Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming

László Krasznahorkai (trans. Ottilie Mulzet)

October 3, 2019 
The following is excerpted from László Krasznahorkai's novel. Krasznahorkai was born in Gyula, Hungary, in 1954. He worked as an editor until 1984, when he became a freelance writer. He now lives in reclusiveness in the hills of Szentlászló. He has written five novels and won numerous prizes, including the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and the 2013 Best Translated Book Award in Fiction for Satantango. Ottilie Mulzet is a Hungarian translator of poetry and prose, as well as a literary critic.

He took an apple out of the basket, rubbed it, raised it to the light to examine it, made sure it was shining everywhere, and raised it to his mouth as if he wanted to bite into it, he didn’t bite into it though, instead he drew the apple away from his mouth and he began to turn it around in his palm, while his gaze ranged over the people standing around, assembled before him; then the hand that was holding the apple dropped into his lap, he sighed deeply, leaned back a bit, and after a long silence which, in the whole heaven-sent world, meant nothing at all, he said: speak to me, say whatever you want, although he would actually recommend that no one say anything at all, because the person could say this or that, and it wouldn’t have any meaning anyway, because he wouldn’t feel himself in any way, shape, or form to have been addressed—you, he said in a metallic voice, will simply never be able to address me at all, because you don’t know how to, it’s more than enough for me if you somehow handle your instruments, because that’s what’s needed now, for all of you to somehow handle your instruments, because you have to make them ring, make them speak—he raised his voice—in other words make them depict, he explained, and there was this: he already knew everything, and, he added, he wouldn’t mention at this point that he was already, of course, in the most complete possession of knowledge about everything, and this pertained to the matter that they—he raised the apple in his hand, and while he held it firmly in his palm with four fingers, he extended his index finger,  and pointed at them—that they, music-making gentlemen, should inform him concerning all matters immediately, before me there can be no secrets, this is the main thing, I want to know about everything and in due time, regardless of the fact that—I reiterate—everything that could be possibly known is already known to me in the greatest possible detail, before me you must not be silent about anything, even the most insignificant detail must be reported to me, namely you are obliged, from this point on, to give to me unstinting accounts, namely, I am requesting your trust; and he began to explain what this meant, saying that something—in this particular case, the trust between them—needed to be unbounded as possible, without this trust they would never get anywhere, and now, at the beginning, he would like to chisel this forcefully into their brains; I want to know, he said, how and why you lift your instruments from their cases, and now, he explained, the word “instrument” should be understood, for simplicity’s sake, in a general sense, namely he wouldn’t start bothering with the details as to who was playing the violin, the piano, or who plays the bandoneon, the bass, or the guitar, as all of these were uniformly and appropriately designated by the term “instrument”—because the main thing, he said, is that I want to know what kind of strings the string players are using, how they tune them and why they tune them in that exact way, I want to know how many spare strings they keep in their case before the performance, I want to know—the metallic tone in his voice grew stronger—how much the pianists and the bandoneon players practice before the performance, how many minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years, I want to know what they ate today and what they’re going to eat tomorrow, I want to know if they prefer spring or winter, the sun or the shade, I want to know . . . everything, you understand, I want to see the exact image of the chair they practice on, and the music stand, I want to know exactly what angle it is set at, and I want to know what kind of resin is used, especially by the violinists, and where they buy it, and why exactly from there, I want to know even their most idiotic thoughts concerning the falling resin dust, or how often they trim their nails, and why exactly then; in addition, he also wished to enjoin them—he leaned back in his chair—that when he said he wanted to know—and they really shouldn’t gape at him with such fear in their eyes—that also meant that he wanted to know the most insignificant details as well, and in the meantime they needed to realize for themselves, that he—whom essentially they could refer to as a kind of impresario, if somebody were to inquire—that he was going to observe their every step, their minutest of quivers, all the while knowing precisely in advance all about that possibly minutest of quivers, and they, all the while, would be obliged to make detailed reports about these matters: accordingly, they now found themselves between two fires—to sum up, on the one hand, there was, between them, this unconditional, unbounded trust, as well as the obligation to report everything; on the other hand, there was the undeniable, but for them endlessly disturbing, indeed unsolvable, paradox—don’t try to comprehend this, he suggested—of his knowing in advance everything they were obliged to report, and in much more detail than they did; so their contractual agreement would, from this point on, proceed between these two fires, about which—and this is something that he would add, he added—they should be aware that this also implied an exclusively unconditional dependency, naturally unidirectional and one-sided; what they were going to tell him, he continued—and once again he began to turn the apple that was radiant in the resplendent light slowly in his palm—what they told him could never be shared with anyone else, take note, and for all eternity, he said, that what you are bound to tell me must only be told to me, and to no one else; and parallel to this, never expect that, under any circumstances, that I—he pointed to himself with the apple in his hand—following this present and (for you) fateful discussion, will say anything again, will explain or explicate or repeat anything—moreover, it would be even better if you listened to my words as if (and here I’m joking now), as if you were listening to the Almighty himself, who simply expects you to know what to do in any given situation, in other words, figure it out for yourselves, this is how things stand, there can be no mistakes, that metallic voice quivered more ominously than before, there