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Animalinside

László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann

(New Directions; US: Jun 2011)

This slim, beautiful, and bizarre volume owes its existence to a leaping dog in silhouette, perched unnaturally in a narrow room. The image, by German painter Max Neumann, inspired Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai to write a page of imaginative ramblings describing Neumann’s creature.


What emerged was a relentless block of single sentence prose. A confinement meditation. The text provoked Neumann to create 13 additional artworks. For each piece Krasznahorkai wrote a response which, like his first writing, imagines the dog-figure’s agitated internal monologue. This creative dialogue (to apply a civil term to a feral gathering of images and words) uses the animal as an abstract device to address themes of dread, angst, obsession, and dependency; which is to say, human themes.


To their creations, Neumann and Krasznahorkai both are cruel masters. In the paintings the dog’s body is manipulated: often missing legs, sometimes standing on awkward stilts, howling, frozen in a leap, penciled in a cage, confronting its own image. Krasznahorkai matches the tone of the paintings by giving the beast a disorderly voice. He whips up a hypnotic cadence of cycling thoughts. Sentences and sentiments are on repeat as if the animal is walking a cage back and forth, over and over. Moving, expending energy, slamming into the bars, but the scene never changes. The animal paces, a thought races, and the reader too begins to feel the sense of constriction.


Krasznahorkai’s prose tells no story. This is a case of language used to toy with mental states. Things happen on an archetypal level, a level that involves instinctive impulses. Feeding, attacking, escaping. While it defies meaning or sense the prose still makes a point. Confinement is a theme that Krasznahorkai gnaws at restlessly. Whether the beast is trapped with “nothing else to do but howl” or seeking to escape from a “space-cage” that is “exactly just a bit too tight” that animal cannot get relief. Is Krasznahorkai perhaps emphasizing the dehumanizing result of captivity? The writing’s ambiguities allow for many such suggestions.   


The dog is not just trapped in cages, either. In later chapters he’s stuck in the midst of a jump (snared in what should be a moment of freedom) or tormented because he cannot stop contemplating the infinite. A tiny cell and the endless sky both leave him transfixed. As with Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream there is a sense that the torment is unending. The dog is “unspeakably hungry, tormentedly, eternally and tormentedly hungry, I would eat anything.”


As it so often happens, the confined and tormented protagonist soon turns vicious. The reader who feels sympathy towards the author’s poor creation will soon be confronted with its threatening and rabid words. The dog boasts of escaping, turning on the master, or even destroying the world entirely. “I will conquer you, for in the end I shall be victorious” ends the third chapter. The question arises: was the dog chained for being dangerous or did the master’s neglect feed the beast’s tremendous fury? Who is to be feared? Who deserves sympathy? The answers are not obvious.


Krasznahorkai maintains these vengeful boasts, and amplifies them, until the animal’s voice reaches a wrathful, almost Biblical pitch. Anger is compounded until it becomes a force of nature, ready to break free at any moment and dish out an apocalypse. “Before me there is no past, after me there will be no need of the future” the avenging dog/deity says, and later, more succinctly, “I am ruin.” And yet, despite or because of the threats, there is the sense that the dog remains totally helpless. Nowhere is this more overt that in later chapters. The dog pleads for food to grow strong enough to not to need the master any more, and then plans to devour the master because he isn’t needed.


Its abstract prose and imagery leaves this work open to numerous interpretations. The title, Animalinside, may offer an insight into just what Neumann and Krasznahorkai were getting at. The animal inside may be the fear and darkness just below our civilized surface. This is perhaps an address to the savage nature under our humanity that is less contained that we hope. Thirty-nine pages, 14 chapters, 14 images: that’s all that can be definitively said. The explanation of the rest is up for grabs. This incomparable and at times troubling work will not suit everyone; but a reveler in the oblique will gladly inhabit and return again to its untamed darkness.

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