Category Archives: Szirtes, George (translator)

a better, fairer future

Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes

Normally I hate writing reviews weeks after finishing a book. It tends to make the task much harder, as details start to blur and impressions fade. In the case of Satantango those concerns don’t really apply. Firstly, because the impression this book made will take a lot more than a few weeks to fade; and secondly because there was never any way that Satantango was going to be easy to write about however quickly I’d written my review.

Here’s the first sentence of the novel:

One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.

I was going to quote the first paragraph, but the book has no paragraphs, just some 270 or so pages divided into twelve dense chapters. I suspect that makes it sound unapproachable, and I won’t lie, it’s not the most accessible book out there. It’s a book that requires effort on the part of the reader. It’s also though easily one of the best works of fiction I’ve read this year and one that more than repays the reader’s dedication.

The first six chapters describe a small Hungarian village. Once an industrial estate, the factory the village served is long since closed and now only a handful of inhabitants remain. They exist in a slum of mud, spiders and decay; in a landscape that psychologically as well as physically has a post- (or perhaps pre-) apocalyptic feel to it.

Rumour reaches the village of the return of two men long thought dead: Irimiás and Petrina. Irimiás is seen as a messianic figure, his arrival will mean a chance of escape, renewal, at the very least change. The first six chapters of the novel count up, I through VI, towards the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina and the remaining six count down, VI to I, from that arrival. Here Godot turns up, but it’s questionable whether he was worth waiting for.

The people of the estate live in a condition of mutual despair and loathing. The local teenage girls sell themselves in the disused factory, but have few customers. Futaki, whose perspective opens the book, is sleeping with another man’s wife. The local doctor is concerned only with his own ailments and with his relentless cataloguing and observing of the habits of the other villagers.  This is a place without purpose peopled by those who though technically neighbours are each fundamentally alone.

The book swiftly reveals Irimiás and Petrina as police informers, dubious adventurers and con-men. Their interest in the village is predatory; they bring no salvation. The flyleaf of the book suggests that Irimiás may be the devil, but though the book is shot through with religious imagery there’s no real evidence that he has any importance beyond that the villagers place on him.

Satantango is a mudslide of prose. Translator George Szirtes has spoken of Krasznahorkai’s language as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” There is a hallucinatory sense to the text, with apparent realism turning to symbolism or dream without pause or comforting marker of where one state ends and another begins. On the second page Futaki has a vision of “himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin” as he looks at an acacia twig. Later a roomful of drunkards is covered in spider webs as they gradually fall asleep – a thing that makes no logical sense but yet which seems inevitable within the book’s insular context.

Here’s another quote, illustrating how Krasznahorkai makes use of language:

The table beside Halics made a creaking noise and the rotting wood of the bar gave a low sigh like the quiet easy movement of an old carriage wheel over the buzzing chorus of horseflies: it conjured the past but also spoke of perpetual decay. And as the wood creaked, the wind outside, like a helpless hand searching through a dusty book for some  vanished main clause, kept asking the same question time and again, hoping to give a “cheap imitation of a proper answer” to the banks of solid mud, to establish some common dynamic between tree, air and earth, and to seek through invisible cracks in the door and walls the first and original sound, of Halics belching.

Notice the use of quotes there. Characters frequently speak in what appear to be set phrases, folk-sayings or received wisdom. Sometimes the narrative itself does the same. Each time these phrases are placed in quotation marks, as if flagging their essentially phatic nature. I’m not of course familiar with common Hungarian sayings, but some of these phrases appear highly unlikely to be traditional or ever used outside of this novel. That makes the quotation marks unreliable, perhaps themselves meaningless, ironically underlining the impression already given of speech without thought.

Spoilers are essentially meaningless with a book like this, though I’ll avoid them anyway out of courtesy to those who’d prefer to discover that for themselves. The novel consists of a combination of black comedy, petty yet vicious cruelty, Beckettian existentialism and Kafkaesque farce. At times it feels near-medieval, with the villagers at one point forming a procession of fools on a pilgrimage to the empty shrine of the abandoned factory. It should be relentlessly depressing. The imagery is of mud, rain, death, mould and decay. The village is a slough of meaninglessness populated by fear, greed and stupidity, and the outside world seems little better.

