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A Review of Krasznahorkai's Satantango: A Rain-Soaked Masterpiece

Bradley Jardine By Bradley Jardine Published on July 20, 2017
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Satantango, first published in Hungary in 1985, is a bleak, rain-soaked masterpiece. Cleverly structured, disorienting, and ultimately thrilling, the novel immerses the reader in a society on the brink of collapse.

The book’s narrative is centered on the arrival of a mysterious figure who is equal parts prophet and con-man, to a rotting, mud-splattered Hungarian village. This is the “estate,” a collective farm in the midst of its death throes. Rain drops. Floorboards creak. Flies buzz. And everything shines with the gossamer glow of cobwebs. For Krasznahorkai, entropy is humanity’s collective nightmare.

The village’s inhabitants reflect this physical decay in a spiritual sense. Desperate peasants try to con one another out of money and sleep with each other’s wives; a “perpetually drunk” doctor spies on his neighbors, keeping meticulously detailed files on each of them; and a maniacally-depressed disabled farm girl murders her pet cat.

In sum, the subject matter is bleak, but the prose is beautiful.

Written in the high-modernist style, Satantango offers a vast, stark, fundamentally human response to a world without meaning. But the book is challenging, and the narrative is designed to disorient the reader. The most obvious manifestation of this is the lack of paragraph breaks. The novel’s unit of composition is the chapter. Krasznahorkai’s translator, Hungarian poet George Szirtes, calls his work a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.”

Accentuating this are the complex sentences which run for several lines. The end result of this magnification is compelling. Without room for pause, the reader is forced forward, fumbling in the dark for meaning – helpless and lost, just like the protagonists.

Krasznahorkai’s opus is structured in two parts comprised of six chapters arranged around one particular evening in the village bar. The first half of the novel anticipates the arrival of Irimias, the mysterious con-man the villagers believe has returned from the dead to solve their misfortune. “He could turn a pile of cow shit into a mansion if he wanted to” one of the villagers remarks. In reality, it’s implied that Irimias was a political informer for the secret police who was imprisoned for ideological impurity.

When they hear rumor of his return, the villagers gather in the local bar. For two chapters, the author describes an apocalyptic binge in a spider infested bar. Its owner lusts after his guests’ wives, turning up the heating to force them into removing more layers of clothing, the men drink until they pass out, and everyone dances the slow tango of the book’s title. This decadent sense of hopelessness is the philosophical center-piece of the first half of Satantango.

The second half tackles the subjects of redemption and revelation through the narrative of a missing girl, Esti Horgos. In a state of anger after being neglected by her family, she attacks and kills her cat, becoming deeply depressed in the process. Desolate, and clinging to the possibility of an afterlife, she takes her cat’s corpse to an abandoned castle to commit suicide. She then drinks poison knowing “her guardian angels are already on the way.”

Satantango is shot through with such religious imagery, and it allows Krasznahorkai to maintain different levels of meaning – political, theological, or psychological – and not be limited to any one of them. This economy of detail allows the author to create an allegory that transcends its implied communist-era setting.

For Krasznahorkai, entropy is humanity’s collective nightmare.

Later in the novel, Irimias and his sidekick Petrina see the corpse of Esti levitating into the clouds. But the book’s prophet shrugs it off as a hallucination. Humans, Irimias argues, are “trapped forever,” with no transcendent escape from the rain and mud. “We think we are breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

This sense of being trapped is the heart of the book, and explains the unusual decision to focus on a relatively minor character for the story’s conclusion. The novel’s final chapter, “the circle closes,” is told from the perspective of the reclusive, perpetually drunk doctor. The doctor is haunted by “the triumphal progress of the wrecking process… the power that ruined houses, walls, trees and fields.” The best he can do to prevent it is “use his memory to fend off the sinister, underhanded process of decay.” He therefore vows to “watch everything very carefully and to record it all constantly.”

The chapter is set after the events in the rest of the novel, when the doctor returns home from hospital to find the village abandoned. He begins writing fictionalized accounts of what the villagers would be doing and discovers the power of literature. Later, he begins writing: “One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall…” The opening lines of Satantango.

The story becomes an endless loop, purgatory. The tango of the book’s title is thus the repetitive, vacuous dance of existence; a fact indicated by the chapters themselves. In the first half they are numbered I to VI. In the second they are numbered backwards, from VI to I.

It may not be uplifting reading, but Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece poses some challenging thoughts. They deserve to be tackled. 

Bradley Jardine is a journalist based in Moscow, Russia. He has written extensively on the politics of the former Soviet Union and is an avid reader of literature from the wider Communist Bloc.


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