The title of László Krasznahorkai’s second novel can be seen as self-referential. The long sentences have to be pried out of this book.
By doing so, we uncover layer after layer. At the surface, there is a small town, taken over by a demagogue and a willing mob, resulting in destruction.
Then there is the conflict between individual interests and mass euphoria. The former are represented by János Valuska, a modern day Prince Myshkin, and musicologist György Eszter. Both encounter the whale, one of the ominous riddles of the book.
Mysterious in its incomprehensibility, it strongly affects János, but leaves György unaffected. So there is a second layer of contrast, namely how individuals resist. Neither János nor György are successful, as becomes dramatically clear when the mob enters the hospital.
After senseless destruction, the mob faces a completely unarmed victim, not understanding that the dumb fear, the utter lack of resistance which allowed that victim to bear this onslaught, was increasingly robbing them of power and that, faced by this sapping mire of unconditional surrender—though this is what had hitherto given them the greatest, most bitter pleasure—they would have to retreat.
After this, innocent János, who has witnessed this as an accomplice, descends into madness, while György seeks restitution.
There are more layers. There are the roles of art and spirituality, again represented by György and János. The brutally artificial Werckmeister harmonies that György studies are in conflict with the harmonies of the celestial bodies János dreams of.
Neither of them can succeed alone. And here we arrive at the melancholy: Maybe their resistance could have been successful if they could have found a common ground.