László Krasznahorkai is a Hungarian writer born in 1954. His first novel, Satantango, published in 1985, established his reputation as a novelist with a uniquely idiosyncratic voice, a melancholic passion for sin and the apocalypse, and a compassionate interest in the minute details of both the human and the nonhuman world. He began to be translated into English in the late 1990s, and since then has received many prizes and awards, including, in 2015, the Man Booker International Prize. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is his latest novel, and Krasznahorkai has said it’s his last. First published in Hungarian in 2016, it is the end of a cycle that began with Satantango and includes The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War and War (1999). These four, Krasznahorkai says, constitute his one book. He’s written many others, in many genres; but these four are the things to read first if you want to know him, feel him—and it does feel like something to read him: you know at once who it is you’re reading, and if you read enough of him the world you live in will begin to seem like the one he writes about, in rather the same way that once you’ve read Bleak House every fog participates in that novel’s fogs. Each of these four books, however, can be read independently, and there’s a case to be made for starting with this latest one: it’s arguably the best.
The exile returns, bringing trouble. That’s one of the basic literary plots, and among the oldest, with Homer’s Odyssey as the paradigm for the West. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is a distinguished and fascinating instance. Except that it’s not one exile but two, the hometown to which they return isn’t merely troubled but destroyed, and it’s never entirely clear what their return has to do with the trouble. Are they its cause? Does it pursue them? Or has it nothing to do with them, occurring upon their return by happenstance, the town—and the world—gathering momentum toward their end?
The exiles are troubled men. The first is the Professor, never named, as many of the characters aren’t. He’s spent his life studying moss, and has become famous for it. But he’s become disillusioned with his fame and his career, turned his resources into cash, abandoned all the appurtenances of academic life, and come home to live alone in a jerry-built shack at the edge of town, constructed on wasteland largely out of abandoned piles of something called, delightfully, Hungarocell—a kind of styrofoam, it seems, or perhaps sheetrock. He hopes to see no one (he worries about windows and would prefer his shack without them) and think nothing (he practices “thought-immunization”). None of it works out.
The second is the Baron, who is given a name: he’s the Wenckheim of the title, with Béla as his first name. He belongs to the Hungarian branch of an Austrian aristocratic family, and has lived in Buenos Aires for most of his life, idling and gambling, amassing, in the end, such vast debts that imprisonment or worse threatens. His family, after deliberation, pays his debts on condition that he return to Hungary, live a quiet life, give up gambling, and provide the family no more bad publicity. He agrees to this, or at least he does it—he says little, seeming as concerned to immunize himself from speech as the Professor is to immunize himself from thought. His wealthy and shadowy family buy him new clothes, custom-tailored from Savile Row, give him some traveling money, and send him to his hometown, where, it seems, he intends to find a lost love from his adolescence who still lives there.
The town the exiles return to isn’t named in the book but is presumably based on Gyula, close to the border between Hungary and Romania. That’s where Krasznahorkai is from. The town is said in the book to be between Sarkad and Békéscsaba on the railway, which is also true of Gyula. It’s a medium-sized town, big enough for a TV station and a hospital and a newspaper, but nothing like a metropolis. It’s described in circumstantial detail with street names and building names and detailed depictions of how to get from one place to another, with times and distances.
Its likeness to the actual Gyula is beyond my competence to assess, and that isn’t, in any case, important for the book. It’s a town of the mythic imagination as much as a real place in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. It’s bleak: nothing works well, the trains haven’t run on time for a while, gasoline and diesel are hard to get, there are beggars on the streets, the weather is bad, there’s not enough money for repairs of public facilities, local politics is corrupt, and so on. And it’s a place parochial enough to offer the returning Professor honorary citizenship, and to welcome the returning Baron as a savior because the locals have the wrong idea that his return means an injection of capital into the town—he’ll build hotels and schools, they think, when in fact he has only a few hundred euros to his name.
The damage caused by the exiles’ return begins with small, local events. The Professor’s abandoned adult daughter confronts him; a motorcycle gang gets involved; there’s shooting and murder and flight. The Baron’s civic welcome goes badly wrong; the reunion with the lost love goes worse (he at first doesn’t recognize her, thinking she’ll look as she did when she was twenty); he finds the town the same in externals and yet disturbingly not the same; and much accidental and deliberate violence ensues. Things escalate quickly. What’s set in motion by, or at least accompanies, the exiles’ return ends in apocalypse: things fall apart, and the town—perhaps also the world—is consumed by fire. By the end, almost everyone is dead and almost everything destroyed.
That sounds grim, and it is. But Krasznahorkai’s apocalypse is also funny. Among its culminating events is the invasion of the town by a fleet of fuel trucks that give no fuel: they occupy every street and then, as suddenly as they came, they’re gone. It’s surrealistically absurd, as is a good deal of the book. Krasznahorkai effectively holds together comedy and tragedy in a way that the zombie apocalypses so beloved of contemporary American literature and television and film don’t attempt. His apocalypse is serious and tragic, yes, but also absurd and funny, which makes it all the more horrifying. His apocalypse, in this and in earlier novels, is appropriate to creatures like us, who are also absurd and yet capable of tragedy. It isn’t something that merely happens to us; it’s the proper culmination of what we are. Krasznahorkai’s world falls apart along manmade fault lines.