From the first pages, it is easy to gleam that this was a book written for the traveler and a book written to be traversed. It is divided into two sections, he speaks and he narrates. The first part deals with the pontifications of someone who has seen the world, the next part travels across the world and even into the fine reaches of space. It is the first novel I have read which truly captures the mental vertigo which comes with being a person who can’t stay put in one place, written in an era where more and more people are identifying as wanderers. I not only portend to be such an individual, I might be another physical manifestation of the narrator himself. It is for this reason that despite being a fellow border breaker and sentence maker, despite being so incredibly eager to open my arms to a 60-something-year-old Hungarian as a compatriot of the world with no nations, I must decree that this novel in many way fails.
First of all, for a novel that claims to be set in so many unique places (Shanghai, Varanasi, etc), there is very little feeling of place. Too many sensations of traveling and facts are hurled at the reader, but none of it feels grounded. Perhaps, this is book literally about the idea of travel, which is attempting to create that sense of vertigo that comes with changing countries often? Certainly, more books need to explore the aesthetic potentials of an imagination inculcated from a borderless perspective, but when so many settings are created and none are felt, it is akin to touching the skeleton’s bones, but not giving me the pulp of its organs.
It felt particularly bad in the stories of “He Narrates.” The first of these stories is “Nine Dragon Crossing.” It begins as a story about a man introspecting on his love of waterfalls at Victoria falls. The narration suddenly becomes Shanghai. Fuzhou road, the Bund, and other localities are named, and the narrator complains about traffic, pollution, or crowds, but as someone who has lived in Shanghai, I didn’t feel the sense of anything of how the city is. The disgruntled tourist returns to his hotel and poses existential questions while watching Cantonese shows. His meditations on wholeness return to the image of the waterfall, and the scene ends on a metaphysical epiphany about himself. A lot is ultimately said, but next to nothing is revealed or felt or told. The next two stories feel random and unrelated to the first story. One is a meditation of beauty in the Portuguese countryside, and the other involves the death of a Hungarian film maker. Then, there is the story set in Varanasi, which is such a stereotypical European reaction to India that it made me want to punch him in the face. It becomes very clear that Krasznahorkai cannot think like an Asian. He tries to write around his inability to orient himself around the eastern mind by making it clear he is a foreigner, but still, the lack of psychological nuance affects my reading. The last sections orbit around the earth in space and stare back at humanity with a telescope. The beauty of this novel comes in the insight of its sentences, and I believe it is proven through the depth of the concluding thought of the entire thing.
“I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.”