He did not find the gate where he thought he would, by the time he noticed that he was about to step inside he was already inside, he couldn’t perceive how he’d stepped across, suddenly he was just there, and facing him—he was on the other side of the wall—was the enormous gate construction known as Nandaimon: in the middle of the courtyard there suddenly rose four pairs of wide, colossal smooth-burnished hinoki columns upon raised stone plinths, and atop them a gently arching double roof construction; two roofs placed one above the other as if there had been a moment in which, at its beginning and its end, two enormous autumn leaves, slightly singed at the edges, were descending, one after the other, and only one of them had arrived, and now it rested on the timberwork of the columns, while the other was as if still descending through the perfect symmetry of the air…
At first glance, it is the endless title that catches one’s attention. But, by the time you have made your way through this enigmatic volume by Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate way of signalling that this is a novel that will gently challenge expectations. Originally published in 2003, now available in a discerning translation by Ottilie Mulzet, A Mountain to the North, A Lake to The South, Paths to the West, A River to the East is a enveloping work that is part existential meditation and mystery, part exposition of the design and construction of Buddhist monasteries, part fantastical geological and botanical visualization and much more. It exists and unfolds in a magical realm of its own, suspended on meticulous details of Japanese Buddhist tradition, practice and design, but raising a much more pragmatic question: what is more important, the quest or its successful completion?
Central to this unusual novel is the grandson of Prince Genji, a character out of time and place, born of and bound to a fictional legacy reaching back a thousand years, who is seeking a garden whose existence has obsessed and eluded him for at least one hundred and fifty years. A suggestion that the hidden garden he seeks may in fact be located in an ancient monastery above a community outside of Kyoto, he sets off to find it without letting his retinue of attendants know. When he arrives on the train, he is already feeling ill, so his passage through a warren of confusing and seemingly deserted streets is difficult but he perseveres.
However, the monastery, which seems to find him as much as he finds it, appears to be abandoned and, in some places, falling into disrepair. Fatigued and desperate for a drink of water, the grandson of Prince Genji clings to faith that someone will emerge from the silence to attend to him. We learn that his perpetually reinvented existence has left him subject to an “extraordinary sensitivity” manifested in weakness and fainting spells. Now, having escaped his caregivers, he is on his own. His passage through the monastery grounds is accompanied by digressions that describe his surroundings, natural and constructed, and detail the precise and laborious processes of designing the monastery, searching for a location, gathering material and overseeing craftsmen. The layout of walkways, the purpose of structures, the history of paper and book making and the art of gardens are explored in poetic, sometimes mystical terms. Kraznahorkai, at once meditative and restless, paints the confined canvases of his short chapters with uncommon energy. This passage, for example, describes the final effect of the monastery courtyards, where carefully selected stone, transported over long distances, and painstakingly crushed and spread out by select young monks, were finished using the teeth of heavy rakes, drawing:
into the white-gravel surface, those parallel undulations, so that there would come about not merely the idea but the reality of the perfection of paradise which seemed to wish to evoke the ocean’s restless surface, its eddying waves here and there between the wild cliffs, although in reality, it dreamt—into the incomparable simplicity of that beauty—that there was everything, and yet there was nothing, it dreamt that in the things and the processes, existing in their inconceivable, ghastly velocity, enclosed with a seemingly interminable constraint of flashes of light and cessation, there was yet a dazzling constancy as deep as the impotency of words before an unintelligible land of inaccessible beauty, something like the bleak succession of the myriad of waves in the ocean’s gigantic distance, something like a monastery courtyard where, in the peacefulness of a surface evenly covered with white gravel, carefully smoothed over with a rake, a very frightened pair of eyes, a gaze fallen into mania, a shattered brain could rest, could experience the sudden enlivening of an ancient thought of obscure content, and at once begin to see that there was only the whole, and no parts.
Extending over forty-nine brief chapters (numbered to Roman numeral L but commencing with II), most only 2-3 pages long, through flowing, often unbroken sentences that might extend for a page or more, this is a book that is engaging, informative and beautiful. At moments it is even farcical. However, the narrative winds back on itself at points, almost reimagining itself from another angle, blurring an illusion of chronology. Of course, for all the descriptive information woven into it, this is a story that exists outside space and time in a place where ancient and modern collide and fall away again. Thus, the circularity that arises subtly as the story unfolds, doubly rewards a reader on the second passage through this evocative work.
A Mountain to the North, A Lake to The South, Paths to the West, A River to the East by László Krasznahorkai is translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and published Serpent’s Tail imprint Tuskar Rock Press in the UK and New Directions in North America.