Friday, April 10, 2020

Review: Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming

Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming: Stories
From Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming, by László Krasznahorkai

Open quote 

he could hardly even remember that he had a daughter at all, who, as people tended to put it, was 'from the wrong side of the blanket,' he'd forgotten about her, or, to put it more precisely, he'd learned not to think about her, at least when he was able to do so, there were periods — even if transitory — when he was left in peace, sometimes even for years, just as now, he’d been left unperturbed "from that direction," he'd washed his hands of the entire matter, as in general he did with his entire past, he'd washed it away, and as for a good few years now nobody had been pestering him, he'd already reached the conclusion that he was free of all this, free, that is, until yesterday afternoon when out of the blue, unexpectedly, this daughter had just suddenly shown up here, and grabbing a megaphone, yelled out to him 'I'm your daughter, you basest of skunks,'"

This Hungarian novel by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, won the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Grade: C-

Notice that the excerpt above starts with a lower case word and ends with a comma, that's because it's not a full sentence, some "sentences" in this novel go on for pages, it's like Krasznahorkai's keyboard lacks a period, and in those long, dense, run-on sentences Krasznahorkai repeats himself several times, often with a string of synonyms, sometimes with the same words, so, yes, it takes a bit to get used to, eventually, your mind adapts, it treats commas as periods and adjusts when commas as used as commas, I've never read Krasznahorkai before, so I don't know if this is just usual style or if he's experimenting here, but it kept me from wanting to try anything else by him,

Now on to the plot; the aging Baron Wenckheim returns to his hometown in Hungary, but before the baron makes his appearance on these pages, there's a long subplot dealing with "the Professor," a curmudgeonly recluse living in a woods on the town's outskirts, that's the professor the narrator is talking about in the excerpt above; eventually, the novel leaves the Professor's story behind and it's not clear whether it returns to him later, an anonymous screed in the town's newspaper scandalizes the mayor, the police chief, and the Hungarian spirit, is it the Professor? Who knows?

When the baron does make his homecoming, all the Keystone Cops running this town arrange a grand homecoming, which the baron spoils by not wishing to celebrate, it turns out the baron is disappointed by what he finds his hometown has turned into during his decades-long absence, the baron kept a photo of a girlfriend he left behind all those years ago, the reunion doesn't resolve anything.

That synopsis of the plot makes it sound like there is some ordinary story-telling going on here, but the last hundred pages of this novel turns into something resembling magical realism (which I greatly admire in Haruki Murakami), or maybe apocalyptic fiction; in any case the surrealism of the ending makes me wonder if the ending was planned or if Krasznahorkai just got tired of this story and decided to blow it all up.

If that sounds interesting to you, by all means read it, Krasznahorkai has enough of a reputation and this translation won a national book award, so what do I know? I'm probably in the small minority here, but count me out of the Krasznahorkai fan club.

P.S. I avoided using periods in my review, to give you a better idea of what it's like reading this novel.

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