Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming
László Krasznahorkai’s most recent novel, first published in Hungarian in 2016 and now available in a formidable translation by Ottilie Mulzet, captures with inspired but sinister exactness the feeling of a collective headlong flight – terrified but helpless – towards fiery oblivion. It is therefore, in the most exquisitely dismal way, the perfect book for our contemporary moment.
As the title suggests, the book is about the return of an ageing aristocrat to his baronial seat near a large town in the south-west of Hungary. The wretched, scheming townsfolk learn of his impending return from reports in the Budapest tabloids. The fabulously wealthy baron, claim the newspapers, intends to make an exceptional donation to his home town, saving it from slow death and ushering in a new age of civic improvement.
Everyone – with the exception of a curmudgeonly professor, a world expert on moss – is swept up in the excitement. Alas, they’ve been misled. The baron is broke, having lost everything in the casinos of Buenos Aires. Rescued from an Argentinian jail cell by Austrian relatives – whose only concern is protecting the family name – Baron Wenckheim is returning alone by train, without any luggage and not entirely in his right mind.
The unnamed town is a lightly fictionalised version of Gyula, a city of some 30,000 souls in Békés County, near the Romanian border, which is also the place where Krasznahorkai was born and raised. And it’s the fourth of his novels to be set in – or somehow involved with – this apparently rather depressing provincial backwater.
In his first novel, Sátántangó (1985), three families linger in a broken-down commune on the town’s outskirts, near the overgrown ruins of the Wenckheim Castle. In his second, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), the town is ravaged by the followers of a charismatic homunculus-like creature known as the Prince. And, in War and War (1999), an archivist flees to New York with an ancient manuscript stolen from the town’s records office.
These four Gyula books form, in Lawrence Durrell’s phrase, a sort of “word continuum”. The novels share a complex network of symbols and motifs, with many dark transits and passages of meaning between them. Krasznahorkai himself noted in a recent Paris Review interview that the novels constitute a tetralogy, now complete, where each book is but one aspect of an ideal magnum opus whose totality is revised in each volume but is unrealisable in any single one.
And so, for example, the misplaced faith of the townsfolk in the long-absent baron and his non-existent fortune echoes the misplaced faith of the three families in Sátántangó, who spend much of that novel chucking back pálinka and waiting for the arrival of a conman, Irimiás, who has promised to rescue them from their misery. And in both novels – as in all of Krasznahorkai’s novels and stories – there’s a pervasive feeling of impending doom.
And yet Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming varies the pattern and provides spectacular closure. In Sátántangó the possibility – or desirability – of an ultimate crisis, a cleansing hellfire, is often suggested but never fulfilled. The finale is muffled, anticlimactic. The commune is merely disbanded and the families sent back to the town; there is no great disaster. Here, however, in the book’s closing moments, after many ominous foreshadowings, an impossibly large convoy of petrol tankers crowd into every available space in the town – and wait:
… only the wind roared across the city, turning over everything it could, just this icy wind, it swept again and again among these innumerable transport trucks, but in such a way that every door in every house, every window in every wall, every lamp on the streets along the way trembled, and only these ghastly tankers did not tremble, no, these – faced with the wind that rose against them – didn’t even quiver, they just stood there imperturbably, but also aimlessly, stupidly, and monstrously, like some horrific mistake.
For all this – the stench of diesel and the promise of a long-deferred finality – the book is the funniest and most comprehensible of the four novels. That’s because so much of Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is actually a rather nimble freewheeling polyphonic satire of small-town hypocrisy. The bumbling efforts of the mayor and his cronies to clean up the town before the baron arrives has the sprightliness of an ensemble farce, full of baffled peasants and petty officials bumping into one another and getting nothing right.
The orphans have been moved out of the dilapidated chateau. The homeless have been swept up and hidden in the old folks’ home. An ornate four-horse trap has been acquired to meet the baron at the train station. And a gang of neo-Nazi bikers has agreed to join the local folk choir for a rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.
Meanwhile, the baron – confused and withdrawn – is interested only in the whereabouts of his childhood sweetheart, a woman he has dreamed of for more than half a century. This leads to a grotesque but hilarious encounter in which the baron fails to recognise the woman because she is no longer the same age as in the pale photograph he keeps next to his heart.
And behind it all there is the feeling of some horrific judgement slouching towards the town. The creator, we are told in a cryptic prologue, has lost patience with his creation. He yearns only for an end to this extravagant parody of a funeral march.
It’s no wonder that Krasznahorkai has a large and devoted international following. Yes, his writing has its rigours and demands, with those sprawling sentences plunging page after page, its oppressive fugues, meshed and cross-meshed. But at a time when catastrophist anxiety about the fate of the planet is so much a part of our everyday affective experience, Krasznahorkai might be – and this is a terrible thing to say about an artist hailed by such mavens of difficulty as Sontag and Sebald – the most relevant and relatable of all contemporary writers.
Tuskar Rock, 576pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "László Krasznahorkai, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming". Subscribe here.