Near the midpoint of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, an aging Noh actor, assuming the role of the Japanese goddess onstage, reflects that “I ascend, everything ascends with me, a magnificence rises there… which in its own form, resplendent, streaming forth, swelling, is nothing else than a return back to that place where nothing is, to the Radiant Empire of Light, the boundless plains of the Sky, for that is the place where I exist, although I am not, for this is where I may place the crown upon my head, and I can think to myself that Seiobo was there below.” Of course, when we read these lines, we do not know with any certainty that they are being spoken by a Noh actor. Quite possibly, we do not even know who Seiobo is. We are presented with a block of first-person text, unattributed, in a book that has previously constrained itself to the third person. Which makes this passage, perhaps, the best place to begin a discussion of Seiobo There Below, because it is a book that delights in uncertainty, in difficulty, and in obscurity, while remaining relentlessly focused on the transcendental possibilities of art.Structured by the Fibonacci sequence, in which each successive number is derived by adding the two that preceded it, the chapters of Seiobo There Below progress through a series of startling and strange re-combinations, unconnected by what would usually be called the plot of a novel. Instead, Krasznahorkai presents a series of vignettes, all of which, while self-contained in terms of plot, borrow from each other in unexpected ways. In a chapter titled “The Preservation of a Buddha,” an ancient Buddha is removed from a monastery for restoration, and its return causes the abbot to question his purpose in life, while the next chapter, “Christo Morto,” deals with the restoration of an anonymous image of Christ on the cross and its final attribution to a little-known artist, interwoven with the story of a tourist who returns to Venice after many years to repeat a supernatural experience he once had before this painting. The tourist finds that as he stands before the painting again, the close eyelids of the painted Christ begin to open before him. Still later in the book, in the chapter “A Murderer is Born,” an immigrant lured to Spain with the promise of a nonexistent job stumbles upon an image of three angels, copied from a medieval icon by Andrei Rublev, and is consumed by the unshakeable conviction that the angels themselves are real.
Although Krasznahorkai’s subject matter ranges from Noh theater to the Alhambra, and from Raphael to Ion Grigorescu, all of the vignettes deal with art, beauty, and the terror that they inspire. Krasznahorkai’s prose is demanding, making no concessions for his reader’s attention, so that beginning one of his apparently endless sentences can feel like diving deep underwater, with no hope of coming up for air, or like releasing the brakes on a bicycle at the top of a steep hill, a scene imagined by a maker of Noh masks in Seiobo There Below: “Who could believe it, that it would be possible to come down from there, from the bridge over the creek to the city—completely freely, without breaking—impossible, he would say, the path is so steep, there are so many turns, and the bicycle would accelerate so much, that in seconds the whole thing would be a labyrinth of speed.” Having come this far, one might feel tempted to exhale, but in fact the sentence from which I’ve quoted goes on for several more pages, with no more break than a semi-colon.
Where other novels entreat us for our time or charm us with their execution of scene and dialogue, Seiobo There Below demands our attention with an intensity that often feels ruthless. The relentless, breathless cadences of Krasznahorkai’s sentences can induce an almost feverish state in the reader who is willing to tackle them, an experience of reading that affects the whole body, that wrestles with our attention and refuses to relinquish it, drowning us in an accumulation of details, unmarked dialogue, reported speech, untranslated German or Japanese, until the effect of his prose is physical, almost painful, each sentence running on, wrestling with a sublimity that resists any final resolution.