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László Krasznahorkai - the perfect international writer

László Krasznahorkai - the perfect international writer

László Krasznahorkai is the perfect international writer for the Man Booker International Prize. Born in Hungary, the 61-year-old Krasznahorkai has lived and worked in Germany, Mongolia, China, Japan and New York (living in Allen Ginsberg's apartment), so he has seen a bit of the world. His admirers, from the late W.G. Sebald to Susan Sontag, are similarly diverse. His writing meanwhile is equally hard to pin down.  The phrases used by Dame Marina Warner when she announced him as the winner of the £60,000 prize suggested something of his complexity: ‘an absurdist who shows no pity’, a writer of works that are ‘often piercingly beautiful’, and of ‘fiction as epiphany’, a man who represents ‘a unique weave of thoughts and words and sensibility’, a writer who is ‘gallows humorous and surprisingly light footed’. A tricky chap to get a handle on then.

When asked recently how he would describe his works to someone unfamiliar with them, Krasznahorkai responded: ‘Letters; then from letters, words; then from these words, some short sentences; then more sentences that are longer, and in the main very long sentences, for the duration of 35 years. Beauty in language. Fun in hell.’ This definition, both playful and accurate, can be seen in the comma-less first sentence of his best-known novel, Satantango: ‘One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.’

An equally good example, if only Krasznahorkai would publish it, would be his winner's speech at the award ceremony. Long-term attendees at prize events have heard speeches take many forms, from the short and stumbling and the rambling and inclusive to the humorous and self depreciating, Krasznahorkai's took the form of a recitation and an incantation. In looking back at all those who had inspired or helped him as a writer he name-checked a bewildering array of figures great and small. His first teacher of Latin and Greek was mentioned (now, in Krasznahorkai's repeated ritualistic phrase, ‘no longer among the ranks of the living’); his first wife too (who was, apparently, quick to point out when his writing was no good); Dostoevsky and his literary hero Kafka were honoured; Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave had their moment alongside J.S. Bach; Krasznahorkai's second wife too, naturally; the critic James Wood and W.G. Sebald (‘no longer among the ranks of the living’) and a host of others. As Krasznahorkai writes elsewhere in Satantango, ‘jokes are just like life. Things that begin badly, end badly. Everything’s fine in the middle, it’s the end you need to worry about.’ No need to worry here though: as he went, ticking off those still among the ranks of the living and those not, the audience was visibly delighted by the wit, flow and novelty of the performance (and it was a performance). If only all such speeches could be as good.

An acceptance speech may be an odd way to approach an unfamiliar writer but in the case of Krasznahorkai and his unique, complicated, flavoursome fictional world, conjured up (in Edwin Frank's wonderful phrase), in sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths, it seems oddly appropriate. But the only way really to see why the Man Booker International judges chose him is to read him.