Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Picture an isolated, Eastern European town, abandoned save for a few dozen residents, most of who occupy their time drinking pálinka in a bar covered in spider-webs. Picture a dark rain that continues for days and days, a rain described as “the rain of death in the heart.” Picture a nameless, existential threat. Picture a story whose scattered allusions and parables insinuate that what is written is merely a tip of an iceberg, and that there is something deeper going on, something churning way below the surface of the plot and characters, something religious and mythological. Picture an author who writes as though they were dancing, step by step, back and forth, around and around, rhythmically and hypnotically. Put all this together and you might be able to picture László Krasznahorkai’s dark masterpiece, Satantango.
We’re told by the New Yorker critic James Wood to think of other “writers of the long sentence,” such as José Saramago, David Foster Wallace, and Roberto Bolaño, but don’t think of them. We’re told to think of W.G. Sebald, and that’s okay, because we’re never sure of what is exactly going on in Sebald. We’re told to think of Kafka, but don’t you dare think of Kafka. Instead, think of Mikhail Bulgakov and César Aira. Better yet think of Bruno Schulz, and, above all, definitely think of Witold Gombrowicz. This will help picture the bleakness of setting, characters, and tone. But nothing will prepare a reader for the mind-bending language of Krasznahorkai except Krasznahorkai:
“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 space 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 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 into 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.”
That sentence from the second (and second to last) page at once shows the almost magical ability of Krasznahorkai’s words to penetrate and disturb, and the lively, contemporary translation by George Szirtes. The combination produces a work that, as New Directions hopes, will cement Krasznahorkai’s legend in the English-speaking literary world. Though it’s the author’s latest work to be translated, Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s debut, published in Hungarian in 1985, and made famous with Belá Tarr’s 1994 seven-hour film adaptation.
But what is the book about? There are implications, allusions, a mystery. Hungary is sinking, physically, morally; a doctor reads a geology book about Hungary as if it is an apocalyptic prophecy. Indeed, the town in Satantango appears post-apocalyptic. Lighting cracks through the sky, and the rain “seemed to fall all at once, in one great sack-full, battering the roof.” Once a home of thriving industry, the buildings are now dilapidated, decrepit, rusted, and broken. The patrons of the spider-web covered bar are scheming to steal money, to cheat on their spouses, to commit acts of violence. A woman shouts out the word “RESURRECTION!” and waves the Bible at her peers, warning them to be prepared for “the end of times.” Out of the “fetid swamp” arrives a savior, Irimiás, who was previously thought to be dead. His appearance is seen as a miracle, and in exchange for the town people’s savings, he promises a vague, communist-style utopia – ironic as the novel is set at the time when communism was failing. Before Irimiás can explain his plan, an innocent child is found dead, the sound of a church organ comes from nowhere, someone makes an allusion to raining frogs, and the child’s body rises into the night sky, “soon to be lost among the still, silent clouds.”
What the hell is going on? It’s not clear, not to the reader, and certainly not to the characters in the story. They exist in a mist of consciousness, often emerging “from some evil spell,” wondering what “demonic power had taken possession of them, stifling every sane and rational impulse.” At the center of the novel, the bar band repeatedly plays the tango, and as the desperate drinkers succumb to debauchery, it becomes clear that Santan’s Tango is not the dance of the devil’s work, not the dance of doing evil, but rather it is the dance of fighting off Satan. The dance of trying to be good. It is the dance we dance everyday; the battle between our higher, noble aspirations against our baser, darker urges. Or for most of us, it’s the battle between ordering a salad or a pizza.
A writer without comparison, László Krasznahorkai plunges into the subconscious where this moral battle takes place, and projects it into a mythical, mysterious, and irresistible work of post-modern fiction, a novel certain to hold a high rank in the canon of Eastern European literature.
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
New Directions March 2012