What’s it ultimately about? It’s hard to say; it feels almost like the wrong question (or I’m the wrong person to answer it anyway). It doesn’t come with answers; it just is. Reading it I become as lost as the characters, sensing meanings and chasing after them but finding them slipping from my grasp just as I seem to reach them. In the end all I am left with is the language itself; Krasznahorkai’s sentences that seem to twist upon themselves continuing long after all sense should demand that they stop and yet still remaining no longer than they ought to be. Here’s just one sentence, by way of final quote:

The entire end of October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision: a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metaled road; in the hair moving to a different beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, this confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the powers of the eye they no longer hang together.

This is a spectacular translation of a genuinely gifted writer. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing; mesmeric. It is the opposite of escapist, rather it is a book that addresses directly the problem of existence in a universe without meaning and without ultimate authority. Perhaps then it’s natural that it’s a book that has no answers, because the world has none.

Here are three other reviews of the book, each of which I thought particularly insightful: from the New Statesman, here; from the blogger Bookslut, here (some spoilers); and from an online magazine I’m unfamiliar with, here (the last paragraph of that last review explains how the book’s structure reflects the structure of the tango, something which not knowing the dance I couldn’t speak to myself). If you read this and you’ve reviewed it on your own blog please leave a link in the comments below as I’d be fascinated to know how others who’ve read it found it.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Krasznahorkai, László, Modernist Fiction, Szirtes, George (translator)

One by one the lights were going on in the worn chandeliers of middle-class life.

Anna Édes, by Dezső Kosztolányi and translated by George Szirtes

In his excellent introduction to Anna Édes, translator George Szirtes says of Kosztolányi that in “a generation of elegant stylists, Kosztolányi was the most elegant.” It’s a line so good it’s quoted on the back of the book. Like much of the introduction, it cuts cleanly to the point. Kosztolányi is a consumate stylist, unflashy and effective. 

Anna Édes is the story of a provincial middle-class couple in 1919, the Vizy’s, and of their relationship with their new servant, Anna Édes. The Hungarian Soviet Republic has just collapsed, after less than six months in power, and the novel opens with its leader fleeing the county in a self-piloted plane with gold chains hanging from his wrists and sweet pastries filling his pockets.

Before the Soviets gained power Mr Vizy was a senior civil servant, well regarded, well paid, and no more than normally corrupt.

Vizy was an outstanding bureaucrat, hard working and conscientious. This was a fact recognized both by his inferiors and superiors. Nor did he lack a social conscience: if someone in trouble turned to him he would immediately write the necessary memo to the relevant organisation.

Mrs Vizy is a society wife, bored and purposeless. Her days are empty, occupied with nothing but her endless search for the perfect maid: one who does not steal; is not lazy; does not break things; is not in Mrs Vizy’s view a whore.  

With the communists in power the Vizys had to lie low. They lived in fear of fear every soldier and official, any of whom could do as they wished with such perfect examples of the old order. Their building caretaker, Ficsor, had more status under the communists than they did and could if he wished have denounced them.

With the communists gone the old order is back, and that means the Vizys are back too. Now they can denounce Ficsor. Mr Vizy might get his job at the ministry back. Anything is possible. Here, immediately after the fall of the communists, Ficsor calls on the Vizys:

‘Good day, your excellency,’ [Ficsor] bellowed, loud enough for the whole house to hear. ‘May I have a word with your excellency?’

‘Oh, it’s you Comrade,’ responded Vizy.

‘Your humble servant, your excellency.’

‘Do come in, Comrade Ficsor.’

It’s a lovely little comedy of manners. Nobody is quite sure how they stand, Vizy survived the communists by being cautious, but if Ficsor wants to survive in future he needs to be seen to be servile.

