Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai

“… already I am ascending, I still see the troubling chaos of the villages and the cities, the lands and the seas, the valleys and the peaks, and the moment that enclosed so much into itself comes to an end, and as I ascend, everything ascends with me, a magnificence rises there, a magnificence – back to the purity of the Heavens, to the sphere inconceivable – which in its own form, resplendent, streaming forth, swelling, is nothing else than a return back to that place where nothing is, to the Radiant Empire of Light, the boundless plains of the Sky, for that is the place where I exist, although I am not, for this is where I may place my crown upon my head, and I can think to myself that Seiobo was there below.” (p214)

Thus the gods move through the Noh theatre of the story ‘The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki’, one of the seventeen stories that form the formidable Seiobo There Below.

I say formidable because Krasznahorkai’s work is not something you can pick up lightly. The stories themselves are erudite, full of studied learning about history throughout the world, and, like the writing, there is a refusal to bend for the reader. If an explanation of an event or thought requires a sentence several pages long, or a ritual must be described in painstaking detail that refuses to break into the sort of fresh territory in need of a new paragraph, then so be it. These stories demand attention in such a way that even though you feel the reading is at times an ordeal, you end a story with a sense of having actually lived through it, of having moved through the heads of the characters and sensed what they experienced. To read these stories is to be these stories. And of course this way of experiencing a story mimics the way we experience life (it seems to me no surprise that Krasznahorkai returns again and again to the idea of the copy, the renewed icon, the new representation of a temple which is more authentic for its recreation – again no surprise that Japanese culture is therefore so prevalent, a land whose relationship to simulacra is entirely different to a typical western relationship where even the word reproduction has negative overtones). What you bring with you to the story allows you to see and experience only what you can comprehend. It is like being a fly on the wall with internal privileges. You see but you don’t necessarily understand.

In many ways the writing has the labyrinthine qualities of Borges and the grandiloquence of Sebald. The workings of literature are clearly in motion, making the miracles of the world manifest, asking readers, the characters even, to observe. Yet even that is not enough because the act of our observation and consequent action must in its turn be observed. Like the Ooshirosagi, the snow-white bird, hunting motionless in the Kamo river in Kyoto, from the opening story, if no one notices the way in which your stillness gives meaning to the human world of activity around it, you may as well creep into the weeded grass and die because “there will be no one at all to understand, no one to look, not even a single one among all your natural enemies that will be able to see who you really are … for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear” (p15).

My favourite story is ‘Something is burning outside’. It is a story of a creative retreat in the mountains. The routine of the retreat is disrupted by one of the artists who appears to have arrived on foot. For days he seems to do nothing but observe the other artists and in order to get to the bottom of what he is doing, the other artists decide to watch and follow him. They discover that he has been working. For all those days he has been rising at dawn, digging an enormous pit at the edge of the camp in the middle of which stands a “life-size earth-hewn horse … holding its head up; sideways, baring its teeth and foaming at the mouth; it was galloping with horrific strength, racing, escaping somewhere … as if he had dug it out, freed it, made this life-sized animal visible as it ran in dreadful terror, running from something beneath the earth” (p319).  When they show their admiration for his work, he stretches his arm out over the landscape. “There are still so many of them, he said in a faint voice” (p319). And the story ends with him walking away from the bus that delivers the artists back to civilisation, as if, we imagine, he has seen another creature for when they look after him, he has disappeared. “Only the land remained, the silent order of the mountains, the ground covered in fallen dead leaves in the enormous space, a boundless expanse – disguising, concealing, hiding, covering all that lies below the burning earth” (p320).

It seems to me that for these stories, art is all about concentration and the revelation of observation that almost always requires some form of repetition, some kind of physical repetitive craft be it endless careful movements with a chisel or the repeated words of a prayer; ritual is everything. So it doesn’t matter that he tells written history in many of the stories, or describes famous landmarks or works of art, because the power is in the going-over, in the endless turning this way and that of the meaning of all that is and has been. The action of art – the brush stroke, the chisel stroke, the hand moving the pen – that represents observation, as both physical and spiritual, holds the key to the story of conscious being. Because these acts of creation are impossible to do with the certainty of perfection, it must be practised, it must be done again and again.

Seiobo There Below is not an easy read but it is a rewarding one. If you want to feel you have an understanding of modern literature then I think you can’t afford to miss him from your reading list.

Next week I’m reading The Vegetarian by Han Kang.