would be no mistakes, because there could be no mistakes, everyone here, he opined, was capable of accepting this; of course he wouldn’t claim that their cooperation henceforth—he was explaining what this entailed only once, namely right now, clearly, and in detail—would be a source of great joy for them, because it wouldn’t bring them any joy, and it would be better if now, from this moment onward, they would regard it as suffering, as they would get along much better if now, at the very beginning, they would conceive it not as a joy, but as suffering, a kind of hard labor, because in reality what awaited them now was suffering, bitter, exhausting, and torturous work, when shortly (as the one single accomplishment of their cooperation, albeit an involuntary one), they would insert into Creation that for which they had been summoned; in brief, there was no room for mistakes here, just as there were to be no rehearsals, no preparation, no “well, let’s take it from the top,” and suchlike, they weren’t just playing some milonga here, they had to know straightaway what they had to do, and these words, he said, no matter how misleading in their essence, or, if they were understanding him only on a superficial level—which was the case here—would never smooth away the aforementioned sweat and lack of joy, because that was their fate, through their activities no pleasure would ever be extended to them, for taken as individuals, what were they?—a band of music-making gentlemen, he thundered at them, just a troop of scrapers, a ragtag crew flailing away helter-skelter at their instruments, who could never take credit for the whole; by which, in their case, he meant the production before them, namely, in no way could they trace back to their own individual selves what they were to signify as a whole; so, he told them, they should realize this whole thing had nothing to do with them; if they took it upon themselves in full measure to honor their contract it would somehow emerge—who the hell knew how—but it would emerge somehow, and right now he could never repeat enough that he knew that this is how it would be, because this is how it had to be, it would be much better for them to resign themselves and not make any inquiries: as, for example, if in each particular case, the ineptitude was really so great, then how could the end result, created together, be so different—he wasn’t willing to answer questions like this, he said with weary arrogance, no, as this was none of their business, they could rest assured that as a matter of fact, none of them were contributing anything, each with his own ineptitude, the mere thought should never enter their minds, but enough about that already, because just the mere thought of him having to think again and again—of the bow being scraped across that string in that way, or the keys being banged on in that way—filled him with dread; and all the while they would never understand anything of the whole, because the whole went so far beyond them, he was filled with horror, he stated with complete sincerity, considering the deplorable contingency of being badgered with questions, when he thought of how, just how much this aforementioned whole surpassed them as individuals . . . but enough about that, he shook his head, if, nonetheless, the fact—not even sad, but rather laughable—was clear to him of whom he had to work with here, in the end it would emerge, indeed, already at the beginning he would speak as, according to expectations, he was compelled to—and as for rebellion—his voice suddenly became very subdued—if anyone even contemplates a plan against me, or if the desire would be manifest, even in a suggestion, that anything should be executed any differently than how I want it to be—well, do not even let this appear in your dreams, cast it out from your minds, or at least try to cast it out, because if you make any attempts, the ending will be woeful, and this is a warning, although not a benevolent one, because there’s only one method of performance here which can be executed in only one way, and the harmonization of those two elements will be decided by me—he once again pointed to himself with the apple in his palm—and only by myself; you, gentlemen, you will play according to my tune, and believe me, I speak from experience, there is no point trying to oppose me, no sense at all; you can fantasize (only if I know about it), you can dream (if you confess it to me) that one day things will be otherwise, that they will be different, but it won’t be otherwise, and it won’t be different, it will be and it will be like this for as long as I am the—ah, if we’re coming to this already—impresario of this production, as long as I’m directing what’s going on here, and this “as long as” is something like eternity, because altogether I am contracting all of you for one single production, which is at the same time, for all of you in this role, the one single, possible performance; any such other performances are automatically excluded; there is no after, just as accordingly there is no before, and apart from your admittedly modest compensation there is no reward whatsoever, of course, accordingly, no joy, no consolation, when we’re finished with it, we’ll be finished, and that’s all—but I must disclose to you now, he disclosed, and it was as if that metallic voice had softened just a bit for the very last time, that it will be none of those things for myself either, there will be no joy, no consolation, and it’s not that I could care less whether there will be joy or consolation, or about what you’ll all be thinking and feeling following this agreement that we have established, and not in the least about how you will explain the piteous quality of your participation here later on, namely what kind of lies you’ll be telling yourselves, I’m not talking about that, but about the fact that there is no joy for me in this whole thing, and my own fee is hardly tenable in view of what we are calling a production here—it shall come to pass, he said, because it will be, and that is all, I don’t love and I don’t hate you, as far as I’m concerned you can all go to hell, if one falls down, then another will take his place, I see in advance what will be, I hear in advance what will be, and it shall be sans joy and sans solace, so that nothing like this will ever come about ever again, so when I step onto the stage with you, musical gentleman, I won’t be happy in the least, if this commission, predicated upon a possibility, comes to fruition—and I now wish to say this to you as a way of bidding farewell: I don’t like music, namely I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.


From Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing. Copyright © by László Krasznahorkai. English translation copyright © by Ottilie Mulzet.

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