Make no mistake, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is gloomy, frequently inert, boring, frustrating. Its more vatic passages can feel superfluous (“The world is nothing more than an event, lunacy, a lunacy of billions and billions of events, and nothing is fixed, nothing is confined, nothing graspable, everything slips away if we want to clutch on to it”). Yet it has a madness and monomania that compel. Exhilaratingly out of step with most contemporary fiction, it’s closer in spirit to Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a novel whose syntactic difficulty creates a literary no man’s land for intrepid readers to yomp through. Not even 600 pages, it’s both too long and – in this era of rolling news and data dumps – far too short.
The language is plain and comfortable with cliché, as though Krasznahorkai is intent on delivering everything in the same register, from the whimper of a Bernhardian rant in the local newspaper to the bang of the apocalyptic finale. But there’s a playful element too, buried amid the darkness: the novel comes with a pre-credits scene before the title page, headed WARNING, and the usual legal disclaimer declares that coincidental names and places in the book ‘are exclusively to wretched happenstance’. And why not end, as Krasznahorkai doesn’t, with an upbeat example of the comedy that is a surprising feature of the book? Remember that welcome party that the mayor was planning? It results in the Baron being piped off a train to an enthusiastic crowd by a bunch of hairy bikers playing ‘Madonna’s great hymn’ ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ on their horns.
Despite, or maybe because of, the depth of thought and insight Krasznahorkai brings to this exceptional and profound novel, intricately translated by Ottilie Mulzet, there are moments of great humour too. The petty narcissism of local officials and the baron’s propensity for Thomas Bernhard-like vitriol regarding his native country are among the pleasures of this great work. In the end, we learn the one essential truth of all existence: the one phenomenon we can always rely on is entropy. Things can only get worse.