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Noh goddess illuminates life and art

by Victoria James

Special To The Japan Times

“Seiobo There Below,” a not-quite novel by Hungary’s star postmodern author László Krasznahorkai, is a delight, a puzzle, a frustration and a joy.

Seiobo There Below, by László Krasznahorkai (translated by Ottilie Mulzet).
New Directions, Fiction.
Rating: ★★★★★

It has neither sentences nor paragraphs, only unbroken torrents of words, some an entire chapter long. There are 17 of those chapters, numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two before it, rising from 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 up to 1,597 and, finally, 2,584. Which sounds as pretentious as hell (indeed, some critics have suggested that “Seiobo There Below” is about hell, while others insist that, no, it is plainly about the divine) — and yet, somehow, it’s not.

What “Seiobo” is, is a haunting and involving exploration of the impact on human lives of an encounter with art. Each chapter is a standalone story narrating one such experience during time-periods ranging from prehistory to the present day, in Europe, Asia and the East. There are familiar names here — in Italy we meet a 15th-century painter’s apprentice who will grow up to be the artist Raphael; on Sadogashima we share the exile of famed noh actor and playwright Ze’ami — and smaller, almost secret stories, whose protagonists are fictional.

What’s striking is the number of tales Krasznahorkai sets in Japan, doubtless influenced by the author’s extensive travels in the country in the past decade. In addition to Ze’ami, in Kyoto we meet a young conservator working on a Buddha statue, observe a noh mask maker carefully ply his chisel, watch a noh actor during and after a performance, and witness the rebuilding rituals of the Great Shrine of Ise through the eyes of a young Western architect and her reluctant Japanese companion.

The presiding deity of the entire story-sequence, of course, is the minor Japanese goddess Seiobo — a curious choice, as her mythology is scant, save that she cultivates a garden of peach trees that blossom every 1,000 years or so and whose fruits confer immortality on those who eat them. It seems possible that the artworks Krasznahorkai’s protagonists encounter represent those peaches: of divine origin and enabling those who consume them to partake in a kind of “immortality,” the seemingly eternal relevance and power possessed by some artworks.

Maybe that’s sounding pretentious again? It would be, if it were at all obtrusive, but instead the reader’s attention is sucked into the stories that Krasznahorkai tells. His great achievement is that the tales in a minor key, of unnamed or unimportant characters, are every bit as engrossing as the stories of Raphael and Perugino, of the Venus de Milo and the Alhambra. There is the bleakly comic account of an architect lecturing to an uncomprehending provincial audience about the majesty of Baroque music — “our hearts ache from the wondrous beauty of it all, for the Baroque is the artwork of pain, for deep down in the Baroque there is deep pain.” All his mystified listeners can focus on is the man’s massive belly, “because this gut with its three colossal folds unequivocally sent a message to everyone that this was a person with many problems.”

Krasznahorkai’s gift for persuasive human detail is particularly strong in several of the episodes set in Japan, where he enters with ease worlds and lives that are unfamiliar and inaccessible even to Japanese (and Japan-resident) readers. His account of the transportation, restoration and return of the resident Amida statue of an Inazawa temple is pitch perfect, from the punctilious desire of the monks to perform correctly a farewell ritual in which none of them have ever participated, and the chance involvement of “lay believers, recruited by happenstance simply from local elderly insomniacs standing at the monastery gates” curious about the bustle, to the camaraderie and hierarchy of the Bijutsu-in conservation workshop in Kyoto where the young star technician is given the job of cleaning the Buddha’s eyes, in which its divinity resides.

And alongside the human, walks the divine: Seiobo descends to inhabit the person of noh actor Inoue Kazuyuki as he performs the drama named after her. “It is such a joy for me to practice Seiobo,” the actor reflects. “Seiobo is the emissary who arrives and says I am not the desire for peace, I am peace itself.” She is not the only divinity whose immanence is felt: that restored, radiant-eyed Amida; the Christo Morto painted by Belliniano that a man sees “staring at him so sternly that the gaze could hardly be borne” (the figure’s eyes are usually shut); and the Venus de Milo who somehow “remained here, this Venus from this higher realm,” when her own heavenly realm “no longer existed … had been pulverized by time.”

“Seiobo There Below” is not always an easy book: the complex syntax can become labyrinthine, some of the longer stories lose their tautness and meander into one digression too far. Nor is it a book for a commute or when pressed for time — each story is most effective when read as a single, unbroken narrative and several will take hours to complete. But to those willing to give themselves up to Krasznahorkai’s goddess, Seiobo will descend and bestow the gift of art that illuminates life.