By Bernie Langs
I would bet that it is safe to say that anyone reading these pages is more than busy in this life and that many of you who continue to read for pleasure are overwhelmed by the truth that there are “so many books and so little time.” You may also feel, as I do, that at this point, if I’m going to commit to a book that is both challenging and difficult, it sure as hell better be worth the effort. Keeping this in mind, I have found such incredible joy in chancing upon the works of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (b. 1954). I have had the pleasure of reading three of his works of fiction. Last year in Natural Selections I reviewed his book The Melancholy of Resistance and interviewed its translator. Subsequently, I completed his War & War, a book so powerful that I would read it in dumbfounded awe, and recently I have just finished his Seiobo Down Below.
Seiobo resembles Melancholy and War in having very few paragraphs and outdoes the lengthy sentences of the latter two works by having ideas that often stretch across pages until one reaches through the rush of powerful thoughts and images to arrive at the often yearned for a period and rest. When I had finished just a quarter of this book, I found myself fighting a solipsistic view that Seiobo had been written just for me. This is because the book is really a thematically unified series of short stories, many of which toggle between tales of experiencing Italian Renaissance painters and paintings either as a modern viewer or by peering into a master’s workshop, and stories reflecting the exciting deep mysticism and mystery of Japanese culture. These are two subjects that have consumed me for years. For example, I once considered writing a play about the appearance of the young Raphael arriving in the workshop of the painter Perugino and how it affected the balance of the other young painters in the studio. I now find Krasznahorkai delving into this and other matters of Perugino’s assistants in the chapter “Il Ritorno in Perugia” with elegant prose, and detailed descriptions of Renaissance life, full of powerful emotional depth and beauty.
There are chapters in Seiobo that subtly focus on the theme of an all-consuming responsibility and the necessity of an unquestioned respect for tradition, religion, and art in Japan. These tales, such as “The Preservation of the Buddha” and “The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine,” along with other Japanese-focused stories such as “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki, “He Rises at Dawn,” and “Ze’ami Is Leaving” give shape to the murky and not completely formed ideas that have resonated in me for years on subjects such as the roots of an artist’s deep-seated passion and drive, and the unknowable, complex mystery of Eastern mores, which cannot be truly conceived of but only hinted about for the Western mind.
Nothing is simple in the worlds on display in Seiobo There Below. The stories that focus on modern art lovers and viewers in museums, or, in one case, of the Acropolis in Athens, face life-changing moments of power and force. For years I have struggled to explain the depth of what it is like to experience the consuming hold that Renaissance painting can have on an individual, neither religiously nor aesthetically one as well. Krasznahorkai cuts to the chase on these ideas in his story “Christo Morto,” about a visitor who desires to see the famous paintings by Tintoretto on display at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. Much like the man in the story, I went there quite alone as a tourist when I visited that museum thirty years ago and remember myself as equally as hapless. Within this story Krasznahorkai does not blink when delving into some of the more terrifying notions of why these works of art are literally “alive” in some ways and how that can devastate the art lover at the times when they least expect it.
What I appreciated most from Seiobo There Below is its multitude of approaches to the ideas of art in society, of what it means to be consumed by art either through the eyes of the artists themselves or the beholders, and the way he expresses the obsession with all of this, as reflected by the long, seemingly endless sentences and paragraphs reflecting a mind that is so passionately overwhelmed by thought, beauty, and even pain, to take a rest. The mournful endings of some of these stories are truly inevitable, but I was left greatly disturbed by the last pages of the final chapter, where the idea of buried ancient Chinese artifacts are extrapolated in disturbing fashion to mirror our own fragile and very temporary existences. I had hoped for a more uplifting finish, but Krasznahorkai’s brutal honesty and perception just won’t let it be.