A simplistic analysis of this book, as I see many reviews state, is viewing it as an apocalyptic event occurring in a small Hungarian town, affecting the lives of some and benefitting the lives of the more powerful. Yet, something seems wrong with that analysis. If the major event of this novel was an apocalypse, then the lives of the citizens would have been vastly different at both ends. Yes, some have died, some have risen or descended in power, some are jailed or institutionalized, some even have seemingly remained in the same place, but nothing has been changed on the grander scale of the town’s inner workings. This is not a book that presents an apocalypse. It is already post-apocalyptic from the first page and we are just seeing the dregs of humanity scuffle about with their lives as if the world has been the same ever since they can remember.
Brilliantly, this post-apocalyptic world isn’t brought about by a nuclear warhead or some new virus strain, it is the world we are living in currently. It is a run-down town in Hungary, plagued by boredom, loneliness, mental illness, crime, and, if not poverty (as was apparent in Satantango), then a form of monetary meaninglessness, where however wealthy or poor the individual may be, they are still living in a world that will not allow them their due. The trains do not arrive on time (disappearing from existence for all the would-be passengers can imagine), the families are broken up and spiting one another, the roads are paved with rubbish:
“Apple cores, bits of old boots, watch-straps, overcoat buttons, rusted keys, everything, he coolly noted, that man may leave his mark by, was here […] and he tapped the pavement with his stick, as if some terrible putrescent marsh had seeped through the thin layer of asphalt to cover everything. A marsh in a bog, thought Eszter, the essential fundamentum of the place, and standing there for a while in vacant contemplation he suddenly had a vision of the houses, trees, lampposts and advertisement hoardings sinking right through it. Could this, he wondered be a form of the last judgment? No trumpets, no riders of the apocalypse but mankind swallowed without fuss or ceremony by its own rubbish?
The Melancholy of Resistance, pg. 128
The circus comes to town featuring, first and foremost, the stuffed carcass of the world’s largest whale. In the background somewhere, behind the director and the façade that is the main attraction, is The Prince: an unseen, deformed man who “calls the shots” even when the circus’ director does not realize it. A troupe of devotees follows them from town to town, listening to the words of The Prince (we can assume), who is now tossed out by the director, and likely commands his followers to ravage and destroy the town that the characters of this novel live in. But what does it mean to burn a city that has already been set ablaze and extinguished, to kill those who are simply walking and semi-conscious corpses?
To me, it seems that it’s that power to rebuild and innovate. It’s the Werckmeister Harmonies that Mr. Eszter thinks can reinvent music, or the stories and songs and fortunes that Valuska sees in the stars. Maybe even in the arrangement of the plants, the furniture, the clothing, within Mrs. Plauf’s home that, while disorganized and chaotic, gives personality to those living within the walls of the town. Or maybe not. Maybe this life is meaningless and simply leads, once again, to the redistribution of atoms in the cosmos – as Krasnahorkai describes in the decomposition of a character’s body at the end of the novel:
Some of the decomposed carbohydrates melted into the air as carbon dioxide so that – theoretically at least – they might, for once in their lives, take part in the process of photosynthesis. So, through various delicate channels, a superior organism welcomed them, dividing them neatly between organic and inorganic forms of being, and when, after a long and stiff resistance, the remaining tissue, cartilage, and finally the bone gave up the hopeless struggle, nothing remained and yet not one atom had been lost. Everything was there, it is simply that there was no clerk capable of making an inventory of all the constituents, but the realm that existed once – once and only once – had disappeared for ever, ground into infinitesimal pieces by the endless momentum of chaos within which crystals of order survived, the chaos that consisted of an indifferent and unstoppable traffic between things. It ground the empire into carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulphur, it took its delicate fibres and unstitched them till they were dispersed and had ceased to exist, because they had been consumed by the force of some incomprehensibly distant edict, which must also consume this book, here, now, at the full stop, after the last word.
The Melancholy of Resistance, pg. 314
The Melancholy of Resistance is a complex, dense, highly philosophical work that somehow surpasses the difficulty of its predecessor, Satantango. It starts with the humorous trek of Mrs. Plauf through her paranoid (but not unrealistically paranoid) trip on the train. It follows with the lives of many of the other characters and then drops us, without warning, into Krasznahorkai’s most pondering philosophy yet. He asks questions that cannot be answered, makes us fear for our meaninglessness, creates hell on Earth, yet, as he always manages to do, creates a sense of hope that maybe something can provide us with a purpose. Maybe it is that possibility that we can one day take part in photosynthesis, that, even when we cannot smile, cannot function – when we are dead, or no longer fully conscious of our existence – we can provide life, meaning, or just our carbon, to something else that can.
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