Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann’s “Animalinside”

Reviewed by Jean Harris

Image of Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann’s “Animalinside”

Animalinside is a cultural event in itself. Simultaneously an art book and a literary work, its thirty-nine pages, organized into fourteen pairings of image and text, mark the genre-defying collaboration of German painter Max Neumann and Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai.  Neumann limns the book’s principal image: always in profile, his featureless, (usually) black mastiff dominates the book. Leaping or howling, alone or in multiples, the dog appears in all of the volume’s fourteen visual representations.  The few faceless human silhouettes in this book are the objects of the dog’s painted menace and verbal violence.  Although the dog will sometimes appear in multiples and call itself we, the first dog we meet is single, and it seems to threaten one (unpainted) human being called you, who has caused the mastiff to become entrapped. You soon becomes an altogether more encompassing designation that refers to all human beings in the written text and out of it, with the readers bearing the brunt of the assault, book in hand.

The dog speaks of its own arrival out of nowhere: its isolation and entrapment in a painted box, behind a painted wall and in ill-defined darkness, signaled by a rectangle of black paint. In the accompanying written soliloquies, this entrapment is clearly described as taking place in a metaphysical space you cannot hope to comprehend.  The dog’s main concern is the havoc it will wreak “if I get out of here.” What it will do is: rip apart my “little master,” make an end of humanity, and extinguish life on earth. The tone is menacing, the aim to avenge—what, precisely, we never know. At most we “hear” two painted dogs (who loom over two painted human beings) remark: “. . .the judgment has been brought upon you, and you do not merit the earth . . . it’s the end of you lot, not even a trace of you all shall remain here.”

Loaded with menace, the fourteen image/text sets of Animalinside are strikingly related (visually and thematically), but not in any of the linear, causal ways that belong to storytelling and narrative. Instead, taken together, the concert of images and texts creates a psychological portrait of a monster. Its story, if we can call it that, is the amplification of its aggressive rage, for the dreamlike succession of image/text pairings respects a principle of magnification: each image/text threatens more gravely than the last.

To some extent, the unusual, nonlinear nature of this tale of amplification must derive from the painter-driven nature of the project. Neumann and Krasznahorkai are friends, and so it was perhaps natural enough that Krasznahorkai wrote the first text in this collection in response to a painting of Neumann’s hanging on his wall. Then a process of mutual incitement seems to have set in. In his preface, Colm Tóibín says that Neumann, spurred on by Krasznahorkai’s first text, “made the rest of the images to which Krasznahorkai, his mind let loose by the captured visuals, responded by writing the thirteen other texts.” Still, while the choice of visual imagery was the painter’s, the combined effect of the two artists’ mutual instigation and their shared knowledge of each other’s work has resulted in such a profound integration of image and text that it would be utterly misleading to say that the written parts of this book “illustrate” the painted ones (or vice versa). Neither a novel nor a story about a conflict with two sides, this series of mutual incitements can be described as a set of visits to various stages or episodes in the life of a force and/or a mentality—represented by the dog—that finally perpetrates Armageddon in the final pages of the book.  Did Neumann or Krasznahorkai initially plan to end on this apocalyptic note? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Animalinside is one beautiful, scary book. Its images and texts perform the apocalyptic mentality better than anything since Slim Pickens’s bomb ride in Dr. Strangelove.

Pictorially, we enter a grave space, dominated by Neumann’s emblematic dog. Lacking forelimbs, the leaping, muscular figure of the cover image appears in white on a black ground, as if its silhouette had been cut from black paper and then laid over a white sheet. The optical illusion suggests that the animal lives below some upper surface—in that sense, it is inside, as the title suggests. Within the book’s covers the animal is black and shiny, always in silhouette, with a slick look as if composed of wet ink, in contrast to the pale, matte backgrounds on which it appears. While two of these backgrounds appear cleanly painted in white or ochre, most look smudged, as if color had been applied and later removed. Some have been stained with watery paint-box colors among which fresh, bloodstain red stands out. The general effect is to place the dog in a separate dimension from the space around it. Neumann’s human figures are often composed of the same black matter. It’s not possible to describe all of Neumann’s technique, but it is fair to say he is a master of “faceless figures . . . in a bare space” to borrow a few words from Le Figaro art critic, Jean-Marie Tasset. While the human beings in this world may seem, as Tasset says, ready to “gutter and go out . . . swallowed by silence” Neumann’s emblematic dog is powerfully present in its own dimension, the place where the animalinside leaps and howls, menacing and fearsome. Beyond this, Neumann’s images either feel ominous or depict calamity—in ways Krasznahorkai’s texts reinforce.

