Reviews / March 2016 (Issue 31)

Taken as Strictly True: Neuroscience and Sinology in Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens

by Lucas Klein


László Krasznahorkai (author), Ottilie Mulzet (translator), Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage, Seagull Books, 2016. 320 pgs.


In my favourite poem by Wang Wei (699–759), the poet tries to get to a mountaintop temple—allegorising the individual's quest for Buddhist enlightenment—but gets lost in the fog. He sits and meditates by a pond, instead, and achieves enlightenment by not making it to his destination.

The first time I heard of László Krasznahorkai was in 2002, after Imre Kertész had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A neuroscientist friend of mine told me her Hungarian supervisor said the new laureate wasn't close to being the best Hungarian novelist—that I should read Krasznahorkai instead. The second time I remember being aware of Krasznahorkai was when his novel Satantango (translated by George Szirtes) won the 2013 Best Translated Book Award. Notes on the Mosquito, my translation of the poetry of Xi Chuan, had been shortlisted in the poetry category, and when I spoke on the phone with Xi Chuan to tell him we hadn't won, he asked who'd received the fiction prize. A Hungarian writer whose name I couldn't remember or pronounce, I told him, with a novel about Satan and the tango, or something. "Oh," he said, "László."

That my first two encounters with the name Krasznahorkai (which I can now remember and, I think, pronounce) came from a neuroscientist and a Chinese poet is particularly apt for Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, his newest book to be published in English, as translated by Ottilie Mulzet. A non-fiction tale of a trip through China in 2002, meeting with Chinese poets and complaining about the country's loss of its ancient heritage throughout, the memoir is also a somewhat novelistic look at the mind's handling of discomfort, disappointment and displacement. My own reading experience was one of being amazed at the representative resonances with those whom I know among the book's characters—critic Tang Xiaodu and poets Yang Lian and Ouyang Jianghe as well as Xi Chuan—while also being enwrapped in the dramatic tension of its various frustrations.

By the time I read Destruction and Sorrow, of course, Krasznahorkai had already won another Best Translated Book Award (2014)—for Seiobo There Below, also translated by Ottilie Mulzet—not to mention the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. I've even assigned sections of Seiobo to my students: its final chapter takes place in China, yet,

we say China but think of something else—if we do not wish to delude ourselves and mislead others, as they, the Chinese, have done themselves for several thousand years now … as if China, Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom, or in other words the World, were one unified whole, as if it were one Country, which actually it never was, for in truth there were many kingdoms and many peoples, many nations and many princes, many tribes and many languages, many traditions and many borders, many beliefs and many dreams, that was Zhongguo, the World, with so many worlds inside of it, that to enumerate them, trace them, recognise them, or understand them is impossible with one single brain ...

My lesson focuses on how Krasznahorkai presents China while also deconstructing the China he presents.

But Destruction and Sorrow is different, because it chronicles a true story. Or does it? Is it non-fiction, and does it matter? When James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, billed as a memoir, was revealed to be fictional (and originally shopped to publishers as a novel), Oprah Winfrey felt "really duped," and said Frey had "betrayed millions of readers." But an American novelist I know commented online that whether a story is true or not is irrelevant to its quality: "The very act of writing words down on a page is a 'fictional' one … Let's face it: Writing is lying." Oprah was giving the popular take (we do seem to respond differently to stories we believe are true), my friend the view from literary theory (there's no good reason for our responses to be different). But the question of truth and fiction of and in literature has been a fraught one in particular for Western scholars of Chinese writing. While those trained in European literature are equipped to believe that writing is in itself a fictional act, others have argued, "In the Chinese literary tradition, a poem is usually presumed to be nonfictional: its statements are taken as strictly true." But this statement is itself at the core of further debates in Chinese literary studies, such as about Orientalism and the mental sequestering of China as an object of study that comprises much scholarship in Chinese literature. The response has been that such claims of Chinese literature's essential non-fictionality are untenable, because while they attempt to present a difference we should respect and not subsume or colonise into Western literary presumptions, the claim for such a difference in the first place depends on its point of view transcending the categories that make such difference possible. And positing Chinese non-fictionality may, in fact, be nothing more than a fantasy of China as transcendental other that serves only as an imaginary foil to frustrations with the West as we have come to know it.

