18 November, 2020 • • 45.3FictionLiterature

Email This Article Print This Article

Life and death on the dehesa

Jack Graveney

László Krasznahorkai
The Last Wolf
Tuskar Rock Press
2018
544pp
£8.99 (Paperback)



In The Last Wolf, László Krasznahorkai writes as though he has a spring in his step. This is an unexpected and impressive feat for two main reasons. The first of these is formal: Krasznahorkai’s seventy-page short story unfurls across just one mammoth sentence, writhing and coiling from start to finish. The second, thematic: his protagonist-narrator, a philosophy professor cum perennial tippler propping up a bar on Berlin’s Hauptstraße, espouses a condemnation of life as not merely nasty and brutish but also futile, meaningless, and regrettably long. The work’s plot, a surreal detective story investigating man’s ultimate success in his prolonged eradication of wolves from an otherworldly stretch of Spanish wasteland known as Extremadura, beckons a similar darkness.

Crucially, however, the Hungarian writer subverts the shadowy heaviness of these potential burdens with a potent and perfusive lightness. In the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino recalls that ‘my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language… I have come to consider lightness a value rather than a defect’. Krasznahorkai takes this dictum and runs with it. Liberating his text from the heaviness of the full stop in favour of the comma’s breathy pace, his sentence soars. Whilst his translator, the poet George Szirtes, has described Krasznahorkai’s prose as ‘a slow lava-flow of narrative, a vast black river of type’, The Last Wolf lacks the viscosity evoked by this image. It reads like a mountain stream running uphill in flagrant disregard for gravity, flowing ever faster toward a cloud-shrouded summit. Early on in the novella, its protagonist recounts Extremadura’s spiritually healing effect upon him:

…this whole, yes, magnificent experience, for however impossible it was for the attractions of the place to distract him from his profound depression, he had to admit, though he had only been here two days, that Extremadura did have a special magic all of its own and that he was almost entirely under its spell; that up to a point, under the cover of his own depression and bad conscience, even he was conscious, he told the Hungarian barman, of the natural history of Extremadura, which was perfectly wonderful and that he, to take but one example, was especially keen on the dehesa, that gently rolling landscape with its own species of oak, the holly oak, that was not planted in dense patches but—and this was the whole point—lightly sprinkled around the fields…

This airy quality is no coincidence. Friedrich Nietzsche, for all his own darkness and heaviness of spirit, associated writing—good writing—with the lightness of the anabatic mountain wind and heady sea breeze. In The Gay Science, he distinguishes between ‘those who have ideas only among books’ and those who ‘think outdoors—walking, leaping, climbing, dancing’. The former method, he suggests, breeds prejudicial, uninspired, uninspiring ideas, downtrodden variations on overtrodden themes; only the latter can stimulate genuine creativity. From his residence in Szentlászló, rural Hungary, Krasznahorkai follows Nietzsche’s imperative to the letter. In an interview with Szirtes, he revealed that ‘I don’t sit at a work-station, meaning a writing desk, and I don’t stare at the laptop hoping to get an idea, but work in my head… in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times’. Words and clauses are first slotted together mentally and only later transferred to paper.

No wonder, then, that so many of Krasznahorkai’s novels—War and War contains the most disturbing examples—play out through streams of consciousness. For the author, this is not a mere technique to be occasionally deployed, one from a toolkit of many, but the fundamental mechanism of his creative process. The Last Wolf is no exception: here, only the interjections of a laconic and frequently sardonic Hungarian barman, the professor’s comic interlocutor and pantomime stand-in for his own lacking self-awareness, rescue protagonist and reader from dreamlike reverie, proving the existence of a world outside the mind.

Not only does Krasznahorkai enact the better half of Nietzsche’s dichotomy in his approach to writing, he also hides his own version of it within the professor’s chaotic rambling. Having fallen from the heights of an academic chair, the narrator wastes no time in condemning the kind of philosophy you might find—if you could find it—on displays in the windows of bookshops or on the actual shelves of bookshops, that is to say a pile of old rubbish, nothing but pretence, nothing but mask, nothing but motley, a bunch of repulsive lies if only because everyone was obliged to cover up the fact that these books were usurping the places that should have been occupied by real books, genuine works of philosophy.

