This 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.