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Review: Satantango


László Krasznahorkai

Tuskar Rock, 320pp, £12.99

Satantango is a difficult book to review, not least because its 12 chapters are each a single paragraph long and the text is set so close to the edge of the page that it is far easier to scribble marginal notes in kanji than in English. Single sentences can uncoil over a dozen lines or more; crucial elements of the plot are deliberately under-explained; and it’s hard to judge the seriousness of the novel’s abrupt metaphysical swivels (on the second page, Futaki, an ageing cripple, looks at a twig of acacia and sees a vision of “himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin” – even Samuel Beckett left it until Act II of Waiting for Godot to let us know that: “They give birth astride of a grave”). But Satantango, László Krasznahorkai’s first novel, written in 1985, is utterly absorbing – it dramatises with great invention the parching of the human imagination and wrings an almost holy gran­deur from a tale of provincial petulance.

The novel begins and ends in a small, Hungarian village that time, the state and everyone bar the local bus driver has forgotten. A factory – now mothballed – once supplied work for the villagers. The only diversions for the few that have remained are colourless fantasies of escape and the pneumatic temptations of Mrs Schmidt. The inhabitants creak, shit, piss, vomit and fart copiously, Rabelaisian figures but without a smidgen of joy. Only once in the novel is the word “friend” used unironically; far more frequent is the hectoring, faintly intimidating “pal”. All is rusty, dusty, cobwebbed, rotten and drowning in mud. I’ve never come across a more sodden story: those parts that the unremitting rain cannot drench are soused in pálinka, the native hooch.

The first half of the novel anticipates the arrival of Irimiás, whom the villagers, working themselves up into a frenzy, believe will transform their miserable lives. The book’s jacket copy implies that Irimiás is the devil, though there is precious little evidence for this in the text and a significant amount against. When asked if he believes in hell, having witnessed a dead child get up and walk, Irimiás, “now a deathly pale . . . gave a great gulp. ‘Who knows. It might.’” Not exactly the reaction one would expect from the Lord of the Flies.

At any rate, Irimiás plays an entirely different role from the devil in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a deeply moral being who punishes the decadence of Soviet society. Irimiás has the charismatic authority to convince his followers – who need little convincing – to hand over their money so he can build “a model economy that offers a secure existence and binds together a small band of the dispossessed”. But the reader sees him as a transparent huckster and a nark.

Satantango climaxes as an apocalypse in the scrapyard of progress (“You’ll never go wrong anticipating doom in my books,” Krasznahorkai has said in an interview). The detritus of the past accumulates – the dilapidated Habsburg-era estate; Irimiás, preaching like Savo­narola; a deformed medieval bell-ringer; a Nazarene sacrifice and resurrection; the ubiquitous, untameable Proterozoic sludge – lending not a sense of timelessness but of history grinding to a halt. This is the Book of Revelation without revelation.

Krasznahorkai’s serpentine sentences serve multiple ends. They allow him to burrow down from the self-deceiving consciousnesses of his characters into feelings and thoughts that they cannot acknowledge or express. But they also enable him to confront the great question of late modernity: how does one create art from a meaningless world? Ogling Mrs Schmidt, one of the characters “wanted to seize the Entirety at once, but in his excitement he could only concentrate on the ‘maddening sequence’ of the Details”. Krasznahorkai’s periods are failures to comprehend the world in one gulp, which create poetry in their thrashing:

In that briefest of moments the rosy glow of health vanishes, the muscles tighten and once more the body begins to reflect light rather than absorb it, glittering and silvery, and the finely arched nose, the delicately chiseled cheekbones and the microscopically thin wrinkles are replaced by a new nose, new bones, new wrinkles that wipe away all memory of what had preceded them to preserve in a single mass everything which, years from now, will find itself interred six feet under.

There is a lifetime of decay here but the featureless second half of the sentence – the repeated “new”, the unformed “single mass” – replaces the roseate, the glittering, the silvery, without quite burying them.

This is the third of Krasznahorkai’s novels that George Szirtes has translated – brilliantly. The genius of his rendering lies in the skill
with which he achieves the opposite of what would normally be considered a successful translation: the gentle bamboozling of the reader. His dexterous syntax walks us obliviously up the garden path to deposit us on the slag heap, only half-remembering where we came from. It is in this sense of awed baf­flement that the readers of Satantango converge on its characters and in which the story consumes itself.

Jonathan Beckman is senior editor of Literary Review. His book on the “diamond necklace affair”, a scandal in 18th-century France, will
be published next year by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover