A mountain to the north a lake to the south paths to the west a river to the east KrasznahorkaiThis blog focuses mainly on speculative fiction, and as such this short novel with a very long title is not out of place: one could approach this as a sensitive mythopoetic tale, about a grandson of a prince, living outside of space and time, wandering the grounds of a monastry in Kyoto, searching for an elusive, possibly perfect, garden.

One could also approach it as high literature of the most oppressive sort, like Marcel Theroux did in The Guardian: “It’s not beyond me to imagine that there are readers who want to surrender to the strangeness of his prose, the long, self-cancelling sentences and the obsessive descriptions. My view is that 100 years after Ulysses and The Waste Land, his writing is a belated tribute act to modernism that perpetuates its worst traits: obscurity, self-referentiality, lazy pessimism and lack of empathy with the lives of non-academic readers.”

Having an academic background myself, I guess I’m biased. I acknowledge that A Mountain to the North, A Lake to the South, Paths to the West, A River to the East is not for everybody – what book is? – but Theroux’s remark is terribly misguided: does he ask of Colleen Hoover if she has empathy with her academic readers? So instead of lazy shots as intellectuals, he might have just acknowledged Krasznahorkai’s 2003 title simply didn’t click with him, because, indeed, he failed to connect with the prose and the themes. There is no shame in that. Shaming its writer however, is not very empathic.

But enough with the negative vibes: I think Északról hegy, Délről tó, Nyugatról hegyek, Keletről folyó is an absolute masterpiece. 5 stars! 6 stars even! I’m not an expert on translation nor Hungarian, but it seems more than remarkable that Ottilie Mulzet managed to translate such peculiar prose from an non-Indo-European language and still conveys something of László Krasznahorkai’s flow and poetry.

This is a book to surrender too, and then be rewarded with a certain ecstasy and wonder about the terrifying miracle and baffling mystery that is all that exists. The nature of reality and the reality of nature is often pondered in literature and art, its infinite mystery even celebrated, but when push comes to shove, its profound and utter incomprehensible strangeness is generally ignored. Not so by Krasznahorkai: it seems the very heart of his writing. A 2022 interview in Rekto:Verso confirms this: “I try to express something that I cannot. The highest art can build a bridge, but only until it reaches the border of the hidden reality – you cannot move beyond that. I try to reach that border through beauty. That is not the only way, but it is my way.”

When Theroux goes on in his review, writing that this book doesn’t seem interested in “the relationships, love, toil, conflicts, needs and interactions of ordinary people” he misses the point, as the lives of people are embedded in the miracle that Krasznahorkai tries to come to grips with. To me, A Mountain to the North showcased nothing but sensitivity for what it means to be alive, even if it also expresses the sentiment that a demand such as Theroux’s – to put the human in the center – is a form of self-absorbed navel gazing.

Ever since the publication of Sátántangó in 1985 László Krasznahorkai has been a stalwart of Hungarian literature, and fellow countryman Béla Tarr’s made six movies based on his work. His work was translated, but for years in German only. When Krasznahorkai’s debut was translated into English in 2012, things really took off – to the extent that he’s been dubbed a future Noble Prize winner. In 2015 he won the Man Booker International Prize, for his entire body of works, and in 2019 the American National Book Award, for Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.

I’ve been aware of Krasznahorkai’s oeuvre for quite some time, even attracted to it – just read the blurb of The Melancholy of Resistance – but I’ve never dared to try his work because of said prose. K writes long sentences, stretching pages and pages – sometimes even the entire story. I’ve always been a bit weary of books that don’t allow breathing space, dreading long chapters in regular prose books too. But when I learned that this title was translated in 2022, I decided to take the jump. The premises intrigued me, it was portrayed as a bit lighter as his other work, and while the sentences are still long, the book is short, as are the 49 chapters, stretching from a paragraph to just a couple of pages.

Long, long sentences mimic real everyday language better, and I must say that once you get used to the flow, the reading wasn’t as demanding as I thought it would be – on the contrary, the prose even has a certain natural quality to it, which is a bit paradoxical, as they clearly are wrought at the same time.

