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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel


Destruction and Sorrow
beneath the Heavens

Krasznahorkai László

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To purchase Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens

Title: Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens
Author: Krasznahorkai László
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 229 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens - US
Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens - UK
Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens - Canada
  • Reportage
  • Hungarian title: Rombolás és bánat az Ég alatt
  • Translated by Ottilie Mulzet

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging first-hand examination of culture and tradition (and loss thereof) in modern China

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 12/10/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "A quest to discover the remaining artifacts and present-day incarnations of classical Chinese culture takes Man Booker International–winner Krasznahorkai on an illuminating, melancholy journey through contemporary China in this occasionally frustrating yet often dazzling travel memoir." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is a Reportage from Krasznahorkai László's 2002 trip to China -- the author writing in the third rather than first person in following 'László Stein' (as he refers to himself for the purposes of this narrative; it is 'Dante' in the original (and was still in the proof-version of the English text)) and his interpreter on their travels. The book begins with the dismal -- "There is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called south-western regional bus station in Nanjing on May 5, 2002" -- and things rarely get much better. Much of this Stein's voyage is a trip of disappointment, a voyage of disillusionment.
       This 'Stein' is an admirer of Chinese culture and tradition, but the contemporary China he encounters makes a mockery of these:

What has occurred is that in those places where in principle there still might be some trace of classical culture -- subordinated in the course of reconstruction to the inferior values of the tourist industry -- he, Stein, has come upon monuments almost everywhere essentially destroyed: instead of something real, he saw forgeries, instead of truth, he took part in deception, and it's as if he still could really speak of the reasons for his disillusionment.
       What remains is definitely not what Stein is seeking:
At one time, according to the descriptions, the accounts, and the drawings, the temples here were magnificent, and although only a fragment of the buildings still stand today, and -- looking at them from far -- still in probably the best of conditions, as they come closer, and walk by all of them, and once again are confronted with the infinite damage done by the system of reconstruction in the new China, the monstrosity of crudely vulgar taste, the implacable lack of understanding, and the plethora of ignoble results, so radically at odds with the refined sensibilities the authentic Chinese spirit, more and more they fall into a kind of enraged despair, which then is transformed into the deepest repugnance [.....] (T)hey are not viewing Jiangtian, but rather they have been dropped into a safari park, where nothing is real, where everything has to be paid for, it turns out that here every building is new and fake, and every louhan, every so-called Buddha and every Bodhisattva is new and fake, and every wood join in every column and every centimetre of golden paint is brand-new and fake, so accordingly the whole thing is fraudulent
       Of course, Stein's preconceptions of the 'authentic' color his experience. He is used to a European style of holding fast to and honoring tradition -- a museum culture, for one, that tries to preserve art as it was, and where it has been damaged or decayed, to restore it to its original condition. The cultural preservation in China that he comes across takes on very different -- and, to Stein, unacceptable -- forms.
       Of course, it's presumptuous of the foreigner to believe in or imagine the: "refined sensibilities" of some "authentic Chinese spirit"; Stein surprisingly doesn't ask himself whether what he experiences isn't in fact, the actual, better representation of whatever the "authentic Chinese spirit" might be than the idealized form he reveres (but presumably only knows from historical and literary accounts). He comes with a foreigner's preconceptions of exactly how that spirit should be, preferring the book- and museum- (i.e. abstract and idealized, rather than real-life) image of a very specific kind of spirit -- which, unsurprisingly, real-life can't live up to.
       So too he is distressed by the money-grubbing ways of the representatives of Buddhism, a religion he somehow imagines to be on a purer spiritual plane -- even as it, in practice, surely has always been thus, the monks now as in the past just as eager to cash in as anyone else:
And he is appalled by what is going on so often in these temples and monasteries. Everything reeks from money. High entrance fees are collected -- entrance fees ! at the gates, impossible things are for sale, fake rubbish, the meanest religious kitsch, the faithful are made to throw money into the collection box, and in the evening they spill it out, and count it up nicely and accurately, they count up the takings ... ! And these are not simply vendors, but monks ... ! Venerable abbot, László Stein involuntarily lowers his head, this is so sad.
       Stein discusses all this with a variety of local intellectuals, and a significant part of the book consists of these dialogues, engaging if sometimes testy exchanges.
       While Stein is quite set in his thinking, his Chinese conversation partners do illuminate additional aspects of the issues -- which he does at least include here, even if he comes across as being unresponsive to some of these arguments. Among the points he's reminded of is that the classical Chinese culture he and many Westerners so admire was "purely dictatorial" -- differently than the contemporary totalitarian system in place, but certainly no closer to Western democratic ideals. As one intellectual notes, mentioning that he first came across the Western "notion of democracy": "There is no trace whatsoever of anything like this in Chinese culture" -- begging also the question of whether modern concepts of democracy aren't, in fact, completely irreconcilable with the culture and spirit Stein seeks (and hence that any reëmergence of it would come at a terrible human cost).
       There is some agreement, that, in contemporary China:
In today's world, the connection between tradition and everyday life has been shattered.
       Stein's Chinese conversation-partners offer a variety of perspectives on this -- including suggesting that the loss Stein mourns over is, in fact, not a recent one, but rather the result of the destruction in the wake of European and then Japanese colonialism, as well as then under Mao -- though interestingly arguments are also made that the Mao-era was not a purely destructive one. The varying roles (resurgent) Confucianism has played, as well as the philosophy of Laozi (Lao-Tzu) are also considered
       Stein's programme is a conservative one, longing for the preservation (or restoration) of an older (and arguably very outdated) culture, all in the name of 'tradition'; Stein/Krasznahorkai has made his value-judgement, and while there's certainly an argument for some superiority of what he mourns as lost, he by no means makes a convincing argument why it was 'better' than what has replaced it. (This is a far more complex debate than the book is willing to go into -- or perhaps for dramatic purposes -- admittedly effective -- it makes a better story leaving Stein a curmudgeonly traveller and China a place that does not live up to some very specific expectations.) As one of his conversation partners notes: "Progress is horrific", and Stein certainly is horrified by what he believes to have been lost in contemporary China. He does find pockets of hope -- in master-carvers, private libraries, and finally the famed gardens of Suzhou -- and so finds that not all is lost, but overall China overwhelms in its surge of rapidly modernizing change, babies flooded out in the torrents of bathwater that have washed away so many traces and traditions of yesteryear ..... (And Krasznahorkai's trip was over a decade ago -- things have only sped up since .....)
       Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is, as the subtitle has it, more Reportage than traveller's-tale, with a focus on culture, art, and philosophy. But there's also a sight-seeing element to it, often nicely observed, from the stairs at Jiuhuashan ("as much of an essential element of the sacred elevations in Jiuhuashan as the monasteries themselves") to horrifying specatcles such as, at one point, finding: "there is no longer any Sun, it is around 9 o'clock in the morning, and it's as if the Sun never even rose".
       Offering an interesting glimpse -- from a foreign perspective -- of near-contemporary China, Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens is also an interesting (if somewhat limited) consideration of the tremendous cultural -- in every respect -- changes China has undergone (and continues to), addressing issues of relevance elsewhere too (as such loss of tradition and cultural decline is hardly unique to China, even as it often manifests itself differently elsewhere).

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 December 2015

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Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reviews: Krasznahorkai László: Other books by Krasznahorkai László under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Krasznahorkai László was born in 1954.

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© 2015-2016 the complete review

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