Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai

Tank _summer 16_books _19


Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Hardback, 320 pages
Publisher: Seagull Books (January 2016)
ISBN: 9780857423115
Languages: English, Hungarian
Selected by Barbara Epler

“The narrator travels through modern ‘global’, yet somehow still Maoist, China, trying to reach the past, trying to see what remains of the Middle Kingdom’s ancient cultural riches, and trying to reach the city of Jiuhuashan (always asking: ‘This still isn’t Jiuhuashan, is it?’). But the last thing László Krasznahorkai is ever going to offer us is false hope or neat resolutions.” —Barbara Epler 


There is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called Southwestern Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on 5 May 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and the unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing from the bays of this station, a regional bus, starting from the No. 5 bus stop, slowly ploughs onward – among the other buses and the puddles and the bewildered crowd of wretched, stinking, grimy people – up to the vortex of the street, then sets off into the wretched, stinking, grimy streets; there is nothing more hopeless than these streets, than these interminable barracks on either side, numbed into their own provisional eternity, because there is no word for this hopeless colour, for this slowly murderous variation of brown and grey, as it spreads over the city this morning, there is no word for the assault of this hopeless din, if the bus pauses briefly at a larger intersection or a bus stop, and the female conductor with her worn features opens the door, leans out and, hoping for a new passenger, shouts out the destination like a hoarse falcon; because there is no word which in its essence could convey whether the direction in which he now travels with his companion, his interpreter, exists in relation to the world; they are headed outwards, moving away from it, the world is ever farther and farther away, ever more behind them; they are shaken, jolted in advance in the disconsolate brown and yellow of this ever-thicker, indescribable fog; headed to where it can hardly be believed that there could be anything beyond the brown and the grey of this frighteningly dreary mixture; they sit at the back of the ramshackle bus, they are dressed for May but for a different May, so they are chilled and they shiver and they try to look out of the window but they can hardly see through the grimy glass, so they just keep repeating to themselves: Fine, good, it’s all right, they can somehow put up with this situation, not to be eaten up from without and within by this grimy and hopeless fog is their only hope; and that where they are going exists, that where this bus is supposedly taking them – one of the most sacred Buddhist mountains, Jiuhuashan1 – exists.

The woman at the ticket counter said that the trip would be roughly four hours, and then, just to be helpful, she added – tilting her head a little by way of explanation – that, well, what she meant was four or four and a half, from which it could already be suspected just what kind of bus they would be boarding; it has, however, just now, after the first hour, become obvious that no one really knows how long, because there is no way of knowing how much time it will take to get to Jiuhuashan, because the journey is slowed down by so many unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences – and everything, particularly the weather, is completely unpredictable – unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences which, as a matter of fact, are unforeseeable only to them as, for the most part, the personnel – the driver and the conductor – are to be thanked for all these unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences, the driver and the conductor, who – as it becomes clear soon after leaving the city – regard the task before them as their own private business venture, and so come to a halt not only at the prescribed stops but almost everywhere, trying to pick up more and more passengers from among the people walking along the side of the highway, from one kilometre to the next it is practically a hunt for yet more passengers, passengers with whom – following a negotiation which is opaque to them, because hardly a word is spoken – some kind of agreement is settled upon in a moment, money flashes in one hand, then disappears in another, on this ever-more congested route, therefore, black-market transport is taking place. 

[1] Jiuhuashan (“Mountain of Nine Flowers”): one of the four sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism. Its name is derived from a line in a poem by Li Taibai. It was once home to between 200 and 300 monasteries.