Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel is an ambitious metaphysical satire about small town forced to make sense of the “indifferent and unstoppable traffic between things,” a stream of “things” that in the hands of the visionary Hungarian author include authoritarianism, lunacy, social decay, and the illusion of tidiness. He takes four principle characters — a fussy mother, her son the village idiot, an ambitious, law-and-order loving woman bureaucrat, and her intellectual but hermetic husband — and rams them into atom-smashing circumstances in form of the arrival of a circus troupe whose centerpiece attraction is a large dead whale hauled around in a huge truck.
On the fringes of the traveling circus are ghoulish rowdies who grow increasingly fascinating by the idea of breaking down all around them, which in the view of the paranoid townies in is built into the DNA of all that isn’t of them. When the hysterical hooligans go on a rampage, power-hungry people’s committee chairman Mrs. Eszter intervenes to ward off chaos. Yet the only truly decent figure is the idiot, who ultimately can’t decide between lunacy and ruin, deciding that, “the only power to remain standing was that which looked for no reasons…”
As in “Moby Dick” or the Old Testament, the presence of a sea monster is less a carnival bluff than a way to sketch out an amoral and impressionable parallel world in which order and disorder are largely comic concepts ahead of inevitable human decay.
What differentiates Krasznahorkai from Western writers who seek to frame madness, tyranny, and power is his willingness to impregnate imaginable, even mundane, events with a surreal spirit while never losing touch with the moorings of his story, one that has a beginning, middle and end (the latter a magisterial recounting of actual human decomposition). He has no interest in dysfunctional families per se, though his narrative includes them. His obsession instead is with the dysfunctional universe, Sistine Chapel in scope, one that exists as a function of outsized delusion or vanity (“a foul marsh of petty self-interest…”) with little in between — aside from a whale-sized eagerness to break anything and everything in search of meaning, until that act itself seems trivial, if not melancholy.