“Everything came to a dead halt” – Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by Lazlo Krasznahorkai

My crippling craving for attention suggests that I have at least one or two “fans” of my Bookmunch reviews. If either of you are reading today, lean in because today’s effort is especially targeted at you. I promise complete transparency about my review of this incredibly brilliant novel by Lazlo Krasznahorkai, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.

I can’t review it.

No, that isn’t true. I can’t do justice to its affect on me. I could cobble together a couple of paragraphs that describe the rather meagre plot (Anita Brookner or William Trevor would pare it down to a tight 150 pages) and spice it a few adjectives that wouldn’t even remotely capture the intensity of my reaction to it. I am aware of my expository limitations. LK deserves more.

Don’t misunderstand; I loved this novel. But I don’t know how to carve out the time to describe it cogently without spending another week re-reading its nearly 600 pages and then another week sifting through my thoughts and observations to locate a coherent thesis around which to defend my argument.

A quarter of the way into Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, LK drops the most sustained, muscular, frantically insane chunk of writing that I’ve read since my favourite passages in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. My desire is to share it in the hopes that at least one person will read it, be astonished by it, and become a convert. Its context is simple. A small Hungarian town has been anticipating the return of the Baron, and this is what happens as he steps out of his car:

“[The biker] raised his pint glass to drain the last drop from it, but then suddenly he stopped halfway through the movement, and the others stopped . . . and for one moment, the entire Biker Bar and the picture on the television screen came to a standstill, the hand of the barman behind the counter came to a standstill, as it was just approaching the opened drawer of the cash register holding a one-thousand-forint note, and in all the pint glasses the beer foam came to a standstill, and . . . on the counter, all of the points of light in the beer rings froze, because everything stopped, everything came to a dead halt, everything froze, . . . because this moment somehow had become shattered — as if some kind of weighty, dark, horrific fear had broken out, disturbing everything that existed, and everyone looked up, . . . awry, at the television screen, . . . but there was nothing up there, because on the television screen the picture had also come to a stop, . . and no one and nothing knew what to do next. . . [Something] had happened, and it all happened exactly in that same moment, . . . everything came to a halt, from fear, to a dead stop because of the fear which had swept across the city, although nobody had lost their common sense; this fear which came upon them was overpowering, and everybody gazed up, awry, seeking for an explanation as to what this was, but there was no explanation, there was only fear, pure fear of something unknown. . . . Whoever saw anything of this didn’t comprehend anything, because that person wouldn’t be able to understand, because a pause had arisen in elementary knowledge and in basic interpretation, so no one could understand who they were or what they were doing here, . . . in short there were more than a few who met up with this stupefying automobile convoy, more than a few who saw them, . . . and maybe they really saw him too, but no one was able to understand anything about this whole thing, because nobody had any idea of what this was, where they had come from, where they were going, and most of all why, such was this spectral line of cars — they glided across the city. . . although nobody would have thought they weren’t here, but at the same time they wouldn’t have thought, yes, they were here, because they weren’t able to think, and, especially, they weren’t able to say that they saw what they saw, because perhaps they hadn’t even seen anything, and yet it was impossible not to see this thing that perhaps didn’t even exist, in any event whoever was out there on the streets wouldn’t have recognized even a single one of these cars if they had dared to try — if they caught a glimpse of them at all — because these cars were impossible to identify: . . . this infinite number of vehicles. . . seemed to belong to some kind of otherworldly army than any actual procession of cars, . . . — even before he got out of the car . . . they were circling around him, doing something around him, and he didn’t even move while he stood there, everyone was doing something with deathly precision, . . . more precisely it was clear that it was something that needed to happen, but nobody was capable of understanding what the point was or what this matter was in which the first and then the second and then the third automobile — and so forth until the one hundredth — was just now proceeding; . . . those who saw him — and they weren’t very many — only saw that his face was unflinching, and very serious, and very severe, and . . . very impatient; for those, who afterword denied forever having seen him on the main square, their sense was that he was traveling with this formidable army in some kind of monumentally important affair. . . as if at the beginning of one moment an entire army had driven through the city, and then, at the end of that moment, completely disappeared — and all because of this matter, which was perfectly concealed from them, and yet of such monumental importance . . .

INTERMISSION: Pardon my interruption, but I just want to inform you that you have reached the halfway point. I encourage you to persevere until the very last sentence. The impact of this passage’s ending is devastating. Trust me. . . if anybody is still reading. . . . No recriminations if you need to jump off; this is a no judgment zone.

. . . but they never spoke about it afterward, moreover the luckier among them truly forgot about it forever, and it was possible to forget, because when it was over, it was as if it had never happened, as if the whole thing had been just some hallucination, . . . that’s how they would have explained it if they hadn’t forgotten about it, but nearly everyone forgot, because this dreadful procession surpassed their ability to make any sense of it, . . . because who would have believed that there really had been that shattered moment, when life came to a stop . . . it was maddening, and of course nobody wanted to believe his eyes, and if somehow something remained in them afterward from everything that had happened, it was only fear, . . . and the memory of fear, and . . . because the strength of this fear was unspeakably deep, primal, and overwhelming, and it didn’t resemble any other earlier fear, not any single fear previously bearable or imaginable, because this wasn’t even any kind of deathly horror. . . but a kind of horror in which beings and objects under the effect of this horror were instead seized by wonder, a kind of ecstatic but degrading amazement toward him standing in the center of everything, because whoever saw him there on the main square . . . could do nothing else but be amazed. . . because it was inexpressibly frightening, but it was as if people and things were only too happy to throw themselves down before him. . . because every being and every object, every process. . . was utterly swept up by the greatness, the unbelievable, incomprehensible, monumental grandiosity that emanated from him, because in that moment — and this is what they mainly wanted to erase from their memories, and . . . they were able to do so to the utmost extent . . . but this surrender was the most unbearable to both people and things alike, because the object of this wonder, the object of this amazement, of this surrender, this enchantment. . . its depth, its essence — when he got out of the car in the main square, with his own deadened gaze and with glacial boredom, he looked around in the end like someone who was in a hurry, and got back into the car quickly, because he wasn’t interested in this town and in these stories, he was evil — evil, sick, and omnipotent.”

Any Cop?: Swiving awesome, right? Right?

 

 

Chris Oleson

2 comments

  1. “this is what happens as he steps out of his car”
    The Baron does not step out of his or any other car here… at this point he is in fact still riding the train back to his hometown.

  2. I may or may not be you third fan – and I will read this book with impassioned, satisfying bafflement, the state in which the best unclassifiable fiction leaves one. Plot never bothered me anyway. Thanks for your unschematic thoughts.

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