When I sat down to compile my list of my favourite translated reads for 2014 I started off by compiling a list of all the books I read and whilst doing so a number jumped out at me that just had to be included on the list. A few I needed to revisit my reviews to remind myself of the merits of certain works and of course there were a few that I just knew were never going to be up there – as an example as a participant in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shadow Jury I had already listed my favourites from that list of thirteen longlisted works therefore once I decided “The Mussel Feast”, “The Sorrow of Angels” and “My Struggle Book Two” were on my top twelve reads of the year I knew there were ten others that just didn’t make the cut.
Some books I tossed around for quite some time, whether to include them at the expense of another. Eduoard Levy’s “Suicide” moved me quite dramatically, however I decided that the influence of Levy’s own suicide shortly after delivering this work to the publisher influences the way you read this work and decided that it was just short of my favourites. “The African Shore” by Rodrigo Rey Rosa says so much without saying a lot at all, as the judges of the Best Translated Book Award said “a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly” but even it didn’t make my shortlist!!! Hrabal’s “Harlequin’s Millions” a visit to his hometown a place where time stood still, Marcelle Sauvageot’s “Commentary” a wonderful example of feminist writing from last century and of course “Don Quixote” (Edith Grossman’s translation) how could I leave out a classic that is recognised as “the greatest monument of literature in Spanish but a pillar of the entire Western literary tradition” (Edith Grossman)? What about Scholastique Mukasonga’s “Our Lady of The Nile” an important and lyrical work about the Tutsi from Rwanda?
Once I had my final twelve there was also a dilemma in ranking them in order, I must admit I stewed for a while over “Ready to Burst” or “Blinding” as two and three, do I put “Satantango” above or below Karl Ove Knausgaard? Why did I prefer “The Mussel Feast to “The Sorrow of Angels”? Which of Yasushi Inoue’s works did I like best? Usual issues when compiling a list I suppose.
However I had no issues whatsoever in choosing my favourite work for the year. It was quite simple, of the seventy books I’ve reviewed this year it was quite simply a standout. It is a work that would make my top books of all time so how could it not be the standout of the year?
The Best Translated Book Award judges were also moved announcing the work as the winner and making Laszlo Krasznahorkai the first back-to-back winner in the history of the award (he won it in 2013 for my fifth favourite read of the year “Satantango”).
As NPR Books says:
“Seiobo There Below places upon us readers the same demands of all great art, and allows us to grasp a vision of painstaking beauty if we can slow ourselves down to savor it.”
A work of art that muses on the beauty of existence, the essence of non-existence and the importance of the present moment. An amazing landscape of humanity attempting to define beauty, our eternal search for ultimate bliss, each and every chapter is a further exploration of the nature of perfection, whether through architecture, painting, music, sculpture or an amazing written contribution to perfection?
Quite simply “Seiobo There Below” is one of the most rewarding and enlightening books I have ever read.
Here is a copy of my review from early June:
I have to start this review by stating that this was probably the most difficult novel I have ever read. When you are not a genius, how do you review something composed by a genius? Your insignificant thoughts are mere ramblings compared to the broad sweeping vista of Krasznahorkai’s mind.
Let’s start off by explaining that the chapters are numbered in the Fibonacci sequence (missing 0 and 1) – if you don’t know what the Fibonacci sequence is I suggest you google it and then become even more confused. You’ll find heaps of references to nature, art, Elloitt waves, golden means, you get me? Let’s simply say the chapters are 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,233,377,610,987,1597 and 2854
These seventeen sections could be easily read as seventeen short stories, as we do not have a common narrator, or character and the sections cover just about the breadth of human existence. The inner sleeve tells me “Seiobo – a Japanese goddess – has a peach tree in her garden that blossoms once every three thousand years; its fruit brings immortality. In “Seiobo There Below”, we see her returning to mortal realms, searching for a glimpse of perfection.“ Now I must have been asleep when I read that section, as my only recollection of Seiobo’s involvement was through a Noh dancer performing as her.
As we know Krasznahorkai creates long winding passages of text, and this work is no different, with single sentences taking up whole chapters and running for thirty–forty pages. Therefore I may well have missed the fact that Seiobo returned to mortal realms, it could well have been squeezed in the middle of a forty page sentence, wall to wall text, no breathing between ramblings, no breaks for the astute reader, just text, text, text and more of the same text, passages that return to their origins and then split off again, for further ramblings.... get what I mean?
What I’m telling you may well lead you away from this amazing work, yes it is difficult, but it is also probably one of the most rewarding and enlightening books I have ever read. An amazing landscape of humanity attempting to define beauty, our eternal search for ultimate bliss, each and every chapter is a further exploration of the nature of perfection, whether through architecture, painting, music, sculpture or an amazing written contribution to perfection? Our welcome is not that open though...
It would be better for you to turn around and go into the thick grasses, there where one of those strange grassy islets in the riverbed will completely cover you, it would be better if you do this for once and for all, because if you come back tomorrow, or after tomorrow, there will be no one at all to understand, no one to look, not even a single one among all your natural enemies that will be able to see who you really are; it would be better for you to go away this very evening when twilight begins to fall, it would be better for you to retreat with the others, if night begins to descend, and you should not come back if tomorrow, or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that – breathe your last.