In order to get the Vizys on his side Ficsor offers Mrs Vizy what she most wants in the world. A new maid, and not just any new maid but a peasant girl whose only interest is work. A girl who’s diligent, doesn’t need much by way of comfort or money, and who won’t run around with men. What Mrs Vizy really wants isn’t in fact a human being at all, but a robot. But this is 1919 and robots don’t of course exist. That’s ok though, because if you can’t find a machine to work for you, you can always find a person and treat them like a machine.

What follows is a middle-class dream. Anna’s work isn’t perfect at first, but she really does have no real interests beyond work and she doesn’t complain at sleeping on a makeshift bed in the kitchen or at the mistress withholding her wages to keep them safe for her. She’s almost a slave, but in part a slave of her own volition – it’s clear that she could if she were more motivated leave the Vizys and find better employers.

With the old order restored the Vizys are soon successful again, sought after. They hold dinner parties in which the wives discuss their servants and coo over how marvellous Anna is. Anna is a consumer good, a person become status-indicator for her mistress. An aging doctor argues for compassion, for the essential equality of the servant classes, but even he sees that equality as more a matter for heaven and noble aspiration than as something to be practically implemented.

This isn’t a simple diatribe against the bourgoisie. Mr Vizy is a self-serving hypocrite who seems to genuinely believe himself virtuous but who really only advances his own interests, Mrs Vizy is a dissatisfied neurotic who takes out her own frustrations on each maid in turn each of whom is the one person she has power over in the world, their friends are self-satisfied and smug, but none of them are actually particularly bad people for all their failings and the working classes are no better.

Ficsor helps prise Anna out of a good job that she loves so that he can effectively sell her to the Vizys in return for their patronage. Anna does nothing to help herself. The other servants of the other families in the Vizys’ mansion block are snobs or gluttons. In their different ways, everyone is demeaned by their master and servant relationships.

Kosztolányi doesn’t hammer the reader with any of these points. Rather he relies on simply leaving the reader to see for themselves how people behave, and on wonderfully witty and acerbic asides like this:

Things were getting better. True, there were still problems. There was runaway inflation. People eyed each other nervously in the oppressive atmosphere. They denounced their neighbours in anonymous letters. Those who once refused to recognize their friends as ‘good Communists’ now hastened to offer this long-denied recognition and readily handed them over to the authorities.

This is a novel about, in part, people reduced to property. As Kosztolányi observes at one point, “Maids fulfil much the same function for their mistresses as whores do for their husbands. When they’re not needed they can be sent away.”

Years ago in one of my first jobs, the man I worked for got changed in front of me. He didn’t ask if I minded, he didn’t attempt to conceal himself. He just took off one set of clothes and put on another. I was there, working, but to him I was no different to a chair or office computer. I was one of the pieces of equipment in his office, and why would you be embarassed to get changed in front of a chair?

Decades change, countries change, people sadly don’t.

 I want to avoid spoilers in this review, which means that unfortunately I can’t discuss the most interesting parts of the book (and if you want to discover them for yourself I’d read that excellent introduction after, instead of before, the novel). All I will say is that Anna Édes gets into complex issues of motivation, and over its length becomes more than social commentary. As he did in Skylark, Kosztolányi shows the tragedy in the quotidian. He shows no villains or heroes, but flawed humanity with an eye which is compassionate, but unsparing.

I’m going to end on a quote that actually doesn’t fit this review at all, but which I liked too much to leave out. If I were reviewing for a newspaper I couldn’t include this, but what’s the point of blogging if one can’t be unprofessional? This is one of the Vizys’ neighbours, the aging doctor who is the nearest the novel has to a conscience, reflecting on mortality and meaning:

‘… I have a patient who is seventy-six years old and who has just started to learn English. By the time she has learned it she will probably be dying. But let us suppose that she doesn’t die just yet, that she survives until she is a hundred – she will die having learned English. Will that have been worth it? Is it worth it for us to start on anything even at the age of twenty? Of course it is: one has to fill in the time somehow.’

Guy Savage has also reviewed Anna Édes, here.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Kosztolányi, Dezső, Szirtes, George (translator)