Chasing Waterfalls, by László Krasznahorkai

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By László Krasznahorkai, from a story included in The World Goes On, which will be published this month by New Directions. Krasznahorkai is the author of numerous novels and books of non-fiction. Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki.

He had always planned that someday he would travel to see Angel Falls, then he had planned to visit Victoria Falls, and in the end he had settled for at least Schaffhausen Falls, one day he’d go and see them, he loved waterfalls, it’s not easy to explain, he would begin, whenever he was asked what his thing was about waterfalls, waterfalls, he would begin, and he would get embarrassed right away, this whole thing got on his nerves, to be asked about it, and become embarrassed because of it, just standing there like one smacked on the head with a frying pan, so that his acquaintances chose instead to drop the matter, everyone around him knew that he liked waterfalls and that he had always planned on traveling to see at least one, as they say, at least once in his life, first and foremost Angel Falls, or Victoria Falls, but at the very least Schaffhausen Falls, whereas things happened quite otherwise, in fact utterly otherwise, for he had arrived at that time of life when one no longer knows how many years remain, possibly many, perhaps five or ten or even as many as twenty, but it is also possible that one might not live to see the day after tomorrow. The sound of one of these falls, by the way, was constantly in his ears, after fantasizing about them all these years he had started hearing one of them, but which one it was he couldn’t know, of course, so that after a while, around the time he turned sixty, he was no longer sure why he had wanted to see the first or the second or at least the third of these waterfalls, was it so that he could at least decide which one it was he had heard all his life, whenever he shut his eyes at night, or else because he had actually wanted to see one of them. By a grotesque twist of fate he who in the course of all those years had been sent to just about every corner of the globe had never been sent near a falls, and this is how it happened that he of all people, who had this thing with waterfalls, found himself in Shanghai again (the occasion was of no interest, he had to interpret for one of the usual series of business meetings), and that he, for whom all his life waterfalls possessed such a special role, now in an utterly astounding manner precisely here in Shanghai had to realize the reason why all his life he had yearned to see the Angel, or the Victoria, or at the very least the Schaffhausen Falls, precisely here in Shanghai where it was common knowledge that there were no waterfalls. He had been a simultaneous interpreter ever since he could remember, and of all things it was precisely simultaneous interpretation that exhausted him the most, especially when it happened to be for a business meeting in Asia, as was the case now, and especially when at the obligatory dinner afterward he was obliged to drink as much as he did this evening, well, what’s done is done, in any case, here he was by eveningtime, a wrung-out dishrag, as they say, drunk as a skunk, a used-up dishrag, dead-drunk, here he stood in the middle of the city, on the riverbank, soused, speaking sotto voce and not being terribly witty; so this is Shanghai, meaning here I am once again in Shanghai, he had to admit that, alas, he found the fresh air had not been all that beneficial even though, as they say, he had nourished great hopes for it, since he was aware, if we may speak of awareness in his case now, aware that he had drunk way too much, he had drunk far more than what he could handle, but he had been in no position to refuse, one glass followed another, too many of them, and already in the room he had felt sick, a vague notion churning inside him that he needed fresh air, fresh air, but once he was outside in the fresh air the world began to spin around him even more, true, it was still better here outside than indoors, he no longer remembered if he had been dismissed or had simply sneaked outside, it was alas no longer meaningful to speak of memory in his case at this moment as he stood in a peculiar posture near the upper sector of the Bund’s ponderous arc of buildings, he leaned against the railing and eyed the celebrated Pudong on the other side of the river, and by this time the almost disastrously fresh air had come to have enough of an effect for his consciousness to clear up for a single moment and abruptly let him know that all this did not interest him the least little bit, and he was terribly bored in Shanghai, here, standing on the riverbank near the upper sector of the Bund’s ponderous arc of buildings, this was made evident by his posture, and what was he supposed to do now? After all, he could not remain leaning on that railing till the end of time in this increasingly calamitous condition. I do simultaneous interpretation, he said aloud, and paused, to see if someone had heard him, but no one at all had heard him, oh well, of course, how could he have imagined that his announcement, in the Hungarian language, and in Shanghai, would be of any help, yes, that would be a tough one to explain, but to explain anything in his situation would have been a chore, I do simultaneous interpretation, he repeated therefore, while to the best of his ability he kept his head — that is the skull where the pain originated — completely still as he pronounced these words, his whole body went completely rigid, that was how he managed to contain the pain up there, trying to keep this pain from growing any more intense, for this was an intense pain that was getting so intense, so powerful, that it simply blinded him, or, to put it more accurately, he was suddenly aware that here he sat, stone-cold sober, here, somewhere, in a location for the time being impossible to identify, all around him the roar, rumble, thunder of a traffic that was insane, everywhere, overhead, down below, on the left and on the right, yes, that horrific din simply everywhere, and here he was sitting right in the middle of it, but where this here was he had not the faintest idea, blinded, he could not see, and for that matter he could not hear, for the din he was hearing was just as powerful, and was increasing at the same rate, as the pain inside