László Krasznahorkai is an acknowledged master of the apocalypse. One of his novels, The Melancholy of Resistance (New Directions, 1989), brilliantly translated by George Szirtes, is set in a provincial Hungarian town in a surreal era, cut off from history. A circus, consisting mainly of a huge stuffed whale and a sinister dwarf, comes to town—somehow tipping off  increasingly dreadful civil disorder that culminates in society’s tearing itself apart in mass violence perpetrated by human hunting packs.  There’s much more to The Melancholy of Resistance than that, but it’s worth noting that the provincial town is torn apart by its human population’s animalic way of going to the dogs.

Krasznahorkai wrote the first Animalinside text as a response to his friend’s painting in which a doglike figure (with a set of hind limbs weirdly humanized by Neumann’s lengthening them in relation to the torso) “taughtens” itself within an enclosed space as if arrested in a leap while it thrusts its muzzle against a wall. Neumann has manipulated the pictorial space, though, so that if you look closely at the image the dog appears to inhabit a different spatial world than the one depicted in the rest of the painting. A portion of the dog’s soliloquy converts the literal circumstance of the painting—the limitations posed by perspective and two-dimensionality—into a metaphysical lament:

I have nothing in common with this space, in the entire God-given world I have nothing in common with this structure, with these perspectives, and these perspectives are not even made so that I can exist in them, so that I don’t even exist, I only howl and howling is not identical with existence, on the contrary howling is despair, the horror of that instance of awakening when the condemned—myself—comes to realize that he has been excluded from existence and there is no way back, if there even was a way here . . .

Written in an evolving dialogue with Neumann’s visual work, each of the following thirteen texts show Krasznahorkai creating the dog-monster as a being cut out from nature, howling, existing as a soliloquy that unspools through long, agglutinative sentences. These are marvelously (and therefore horrifyingly) translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet.

Remarkably, this series of linked images and texts culminates as the dog and its double face off over the edge of an annihilated planet where all that remains are “dead cold ashes, in which we stand facing each other, tensed, on each side pure muscle, and now there is only the question: which of the two of us shall be king.”  This is the final result of the dog-monster’s rapid development from cringing cur to the feral harbinger and (according to these texts) perpetrator of this particular apocalypse.  Along the way, the dog-beast in its various incarnations presents itself as an animal with a dual symbolism, or, anyhow, as a violently animalic essence inside us and as a violently animalic force in the world outside ourselves.

On the one hand, then, the dog is inside man in general. According to the dog’s harangues, it is locked inside a shapeless metaphysical space that forms part of our thinking and yet is inaccessible to ourselves. “ . . . you know nothing, nothing, nothing about anything, because you don’t even know you’re thinking about me.” But you are thinking, the dog implies. I am what you are thinking. Moreover, the dog considers himself the bearer of human meaning: “you understand annihilation and that is why I am coming, so that there will be some meaning to the very fears, the many terrors and anxieties and worries, which are yourselves.” And, finally, the dog is the violent amalgam and essence and cause of these fears and anxieties breaking out of you—us, human beings: “. . .my coming is violent, just a few moments now, and I shall break out of you, and you will be that which I am, and that which I always have been.”  

The animal outside, by contrast, is somewhat easier to understand.  The dog is a kind of menace, even a juggernaut of sorts, besieging us from without.  Asserting its otherness, it stands over human beings like a nightmare sentry in two of the book’s most frightening images. Indeed, the dog does nothing if not announce its annihilating intensions, and wields then as a constant threat. As the dogs jointly say at one point:  “if you look up you can see how the light sparkles in our eyes, but you don’t look up . . . and that is how life ends for you, because it is impossible to hide away from us . . .”  Ultimately, the animal’s duality—as this being both springing from us and hurtling toward us at the same time—is the key to its utter strangeness and alien quality.  Unrecognized as a foreign element inside ourselves, the dog seems to exist in another realm entirely or to leap out at us from another dimension.

Krasznahorkai’s distinctive use of language animates this small, explosive book and holds its many strands together. In the preface to Animalinside, Tóibín describes it as “a force struggling against . . . easy consumption” that arms itself with “clauses, sub-clauses and asides, preparing high-voltage assaults on the reader’s nervous system.” Tóibín’s engagement with Krasznahorkai’s sentence-making is the highest possible praise for Ottilie Mulzet’s translation, praise it mightily deserves. And the book emerges as celebration of two world class artists, Neumann and Krasznahorkai, who we realize are so potent and commanding not because they live outside this world—fantastical as this project sometimes is—but because they live in it.

Citizens of a continent that suffered war, Fascism and Communism (and the corruptions that reemerged in its wake) Neumann and Krasznahorkai are part of a world that saw itself go up in flames. They have belonged to a world that saw evil strongmen brutalizing the rest of the population. These days people want to know who all the villains were, and, more important still, what villainy really is. And so questions inevitably arise: Are they us?  Is what they were and what they represent something inside us—a foreign element, like that dog, we have yet to recognize?   Could be. Only, “we” don’t feel ourselves capable of certain acts, which is why, to us, those deeds seem to leap out of another dimension.