Any hopes of discovering what these ‘real’ and ‘genuine’ works might look like are quickly frustrated by a personal lament and a sarcastic riposte from the barman. Krasznahorkai isn’t one to spoon-feed his readership. But a further clue is provided a few pages on, as the professor stumbles upon ‘something not quite right’ in a scientific paper about Extremadura, a line which juts out in tone from its surroundings: ‘it was south of the river Duero in 1983 that the last wolf had perished’. This inharmoniously poetic sentence—the verb choice ‘perished’ is deemed especially unusual—provides a dual stimulus, inciting a hunt for both the complete story of this extinction and an alternative method of philosophising, one through which it may escape inauthenticity.

A few phone calls by his disconcertingly passionate interpreter later and our protagonist has ascertained not only the source of the paper’s disruptive factoid—a Professor Fernando Palacios—but also, via Señor Palacios, the man supposedly responsible for the last wolf’s death: one Antonio Dominguez Chanclon. Of course, all is not what it seems. The wolf killed by Chanclon turns out to have expired not in 1983 but 1985, and the hunter’s erroneous claim to have wiped out Extremadura’s lupine population once and for all in fact relies upon a bureaucratic technicality. Nevertheless, a visit to Chanclon’s house again reveals something which ‘didn’t seem right’. In an enormous glass case in the living room stands the stuffed corpse of the wolf in question, ‘frozen for eternity, listening to the tale of its own demise’. Even the bartender fails to contain his amazement.

As the first physical manifestation of a story characterised until that point by the utmost evanescence, the carcass is viscerally jarring. Returning to Calvino helps us to appreciate why this feels quite so incongruous. In his Memos, the Italian author observed that ‘at certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa’. Like the Gorgon’s head, the taxidermied body of Chanclon’s wolf serves as an emblem of heaviness and rigid materiality, a relic of mankind’s desire to preserve, stage, and display everything which is most free, exerting its own ossifying gaze. This routine, and the scene as a whole, have an intensely fetishistic quality. By rendering the organic essentially inorganic, animal becomes object, another casualty of humanity’s paradoxical attempts to triumph over death by destroying life. Most telling in this respect is the Spanish hunter’s proud claim that the creature has been perfectly ‘restored’.

Although in purely material terms Chanclon might be entitled to call his wolf Extremadura’s ‘last’, chronologically speaking it doesn’t qualify as even antepenultimate. Back on the road it is for the professor and his interpreter, who drive to Alburquerque (Badajoz, not New Mexico) and meet the warden José Miguel, allegedly the last word in Western Spain on all things wolf-related. José Miguel’s reputation proves deserved and, over the course of a bumpy jeep-ride, he recounts in detail the story of the final wolf-pack and its near-total extirpation from 1985 to 1988 on the La Gegosa finca by an especially determined hunter, until only two wolves remain, one male and one female. Finally, as José is absorbed deeper and deeper by the intensity of his own tale, we learn of the death of the female in 1989, crushed under the wheels of a car whilst carrying an unborn cub, and of the male, shot by a shepherd in 1993 after evading for years the increasingly savage traps set for him.

In the midst of this narrative, Krasznahorkai places The Last Wolf’s most overt and aphoristic piece of wisdom: ‘el amor de los animals es el unico amor que el hombre puede cultiva sin cosechar el desengaño’, handily translated by the overwhelmed interpreter as ‘the love of animals is the one true love in which one is never disappointed’. Crucially, this insight emerges not at the rear end of a list of premises but in an instant of searing emotionality, a sublime crescendo which is stretched to its outermost limits across the warden’s narration. José Miguel’s speech has taken on the character of a ritual incantation; the previously upbeat interpreter is ‘dissolved in tears… so full of tears that she couldn’t even speak let alone translate’; the professor is furious at his inability to understand the Spanish which is evoking such a reaction in her and even more so at his inability to empathise with her grief. The moment into which this apophthegm is born could not be further from pretence, from the fakery and ‘repulsive lies’ of academic philosophy, and the hunchbacked prejudice so despised by Nietzsche. Like The Last Wolf in its entirety, it is a sign of the possibility of ‘genuine’ philosophy, as something which takes place ‘in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely times’.

After this series of climactic revelations, Krasznahorkai cannot resist allowing another—final—mystery to enter his narrative. José Miguel takes the professor aside to offer him a confession, but he is having none of it: ‘it was precisely what I expected… so I told him not to tell me, we simply embraced’. Yet this enforced silence plays on the narrator’s mind. Since his return he has found himself in two places at once—bodily in Berlin; mentally in Extremadura, where he has been obsessively writing and ‘rewriting the end of José Miguel’s story’. In a playful subversion of the conventions of detective fiction, dénouement is engulfed by swollen consciousness. The stream, having reached its summit, has no choice but to evaporate.

**

Jack Graveney is reading for a B.A. in History and German at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.