The Melancholy of Resistance

Laszlo Krasznahorkai

translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
New Directions 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
The Melancholy of Resistance begins with Mrs Plauf, who has a fearful train trip returning home when a cancelled service forces her to share a carriage with the unwashed masses. Beset by anxieties about sex and security, and seeking familiar comforts, she is a fine representative of the bourgeoisie.

Mrs Eszter, in contrast, is a fascist, in bed (literally) with the chief of police, full of plans to reform the town, and adept with propaganda. She has no compunction about using Mrs Plauf and others and then discarding them.

There are signs in these opening chapters that all is not right with their small provincial town: it has been an unseasonably cold November, a travelling circus is advertising the showing of the body of an enormous whale, and an air of menace looms. And when civil order breaks down, Mrs Plauf's worst nightmares come to pass and Mrs Eszter triumphs, returning in the final chapter to enjoy the culmination of her schemes.

The central six chapters of The Melancholy of Resistance alternate between Valuska, Mrs Plauf's son, and Mr Eszter, Mrs Eszter's estranged husband. Valuska is the town simpleton and a dreamer, always thinking about the heavens. And Eszter is a valetudinarian pessimist withdrawn from the evils of the world, a retired music lecturer distressed by the prevalence of the even-tempered scale.

Valuska and Eszter are caught up in the disturbances, but for them the external events are less significant than their psychological effects. Both undergo philosophical epiphanies, though they are unable to communicate them to anyone else. Their one enduring strength is their loyalty to each another.

Krasznahorkai uses chapters of thirty to forty pages, with pretty much no paragraphs and long, long sentences. And he extensively employs quoted cliches, reflecting the way his characters have their thoughts moulded by familiar ideas. Long passages about humdrum matters, for example when Eszter is learning how to hammer nails, and internal monologues are mixed with tense, action-packed episodes. Krasznahorkai's language provides a driving force that works for all of these, and the overall unfolding of the story is steady and inexorable. I found it hard to stop reading within chapters.

Its often feels surreal, but there is nothing in The Melancholy of Resistance that is not ultimately realistic. It is almost stately in its progress, but carries us along at a precipitous rate. And it is almost unremittingly dark and menacing, but at the same time laced through with humour, with elements of the absurd, incongruous juxtapositions, and characters talking at cross purposes.

In the face of unbridled lust for power, withdrawal from the world will fail, whether to the bourgeois' fortified home, the philosopher's intellectual retreat, or the dreamer's imaginative world. Krasznahorkai doesn't offer this as a political or moral lesson, however, but rather explores the consequences for individuals, whose depths are remorselessly revealed to us.

Similarly, Krasznahorkai's little Hungarian town, nameless though it is, is a unique and memorable creation which takes on a life of its own, becoming more than just a stage. The Melancholy of Resistance was written in Hungary in 1989, but it is in no way parochial.

The Melancholy of Resistance is hardly going to command a mass audience, but it is one of the most striking and imposing novels I have read.

January 2008

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%T The Melancholy of Resistance
%A Krasznahorkai, Laszlo
%M Hungarian
%F Szirtes, George
%I New Directions
%D 1998 [1989]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0811215040
%P 314pp