IN EARLY DECEMBER, Beijing issued its first-ever red alert for air pollution. Hazardous airborne particles had risen to nearly 15 times what the World Health Organization deems safe. Schools closed, and half of all cars had to stay off the road — odd-numbered license plates one day, even-numbered the next. The Beijing Times called it “airpocalypse.”

Some dozen years before, László Stein, a renowned Hungarian poet, fell asleep in Beijing’s Guangji Temple. He dreamt that he was joined by the master calligrapher Tang Xiaodu, to whom he put a desperate question. Stein, he explained, had been coming to China for years in search of its classical culture, and though he’d never found it, he’d been consoled just thinking that “the sky that clouded above him was the same sky that clouded above Li Taibai and all of Chinese classical poetry, and all of Chinese tradition.” Now he had to ask the master: “Are the heavens here above them really the same?” Tang Xiaodu took a long time to reply. “No,” he finally said, “these are not the same heavens any more.”

Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, a book of quasi-fictional reportage by László Krasznahorkai (who styles himself the poet Stein throughout), is a travelogue under modern China’s apocalyptic sky. The book, which many will find controversial, details Stein’s pilgrimage in search of the authentic current of Chinese tradition, a search that leads him to denounce the country’s so-called economic miracle as a general collapse.

László Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, was born in 1954 on Hungary’s Romanian border. He rose to prominence with his nightmarish debut novel, Satantango (1985), which was famously adapted into a seven-hour film by his frequent collaborator, Béla Tarr. Although Krasznahorkai now claims to live as a recluse in the hills near Budapest, he’s traveled widely and sociably. Indeed, he lived in Allen Ginsberg’s New York apartment for a time in the 1990s while writing War & War (1999), probably his most accessible work. “[David] Byrne would often come over to Ginsberg’s place,” he recalls. “Sometimes we would make music together in the kitchen, and I became part of this polygon with Byrne, Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Ginsberg.”

Each Krasznahorkai novel has appeared in English like a gothic jolt. Satantango, for instance, unfolds in a remote Hungarian hamlet, whose grotesque inhabitants have their lives thrown into chaos by the arrival of a man with diabolical charisma. Krasznahorkai has said the novel was inspired by a kind of negative epiphany from his youth, when he was made to hold piglets while a man castrated them. “The man was totally without sensitivity, without soul, without emotion,” he said. At the empty heart of Satantango is that man’s inner vacuum.

Like anything downward-spiraling, Krasznahorkai’s style is hypnotic. His sentences may run to dozens of pages, one comma splice after another hurling the reader headlong. Yet the miraculous effect of novels like Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) is that, for all their terror and ugliness, they leave the reader with a sense of having experienced formal perfection. Krasznahorkai’s art is not simply to be appreciated, or admired. The experience is taxing; it might deprive you of something. His books operate where perfection shades into annihilation.

Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens solidifies the sense that we, in Krasznahorkai’s English-language audience, must reckon with a different side of the author, first glimpsed in Seiobo There Below (2008). In contrast to novels like Satantango, Seiobo seemed like a break. Not smothered in basest earth, the novel floats pristinely high above world history, ranging over centuries and continents to observe ecstatic heights of human achievement in the arts. From the painstaking restoration of a Japanese Buddha, to the splendors of an Italian Renaissance studio, Krasznahorkai’s eye seeks out ephemeral moments of mastery. Suddenly, those asphyxiating sentences had room to breathe.

Seiobo There Below introduced English-language readers to Krasznahorkai’s Asiatic obsession. As it turned out, this writer, whom Susan Sontag once called the “Hungarian master of apocalypse,” had been regularly traveling to Mongolia, China, and Japan in search of ecstatic experience, such as one might find in the highest works of art. As he told Music and Literature, speaking of a picture by Fra Angelico, “it’s so unbelievably beautiful and there’s a border, and beyond this border comes a kind of ecstasy.” Although, he says, we are condemned to live in “a very dirty, hopeless, gray world,” nevertheless in certain places, at certain times, “We have knowledge that beyond the border there is a wonderful beauty, a space for beauty, for greatness […] if perhaps you can believe in it, if you have such an experience, your life is a little bit changed.”

Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens details Krasznahorkai’s search for that border (though one must speak only of László Stein, the alter-ego protagonist of a book that straddles fiction and journalism). Stein has been traveling to China since 1990 to experience “this last ancient civilization, this exquisite manifestation of the creative spirit of mankind.” It is unclear whether Stein is a practicing Buddhist, but he worships the “unequalled perspective” of the historical Buddha. Stein’s vision of classical China is a vision of Buddhism and Confucianism at their most vital, and he undertakes a pilgrimage to the traditional centers of culture, south of the Yangtze River, hoping “to uncover something that is alive […] a few tiny fragments where the light of the spirit of classical culture might have shone across the centuries.”

Stein and his interpreter visit temples, monasteries, libraries, and gardens. They observe a master sculptor in his atelier. They journey to the sacred Mount Jiuhua. And yet, at every turn, Stein finds not the spirit of classical China, but “the Armageddon of New China,” a country that causes him to descend “ever lower in the experience of disillusion.” A Buddhist nun steals his money, sacred water is polluted, and every supposedly tranquil site is overrun with tourists. Precisely where Stein hopes to perceive continuity, “the principles of classical culture, as a truly living world,” he discovers a severance, rendering the beauty of tradition into little more than “a draft of air where an amputated leg used to be.”

