Read The Melancholy of Resistance Online

Authors: László Krasznahorkai

Tags: #Literary, #Fiction

The Melancholy of Resistance

The MELANCHOLY of RESISTANCE

 

LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI

 

Translated from the Hungarian by
GEORGE SZIRTES

 

A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK

 

It passes, but it does not pass away

 

AN EMERGENCY
Introduction

 

SINCE THE PASSENGER TRAIN CONNECTING THE icebound estates of the southern lowlands, which extend from the banks of the Tisza almost as far as the foot of the Carpathians, had, despite the garbled explanations of a haplessly stumbling guard and the promises of the stationmaster rushing nervously on and off the platform, failed to arrive (‘Well, squire, it seems to have disappeared into thin air again …’ the guard shrugged, pulling a sour face), the only two serviceable old wooden-seated coaches maintained for just such an ‘emergency’ were coupled to an obsolete and unreliable 424, used only as a last resort, and put to work, albeit a good hour and a half late, according to a timetable to which they were not bound and which was only an approximation anyway, so that the locals who were waiting in vain for the eastbound service, and had accepted its delay with what appeared to be a combination of indifference and helpless resignation, might eventually arrive at their destination some fifty kilometres further along the branch line. To tell the truth, none of this really surprised anyone any more since rail travel, like everything else, was subject to the prevailing conditions: all normal expectations went by the board and one’s daily habits were disrupted by a sense of ever-spreading all-consuming chaos which rendered the future unpredictable, the past unrecallable and ordinary life so haphazard that people simply assumed that whatever could be imagined might come to pass, that if there were only one door in a building it would no longer open, that wheat would grow head downwards into the earth not out of it, and that, since one could only note the symptoms of disintegration, the reasons for it remaining unfathomable and inconceivable, there was nothing anyone could do except to get a tenacious grip on anything that was still tangible; which is precisely what people at the village station continued to do when, in hope of taking possession of the essentially limited seating to which they were entitled, they stormed the carriage doors, which being frozen up proved very difficult to open. Mrs Plauf, who happened to be on her way home from one of her customary winter visits to relatives, took full part in the pointless struggle (pointless since, as they soon discovered, no one actually remained standing), and by the time she had shoved aside those who stood in her way and used her tiny frame to hold up the crowd pressing behind her in order to assure herself of a rear-facing window seat, she could no longer distinguish between her sense of indignation at the intolerable jostling she had just endured and a different feeling, oscillating between fury and anguish, occasioned by the awareness that she, with her first-class ticket, which was quite worthless in this stench of garlic sausage blended with the aroma of mixed-fruit brandy and cheap pungent tobacco, surrounded as she was by an almost menacing ring of loud-mouthed, belching ‘common peasants’, would be faced by the acute uncertainty faced by all those engaged in what was in any case the risky business of travelling nowadays, in other words not knowing whether she would arrive home at all. Her sisters, who had lived in complete isolation ever since age had rendered them immobile, would never have forgiven her if she had neglected to pay them her regular early-winter visit and it was only on their account that she refused to abandon this dangerous enterprise even though she was as certain as everyone else that something around her had changed so radically that the wisest course under the circumstances would have been to take no risks at all. To be wise, however, soberly to anticipate what might lie in store, was truly no easy task, for it was as if some vital yet undetectable modification had taken place in the eternally stable composition of the air, in the very remoteness of that hitherto faultless mechanism or unnamed principle—which, it is often remarked, makes the world go round and of which the most imposing evidence is the sheer phenomenon of the world’s existence—which had suddenly lost some of its power, and it was because of this that the troubling knowledge of the probability of danger was in fact less unbearable than the common sense of foreboding that soon anything at all might happen and that this ‘anything’—the law governing its likelihood becoming apparent in the process of disintegration—was leading to greater anxiety than the thought of any personal misfortune, thereby increasingly depriving people of the possibility of coolly appraising the facts. To establish one’s bearings among the ever more frightening events of the past months had become impossible, not only because there was little coherence in the mixture of news, gossip, rumour and personal experience (examples of which might include the sharp and much too early cold snap at the beginning of November, the mysterious family disasters, the rapid succession of railway accidents and those terrifying rumours of gangs of criminal children defacing public