These questions beat at the unreachable heart of Chinese literary scholarship, and I hear them also in the heart of Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens. László Stein—the pseudonymous avatar of Krasznahorkai in the book—is motivated throughout by a desire to see the "real" China, the authentic China, from before it was overridden by commercialism and consumerism and when Confucianism could provide a model for moral action and intellectual responsibility. The book begins with Stein's pilgrimage to the sacred Buddhist mountain Jiuhuashan, in Anhui province, where

it suddenly comes to mind how hopeless it was, indeed, the journey here ever- and ever- and ever-more hopeless, as in a fairytale, but at once he feels certain that he did the right thing, yes, the right thing in designating Jiuhuashan as the first goal of his journey, his planned quest for the detritus of Chinese classical culture, yes, precisely this abandoned Buddhist mountain: everyone tried to talk him out of coming here, just what are you thinking, what will you find there, his Chinese friends asked him, there's nothing there any more, nothing that you would hope for, no kind of hope at all, not least in Jiuhuashan, they noted disapprovingly, and they just shook their heads ...

Frustrated by his failure to find any remnants of such a past, he interrogates (or even bludgeons) his interlocutors, through his interpreter, about the apocalyptic fall from such grace. "He asks if he sees things at all correctly in thinking that the position of classical culture in China has been completely laid to waste," and he does not accept the answer.

Not that the answers are, for the most part, very good. Many of these dialogues have the look of duelling Orientalisms, competing fantasies about the presence or absence of the Chinese essence. Stein says "classical culture is not a real, living element of everyday life or festivals … where can a young person find out anything at all about his original culture?", and his interlocutor says, "you do not know Chinese writing. The foundation of Chinese culture is the knowledge of Chinese writing. You will never know anything at all about Chinese culture." Stein tells a Buddhist abbot that "he is appalled by what is going on so often in these temples and monasteries. Everything reeks of money"; the abbot does not tell him that throughout Chinese history rich people have, as they did in Europe, given money to temples to buy them favour in the afterlife. Stein wants to resolve what he thinks of as "an insoluble problem: the Buddha's words were put into writing only several centuries after they were heard." He asks the abbot, "the Buddha never wrote down his teachings. Despite all the refined, and unparalleled, techniques of oral transmission, what emerged later on were actually translations … Where can someone find the right approach to lead him to the Buddha's original train of thought?" Rather than questioning the pilgrim's desire to reach an origin, the monk only says the Buddha's "most loyal disciple, Ananda, faithfully quoted the words of the Buddha … what it contains, its spirit—that is the original." Like Hegel, Stein and many of the people he meets believe China is, or was, "an enormous, timeless empire." The debate is only whether China suffers by not being able to return to such eternal imperialism, or whether it is still there.

A turning point comes—or should come—when Stein meets Xi Chuan, who introduces a fuller version of Chinese history to him. China's alleged turning away from its traditions is not recent, but rather can trace back to 1919, "the year in which China was destroyed by the Japanese and Western alliances. China was forced to open itself. And what followed … China died as a nation—it no longer existed." Yet even that is too recent, as Xi Chuan explains: "At the time of the Song dynasty [960–1279] development was halted. The reason: China had reached maximum prosperity, the ruling class was very wealthy and people simply had no need for development … from that age onward, Chinese culture began to founder. That was the time of the Mongolian conquest, the arrival of the Manchurians … That process that began in the Song era led directly to the collapse of the Qing dynasty [in 1911]." After that, the poet Ouyang Jianghe explains to Stein that his problem derives from a fundamentally European longing for Chinese authenticity:

The Europeans believe that their culture can be preserved in a museum—but the Chinese don't think so. Europeans believe that culture is something they can grasp and touch because, for them, culture is comprised of objects, or remnants of objects, and this object, this remnant, conceals within it the essence of the original. For the Chinese, the matter is completely different—for them, the essence of culture can only be preserved in a spiritual form. For example, the Chinese always make their buildings out of wood, and not stone, because the important thing is not how long the building is going to stand.

