László Krasznahorkai's Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming has a Dickensian flourishby JA Hopkin / December 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
This year’s winner of the US National Book Award for Translated Literature, László Krasznahorkai, claims this novel is his last. His first, Satantango, gave us Irimias, an “angel of hope,” a self-appointed visionary promising to raise the people from squalor. The eponymous Baron, however, is a more reluctant saviour, sent in shame from a rich émigré’s life in Argentina back to a Hungary in which “nothing worked.” Nevertheless, the desperate authorities deem him the long-awaited “true patriot.”
Then there’s the professor who has barricaded himself in a hut, while trying to limit his thinking to two hours a day. His “sick compulsion of thought” allows Krasznahorkai his customary worrying around a detail until the detail fades, leaving a mantra of fret, a strangely uplifting pessimism.
The author provides a formidable supporting cast, both contemporary and timelessly provincial: a neo-Nazi biker gang, a police chief, a station-master, a sycophantic mayor, a café-owner, orphans, (unvoiced) refugees, the Baron’s childhood sweetheart, newspaper editors, and, most colourful of all, Dante of Szolnok, a fraudster named after a former Bayern Munich footballer. With a Dickensian flourish, the author gives each their telling moans and groans.
In closing what he calls his “novel cycle,” Krasznahorkai is keen to spell it out. He decries the dangers of isolationism. A librarian is upbraided for using grammar “in a non-Hungarian way.” And one of the author’s dearest themes, critical perception/vigilance as a form of resistance, is more important than ever: “we must never lose sight of that gaze with which we look at things.” Even Krasznahorkai’s characteristically dark humour feels more buoyant: the professor’s phone app “caused a man’s voice, every hour, to announce the correct time while weeping.”
The Hungarian master has created perhaps his most accessible novel, while showing us how all our would-be fisher-kings are fake.
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Tuskar Rock, £20)