The Daily

First Person

Introduction Into an Obscurity

February 3, 2016 | by

From the cover of Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens.

There is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called Southwestern Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on May 5, 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and the unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing from the bays of this station, a regional bus, starting from the No. 5 bus stop, slowly ploughs onward—among the other buses and the puddles and the bewildered crowd of wretched, stinking, grimy people—up to the vortex of the street, then sets off into the wretched, stinking, grimy streets; there is nothing more hopeless than these streets, than these interminable barracks on either side, numbed into their own provisional eternity, because there is no word for this hopeless color, for this slowly murderous variation of brown and gray, as it spreads over the city this morning, there is no word for the assault of this hopeless din, if the bus pauses briefly at a larger intersection or a bus stop, and the female conductor with her worn features opens the door, leans out, and, hoping for a new passenger, shouts out the destination like a hoarse falcon; because there is no word which in its essence could convey whether the direction in which he now travels with his companion, his interpreter, exists in relation to the world; they are headed outward, moving away from it, the world is ever farther and farther away, ever more behind them; they are shaken, jolted in advance in the disconsolate brown and yellow of this ever-thicker, indescribable fog; headed to where it can hardly be believed that there could be anything beyond the brown and the gray of this frighteningly dreary mixture; they sit at the back of the ramshackle bus, they are dressed for May but for a different May, so they are chilled and they shiver and they try to look out of the window but they can hardly see through the grimy glass, so they just keep repeating to themselves: Fine, good, it’s all right, they can somehow put up with this situation, not to be eaten up from without and within by this grimy and hopeless fog is their only hope; and that where they are going exists, that where this bus is supposedly taking them—one of the most sacred Buddhist mountains, Jiuhuashan*—exists. 

The woman at the ticket counter said that the trip would be roughly four hours, and then, just to be helpful, she added—tilting her head a little by way of explanation—that, well, what she meant was four or four and a half, from which it could already be suspected just what kind of bus they would be boarding; it has, however, just now, after the first hour, become obvious that no one really knows how long, because there is no way of knowing how much time it will take to get to Jiuhuashan, because the journey is slowed down by so many unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences—and everything, particularly the weather, is completely unpredictable— unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences which, as a matter of fact, are unforeseeable only to them as, for the most part, the personnel—the driver and the conductor—are to be thanked for all these unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences, the driver and the conductor, who—as it becomes clear soon after leaving the city—regard the task before them as their own private business venture, and so come to a halt not only at the prescribed stops but almost everywhere, trying to pick up more and more passengers from among the people walking along the side of the highway, from one kilometer to the next it is practically a hunt for yet more passengers, passengers with whom—following a negotiation which is opaque to them, because hardly a word is spoken—some kind of agreement is settled upon in a moment, money flashes in one hand, then disappears in another, on this ever-more congested route, therefore, black-market transport is taking place, that is, the front of the bus is packed, as is the middle, because hardly anyone is sitting at the back, to where they have been squeezed, no, they haven’t gone mad, it is much colder here, because the warmth of what is no doubt the sole operational heating device near the driver’s seat doesn’t reach this far, so that, in the battle for seats, only the weak and the less exceptional end up here—what rotten bad luck, the two Europeans shivering in the artificial-leather seats keep repeating to themselves, that they’re in Nanjing and it’s May and yet it’s almost like February. As for speaking, there really isn’t anyone to speak to, because their Chinese traveling companions, otherwise always inclined to acquaintance and conversation—including the four people who have also ended up at the back—do not breathe a word, neither to one another nor to them, everyone sits as far away as they can from everyone else, cocooned in their coats, scarves and hats, after they have arranged their packages near their feet and on the seat next to them, they just stare wordlessly through the grimy glass out into the brown-gray fog in which no one has any idea at all where they are, because, although it is already certain that they have disappeared into the endless terrain lying to the southwest of Nanjing, it is simply impossible to determine how far they have come and how far they have yet to go; Stein observes the passing of time on his watch, and he can feel that this is going to last for a very long time, for so long that it will no longer matter how long, really, if it will be four or four and a half hours, because none of this means anything in terms of time—the bus makes a huge thud in the thick traffic on the pothole-blotched road, and the entire metal contraption shakes and rattles and throws them here and there in the ice-cold seats, but they doggedly move onward, in blind faith; and beside them on the side of the highway, piled high with their huge bundles, plastic bags, really, all those innumerable people: they are headed somewhere too, they are also going onward, walking in a row, leaning into the icy drizzling wind, into the rain, and only some of them motion yes to the shouting conductor leaning out of the bus, and they get on and it’s as if the rest of them don’t even hear the shouting, they just simply pull back a little from the road until the bus rumbles off from alongside this ghostly procession, then they step back onto the asphalt and continue trudging beneath the weight of the bundles and the bags, clearly with that same blind faith, just like the travelers up there in the bus—as the bus pulls away, splashing them with mud—as if there were some common reason for this faith, as if in the absurdity of this balefully obscure scene, in which there really is nothing at all, it would be enough just to believe that, today, everyone will reach their goal.

