László Krasznahorkai, 1985
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, 2012
Rarely, every few years do I come across a special book, a book written with a unique and profound narrative vision that transgresses the edges of the bizarre while remaining grounded in the realm of reality. Such a book is written with such a self-aware sense of purpose that its themes are as much about the art of writing as they are about the universal and diverse lives of any reader willing to open the cover to discover the depths of humanity expressed upon the written page. The short list of books that have made this impression upon me include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. This diverse list of brilliant books now includes Satantango by the Hungarian László Krasznahorkai. Never in all my years of reading have I closed the cover of a book with such awe that I was inspired to immediately begin rereading the same book the very next day. Never until I read Satantango did I do such a thing, but I loved this book so much that that is what I did.
This isn’t an easy book (none of those books listed above necessarily are) and Satantango isn’t a book that I’d flippantly recommend, but for a serious reader Satantango will provide reward. Krasznahorkai is a master of the long sentence, with passages extending for pages that flow from one character’s perspective to another. There are practically no paragraph breaks with each of the 12 chapters serving as the only pauses in the narrative, yet the writing is captivating with lucid descriptions of setting and character motivation that maintains an enchanting draw and I hardly noticed the lack of breaks; in fact I wanted the language in the long sentences to continue endlessly (so much so that I reread the book!). Each of the chapters provides a different perspective with action from one often occurring at the same time as events in another. This method provides a narrative arch that flows like a dance; each of the chapters serve as the six forward, six back steps in a tango with the devil (to illuminate this, the final six chapters are numbered in reverse order from 6-1), aptly alluding to the title’s namesake.
The action of Satantango takes place over a few brief days toward the end of October as the rainy season begins in a remote and destitute village/estate populated by a few people that pass their time drinking and swindling each other in ill-thought financial and adulterous schemes. Practically all the characters are obsessed with money and they second-guess one another with suspicion and two-faced malice. It is no wonder these people are morally bankrupt: their half abandoned village is on the edge of nowhere with no hope of regaining its once vibrant economic prosperity. The rains are ceaseless, the mud swallows everything, mold and decay overrun all things and in the village’s only bar and center of social activity spider webs appear with a persistence that overcomes any human effort to maintain cleanliness and order.
The novel begins and ends with the elderly Futaki hearing distant bells thought to be omens from a sleepy dream and those bells are the catalyst to inspire his unfulfilled longing to leave the estate and move on with his life. However, it becomes clear that Futaki and the rest of the village’s inhabitants are destined to a life of continued mediocrity and inhibition. Just like the distant and ominous bells that open the book, it is apparent that only outside forces have the ability to motivate the village’s band of bumbling misfits for they lack the capability to do anything for themselves or for each-other worth any effort.
Those outside forces appear in the arrival of the “resurrected” Irimiás and his partner Petrina, thought dead for 18 months, who show up the morning of the rains to find the villagers all passed out drunk from a night of dancing and brawling. Irimiás is a smooth talking swindler who is viewed as a savior to the villagers. He offers them common hope through his plan to move the villagers from their decrepit estate to a social commune and with his arrival, Irimiás’s leadership ignites an exodus from the town. In their fervor to leave the villagers destroy their homes and belongings with frivolous zeal to prevent robbery and to serve as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate their conviction to step forward into their new lives. However, their excitement and zeal is misguided, for Irimiás is morally tenuous and despite his outwardly charm and natural leadership skills, he is just as confused and lost as are the bumbling townsfolk. The inward character of Irimiás is revealed following an odd event when he and Petrina witness a heavenly apparition of a ghostly child:
“Irimiás replied after a long silence. “It doesn’t matter what we saw just now, it still means nothing. Heaven? Hell? The afterlife? All nonsense. Just a waste of time. The imagination never stops working but we’re not one jot nearer the truth.” (219) … “”God was a mistake. I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressure. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses that continually confront us with failure and false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” (220)
These themes of a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressure are central to the novel. The spiderwebs that cover everything, the mold and decay, the ceaseless rains and mud, and even the dance of the tango are all moments in time and to Irimiás the efforts of man are helpless against the entropy of time:
“The taller of the two men assures his companion, saying, “The two clocks say different times, but it could be that neither of them is right. Our clock here,” he continues, pointing to the one above them with his long, slender and refined index finger, “is very late, while that one measures not so much time as well, the eternal reality of the exploited, and we to it are as the bough of a tree to the rain that falls upon it: in other words we are helpless.”(23)”
The views of Irimiás that I have quoted are bleak, and despite the senselessness of the never ending decay throughout the novel that I have alluded to, as well as the occurrence of a shocking event involving a young girl wandering in the rain that I won’t get into here, Satantango is a humorous novel. The humor is cathartic as the events that occur are bizarre and extreme and in many ways the tragedies are enjoyable to read because the narrative is moving and enchanting with an ethereal oddness that is consistently captivating. Krasznahorkai as an author illuminates the enjoyment of the written form through a minor character that spends his time as a voyeur, cataloging the events of the village from his window. An aged, alcoholic, obese Doctor lives alone, retired from his medical services and comfortably subsisting on his inheritance, he is able to remain detached from the villager’s schemes. Just as the novel’s reader observes the action of the book, the Doctor meticulously observes his surroundings and in so doing he is the sole character to discover the ability to make himself immune from the entropy of decay that surrounds him:
“he realized with a shock that to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” (54-55)
The Doctor’s presence is minor, yet significant, providing a sense of meaning amidst an otherwise dizzying narrative. Upon my second reading I was heightened to the brief mentioning of him in the conversations and thoughts of the other characters. The interaction of the Doctor and the young girl Etsi is the only event that directly occurs in two different chapters reflecting the perspective of each of the respective characters in their respective chapters. The occurrence first seems odd as the Doctor is annoyed at the girl as she clings to his leg, yet as we read Etsi’s perspective we realize that despite the Doctor’s meticulous devotion to observation he is totally unaware about how his actions affect the girl, prompting her to take drastic measures in response to his ignoring of her pleas.
There is so much more that I would like to say about this book. I’m sure my verbose entry here is a indication of my enthusiasm towards this book’s many layers of meaning buried in its narrative treasures. Rather than continuing to ramble on and on, I’ll just say that if you value powerful and captivating books you should grab yourself a copy of Satantango and read it again and again.