Such a journey requires focused devotion, not to mention contending with any constraints imposed by time, money, physical and mental health, and opportunity (read: systemic and historic biases and prejudices). These strictures ensure that few such searches are successful, that few such journeys reach their destination. Some have argued that nothing can stop true artists from creating, that they have a gift and that gift will find a way to manifest itself, to overcome any obstacles, but such thinking feels naïve. Of course, there have been, and will be, unstoppable successes, but for every writer, painter, dancer, sculptor, or filmmaker we know of who overcame the odds, who carved out the time to create, an unknown number remain anonymous, unable to start their journeys or, more importantly, unable to finish them, so consumed are they by the rigors — material, existential, or psychological — of daily living.
If this riff on artistic creation resonates, László Krasznahorkai’s slight, almost static novella A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East may speak to you as it did to me, slowly revealing itself as a meditation not only on Buddhism and the fragility of life, but also on writing, on the creation of art, and on aesthetic fulfillment in general, a journey that can be exhausting, elusive, consuming, frustrating, and ultimately futile. Ottilie Mulzet’s characteristically wondrous translation is the ninth of Krasznahorkai’s works to appear in English over the past decade, and while the book was originally published in Hungarian in 2003, it still feels like a fitting coda to the Man Booker International winner’s remarkable oeuvre.
It is also an ideal entry to his work, an almost breezy read by his standards, comprising 49 short chapters. Krasznahorkai’s reputation as an author of challenging fictions is well deserved, and Mulzet is one of three translators who have transposed his notoriously demanding, meandering, protracted, and almost agrammatical prose into English. His sentences, including those in A Mountain, can run on for pages at a time, and Krasznahorkai often deals with freighted, contemplative themes obliquely, while also occasionally adorning his work with seemingly opaque filigree, such as in Seiobo There Below (2008), where the chapters are numbered using the Fibonacci series, and an Italian-language crossword puzzle, with both grid and clues, appears early on. With the exception of one late, rambling discussion about numbers, A Mountain is free of such embellishments — or, for those less charitable, such indulgences.
At the literal level, not much happens in this novella, which opens in medias res with chapter II (there is no chapter I), as the “extraordinarily beautiful” grandson of Prince Genji gets off a train in Kyoto. He walks the streets, happens upon a monastery, wanders the grounds, then returns to the train, during which time several members of his security detail, “all thoroughly hammered,” make a half-assed effort to locate their lost charge, and a dog, “half dead” from being badly beaten, crawls toward a gingko tree to die. The story isn’t really as action-packed as that summary makes it appear. Some of the chapters feel out of order, some double back on themselves, repeating or elaborating on previously discussed material, and some simply exist outside the novella’s narrative construct, including intricate descriptions of the monastery grounds, its individual buildings, its Buddha statue and other artistic holdings, and the history behind its creation, such as the life cycle of the hinoki cypress trees that the miya daiku (master carpenters) used to construct the covered walkways, which act as “a wondrous guider of souls.”
The monastery, which is a real place, is called Eikan-dō, or Zenrin-ji Temple, and it was founded in 853 AD. Its location, “very far away from” Enryaku-ji, another monastery that historically housed warrior monks and acted as a protective outpost northeast of Kyoto on Mount Hiei, required Eikan-dō to observe the four great “ritual obligatory protective measures” that give the novella its title. According to Eikan-dō’s website, the grounds remain extremely popular, particularly in the autumn, due to the spectacular surrounding foliage. When Genji’s grandson arrives, however, the place is abandoned, showing signs of break-ins, vandalism, and fire. Uniquely, Eikan-dō’s Buddha statue has its head turned to one side, legend has it because the Buddha was trying to determine who was speaking so beautifully (the answer being a monk named Eikan), but Krasznahorkai sees the Buddha’s aversion as a commentary, one of several in the novella, on humanity’s failings:
The truth, however, was radically different, and whoever saw him immediately knew: the Buddha turned his beautiful gaze away so that he would not have to look, so he would not have to see, so he would not have to be aware of what was in front of himself, in the three directions — this wretched world.
Genji’s grandson is completely alone in this wretched world, arriving in a Kyoto where “the streets were empty, the shops were closed […] somehow everything was deserted as if there were a holiday somewhere, or some kind of problem — but somewhere else far away from here.” His story exists outside of time as well, since he is two generations removed from Murasaki Shikibu’s fictional 11th-century character, “his one-time world-famous ancestor,” and yet comes across a monastery office with “an electric table lamp, an old computer, a telephone, and a typewriter.” Genji’s grandson is also unwell — he appears aimless, he vomits when he gets off the train, he has a “damaged, overly sensitive, and ailing brain,” he passes out at one point, and his movements seem almost unconscious. “[I]t was clear that he himself didn’t know where he was going and why he was going there, and mainly what the purpose of this going on was when he was overcome by such a persistent weakness, because, truly, now he was very weak, weaker than he’d ever been before.”
But Genji’s grandson does have a goal, even if he can’t recall it in his current state. He is looking for a garden, a garden that may or may not exist, a garden that he may or may not have read about in a book called One Hundred Beautiful Gardens, a book that he may or may not have possessed, and that may or may not have actually existed. Genji’s grandson became captivated by the 100th garden in the book, a “so-called hidden garden” about which the book provided “no information whatsoever as to where, exactly, this concealed, seemingly truly captivating garden, was located. […] [P]erhaps this garden existed only in the imagination of the author of One Hundred Beautiful Gardens.” Now that the book has disappeared as well, perhaps the garden only exists in the imagination of Genji’s grandson, though the book’s author claimed, “emphatically” and “euphorically,” that the “tiny little garden [is] located in an unremarkable section of a large monastery that was never sought out by anyone, never visited, moreover abandoned,” a location that sounds like the Eikan-dō where Genji’s grandson finds himself. Despite the novella’s Buddhist setting, it is hard not to have thoughts of Eden, Shangri-La, or other places or ideas now lost in the “vile history of human existence.”
We eventually learn that the garden does exist, is nothing more than a “moss carpet with eight hinoki cypress trees,” yet for me Krasznahorkai likens the idea of the place to whatever obsession, whatever aspiration, whatever aim one has in life, be it art, happiness, or success: “[T]his garden was the final consummation of the thought of the garden itself, this garden could be characterized, putting it most precisely, by how its creator had ‘attained simplicity,’ this was a garden […] that expressed the infinitely simple via infinitely complex forces.”
That final clause — “the infinitely simple via infinitely complex forces” — is an apt assessment of A Mountain and indeed of all Krasznahorkai’s writings, a sense deepened as the book considers the extraordinarily precarious existence of the garden, which the omniscient narrator makes painstakingly clear depends on “infinitely complex forces,” on the unlikely succession of one unlikely moment after another, on germination, wind direction, weather conditions, and so on. Krasznahorkai evinces a wide-eyed appreciation of these occurrences, of this “bafflingly complicated system of nature’s ongoing dreadful happenstance.”
That dependence on happenstance is revealed in numerous ways, but none is so gently dolorous as the culmination of Genji’s grandson’s search, a resolution that I will leave readers of this intensely thought-provoking novella to discover. And yet, perhaps, Krasznahorkai suggests, that resolution isn’t even the most consequential thing. What is more important is that the garden exists both as an idea and as something tangible to be sought after — that you can look for it, become obsessed by it, lose yourself in the contemplation of it, as you seek to escape, whether for a moment, for a day, or for centuries, from a world where, as Krasznahorkai reiterates in the book’s conclusion, “there was some kind of great problem somewhere,” a problem that of necessity must be set aside in order to conduct our search for that place with “the strength of simplicity’s enchantment.”
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.