his skull. All of a sudden, pow, it began to subside, and the moment arrived when he was able to open his eye, only a slit, at first only a slit, but it was enough for him to establish that he had never before sat in the place where he was sitting, and perhaps no one had ever sat there before, for he immediately realized that he was sitting in the middle of expressways curving every which way, or, to put it more accurately, expressways arcing in various directions, he was surrounded by expressways, no mistaking it, the image seen through the slit told him, expressways overhead, expressways down below, expressways to the left, and finally expressways to the right as well, naturally, his first thought was that he was not well, and the next thought was that not only he but this whole thing around him, too, was not well, elevated expressways on many levels, who ever heard of such a thing. As a simultaneous interpreter he possessed certain areas of specialization, one of these being traffic and transport systems, and since he was a simultaneous interpreter with a specialty in traffic and transport systems he had a good hunch by now about where he found himself except that he refused to believe it, no human being could possibly be in the place where he now was, notwithstanding the fact that he could see the famous pillar down below with the dragons winding around it, oh no, he thought now, oh no, I am inside Nine Dragon Crossing, or as the locals say, Jiulongzhu Jiaoji, it is not something a human being can be inside of, and the moment arrived when that slit became a full view, because by now he dared to open one eye, or one might have said that the eye simply popped wide open, for he was not hallucinating, he was indeed inside Nine Dragon Crossing, deep inside it, with his back leaning against the railing of some sort of pedestrian bridge, as if someone had propped him up against it. Now his other eye popped open most boldly, for this was the moment when he realized that he was high up, that this pedestrian bridge as its name indicated was a real bridge that rose in the air above ground level and was not merely bridging over something but in fact conducted the pedestrian at various levels of elevation among the expressways that ran up above and down below, running this way and that, was this a sane thing to do?! he asked himself, no it was not, he answered, so that after all, and here he lowered his glance to look in front of his feet, then I must be crazy, this is how it had to end, I got royally drunk, perfectamente drunk, so drunk that I ended up here, in this madness, I am imprisoned inside this madness. A person could not climb inside such a metropolitan highway whatchamacallit, especially not so that he ends up with his back propped up against the plexiglass siding of a pedestrian footbridge, and he is half toppled over and therefore leaning on his left hand to keep from sliding any more, no, not this way or any other way, this is absurd, I’m probably not insane, he reassured himself, I am a simultaneous interpreter, and I have perfect recall — he rose from his humiliating supine position on the pedestrian bridge — everything that needs to be known from a transport-systems point of view about an intersection like this is in my head down to the last detail, and he stood up, and although he had to grab onto the handrail at first, after the first three or four meters he let go of it and took some unaided steps relishing the full dignity of his balance, thus setting out on the pedestrian bridge toward somewhere, but as the bridge right away curved into a turn, leading toward a future that was too uncertain for him, he decided it was wiser to stop, and so he halted, and by now all was well, his head was clear, his head no longer ached, his head was capable of quite lucidly making inquiries into existence, namely his own, which he proceeded to do, to wit, obviously there must be a reason that I have come to a point in my life where I must now declare what I have learned about the world in the course of sixty years, nearly forty of which have been as a simultaneous interpreter, and if I don’t then I will take it to the grave with me, but that, and he continued his train of thought, that, however, will not happen, and I am going to make my declaration right here, indeed, he would gladly declare himself here and now, but the problem was that he had learned nothing about the world, and so what was he to say, what indeed, that he was a simultaneous interpreter who had lived close to forty years devoted exclusively to his profession; he was not claiming that, for instance when he looked at, say, a deck of cards, he did not have some unanswered questions, because aside from his profession he also loved card games, and his question was, well now, was this a full deck of cards, or was it merely any forty-eight individual cards, but there were only those kinds of questions, the one particular question regarding the world itself, which, he was well aware, might be expected from an experienced simultaneous interpreter in his sixties, that one particular question, no, it had never occurred to him, so that if fate had now cast him here to make a declaration about that then he was in a fine pickle, for he didn’t know anything about anything, there was nothing he could say about the world in general, nothing he could put in the form of a philosophy of life, no, nothing like that, here he gave a slight shake of his head, what speaks to him is what he sees here, from this pedestrian bridge, but about life in general, alas, he can say nothing. Once again his eyes swept over the horrific cavalcade of ponderous expressway ramps stretching and arcing above and below one another, and he could only gape this way and gape that way, he tried to follow individual stretches of highway in order to find out which direction they went in, but it proved impossible, at least from here, from the inside, the entire thing had ended up so bafflingly complex. He shoved himself away from the railing against which he had been leaning for the past few minutes, and taking the utmost care he nonetheless set out in the dark on that pedestrian bridge curving away into an uncertain future, until after taking exactly seventeen steps his form disappeared beyond the bend, and thus shortly thereafter all human presence ceased within the interior hell of Nine Dragon Crossing, which is no place for a human being in any case.