monuments in the distant capital, between any of which it was hard to find any rational connection), but also because not one of these items of news meant anything in itself, all seeming to be merely omens of what was referred to by a growing number of people as ‘the coming catastrophe’. Mrs Plauf had even heard that some people had started to talk of peculiar changes in the behaviour of animals, and while this—for the time being at least, though who knows what might happen later—could be dismissed as irresponsible and harmful gossip, one thing was certain, that unlike those to whom this signified a state of utter chaos, Mrs Plauf was convinced that, on the contrary, it was perfectly appropriate in its timing since a respectable person hardly dared set foot outside her house any more, and in a place where a train can disappear ‘just like that’ there was, or so her thoughts ran on, ‘no sense left in anything’. And this was how she prepared herself mentally for the ride home, which was bound to be far less smooth than the outward journey, cushioned as she had then been by her nominal status as a first-class passenger, since, as she pondered nervously, ‘anything might happen on these dreadful branch-lines’ and it was best to steel oneself for the worst; so she sat like one who would happily make herself invisible, straight-backed, her knees schoolgirlishly clamped together, wearing a chilly, somewhat contemptuous expression, among the slowly diminishing huddle of people still tussling for seats, and while she kept a suspicious eye on the terrifying gallery of undefined faces reflected in the window, her feelings swung between anxiety and yearning, thinking now of the ominous distances ahead and now of the warmth of the house she had had to leave behind; those pleasant afternoons with Mrs Mádai and Mrs Nuszbeck, those old Sunday walks along the tree-lined avenue of Friars’ Walk, and finally the soft carpets and delicate furniture of home, that radiantly calm order of carefully tended flowers and all her little possessions, which, as she well knew, was not only an island in a wholly unpredictable world where afternoons and Sundays had become merely a memory but the one refuge and consolation of a lonely woman the orderliness of whose life was calculated to produce peace and calm. Uncomprehendingly, and with a certain degree of envious contempt, she realized that her noisy fellow travellers—most likely coarse peasants from the darkest nooks and corners of distant villages—were quickly adapting themselves even to such straitened circumstances: to them it was as if nothing unusual had happened, everywhere there was the rustling of greaseproof paper being unwrapped and food being doled out, corks were popping, beer-can lids were dropping to the greasy floor, and here and there she could already hear that noise ‘so calculated to offend all one’s finer feelings’ but, in her opinion, ‘perfectly common among common people’ of munching and crunching; and what was more, the party of four directly opposite her, who were among the loudest, had already started dealing a deck of cards—till only she was left, solitary, sitting even more stiffly among the increasingly loud human hubbub, silent, her head determinedly turned to the window, her fur coat protected from the seat by a sheet of newspaper, clutching her clipped handbag to her with such terrified and resolute suspicion that she hardly noticed the engine up ahead, its two red lights probing the frozen darkness, drawing uncertainly out into the winter evening. A discreet sigh was her only contribution to the noises of general relief (grunts of satisfaction, whoops of joy) that after such a long and chilly period of waiting something at last was happening; though this did not last long, since, having travelled barely a hundred metres from the now silent village platform and after a few clumsy jerks—as if the order permitting them to start had been unexpectedly revoked—the train came judderingly to a stop; and though the cries of frustration soon gave way to puzzled and angry laughter, once people realized that this state of affairs was likely to continue and were forced to admit that their journey—possibly because of the extended chaos owing to the employment of an off-timetable train—was sadly destined to vacillate between lurching forward and lurching to a halt, they all relapsed into a jokey indifference, the dull insensibility that ensues when one has been forced to accept certain facts, which simply goes to show how people behave when, having failed, infuriatingly, to understand something, they try to suppress the fear caused by genuine shock to a system which seems to have been overtaken by chaos, the nerve-rackingly repeated instances of which may be met with nothing but withering sarcasm. Although their crude incessant joking (‘I should take so much care when I’m in bed with the missus …!’) naturally outraged her delicate sensibilities, the stream of ever ruder cracks with which each hoped to trump the one before—jokes, in any case, now dying away—had a relaxing effect, even on Mrs Plauf, and, every so often, on hearing one of the better ones—and there was no real escape from the coarse laughter that followed in each case—she herself couldn’t entirely suppress a shy little smile. Slyly and carefully, she even ventured a few momentary glances, not at her immediate neighbours but at those who were sitting further off, and in the peculiar