In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series, professor Jeff Frawley recommends Satantango by László Krasznahorkai.
In the last few years, the work of contemporary Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai has undergone a small explosion of sorts in the English-reading world. Three of his books have been translated into English to much acclaim, with a fourth soon on the way. For a reader new to Krasznahorkai’s work, this might seem surprising upon opening one of his books. Lengthy sentences form rivers of black ink that overflow into dense paragraphs, while a fog of melancholy permeates his settings and the lives of his sullen if not downright miserable characters. The writer himself, whom Susan Sontag called “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” has a rather phantomlike appearance and piercing stare in his bio photos. He is infamous for his bleak outlook on life, claiming in a 2012 interview that human beings most likely will not last another 200 years thanks to the accumulating failures of civilization.
Why, one might ask, would I want to read such depressing stuff?
But to neglect Krasznahorkai’s novels simply for the sake of avoiding gloom would be a mistake. His novels transport readers to fictional worlds that, while dark, absolutely shimmer thanks to the writer’s luminous prose and narrative capabilities. His most recent novel to be translated into English, Satantango, published by New Directions in 2012 and originally published in 1985 in Hungarian, is probably the best place to start.
In Satantango we are privy to the horrific mundaneness of life on a work farm floundering during the transition from a country’s socialist past to its capitalist future. Machinery rusts in the ceaseless rain and surrounding architecture erodes, while the earth is reduced to an infertile slop. Meanwhile, the dozen or so members of the supposedly once tight-knit community have little to do but drink, conspire, and philander. In spite of the original communal purpose of the farm, its members could not be more isolated from one another; they have utterly failed at their roles, including the village doctor who does nothing but observe the community from his window, documenting what he sees while drinking himself to death. Amidst this misery, rumor spreads that a former member of the community, absent for nearly a decade and whose departure is cast in an ambiguous light, has returned with promises of escape and progress. It is unclear whether his return will offer salvation or further damnation. Originally published in the twilight years of socialism in Hungary, it is easy to read Satantango as a novel about the failure of enforced communism. But the book and its themes of various failures—of society, of time, of religion, of human compassion—feel much more universal than that.
Satantango utilizes fascinating narrative techniques to explore this otherwise grim world, including an omniscient point of view at which any reader or writer of fiction will marvel. The reader cannot help but succumb to a sense of voyeurism that is unsettling yet delicious. One would like to call these narrative pyrotechnics, but this seems inappropriate given the soggy setting in which the novel takes place.
Instead, Krasznahorkai’s language seeps into the characters’ lives as insidiously as does the rain, augmenting the characters’ discomforts and failures. And indeed the first thing a reader of Krasznahorkai notices are the sentences. They are long. They oscillate between imagery as dark and heavy as the Paleozoic muck upon which Central Europe rests and as light as the nearly invisible threads stitched by the farm’s resident spiders. His prose itself has a habit of threading meticulous sensory details throughout the staging and actions of his characters, so that the entire world of the novel feels webbed together by language. Consider:
Autumnal horseflies were buzzing around the cracked lampshade, describing drowsy figures of eight in its weak light, time and again colliding with the filthy porcelain, so that after each dull little thud their bodies fell back into the magnetic paths they themselves had woven, to continue this endless cycle, albeit on a tight closed circuit until the light went out; but the compassionate hand that had the power to undertake such action was still supporting the unshaven face.
Krasznahorkai’s sentences meander from point of view to point of view, sometimes beginning from the perspective of a room full of people and trickling down, over the course of half a page, into the point of view of the most minor creature in the room. His sentences also perform amazing leaps from the small, the mundanely micro, to enormous, elevated statements about not only the condition of the novel’s characters but humankind’s attempts to make sense of suffering in the world. Here is a single sentence from the second page of the book:
He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity…and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.
Krasznahorkai has been compared to Gogol and Beckett, in part referring to his sense of humor shining through the murk. At the center of the novel is a comically drunken evening in the village bar, during which the characters perform the titular dance (their first real interaction as a community that we see) that ends with the arrival of Irimiás, their conspicuous “savior.”
It’s worth noting that Krasznahorkai has had a long creative and professional relationship with the Hungarian avant-garde filmmaker Bela Tarr, who based several of his films on Krasznahorkai’s work—including the seven-hour-long adaptation of Satantango. I’m not sure if I’d recommend dashing out to rent the film without a deeper interest in either’s work; however, some of the film’s scenes, including the Satan’s dance in the bar—which stretches beyond ten minutes with little to no dialogue, only crazy, lilting accordion music—are stunning in their ability to capture human interactions at their most desperate.
Krasznahorkai, László. Satantango. New York: New Directions Press, 2012.