Your Perrier, sir, said the room-service waiter outside the door, but then he had to send him back for an additional bottle, and he had to request that the first bottle be exchanged for a larger one, then he had two or three fresh pitchers of ice brought up because after he at last arrived in his room and toppled onto the bed it was not so much that his head began to ache immediately as all of a sudden there was a large bowl of mush in place of a head, he had entered the room, taken off his clothes, kicked off his shoes, and thrown himself on the bed, arranging for everything from there, the phone within reach; his room-service order, the modification of the order, the repetition of the order, and so on, meanwhile lying on his back and not moving, resting his head — that bowl of mush — against the pillow, his eyes closed; that’s how it was for a while, until the horrendous stink he himself emanated began to bother him, whereupon he crawled to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, turned on the shower, and scrubbed his body with soap and remained under the shower for as long as his strength held out, then toweled himself dry, sprayed frightful amounts of hotel deodorant on himself, pulled on a clean T-shirt and underpants, and before lying back down he took the soiled garments and his light summer leather shoes, stuffed them in a plastic bag that he tied with a tight knot before placing it outside in front of the door, then stretched out on the bed, and turned on the TV, merely listening to the sound without watching, for his head continued to remain a bowl of mush, and this was all right, things were all right now, his eyes shut, the TV on, the sound not too loud, the words, sentences, voice, speech morphing in slow gossamer-light increments into a so-called eternal sound of running water, but no, not really the sound of water splashing, and he pulled the blanket over himself, for he was starting to shiver because the air-conditioning was set too high, no, this was not water splashing, it was a roar, like the ocean, but no, not the ocean really, reflected that sizable load of mush inside his head, this was something else, this . . . this sound, he now recognized, before sleep swallowed him up, was a waterfall.

He woke immediately, as if jolted by electric shock, he looked at the TV set in disbelief, only the waterfall sound could be heard, he leaped from the bed, sat down on its edge, and leaning forward stared at the TV set, oh my God, he clenched his fists in his lap, it was exactly the same as the sound of the waterfall that he had never been able to identify among those three, he watched the TV screen panic-stricken, the image showed a cascading waterfall, and he slowly grasped that this was not some nightmare, he leaned forward even closer and watched the waterfall on the TV screen, he saw no subtitles whatsoever that could have helped to identify which one it was, the Angel, the Victoria, or possibly the Schaffhausen, all they showed was the waterfall itself, the sound was a steady roar. He watched each and every drop of the waterfall, feeling an unspeakable relief, and, savoring the taste of a newfound freedom, he understood that his life would be a full life, a fullness that was not made of its parts, the empty fiascoes and empty pleasures of minutes and hours and days, no, not at all, he shook his head, while in front of him the TV set kept roaring, this fullness of his life would be something completely different, he could not as yet know in what way, and he never would know, because the moment when this fullness of his life was born would be the moment of his death — he shut his eyes, lay back on the bed and remained awake until it was morning, when he rapidly packed his things and checked out at the reception desk with such a radiant face that they contacted the staff on his floor to check whether he had taken anything with him, how could they have possibly understood what had made him so happy, how could the cab driver or the people at the airport understand, when they were not aware that such happiness existed, he radiated it as he passed through the security check, he glowed as he boarded the plane, his eyes sparkled as he belted himself into his seat, just like a kid who has at last received the gift he dreamed of, because he was in fact happy, except he could not speak about it, there was indeed nothing to do but look out through the window of the plane at the blindingly resplendent blue sky, keeping a profound silence, and it no longer mattered which waterfall it was, it no longer mattered if he didn’t see any of them, for it was all the same, it had been enough to hear that sound, and he streaked away at a speed of 900 kilometers per hour, at an altitude of approximately ten thousand meters in a north-by-northwesterly direction, high above the clouds — in the blindingly blue sky toward the hope that he would die someday.

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