In the West, Ouyang explains, "value can be expressed in money. This cannot occur with a Chinese spiritual discovery or philosophy." Stein balks: "Does he really think that the philosophy of Kant or Plato could be expressed in euros?" Nevertheless, it opens the way for the narrative to progress, and the drama is not about whether China has lost its traditions, but about whether the traditions Stein finds himself finding are real or imaginary. At the book's end, Stein visits the gardens of Suzhou, which consisted, he learns, of "an art that was constantly undergoing change, as anything else in the classical tradition," yet was also "at once the location and the emblem of withdrawal from society. For each individual, the garden was his own world, as it were, the expansion of who he was." At the end of his Chinese journey, Stein seems to have found what he was looking for.


Most reviews so far have taken Stein's opinions at face-value, as if they represent the honest thoughts of Krasznahorkai himself. Writing about the presumptuousness of foreigners believing in the "'refined sensibilities' of some 'authentic Chinese spirit,'" M. A. Orthofer at The Complete Review says, "Stein surprisingly doesn't ask himself whether what he experiences isn't in fact, the actual, better representation of whatever the 'authentic Chinese spirit' might be than the idealised form he reveres (but presumably only knows from historical and literary accounts)." Responding to criticisms like this that met the book after its publication in Hungarian, translator Mulzet writes, "Probably the most unsettling thing in this book is the clear impression that most of his interviewees are themselves unaware of what has been lost … it is worth noting that Krasznahorkai published this volume at a time when so many books about China published in English, for example, did little more than trumpet the so-called 'economic miracle.'" Earlier, she cited Czech sinologist Oldrich Král on the "Chinese philosophical heritage" that "can in no way be understood 'as a mere extension of our own history of philosophy' … Král emphasises the lyric and correlative character of Chinese thought, as opposed to the epic and analytical character of the West … we cannot disregard the unique character of the language, described by one of Krasznahorkai's respondents as 'a vision, a revelation.'" And Michael LaPointe in the Los Angeles Review of Books writes, "Many will find Stein's uncompromising attitude controversial, perhaps seeing it as nostalgia for a time when millions languished in abject poverty. What's more, critiquing modern China on anything but human rights is often seen as an expression of Western anxiety or condescension" (I don't know why it should be controversial; liberal historian Pierre Ryckmans wrote in 1989 that China's "physical elimination of the past" has not been limited to the Cultural Revolution: "if in so many cities it was possible for mere gangs of schoolchildren to loot, burn and raze to the ground the near totality of the local antiquities, it was because in the first instance there had not been much left for them to destroy"). But the problem with such assertions is that they all fall into the trap of believing the China they perceive, or wish to perceive, to be the real China as it must be. Král is right that Chinese philosophy should not be subsumed into Western philosophy, but statements about its "lyric and correlative character" likewise try to transcend the categories on which such statements rely, while continuing to fantasise about a civilisation of lyricism and correlation.

The question returns to whether Chinese poetry is strictly true and if our experience is different if we presume what we are reading to be nonfictional. The fictionality or non- of Destruction and Sorrow is a question other reviewers have pondered, though not quite the way I bring it up. Jeffrey Zuckerman in The New Republic wonders about the extremes of Krasznahorkai's apocalyptic vision and his luminous vignettes, asking, "How could two such extremes be found within the same Hungarian master, and be expressed in the same intricately woven prose?" His answer is that when "Krasznahorkai realises that the world of his fictions is not even slightly fictional, when the hellish emptiness and ennui of his native Hungary is all too visible in foreign lands, then the result can no longer be to go on creating the same fictions." Less ponderously, Tony's Reading List says that the book is "typical Krasznahorkai, with lengthy, elegant sentences and characters wandering lost in the fog, leaving most readers wondering at this point if Destruction and Sorrow … is actually a novel after all." For me, this question is central to the unreachable point of Krasznahorkai's memoir, because it is about its own truth claims and truth value as a representation of China.

