"War and War, Laszlo Krasznahorkai's second novel in English from New Directions, begins at a point of danger: on a dark railway bridge, Korin the archivist is on the verge of being attacked and robbed by thuggish teenagers. Desperate, at times almost mad, but also keenly empathic, Korin has discovered in a small Hungarian town's archives an antique manuscript of startling beauty: it narrates the epic tale of brothers-in-arms struggling to return home from a disastrous war. Korin is determined to do away with himself, but before he can commit suicide, he feels he must escape to New York with the precious manuscript and commit it to eternity by posting it all on the Web. Following Korin with obsessive realism from his first landing in a Bowery flophouse through the streets of New York, War and War relates his encounters with a fascinating range of humanity in a world torn between viciousness and mysterious beauty."--BOOK JACKET.
I chose to read "War & War" ("Háború és Háború" in Hungarian) instead of "Satantango" or "The Melancholy of Resistance", Krasznahorkai's two other popular novels, because it takes place, in part, in New York City. I thought this would be a good place to start my relationship with a writer who's from such a different culture.
The first thing that anyone reading this book will notice is the unique style of writing that the author employs. The book is divided into chapters, which in turn are divided into smaller sections, with each section being comprised of a single, whirling sentence that keeps going and going and yet folding back in on itself. This make the read more difficult, but with the fantastic translation of Szirtes (I mean, I suppose it's fantastic, not that I know anything about Hungarian - I just feel like he deserves some credit here) and the intrigue that Krasznahorkai provides, the book still ends up being beautifully paced. Sometimes long sentences can kill a novel's momentum, but that's not the case here. They only heighten the effect of following the main character of the book, Korin, and his idiosyncrasies.
Korin is suffering. It could be argued as to what he is suffering from - social anxiety, depression, possibly schizophrenia. Maybe he's just an idiot, like his roommate and savior in America, Mr. Saravy, would say. But it seems that Korin's condition is an as-yet undiscovered disorder, one that arises from living in modernity and being hyper-aware.
Part of the strength of the novel lies in Korin's character, whom the reader cannot help but sympathize with. The other part resides in the fantastic manuscript that Korin himself is reading and talking about within the novel. It follows four soldiers as the travel from place to place, and time to time, and the conditions they endure.
As of this writing, I have not quite finished the book. I have about 40 pages left in the 280 page novel. The conclusion seems, however, inevitable. The trajectory of Korin's life is determined at the outset. This might be a turn off for those who relish suspense and surprises in their reading, but despite knowing where the novel is going all along, the experience of it all, Krasznahorkai's expansive syntax yet tightly crafted world, makes this book worth the read.
I'd recommend for anyone who enjoys foreign literature, especially that of Eastern Europe, or who has read and enjoyed Kafka or Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground."
The gimmick you'll notice first is that War and War is written in the form of extremely long sentences, some of which can go on for pages. I took this as a reflection of the main character's mental state, as he's none too stable, and more than a bit obsessed and confused. The run-on-sentences therefore mimics the breathless manic thoughts of the protagonist. This gimmick got old for me before even a third of the book was done, but because Krasznahorkai can continue each sentence indefinitely by just putting ", and" where a period would be, it doesn't detract much from the book (unlike, say, Perec's avoidance of the letter "e" in A Void, which forced him into writing a mess of a book). Even with these long run-on sentences the book is filled with striking images, though noticeably more in the early chapters of the book than later on.
The second gimmick is that the middle section of the book deals with a manuscript that the main character is typing up, but instead of ever reading any of this manuscript, Krasznahorkai gives us only the protagonist's descriptions of it, in the sentence style already discussed. This is the section where the book underwhelms, and unfortunately it's the section that needs to impress. The manuscript is supposed to be so impactful that it makes the main character abandon his entire life, sell all that he owns, and travel to the United States out of a belief that putting this manuscript on the internet will be a single action of value in an otherwise pointless life, and that after having fulfilled his purpose by transcribing the manuscript he will welcome death. Even if the character isn't mentally stable, the manuscript needs to be striking to make this believable. Instead, the main character's descriptions of the manuscript are mediocre. The four manuscript characters never feel distinct, the long sentence style of the book seems out of place when the manuscript is being described, and in general it was never as interesting as it needed to be. The middle segment where the manuscript is described is the weakest section of the book, and unfortunately it's also the longest.
The final gimmick reveals itself at the end of the book, when
Overall the early segments of War and War were the ones I liked the best, as they had some striking imagery and happened before the sentence gimmick started grating. Once the manuscript began getting described though, the book became far more of a slog. This is where the book should have really taken off and impressed. Unfortunately it did not, making this my least favorite Krasznahorkai book, below both Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance. Still, being Krasznahorkai it was far more interesting than most books, and may be well worth your time, I just wish some aspects of the execution were better.
There's a sort of epilogue, a closing section, to the book that I've a qualm or two about. Whilst its setting and happenings are wonderfully atmospheric, the tone and the content feel markedly different to what's gone before. The discrepancy doesn't exactly jar, but for me it momentarily blunted the impact of what preceded it. If I could somehow read War and War for the first time again knowing what I do now, I'd read the closing section before reading the rest of the book. And I most emphatically wouldn't have looked up the website mentioned until I'd reached the appropriate page.
(That's pretty much the review I posted on amazon. After I did a reader commented that in fact that seeming epilogue was written and published before the novel; it was a sort of 'pre-novel sketch'. So it indeed might be better read before the rest of the book.)
War & War is a book within a book. For the most part it's the story of Korin the archivist, a somewhat unhinged free spirit, who unearths a manuscript of startling truth and beauty. Korin wants to publish his find on the internet (to make it "eternal"), and so he travels to New York, which for him is "the centre of the world".
Throughout the novel Korin reveals the contents of the manuscript as he talks endlessly to whoever will listen. The manuscript itself - the book within the novel - tells of the world-hopping exploits of four time-travellers and a mysterious other named Mastermann.
I enjoyed the writing style (i.e. the author's use of long sentences): it captures Korin's enlightened but overloaded mind. - What's it about? The search for lasting meaning, perhaps? A futile attempt to secure immortality? The melancholy that results from realising that man (no matter how much he wants it) cannot go beyond conflict?...
All in all I'd define it as a pessimistic novel about the final days of a homeless soul whose chance discovery and obsession with a unique manuscript dooms him. Difficult and frustrating at times, though enjoyable because of the protagonist's spirited innocence.