Readings — From the December 2015 issue

Road to Nowhere

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By László Krasznahorkai, from Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, a travel memoir that will be published next month by Seagull Books. Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet.

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 station bays, a regional bus, starting from the Number Five bus stop, slowly plows onward — among the other buses and the puddles and the bewildered crowd of wretched, stinking, grimy people — up to the vortex of the street, it 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 the slowly murderous variation of brown and gray that spreads over the city this morning, no word for the assault of this hopeless din as 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 some hoarse falcon, because there is no word that in its essence could convey whether the direction in which László Stein now travels with his companion, his interpreter, actually 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 gray of this frighteningly dreary mixture; they sit in 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 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, hopeless fog is their only hope, along with the hope that the place they are going exists, that the place this bus is supposedly taking them — one of the most sacred Buddhist mountains, Jiuhuashan — actually 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 to the side by way of explanation — that, well, what she meant was four or four and a half, from which comment they could already suspect what kind of bus they would be boarding; it has become obvious, however, just now, after the first hour, that in reality nobody knows, 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 so-called unforeseeable obstacles and chance occurrences, and thus everything, particularly the weather, is completely unpredictable — obstacles and chance occurrences that as a matter of fact are unforeseeable only to them, as for the most part the personnel — the driver and the conductor — can be thanked for the obstacles and chance occurrences, the driver and the conductor who — as it immediately becomes clear after leaving the city — regard the task ahead 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 another passenger, a passenger with whom — following a negotiation that is opaque to them, because hardly a word is spoken — some kind of agreement is settled on in a moment; money flashes in one hand, then disappears in the other, on this ever more congested route; accordingly, black-market transport is taking place, that is, the front of the bus is packed, as is the middle section, but hardly anyone is sitting at the back of the bus, where Stein and his companion have been squeezed; no, they haven’t gone mad, it is much colder in the back, 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 we’re in Nanjing and it’s May and yet it feels like February. But there really isn’t anyone to speak to aside from each other, because their Chinese traveling companions — otherwise always inclined to acquaintance and conversation — do not breathe a word to one another or to them, everyone sits as far away as they possibly can from everyone else, cocooned in their coats, their scarves, and their hats, after they have arranged their packages beneath their feet and on the seats next to them, they stare wordlessly through the grimy glass out into the brown-gray fog, in which nobody 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 gone 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, it will no longer matter whether 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 road blotched with potholes, and the entire metal contraption shakes and rattles and throws them here and there in the ice-cold seats, but still they doggedly move onward in blind faith; beside them on the side of the highway, packed up 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, they get on and it’s as if the rest of them don’t even hear the shouting, they simply pull back a little from the road until the bus rumbles off from alongside this ghostly procession, and then — as the bus pulls away, splashing them with mud — they step back onto the asphalt and continue their trudging beneath the weight of the bundles and bags, clearly maintaining that same blind faith, just like the travelers up there on the bus, as if there were some kind of common reason for this faith, as if in the absurdity of this balefully obscure scene, in which there really is nothing at all, it were enough just to believe that today everyone would reach their goal.

The watch on Stein’s wrist shows nine minutes past eight when, in a bend in the road hardly a hundred meters from the intersection of three major highways, the driver suddenly brakes and picks up, from the mud on the side of the road, a middle-aged woman who is clearly waiting for precisely this bus: from this point on, the 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 of the difficulties inherent in their plan of going to Jiuhuashan — namely, is the risk worth it when the goal is so uncertain — because surely, says Stein to his sleepy companion, who is still shivering in the cold, both of them here, these two white Europeans, cannot understand anything of this, they can’t even understand how a bus route like this operates: how did the woman know that she had to wait here, and how did the bus driver know that the woman would be waiting exactly here, on this bend in the road, at moreover 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 tiny fragment of the entire system on which they are relying and which somehow continues to exist, so that this route and all the others here in China can continue to operate, so that every day and every morning and evening and afternoon there are a few million of these routes, and there is transportation — just one tiny fragment among many, he looks at the woman as she climbs up through the open door among the passengers crammed together, as without a word she presses a few yuan into the conductor’s hand, as she squeezes among the passengers of the bus, as she starts off to the back, to the same side where the foreigners are sitting, one row in front of them, sets down her huge, tied-up bundles, and finally sits down next to the window — she’s wearing a thick quilted jacket, on her head is a peaked felt cap, on her feet are heavy boots, a thin scarf is wound around her neck, and the entire creature is soaked from head to toe, so much so that for several minutes the water drips down from 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; seen from here, from behind, it is a completely interchangeable face, interchangeable with the face of anyone else, almost the complete average of a face, impossible to form the basis of any 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 in this inconceivable mass that is China, and where can this “China” be if nowhere else than in this immeasurable and inexpressible mass of people that is unparalleled in world history, this is what determines it in every respect, what renders it so frighteningly massive, so frighteningly unknowable, and why the face of this woman, her entire presence, as she sits on the other side, one row in front of them, creates the feeling that they don’t know, because it is impossible to say who sat down there, anyone could have sat down there, this woman could be anyone, this woman — and this was 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 through the grimy window — and then this interchangeable, this possibly most average of the average, this featureless being, without anything having changed in her own interchangeable, average, featureless nature, does something completely unexpected, something that could not have been predicted: that is, she opens the window — she grabs the handle of the window, wrenches it to one side, and pulls it at least halfway open, at which point of course immediately the icy-cold rain and icy-cold air blow in, it is really so unexpected that in the first moments no one can comprehend it, neither they nor the other passengers, the four passengers who together with the Caucasians are squeezed in the back here; so contradictory is it 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 frozen half to death before getting on the bus, finally sits down and opens the window on herself and on them — neither they nor the others can speak a single word for a while, they just look at the woman as the blowing 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 armrest, and she doesn’t move, the wind blows in, they stare at her and don’t understand what she is doing, nobody says anything for a good long time — and so the bus goes on, into the fog, into the dense approaching traffic, onward, supposedly toward Jiuhuashan.

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