by László Krasznahorkai (1985)
translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (2012)
New Directions (2012)
288 pp

Satantango is Krasznahorkai’s debut novel, famously (in some circles) made into a 7-hour movie by Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr. It’s dank, isolating, mad, hopeless — I enjoyed it so much I read it twice for this review. It’s somehow all of those things as well as exhilarating. I used this phrase to describe Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside and it works just as well here: it’s a beautiful nightmare. It could be about the end of the world, but that’s not quite right. In this world, the end would be redundant.

The structure of Satantango mimics a tango, which takes six steps forward and then six steps back, essentially taking us right back where we began. No progress has been made. Its chapters count from 1 to 6 and then from 6 to 1. It’s a Rorschach test, in which we dig into the characters’ psyches, blur their perspectives of events, see into ourselves. Or, perhaps even more aptly, a Möbius strip, as K. Thomas Kahn describes it in the Los Angeles Review of Books (here), the final chapter being “The Circle Closes,” though that chapter title is a bit misleading — the circle both closes and begins again.

The book begins with a depressing description of a mucky, failed collective farm in Hungary.

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 the footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.

Futaki is one of the few remaining residents of this estate, abandoned and forgotten. They’re free from whatever oppression they suffered while the estate was running. They’re free to leave — and Futaki has been planning to leave “any day now.” This freedom, though, is paralyzing. Late in the novel, Futaki realizes that “now he was subject to — in fact being exploited by — mere chance.” These bells of inexplicable origin (there is no church for miles), frighten Futaki. Are they part of a dream? Worse, though, is when they stop, in the “threatening silence that followed: anything might happen now, he felt.”

In this first chapter we are introduced to the schemes these residents commit against each other. Futaki is sleeping with Mrs. Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt is stealing money, a plot Futaki is part of, only Mr. Schmidt is planning to cheat Futaki. But all of this changes when they get the good news that two people, once thought dead, are returning.

Along with the others, Futaki’s demeanor changes completely: “Don’t go regretting anything, old man! You’ll see. It’ll be cushy for us. Pure gold. A real golden age!” It’s with such promise that the second chapter, “We Are Resurrected,” begins. The saviors are two men, Irimiás and his sidekick Petrina. We meet them while they are being held in a police station, hatching schemes of their own: “We’ll take their money then we’ll move on.”

From the outline above, I hope to show that this is not an overly complicated book in terms of narrative. In each chapter we meet a few new characters, but for the most part they are all beginning their trek to the bar, where, they are told, Irimiás and Petrina will arrive that night. It’s also rather easy to hold on to some predominant themes (hope, despair, doom) and some overt symbols (death, resurrection, bells). Indeed, relative to Krasznahorkai’s later work, like The Melancholy of Resistance (my review here) and Animalinside (my review here), Satantango is accessible.

But this accessibility, like hope, is deceptive. The proliferation of symbols and meaning clear away and we sense — even if we do not see — something deeper and more terrible. Perhaps better than Bolaño himself, Krasznahorkai shows us that just when we think things are coming together to form some meaning, we get a terrifying intimation of meaninglessness. That is the prowling menace, going around and around, over and under this Möbius strip.

Irimiás does arrive, and he speaks to the people, using a recent death — was the death “for us or because of us” — as a rallying point to take the people through the “painful process of liberation.” But for what? As in Animalinside, this is a world on the brink of destruction — not just physical destruction (that’s basically already happened) but complete annihilation. The worst part of it is this annihilation begins inside the characters. Language breaks down:

[. . .] Mrs. Schmidt was a bird happily flying through the milk of theclouds seeing someonedownthere wavingather soshedes cendeda littleand could hear Mrs.Schmidtbawling whyisntshecooking youscoundrelcomedownim mediatelybutshe flewoeverher andshechir ruppedyou won’tdieofhunggerbeforetommorrow [. . .]

The characters are able to witness this, asking what is the significance? And that is their terrifying answer.

Our father . . . um, our father
which art there, art, art in the sky, er,
in heaven, let us praise, er . . . hallowed be
our lord Jesus Christ,
no . . . let them praise . . . no, let us praise
rather, let them praise Your name,
and give us this . . . what I mean is,
let everything be according to, er,
whatever you want . . . in earth as
it is on earth . . . in heaven . . .
or in hell, amen . . .

Satantango is a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. It is my choice to win. Szirtes worked on it for ten years, and it’s an achievement we should honor.

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