Take the turn that comes with Stein's discussions with Xi Chuan and Ouyang Jianghe. Just as they redraw sightlines onto Stein's own blindness, they have their own shortcomings. Xi Chuan's hypothesis that the Song dynasty was the height of Chinese prosperity and led to the collapse of the imperial system nine and a half centuries later may be too close to the notion of civilisational degeneration that underpins Confucian conservatism. And Ouyang Jianghe's pinpointing of Stein's Eurocentric epistemology—it resonates with Ryckmans, but is it not also the same as Král's binary mysticism about "the lyric and correlative character of Chinese thought"? Then again, Ouyang may not have actually said what he is said to have said, or believed it: in his 1993 poem "Notes Toward a Fiction of the Market Economy," Ouyang writes, "A steam train departs from costumed reality, a slogan / turns heavy industry light" (translated by Austin Woerner). It is a poem in which Marx's "All that is solid melts into air" can undercut Wallace Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." Is this the same poet who tells Krasznahorkai, I mean Stein, that whereas Europeans look for a material truth to their historical artifacts, in China they preserve their cultural essence in a spiritual form? In other words, while Stein may be no more aware of his chinoiserie fantasies than any of the other characters in the book, Krasznahorkai is. But this does not mean that the fantasies are not also true.

As much as China is a real place, it is also the collection and projection of our collective experiences of it. This is where the relevance of being recommended Krasznahorkai by a neuroscientist melds with his being introduced by a Chinese poet. Neuroscience studies the material substructure of mental activity: does that mean that the mind, our experience, is not as really real as it is to us? If China's being strictly true is a fiction, is its fiction true? If I am frustrated that Destruction and Sorrow does not end with a more frustrating ending—like Wang Wei reaching his destination by not reaching his destination—my own frustration is my reward, and enlightenment.

This is the game Krasznahorkai plays. His self-aware presentation of his Westerner's vision is embodied and embedded in his structure. In Hungarian, Stein's name is Dante. Changing it to Stein invokes Aurel Stein (1862–1943), the Hungarian-British archaeologist who discovered the grottoes at Dunhuang and removed four cases of relics and paintings and twenty-four cases of medieval manuscripts to the British Museum in London, where they are preserved, or to which they were stolen. But the moniker Dante also implies Destruction and Sorrow's knowing Eurocentrism: the book's three-part structure proceeds through the hell of the narrator's exasperation to the utopia of the Suzhou gardens (reviewer Josh Cook sees Krasznahorkai's books "War & War, Destruction and Sorrow, and Seiobo There Below as a sort of existential trilogy, one that moves from dread to purgatory and finally, to the sublime"; I do not see these propositions as mutually exclusive). By positing his China as a passage through the hereafter, Krasznahorkai acknowledges his enclosure within the Western tradition. Not that all narratives in Western literature are fulfilled: from Exodus to Ulysses, heroes have failed in their journeys, too. Or that unfulfilled narratives are the only Chinese authentic: don't the pilgrims in Journey to the West reach Buddha's Western Heaven?

The unity of these opposites may reach full culmination in Ottilie Mulzet's translation. Reading her translation into English of Krasznahorkai's translation into Hungarian of his transcription of Xi Chuan's words to him in English, I heard Xi Chuan's voice in my head—in English, as of course his tone is different in Chinese. Mulzet has written that Krasznahorkai would answer her questions via email, but that his "explicit instructions" were rare: "for example, he didn't want any of the foreign words in Seiobo italicised, and I could understand why, because they're even more disorientating when they're seemingly innocently integrated into the text." I asked her if she had access to Krasznahorkai's record of his dialogue with Xi Chuan; she did not. At other points, what is true within the book makes me question what I take for true outside it: Yang Lian, a poet who has spent decades living in London, tells Stein, "go see my father in Tianjin … and then you will see that Chinese classical culture is certainly still alive," but I have heard Yang Lian describe his father as a rebel who joined the Communist Party as a young man to overthrow the system of his own traditional upbringing (of course, Stein notes that when he meets Yang Qinghua that "it is clear that what is to follow will be a performance"). Mulzet's translation of Krasznahorkai's conversations with people who do not speak English is equally awesome, as in the book they are translated to Stein by his interpreter to write in Hungarian. That this is not all an incomprehensible jumble is a feat of incredible transmission. As Stein says, at one point, "He doesn't know how to explain how this is possible, but he has understood, and he understands, every single word." In its way, it resolves Stein's insoluble problem at the Buddhist temple about the Buddha's lost words: the translations—that is the original.

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