atmosphere of daft good humour—since, while the occupants of the carriage (those men slapping their thighs, those women of nondescript age cackling with their mouths full) remained rather fearsome, they seemed less threatening than they had been—she tried to keep her anxious imagination in check and tell herself that she might not actually have to face the lurking terrors of the ugly and unfriendly mob by which, her instincts told her, she was surrounded, and that it might only be because of her keen susceptibility to omens of ill-fortune and her exaggerated sense of isolation in such a cold and alien environment, that she might arrive home, unharmed it may be, but exhausted by her state of constant vigilance. To tell the truth, there was very little real basis for hope of such a happy resolution but Mrs Plauf simply couldn’t resist the false enticements of optimism: though the train was once again stalled nowhere, waiting minutes on end for a signal, she calmly concluded that they were making ‘some kind of progress’, and she controlled the nervous impatience occasioned by the regular—alas too frequent—squealing of brakes and periods of unavoidable immobility, since the pleasant warmth that had resulted from the heating being switched on when the engine started had encouraged her to divest herself of her coat, so she no longer had to fear that she might catch a cold on stepping out into the icy wind on arrival home. She adjusted the creases in the stole behind her, spread the fake-fur wrap over her legs, locked her fingers round the handbag swollen by the woollen scarf she had stuffed inside it, and, with an unchangingly straight back, was just looking out again through the window when there, in the filthy glass, she suddenly found herself face to face with a ‘peculiarly silent’ unshaven man, swigging from a bottle of stinking brandy, who, now that she was clad only in a blouse and the little jacket of her suit, was staring (‘Lustfully!!’) at her perhaps too prominent, powerful breasts. ‘I knew it!’—quick as lightning, despite a hot flush running right through her, she turned her head away, pretending she hadn’t noticed. For several minutes she didn’t move a muscle, but stared blindly into the darkness outside, and tried, vainly, to recall the man’s appearance (conjuring up only the unshaven face, the ‘somehow so dirty’ broadcloth coat and the uncouth, sly yet shameless gaze which she was to find so disturbing …), then, very slowly, trusting that she ran no risk in doing so, she allowed her eyes to slide across the glass, withdrawing immediately when she discovered not only that ‘the creature in question’ was persisting in his ‘impudence’, but that their eyes had met. Her shoulders, neck and nape were all aching because of the rigid posture of her head, but by now she couldn’t have torn her eyes away even if she had wanted to, because she felt that whichever way she turned beyond the narrow darkness of the window, his terrifyingly steady gaze would easily commandeer every nook of the carriage and ‘snap her up’. ‘How long has he been looking at me?’—the question cut Mrs Plauf like a knife, and the possibility that the man’s dirty raking eye had been ‘on her’ from the very start of the journey made the gaze, whose meaning she had understood in a flash in the very second of contact, appear even more terrifying than before. These two eyes, after all, spoke of sickeningly ‘foul desires’—‘worse still!’ she trembled—it was as if some sort of dry contempt burned within them. While she couldn’t think of herself as an old woman, not precisely, she knew she was past the age when this kind of attention—not uncommon when paid to others—was still natural, and so, as well as regarding the man with a certain horror (what kind of person is it, after all, who is capable of lusting after elderly women?), she was frightened to realize that this fellow stinking of cheap brandy wanted nothing more perhaps than to make her ridiculous, to mock and humiliate her, then laughingly toss her aside ‘like an old rag’. After a few violent jolts the train now began to pick up speed, wheels clattered furiously on rails, and a long-forgotten feeling of confusion and acute embarrassment took hold of her as her full, heavy
breasts started to throb and burn under the man’s fixed, uncontrollable and threatening gaze. Her arms, with which she could at least have covered them, simply refused to obey her: it was as if she had been specially selected, helpless to cover the shame of her exposure, and as a consequence she felt ever more vulnerable, ever more naked, ever more conscious of the fact that the more she yearned to conceal her thrusting womanhood the more it drew attention to itself. The card players ended another round with an outburst of crude bickering which broke across the hostile and paralysing hum—cutting, as it were, the bands that tightly bound her and prevented her escaping—and she would almost certainly have succeeded in overcoming her unfortunate torpor had not something even worse suddenly happened, the sole purpose of which, she realized in despair, was to crown her suffering. Driven as she was by her instinctive embarrassment and in an act of unconscious defiance, she was just trying to hide her breasts by tactfully inclining her head, when her back bent awkwardly, her shoulders slumped forward and she realized in a moment of terror that her bra—perhaps due to her unusual physical