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.