Animalinside: The profound anguish of a silent pack member

Less than 50 pages long, László Krasznahorkai's pamphlet-like, multimedia collaboration with the German painter Max Neumann is one of the most beautifully produced works of literature this year.

epa00596033 Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai, winner of the Kossuth prize, the most prestigious literature award in Hungary, presents Wednesday 14 December 2005, his latest novel 'To the North the mountain, to the South the lake, to the West the road, to the East the river', in Barcelona, northeastern Spain.  EPA/TONI GARRIGA

To my mind, Samuel Beckett is the author who was most able to broaden one single thought - the must-go-on-ness of life - into a universe of forms. He turned a remarkably powerful insight about the way life was experienced in the mid-20th century into an engine for producing, among other things, a trilogy of anti-novels that meditated upon death and the limits of language, and a post-apocalyptic farce about a woman who lives life buried waist-deep in dirt.

The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is among the handful of authors working today who could reasonably be said to carry Beckett's torch. As with Beckett, Krasznahorkai's writing manifests a formal fascination with language that goes far beyond a desire to tell a story. In an era of chaos, his literature springs forth from a search to understand how language might create suitable myths to replace the ones that have been long since torn down.

New Directions has led the way in bringing Krasznahorkai into English, having already published his acclaimed novels War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance, and planning to rerelease the author's breakthrough book, 1985's Sátántangó, early next year. In the meantime, New Directions has just published in English a slim work called Animalinside, which New Directions originally co-published in Paris as part of Sylph Editions' impressive Cahiers series.

Animalinside is 48 pages long, but it is a large read and you will see few more beautifully produced works of literature this year. The project grew out of Krasznahorkai's relationship with the German artist Max Neumann, whose painting of a silhouetted, dog-like figure oddly straining within a sparsely detailed enclosure had long hung on Krasznahorkai's wall. One day the author wrote a text in response to this painting, which spurred Neumann to create 14 more works of art, and Krasznahorkai 13 more textual responses. Aware that the final product would be published in the Cahier's pamphlet-like format, Krasznahorkai necessarily limited the length of each of his responses to what would fit on one or two pages.

The result of this international, multimedia collaboration is Animalinside, a book in which a galaxy of implication springs from Neumann's striking, muscular animal form. It is an iconic image, somewhere between a demented howl and a vicious leap, instantly recognisable, adaptable, enigmatic. The figure features prominently in each of Neumann's paintings, which are reproduced magnificently in the book. The reproductions' range of texture is superb, capturing the subtle, diffuse shifts in shade that characterise Neumann's backgrounds and the crisp blotches of colour that seep atop them.

As with the images, the powerful centre of Krasznahorkai's prose is the creature. He begins by apprehending it from the outside, telling us as though projecting into a Rorschach blot "he wants to break free ... there is nothing else to do but howl". In these first lines Krasznahorkai establishes the creature's mind, as well as the book's obsession with the limits that exist within infinities: "they have placed him inside this moment, but in doing so have excluded him from the moment previous, as well as the one to follow, so that he howls with one howl, expelled from time."

In the following sections, Krasznahorkai switches from the third-person to the first, building up the creature's "persona" out of remarkably strange attributes. In section II, for instance, the creature defines itself almost entirely in the negative, proceeding from the words "you can't touch me" to an enormous list of qualities that it is not, concluding with the one thing it is: "Within me there is only hatred, only disgust, only fear." Section III is its vicious declaration of spatial infinitude, beginning with "I extend from one church spire to the other" and proceeding up through being bigger than the "universe" before challenging even the nature of quantification: "I am bigger than everything that can be measured."

Yet the creature becomes marvellously difficult to pin down, Animalinside deriving a Beckett-like depth from its constantly contradictory, self-defeating, unreliable statements. Thus, in section X the animal says of the howl that was previously called an expression of unimaginable angst "we don't know why but it is good to howl, and it was always like this". Even more unsettling is section XII, which begins quite disarmingly with "my little master, where have you gone?" The creature proceeds to rather pathetically beg for its dinner before declaring that when it grows up "I will rip away your ears, because then I will tear off your nose, because then I will burn out your eyes". It then finally concludes by repeating "my little master", which, at this point, can only be read with heavy irony. Were that not enough, section XIII repeats the feints and threats of XII almost word for word before concluding with the even more ironic "I'm only kidding - my little master." Elsewhere the creature variously: threatens "you" with a death that will occur in an infinitesimal moment; describes itself as a pathology inside a "you" waiting to burst out; and speaks of itself as a "we" standing in "judgment".

Although Animalinside is a writhingly complex work, the language throughout tends towards the simple. Krasznahorkai builds up lengthy sentences out of short, comma-spliced sentence fragments made from lapidary words, and the book's power comes from how he layers repeated words and phrases into a sort of cumulative syntax. In an essay written for the website Hungarian Literature Online, the translator Ottilie Mulzet stated that Krasznahorkai gave her an "unequivocal" instruction: "There are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS."

Krasznahorkai's imperative notwithstanding, Mulzet's translation does not feel foreign so much as stateless, a kind of transcontinental English suitable to the existentialist myth Krasznahorkai has created. In this it resembles other notable translated modernists, the aforementioned Beckett among them, as well as Thomas Bernhard, Sadegh Hedayat, all authors whose obsessive, repetitious prose feel less tied to a place and time than a way of thinking. Mulzet has done a fine job of maintaining Krasznahorkai's arid, almost inert rhythms while finding the proper words to get across the text's sense of irony, the strange mixture of doubt and certainty that characterises its language.

Animalinside is a remarkably open text, something like a collection of discontinuous forms clustered around an absent centre. It does not progress so much as exist as a network of suggestion: for instance, Beckett's profoundly conclusive "I can't go on, I'll go on" here becomes merely the theme on which section IX is set. Even the finitude of the book's final, 14th section, a scene of ash and expiration that sets up a final battle to end all battles, dissolves within the multiplicity of what has come before. How can we really trust that this is the end after all we've seen and heard?

Krasznahorkai's success with Animalinside is that, despite the feeling of great instability that undercuts any definite conclusion to this text, it nonetheless feels "about" something - and something important. The creature's deep contradictions make it into a complex, living entity, and the chaos itself becomes a source of understanding. In section XIV, the last two creatures in existence declare "we've made it undone in our hatred", adding that "no verb at all shall ever be heard again, no memories, no traces, no judgment and not even any crime, no punishment, the last word died away long ago". Despite these admissions they continue to speak, and what's more they end with a final clash to discover who will be "king". The nothingness over which they preside, it would seem, is purely metaphorical - not the end of existence but the end of meaning.

That is as terrible a consequence of complete isolation as I can imagine, and I would venture that it is the natural state of Krasznahorkai's creature. It is notable that Animalinside is at its most nostalgic when the creature is recalling - or imagining - time spent with its fellows, where the simplicity of experience forms a common bond that does not need language. The book is perhaps best understood as an exploration of a consciousness trapped within an inability to communicate. It is a deep, upsetting vision, one that marks Krasznahorkai as an original whose prose must be wrestled with.

Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.