The Melancholy of Resistance (written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes) is, to say the least, a very odd book. It is odd in content, in structure, in everything. A circus comes to a small Hungarian town and brings with it an uneasy malevolence. The circus features a taxidermied whale and a mysterious circus feature referred to as “The Prince” – but prince of who and what and why are never explained. The plot oozes along, first with a deep sense of foreboding as we watch a woman just past middle age get sexually harassed on a train, and then condenses around the beatific town idiot, Janos Valuska, and the recluse to whom Valuska is inexplicably drawn, Mr. Eszter. The atmosphere of unease sparks into mobs, riots, death, and nihilism, and the book ends with a peculiarly satisfying if opaque ending.
This is not an easy book to read. This is a demanding book that has to be met on its own terms, one that consumes you as much as you, the reader, consume it. I mean this is the best possible way: this is a book that assumes the best in its readers even as it presents a pessimistic view of the human race. It assumes that you are bright enough and capable enough and patient enough to let the story unfold as it needs to unfold. Really, reading The Melancholy of Resistance is like a magic trick: Krasznahorkai manages to cram a ton of seamless characterization and fluid plot development into a text with no paragraph breaks and remarkably little dialogue. The point of view hops back and forth between characters, but miraculously, it works. The way the book is written makes it hypnotic to read – the narrative washed over me, and I found myself reading it without paying very close attention, like the narrative insisted on easing into my mind through osmosis.
I definitely recommend the book, though with the caveat that it is work to read it, and the story, while fascinating, may leave you feeling a bit hollowed out. But it is a brilliant book, both in terms of what it has to say and how it says it.
A note about the kindle version: the formatting is terrible. I would recommend reading this in hardcopy if you get the option.
*SPOILERY FURTHER ANALYSIS AFTER THE CUT*
Ok, first, I want to get my thoughts about the ending out. I was recommended the book by a close friend of mine (the kind of amazing friend with amazing taste which perfectly matched your own so you always trust their book recommendations) who as I was reading it told me she hoped I liked the ending. So, I was primed for it to be a strange ending – could a book like this have had any other kind? – but I had no sense of what kind of strange it would be. And it is strange. So I am reading and I get to Mrs. Plauf’s funeral and then the narrator switches their focus from Mrs. Eszter, who we’ve been following through the funeral, to the dead and now buried Mrs. Plauf, and proceeds to describe her decaying body in clinical and fevered detail. Not gory detail, but written like the bacteria are waging a war and winning it, a focus on the mechanics of decomposition rather than the grossness of it. It is a strange turn for the book, one I didn’t immediately grasp, and one which clicked all of a sudden. He writes the decomposition the same way he wrote the comings and goings of the violent mob as it tore through the town. He writes it with an ecstatic finality which, in stark comparison to the things we’ve just seen inside Mrs. Eszter’s smug mind, completely undoes the importance of anything she’s accomplished over the course of the novel. There is a sense of wiping the slate clean that underscores the rootlessness and moreal relativity that permeates the book. It is a bizarre ending and also absolutely perfect, one that renders the entire narrative moot but fits because the entire narrative was leading up to this moment where it would be rendered moot.
The other thing that has stuck with me is the character of Mrs. Ezster herself. She is positioned as the villian of the novel – a machiavellian social engineer, opportunist, and a woman with aspirations of social control. And she gets that social control. Through the course of the book she moves from a one-room apartment she shares with rats and a drunkard lover, a woman on the fringes and discredited in the town, to a prominent voice in the community (albeit expressing repressive policies) back in her own house again with her estranged husband cowed and silenced, in love with a military man who is the model of straight and upright. She makes a ton of progress, is what I’m saying. She is villified in the book, and I most certainly do not agree with her perspective, but taking a feminist lens to her character what I see is an agentic and powerful woman, a woman who feels she has a right to wield her mind and her sexuality, and who ultimately (in a way I don’t agree with) restores order to a town in chaos. She is the most dynamic character in the book. She is, in many ways, the driving force of it, a thing everything else happens in reaction to. That she is so deeply unlikable and portrayed so unsympathetically is not coincidence – that is how agentic, sexually assured women are portrayed. Seeing her from a feminist lens, where she is loosed from the expectations of how idealized figures of femininty should behave in works of fiction, she become an incredibly interesting character.