exertion—had come unclipped behind her. She looked up aghast, and was not at all surprised to see the two male eyes still fixed steadily on her, eyes that winked at her with an air of complicity, as if aware of her ridiculous ill-fortune. Mrs Plauf knew all too well what would happen next, but this almost fatal accident so disturbed her that she only sat stiffer than ever in the accelerating train, helpless once more, her cheeks burning with embarrassment, having to suffer the malicious look of glee in those contemptuously self-confident eyes which were now glued to her breasts, breasts which, freed from the encumbrance of the bra, jogged merrily up and down with the jolting of the carriage. She didn’t dare look up again in order to check this, but she was sure it was the case: it was no longer just the man but all those ‘loathsome peasants’ staring at her discomfort; she could practically see their ugly, greedy, grinning faces encircling her, and this humiliating torture might have gone on for ever had not the conductor—an adolescent lout with a bad case of acne—entered the carriage from the rear compartment; his harsh, recently broken voice (Tickets please!’) finally freed her from the grip of shame, she snatched her ticket from the handbag and folded her arms below her breasts. The train stopped again, this time where it was supposed to, and—even if only to avoid having to contemplate the genuinely frightening expressions about her—she mechanically read the name of the village on the faintly illuminated signboard above the platform, and could have cried out with relief at recognizing it from the familiar because exhaustively perused timetables she endlessly consulted before any journey, knowing that only a few minutes from now they would be arriving at the county town where (‘He’ll get off! He must get off!’) she would almost certainly be free of her pursuer. Tense with excitement, she watched the slow approach of the conductor through the derisive clamouring of those who wished to know why the train was so late, and though she had intended to ask for help as soon as he came to her, his baby-face wore an expression of such helplessness in the surrounding racket, an expression so unlikely to offer her the assurance of official protection, that by the time he was standing next to her she felt so rattled it was all she could do to ask him where the washroom was. ‘Where else should it be?’ the boy answered nervously as he punched her ticket. ‘Where it’s always been. One at the front, one at the back.’ ‘Ah yes, of course,’ mumbled Mrs Plauf with an apologetic gesture and leapt from her seat clutching her handbag to her, scuttling back down the carriage, swaying now left now right as the train lurched off again, and it was only once she had reached the place of desolation masquerading as a WC and leaned gasping against the locked door that she realized she had left her fur coat hanging on the hook by the window. She knew she had to move as fast as possible and yet it took her a full minute before—surrendering all thought of dashing back for her expensive fur—she could pull herself together and, rocked to and fro by the juddering of the train, divest herself of her jacket, quickly pull the blouse over her head and, holding coat, blouse and handbag under her arm, tug her pink slip right up to her shoulders. Her hands trembling with nervous haste, she brought her bra round and, seeing (‘Thank heaven!’) that the clip was not broken, sighed in relief; she had just begun clumsily to dress when she heard behind her the tentative but clearly audible sound of someone outside knocking at the door. There was about this knocking some peculiar quality of intimacy which, naturally enough in the light of all that had happened so far, succeeded in scaring her, but then, on reflecting that the fear was probably no more than a monstrous product of her own imagination, she grew indignant at being hurried like this; and so she continued her half-finished movement, taking a perfunctory glance in the mirror, and was just about to reach for the handle when there came another burst of impatient knocking, quickly succeeded by a voice announcing: ‘It’s me.’ She drew her hand back aghast, and by the time she had formed an idea of who it was, she was overtaken less by a sense of entrapment than by desperate incomprehension as to why this croaky strangled male voice should bear no trace of aggression or low threat but sound vaguely bored and anxious that she, Mrs Plauf, should at last open the door. For a few moments neither stirred a muscle, each waiting for some word of explanation from the other, and Mrs Plauf only grasped the monstrous misunderstanding of which she had become the victim when her pursuer lost patience and tugged furiously at the handle, bellowing at her, ‘Well! What is it to be?! All tease, no nookie?!’ She stared at the door, terrified. Not wanting to believe it, she bitterly shook her head and felt a constriction at her throat, startled, like all those attacked from an unexpected quarter, to find that she had ‘fallen into some infernal snare’. Reeling at the thought of the sheer unfairness, the naked obscenity of her situation, it took her some time to comprehend that—however incredible, since as a matter of fact she had always resisted the idea—the unshaven man had from the very start believed that it was she who was propositioning

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