I’ve decided not to zoom in on the themes of the novel in this review. I’ve already said a bit a few paragraphs above, and so it’s clear that there’s an undercurrent of Buddhism in the book – mind you, not some cheap Eastern flavored knock-off mysticism, K is heartfelt & clear-minded about the phenomenon that is existence. I don’t want to spoil your fun of discovery. The novel is dense & rich, and other people will get other things from it.

If it has one weakness, it is a paradox that is central to A Mountain to the North, A Lake to the South, Paths to the West, A River to the East: shouldn’t we just look and be silent, instead of reading and writing all these words?

I guess it is a form of therapy, defense even, and even though K is no Platonist – I’d even say vehemently anti-platonic – I’m glad for his attempt to capture all these ideas on these 130 pages. Besides, K is well aware of the paradox himself – talking to Eszter Krakkó: “Writing is quackery. But so is proclaiming anything about reality.” And a bit further down: “But readers need it, not as medicine, not as delusion, but because they need someone to tell them there is no medicine.”

I will reread this one day, and before that, I will read more of László Krasznahorkai – I don’t seem to fear his prose any longer. I’ve already ordered two titles. The Last Wolf collects three novellas, again some shorter work, to warm up for The Melancholy of Resistance. If you have any ideas of what to read next, in which order, don’t hesitate to comment.

For now, A Mountain to the North joins that other stunning Hungarian novel, Magda Szabó’s The Door, as one of my favorite books ever.

A-Mountain-to-the-North-a-Lake-to-the-South-Paths-to-the-West_-a-River-to-the-East-paperback-KrasznahorkaiÉszakról hegy, délről tó, nyugatról hegyek, keletről folyó Krasznahorkai A Mountain To the North A Lake to the South

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


11 responses to “A MOUNTAIN TO THE NORTH, A LAKE TO THE SOUTH, PATHS TO THE WEST, A RIVER TO THE EAST – László Krasznahorkai (2003, transl. 2022)

  1. A passionate review, Bart. I’ve never heard of this writer. Thanks for talking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I pretty sure this would appeal to M. John Harrison readers by the way. I just saw that he reviewed this book a few weeks ago for TLS, but that review is behind a paywall.


  2. You make a very good case for this Krasznahorkai work, Bart, and I can almost guess its nature from the specificity of its title. Thanks for sharing and pah! to Theroux.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes the title is a very good one – even though the book is a very strange bland of cold facts and something more esoteric. I can see Theroux’s problems with this book, but they way he words them tastes like a certain form of elitism too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A very emotional and passionate review, Bart, and a pleasure to read. I will keep this title in mind, it sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ola. I was suprised that this book had such an impact on me, really a great feeling to be still able to be surprised after so many books. I think there´s a good chance you´d like this too. Not as much necessarily, but enough you should check it out. It´s also wholly original, if that counts for something.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Satantango and Melancholy were both fantastic novels, instant favorites even. Did not enjoy War & War that much but I will continue to read more from Mr. Krazsnahorkai

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your description makes me think of Tom McCarthy’s The Incarnation of Making – an anti-novel with similar traits. I’m on the side of Marcel Theroux in these cases, but I do appreciate that such books offer a counter-punch to the plethora of cheap, low(est)-brow fiction that we see more often. There have to be extremes to keep the middle honest. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Theroux really, really overstates the case. I should have made that a bit more clear in the review. This is no anti-novel. For comparison, I thought Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition was much more inaccessible. Yes, Krasznahorkai writes long sentences, but I would not call this academic or obscure myself.

      But I agree, I’m generally no fan of mere formalism for the sake of formalism, or anti-novels in general.

      I think there’s a good chance you’d like this. Maybe sample a bit of the writing via Amazon’s Look Inside function. I was drawn in by page 7 or 8.


  6. Pingback: FOUNDATION TRILOGY – Isaac Asimov (1951-’53) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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