The destruction of classical Chinese culture has been the subject of much lament. The Chinese state is officially atheist, a position enthusiastically adopted after the 19th century, China’s “century of humiliation,” in which ancient values were powerless to defend against Western rapaciousness. The destruction of temples alone over the 20th century is staggering. It is estimated that, by the end of the 19th century, some one million temples existed in China; by 1997, only 1,500 remained. Many in China have attributed an epidemic of moral confusion to such destruction. As one Chinese poet tells Stein, “We need something, something we can hold in our hands. The problem is not that there are no principles, but that behind these principles there is nothing at all.” Efforts have recently been made to resurrect religion. The number of Daoist temples, for instance, has at least tripled over the past 15 years.

Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens was originally published in 2004, and so it describes China between the distinct phases of religious extirpation and revival. Yet it’s unlikely that Stein would greet China’s religious reawakening with enthusiasm. Regardless of statistics, Stein doesn’t blame Maoism for the destruction of classical Chinese culture. Instead, he holds Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms responsible for a period of decay that others call prosperity. Everywhere, Stein feels “confronted with the infinite damage done by the system of reconstruction in the new China, the monstrosity of crudely vulgar taste, the implacable lack of understanding […] so radically at odds with the refined sensibilities of the authentic Chinese spirit.”

The revival of Chinese religion, already underway by the time of Stein’s pilgrimage in 2002, is seen as a feature of Deng’s legacy, not an authentic continuation of tradition. The spirit hasn’t been revived; it staggers about in a kind of zombie state. Tradition, in Stein’s view, has been put in the service of the new China, when it should be the other way around. Reduced to competing in the marketplace, temples must charge admission fees and install playgrounds for children. The entire experience of Buddhism has been rendered fraudulent: monks have become merchants, and “a mockery is made precisely of those who make a pilgrimage here to see the Buddha and to pray to him.” In rancorous passages like these, Krasznahorkai channels the works of W.G. Sebald, who saw ashes on every attraction, and — unexpectedly — the novels of Michel Houellebecq, which trace the extension of the domain of the market into the sacred realms of human experience.

China’s miraculous dystopia reaches its apotheosis in a certain building in Shanghai. The architects, Stein said, clearly wanted to create “the symbol of the new Shanghai,” and to that end installed a “colossal, gold-coloured lotus flower […] a Lotus Throne.” Here, Stein’s deep study of Buddhism delivers a withering blow. The symbol of a deserted Lotus Throne, he says, was never prevalent even during Buddhism’s aniconic period, and so there’s no question of its being a traditional reference. Instead, and entirely by accident, the architects “had really found the most eloquent symbol of this new Shanghai […] a Lotus Throne on which no one sits any more, thus creating an image of how the Buddha has left the city.”

Many will find Stein’s uncompromising attitude controversial, perhaps seeing it as nostalgia for a time when millions languished in abject poverty. What’s more, critiquing modern China on anything but human rights is often seen as an expression of Western anxiety or condescension. Krasznahorkai’s book is therefore enriched by his inclusion of dialogues with prominent members of the Chinese intelligentsia, from artists to professors and curators. For anyone interested in the spiritual condition of modern China, these dialogues are riveting. The exasperated Stein tries, again and again, “not to find out if the Chinese intelligentsia respect their tradition with their words, but to see if they live it.” Results are mixed, and often tense. Some insist that tradition is alive in the depths, but have trouble pointing to examples; one tells Stein categorically, “There is no chance for you at all to understand anything about Chinese culture.”

Stein is only too aware that he is at odds with the times, and that perhaps he is beyond understanding modern China. “I have committed a huge error,” he admits, “for I have continued to believe that even today, China is still that ancient empire.” Such is the sorrow of the title of this book, a long lament for the final ancient civilization of world history. We are called upon to wonder: is there anywhere an individual can experience the condition of perfect tranquility? Or is it true, as Stein is forced to conclude, that modernity “has no place whatsoever for the highly accomplished, highly refined individual”?

Seiobo There Below was a vast survey of historical locales where such conditions prevailed. In Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, Krasznahorkai comes to see those conditions as deeply vulnerable to the epidemic of modernity. But though there may not be whole empires in which reality is expressed “in an ideal form, mysterious, enchanting, uplifting,” ecstasy may yet be possible in isolated circumstances. This demanding book concludes with Stein’s encounter with a sage named Wu, who scribbles paradoxical characters on a sheet of paper. The interpreter struggles to translate them: “human life … meaning … Olympus … Moon of today … people of old.” The moment is revelatory, ecstatic, on the border of beauty and beyond. Stein tells his interpreter not to translate what he’s about to say to Wu, that “he has understood, and he understands, every single word.” The moment flies, but then, forever in these pages, the sun is shining, the tea is hot, the birds are chirping.

¤

Michael LaPointe is a writer and critic based in Vancouver. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement.