March 2012

Matt McGregor


Satantango by László Krasznahorkai

This is a fucking miserable novel. First published in 1985, László Krasznahorkai's Satantango is a shabby story about a bunch of reprobates and drunks stuck in a depressed patch of Soviet-era Hungary. Given in two parts, with chapters running from one to six and six to one, the novel is structured like a tango, but feels more like an abandoned hike. As Krasznahorkai pans through the ruins, he manages to hit all the major genres of misery, from child abuse to boredom. It is a bruising study of expectation and failure.

Just because a novel is miserable and difficult does not make it profound or true; but Satantangodespite some false notes and flat chapters, manages to be both. The novel is set on an "estate," a scrap of leaking houses and abandoned buildings in rural Hungary, given by Krasznahorkai as "a stinking yellow sea of mud." Industry has fled, leaving a few abandoned buildings, a pub, an eccentric doctor, some ruined families, and the forgotten crumbs of a community. The place is sodden and foul: On every other page, Krasznahorkai reminds us of the rain, which seems "to fall at once, in one great sackful." Everyone is always wet or cold. More than one character falls flat into the mud.

Stuck in this place, the characters are waiting -- for love or money or some kind of ominous, unexplained reckoning. We begin with Futaki, plotting some vague scheme with his neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt. As the novel cuts from shack to bog to pub, the action turns on the arrival of the mythic Irimiás, a former resident. To the villagers, it often seems like Irimiás is a hero in the old sense: He could, on a whim, either save the community or burn it to the ground.

We first see Irimiás in a bluntly Kafkaesque police bureaucracy. With his idiotic sidekick Petrina, Irimiás seems to be a kind of civilian informer, and not, on the evidence, a very good one. As they are shuffled from waiting room to waiting room, the two men are abused by various officers and functionaries -- "Fuck you, you rotten, hopeless bastard!" -- and then tossed onto the street. At this stage, Irimiás and Petrina appear to be little more than unfortunate schmoes. And yet, as they walk through the town, Krasznahorkai changes course. Here is his description of the street: "Old women are sitting at their windows gazing at the dusk through net curtains, their hearts contracting at the sight of faces fleeing beneath the eaves outside, their faces full of such wrongs and sorrows that not even the steaming cookies baked in hot ceramic stoves can banish them."

Compared to the bureaucratic farce of earlier pages -- where the officer literally says, "I've had enough of the Irimiás-Petrina duo!" -- this is a surprisingly nice. Though the reference to "steaming cookies" tends to work against any kind of elegiac payoff, this is clearly a step beyond the chapter's initial wackiness. A few pages in, Irimiás and Petrina go into a pub and begin to throw their weight around. The tone shifts once more:

Is someone making a joke!?... Could it be that old bat by the toilets? Or that asshole over there in the gym shoes? What is this? Some kind of dissent?... We'll blow them all up... We'll blow up the lot of them. We'll blow them up one by one. Cowards! Worms!... One stick of dynamite per jacket!... There'll be bombs up chimney-flues, under doormats, bombs hung from chandeliers, bombs stuffed up their assholes!

This all sounds a bit ridiculous, but the fact that no one in the pub stands against Imiriás makes the threats unexpectedly convincing. The change of tone, following the "steaming cookies" and the bureaucratic tomfoolery, is startling.

Irimiás, then, is a bully. It is a sign of the misery on the estate that his arrival represents something like salvation. Over the next few chapters, Krasznahorkai pans through the neighborhood, introducing the thoroughly odd doctor, the landlord, a few barflies, and then, finally, little Esti Horgos. Esti is a warped, anxious child, lost in unsettling dreams (a kind of Eastern bloc Janet Frame). In this chapter, we see her brutal, sadistic brother convince her into planting a "money-tree." After doing so, Esti goes to find her pet cat, which she eventually drowns in a bowl of rat poison. Krasznahorkai, as cruel as his characters, does his best to twist the knife: As Esti walks away, rat poison in one hand, her cat's stiff corpse in the other, we are told that she is "waddling a little, like a duck." Cute, huh?

We stumble into the novel's second half with bruises, a limp, a bleeding lip. We watch the Satantango, a drunken, lecherous dance, which takes place while Esti is waddling in the mud. We watch the newly arrived Irimiás give a slimy, condescending speech to the villagers. There are plenty of surprises. We watch as the novel's world begins to bend and snap. There are moments of collective fantasy, insane projections in the wilderness, memories of torture, a ghost; the sentences themselves begin to twist and run together. The villagers fight and panic; Irimiás visits a weapons dealer; the doctor, left alone in the village, visits an old church. It continues to rain.

The novel's view of life is usefully summarized by Mrs. Horgos, one of this novel's toughest nuts: "My husband was just like you, never satisfied. Nothing was ever good enough for him, not no how. By the time he realized his mistake it was too late. There was nothing left but to hang himself in the attic." Irimiás, walking with his sidekicks through the mud, comes to a similar conclusion: "We think we're breaking free but all we're doing is readjusting the locks." He goes on, to give a more brutal version of Beckett's The Unnamable: "Let's hang ourselves, you fool... At least it's over quicker. It's the same either way, whether we hang ourselves or not. So OK, let's not hang ourselves."

In fact, the whole book has the stink of Beckett: In the midst of life you are in mud and shit. And yet, as you try to connect the various nodes of Satantango, you find yourself grasping for other points of reference. There's Kafka, obviously -- who, as Adam Levy at The Millions helpfully points out, provides the novel's unattributed epigraph -- but you also find patches of Faulkner and Melville and Gogol. This sounds like the vague crap you read on dust jackets, but Krasznahorkai deserves the slew of comparisons. The problem, though, is that it's hard to steal from writers as distinctive as these. Everyone who borrows from Beckett, from Rudy Wurlitzer to Lydia Davis, takes on the unwanted appellation: he or she becomes "Beckettesque."

Despite all this, there remains something astonishing and singular about Satantango. On occasion, Krasznahorkai's sentences seem to swell and deflate; each clause seems to twist in its own direction. His sentences are, by turns, lovely, brutal, bombastic, ironic, and precise. But you should, I think, decide for yourself. Here is his description of a storm:

The stench of sewers mixed with mud, the smell of the odd crack of lightning, wind tugging at tiles, power lines, empty nests; the stifling heat behind the low ill-fitting windows... impatient, annoyed half-words of lovers embracing... demanding wails of babies, their cries sliding off into the tin-smell of dusk; streets pliable, parks soaked to their roots lying obedient to the rain, bare oaks, half-broken dry flowers, scorched grass all prostrate, humbled by the storm, sacrifices strewn at the executioner's feet.

Here is the doctor, walking through the mud:

For minutes on end he could not tell whether he was really hearing howls of pain, or whether it was simply that his years of long, exhausting work had rendered him incapable of distinguishing between the general noise and ancient prehistoric screams that were somehow preserved in time ('the evidence of suffering does not disappear without a trace,' he hopefully remarked) and now were being raised by the rain, like dust.

And here are the final impressions of little Esti:

Esti, who kept looking back, saw him for a split second, his cigarette alight in his hand, like a comet fading, never to reapppear, its trace remaining for a few minutes in the dark sky, its outlines growing blurred, eventually absorbed in the heavy night haze that snapped its jaw around her now, the road beneath her immediately snuffed out so she felt as though she were swimming through the dark without any support, weightless, quite isolated.

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811217347
320 pages