The watch on Stein’s wrist shows nine minutes past eight when, in a bend hardly a hundred meters from the intersection of three main highways, the driver suddenly brakes, and picks up, from the mud on the side of the road, a middle-aged woman, clearly waiting for this bus: from this point on, that part of the journey begins in which they can no longer hide from each other the thought that perhaps they did not thoroughly consider all the difficulties inherent in their plan of going to Jiuhuashan—that is, is the risk worth it when the goal of travel is so uncertain?—because surely, says Stein to his sleepy companion, still shivering in the cold, both of them, the two white Europeans, cannot understand anything of this at all, they cannot even understand how a bus route like this operates: how could this woman know that she had to wait here, and how could the bus driver know that this woman would be waiting exactly here, in this bend in the road, and at exactly this time, let’s say, at around eight o’clock, because you can’t speak about schedules at all, that’s how it is, it’s impossible to understand anything here, the interpreter nods in agreement a little anxiously, and so this, says Stein, is just one of the many functioning rules, unknown to them, just a mere fragment of the entire system upon which they are relying, and which somehow still continues to exist, so that this route and all the others here in China can continue to operate, namely, that of these routes, everyday and every morning and evening and afternoon and morning, there are a few million, and there is transportation—just one among the many, he looks at the woman as she climbs up through the open door and joins the other passengers crammed together, then without a word presses a few yuan into the conductor’s hand, then squeezes among the passengers, starts off immediately to the back, to the same side where the foreigners are sitting, one row in front of them, sets down her huge bundles and, finally, sits down next to the window— she’s wearing a thick quilted jacket, a peaked felt cap, a thin scarf and heavy boots, and the entire creature is soaked from head to toe, so much so that for several minutes the water keeps dripping off her, and the poor thing creates the miserable impression of a bedraggled, beaten dog, a being, moreover, entirely indistinguishable from the others: in vain does he look at that face, as much as he can see from his seat at the back, a completely interchangeable face, almost the complete average of a face, impossible to form the basis any of observation, he looks in vain, he is incapable of distinguishing it from the others, because it is not possible, because it is exactly the same as thousands and thousands and millions and millions of other faces in this inconceivable mass which is China, and where can this ‘China’ be other than in this immeasurable and inexpressible mass of people unparalleled in world history, this is what determines it in every respect, what renders it so frighteningly massive, so frighteningly unknowable, and where the face of this woman, her entire presence, as she sits one row in front of them, on the other side, creates the feeling that they don’t know, because it is impossible to say who sat down there, as anyone could have sat down there, this woman could be anyone, this woman, and this is the most pitiless of all the pitiless truths: it doesn’t matter who she is—there she sits, water dripping off her, she too looks out of the grimy window—and then this interchangeable, this possibly most average of the average, this featureless being, without anything having changed in her interchangeable, average, featureless nature, does something completely unexpected, something which could not have been predicted: she opens the window—she grabs its handle, wrenches it to one side, pulls it at least halfway open, at which of course the icy cold rain and the icy cold air blow in, it is really so unexpected that in the first moments no one can really comprehend it, neither them nor the other passengers, the four passengers who with the Caucasians are squeezed in the back here; so contradictory it is to all common sense that someone who is so drenched and has spent who knows how much time out there in the cold drizzling rain, who clearly was half frozen to death when she boarded the bus, finally sits down and then opens the window onto herself and onto them—neither they nor the others can speak a single word for a while, they just look at the woman as the wind half sweeps the soaked hat off her head, they stare dumbfounded as she adjusts her hat and closes her eyes and, with her head slightly thrown back, leans on the arm rest, and she doesn’t move, the wind blows in, they just stare at her and don’t understand what she is doing, no one says anything for a long time—and so the bus goes on, into the fog, into the dense approaching traffic, forward, supposedly towards Jiuhuashan.

*One of the four sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism. Its name is derived from a line from a poem by Li Taibai, and once upon a time it was home to between two hundred and three hundred monasteries.

Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet.

This is the first chapter of Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage, available this month from Seagull Books. Reprinted with permission.

László Krasznahorkai is a celebrated Hungarian novelist and winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His works include Satantango and Seibo There Below.

Ottilie Mulzet is a literary critic and award-winning Hungarian translator.