Sunday, August 23, 2015

László Krasznahorkai, Satantango (1985)

As Hungarian writers go, Krasznahorkai is actually pretty well-represented in English translation; most of his novels are either available or listed by wikipedia as being in process of translation (for whatever that's worth). This, his first, is probably his best-known (VERY relatively speaking, of course), mainly due to having been adapted by Béla Tarr into a seven-hour film, which I haven't seen but would certainly like to. It's surely been more widely-seen in the Anglophone world than the book has been read, seeing as the latter was only translated in 2012. If nothing else, you have to admit that that's one badass title. It looks even better with the diacritical marks of which the English translation has been shorn: Sátántangó.

You might think, “a seven-hour movie? What kind of bloated monstrosity must this book be?” The answer is, not a bloated monstrosity at all; it's less than three hundred pages. Which does not, however, mean it's exactly a walk in the park. Each chapter consists of one enormous, unbroken paragraph (this is the case in all of Krasznahorkai's novels, as far as I've been able to determine) filled with long, twisty (though not particularly Proustian or otherwise convoluted) sentences. And then there's the subject matter, of course: sometime after the collapse of communism (apparently, though the setting remains vague), we have a town where entropy is taking its toll; everything is collapsing and decaying, and the endless, dull rainfall only exacerbates the situation. In this setting, what do people do? They desperately scheme and fantasize about getting out, about receiving money, about momentarily satisfying their lusts—everything they want, ultimately, is terribly banal and unimaginative and they lack the wherewithal to even come close to getting it. So when a man—a former informant for the ruling regime, apparently—comes forward to them with a vague utopian scheme, they eagerly follow along, even though he's not much of a svengali and it's pathetically obvious that he's just there to swindle them. They are just as easy to fool as a mentally disabled girl whose cruel brother cheats her out of her meager savings by telling her about how she can plant them to grow a money tree—and, in a sense, as blameless; they may be dumb and bestial and not very nice people, but they are who they are due to intolerable circumstances; they never really had much choice.

The structure of a tango—or so I'm told and choose to blindly believe; it's not like I know anything about dance—involves six steps forward and six steps back; Satantango mimics this structure in its twelve chapters, such that at the end we're back at the beginning, with an unexpected bit of metafiction. So is that it? Is this dance eternal? Is the slog just going to repeat itself forever? Well, maybe, maybe not. Does one woman's obsession with the book of Revelation mean anything? You wouldn't think, and yet, there's a wholly unexplained, numinous vision of a dead child; does this suggest something transcendent? Krasznahorkai's not saying. But he's certainly written a book of the sort that you don't see every day.

Look, if you buy into the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as miserable bastards, Satantango certainly isn't going to disabuse you, but it doesn't read quite as grimly as you might think it would, and the prose carries you along with a great deal of momentum. Recommended.


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