Here is a quick summation of the blend which makes up “Seiobo There Below”. We have a heron in a Japanese river who remains perfectly still, an Italian bible crossword telling us that if we solve 54 across we’ll reach a decisive conclusion (“Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes” Esther 1:16), we have references to an Australian skin care website (which if you investigate actually takes you to Arabic articles on liposuction), we have a Persian Queen, Filippo Lippi-Firenze from 1470 an apprentice to Botticelli, Queen Vashti then appears on a wedding chest painted by Lippi (or was it Botticelli).
We have the restoration of a Buddha statue from 1367, recognised for its immortal “one single gaze”, we have a painting of the dead Christ being restored, Christ appears to be wanting to open his eyes. We have a Hungarian tourist visiting the Acropolis totally unprepared, another tourist in Venice who returns to visit a painting of Dead Christ, then an artist who creates “shiro-hannya”, the demon-head mask created for a Japanese Noh play. Flick over to a destitute Romanian who has been tricked into travelling to Spain for work and he stumbles across a mystical gallery where “these angels were real”.
Seiobo is introduced as part of Inoue Kazuyuki’s section, a celebrated Noh dancer who has found the meaning of life:
And he understood everything, and since then he has known that there is no tomorrow; I never think about that – he lowers his voice even more, and with every word that he utters he smiles, as is his custom, then his face closes up again – never, he says, because I only think about today, for me there is no tomorrow, for me there is no future, because every day is the last day, and every day is full and complete, and I could die on any given day, I am ready for it, and then the whole thing will come to an end, and by this he means that – he looks up at a guest sitting across from him on the other side of the room – that one whole will come to an end, and in the distance another shall begin, I am waiting for death, he says with an unvarying smile, I am waiting he says, and death is always close to me, and I shall lose nothing if I die, because for me only the present means everything, this day, this hour, this moment - this moment in which I am dying.
Our novel then moves to Pietro di Vannucci (Il Perugino) and his apprentices, we learn of his struggle to paint anymore. We have the Alhambra in Spain, our journey explains that we don’t know its real name, who built it, when it was built, its main function, but we do know its beauty. Another chapter and another artist who creates sculptures out of earth, by digging in hidden places away from prying eyes. Our protagonist then becomes the guard of the Venus de Milo, there was the Venus de Milo and beyond that there was nothing else at all.
We then have a lecturer giving his thoughts on the analysis of music’s essence, it shatters people’s hearts – this lecture is to a handful of elderly people, given by an ageing architect who has never had a building constructed. Then we have landscape artist Oswald Kienzl standing in line to buy a train ticket, frustrated at the lack of pace in the queue as he recalls his mourning. Back to Japan and a Shinto tree sacrifice ceremony that takes place every twenty years as part the rebuilding of the Ise Shrine, we’re here for edition seventy-one, this section highlighting the clash of European and Japanese cultures.
Onto Se’ami who has been exiled to the island of Sadogashima, he is creating a mask, o-beshimi rain-making mask for use in bagaku. Then we hear of tomb desecrations (known as “excavations”) of the earth below the Shang dynasty in 1600-1100BC.
What a deep exploration of humanity, covering thousands upon thousands of years of human history, the art and the beauty, ceremonies and beliefs contained in each era. As we know these characters are all real and as I read through each section I was enticed to research these characters further, view the artworks on line, understand the struggles through further reading. This is a huge puzzle of a novel, seeking the ultimate answers:
he looks at me, moved, he looks at my dance, but he sees me as well, as I relate to him with earthly movements that there is a Heaven, that high above the clouds there is a Light that then scatters into a thousand colors, that there is, if he casts his gaze up high and becomes deeply immersed in his soul, a boundless space in which there is nothing, but nothing at all, not even a tiny little movement like this one here, which now must slowly come to an end:
All of the puzzles are intertwined, the immortal beauty of Vashti is aligned with the immortal gaze of Buddha, which replicates a crucified Christ wanting to open his eyes......
a dark obscurity lay in these eyes, and it seemed unbearable that this dark obscurity was emanating such an endless sadness, and not the sadness of one who suffers but of one who has suffered – but not even that; he got up, and then he leaned back in the chair; it is not a question here of suffering but only of sorrow, a sorrow impossible to grasp in its entirety, and entirely incomprehensible to him, an immeasurable sorrow, he looked into Christ’s eyes and he saw nothing else there, just this pure sorrow, as if it were a sorrow without cause, he froze at the thought of it, SORROW, JUST LIKE THAT, FOR EVERYTHING, for creation, for existence, for beings, for time, for suffering and for passion, for birth and destruction
I could write endless passages here about the meaning of existence and how Krasznahorkai has moved beyond the simple apocalyptic message and into the world of beauty, the essence of non-existence and the importance of the present moment. An amazing work, which requires savouring, a slow read, allow yourself to be immersed in the world of nothing:
the earth with the water, the water with the sky, and into the earth and the water and the sky, into this indescribable Cosmos is woven our fragile existence as well, but merely for just one moment that cannot be traced, then, already, it is no more, it disappears for all eternity, irrevocably...nothing else remains, only and exclusively the landscape;