito Ryosuke spends his days carefully carving wood into masks for use in Noh plays, and the chapter leads us through his rituals of breakfast and sleep and the long hours putting chisel and knife to wood. In another chapter, Chaivagne, a museum guard, defends his devotion to the Venus de Milo from the other museum guards, who see their work as no more than another exhausting job and the Venus de Milo as among the least interesting works under their protection. In a third chapter, a lecturer in a local library rants to his small audience about the absolute failure that is all music after the Baroque. Though each chapter involves a new set of characters and is often focused on a single individual, they are drawn together by the repetition of theme and idea. This is not a novel in the model of a bildungsroman or in the newly fashionable linked short story collection, in which characters connect and disconnect through time or space. Instead, this is novel as philosophical inquiry, an exploration of beauty -- ephemeral grace -- as it appears in the earthly realm.

This grace is a force that can be as painful as it is enlivening. Over and over, the chapters point toward questions about the roles of art and beauty in our lives. Is it good or bad -- and is that question even relevant? Is the fact that it is ephemeral a mark against or for it? How do we manage that ephemerality? What does it mean when something once beautiful is no longer recognized? None of these questions have simple answers, of course, and if they did Seiobo There Below would be far shorter and less interesting. And perhaps a different reader would pull a different set of questions about art and beauty from these chapters, for nowhere does Seiobo's author, László Krasznahorkai, state that these specifically are the questions under consideration. This is a part of the beauty of fiction, though: the rituals we have developed in the tradition of fiction -- the use of chronology, whether linear or not, and the focus on individuals with specifics desires and actions -- can lead to the creation of something more than the sum of its parts and the author's intentions.

As with the slow-moving but enthralling El Sol del Membrillo, the most poignant and memorable moments in Seiobo There Below are in those painstaking descriptions of ritual: the mixing of paint, the combination of prayers completed by the monks as they remove a statue of the Buddha, the process of gassing and gluing used by the restoration crew for the same statue, and so on and so forth. Through the depiction of these rituals, as well as in the obsessions of those characters devoted to experiencing rather than creating, Krasznahorkai writes transfixing questions about beauty and art. In the novel's weakest moments, though, the endings of certain chapters seem to act as answers to those questions, answers which are troubling and unsatisfying, hinging on Krasznahorkai's characteristic darkness. For example, in a chapter titled "Up on the Acropolis," a man in Greece goes through a series of familiar tourist trials: the crowds, the pestering taxi drivers, and the driver who picks a roundabout way for a higher fare, leaving the traveler without enough money to contact the acquaintances he was meant to meet. Eventually, he makes his way to the Acropolis, which he has dreamt of visiting since childhood, but the sun is high and he has no protection against the sun, so in the glare he is unable to see a thing. The chapter sets his striving, driven by longing, against the carefree lounging of a group of young people he encounters, raising questions about desire and how prepared one can be to truly encounter beauty. But then, in the last clause of the last sentence, the traveler is killed by the dense traffic as he crosses the street toward his new friends, his death arriving with such abruptness in the last sentence that it is difficult not to read it as the punch line of a bitter joke.

Or perhaps this abruptness is a true reflection of how death functions in our lives: appearing without warning to cut off those who have only just reached a moment of potential. This is an argument one can have about much of Krasznahorkai's work, the gloom of which is as often a topic of conversation, as are his and his translators' -- Ottilie Mulzet for this novel -- use of long, semicolon-studded sentences. Does the darkness express nothing more than bitterness, or is it a necessary counterpoint to optimistic, even saccharine, beliefs about life? Can one find hope within Krasznahorkai's darkness?

The answer for some readers will undoubtedly be "no." Similarly, the ritualistic and obsessive engagement with art and beauty found within the pages of Seiobo There Below will be far from intriguing for many. But some readers -- including, at times, this reader -- will find that the gloom reveals a glimmer of light otherwise hidden by the brightness of happier storylines. There are no promises as to the comfort of the journey, but a reader who follows that glimmer, like the lecturer obsessed with the Baroque and the man trapped by a religious painting, like so many of the other characters in Seiobo There Below, may be led to moments of grace in which the world bends outward along hidden creases, unfolding into a stage upon which the goddess Seiobo descends to dance, if only for a moment.

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811219679
440 Pages