Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.
It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.
The book is a much easier pill to swallow for the reader than the film; even casual readers can dive right in to the text and find themselves immersed in the world that Krasznahorkai creates, all thanks to George Szirtes’ superb translation (which supposedly took eight years to finish, one of the reasons for the twenty-seven year delay!!). Each chapter consists of one long unbroken paragraph, which gives a sense of breathless anxiety that propels itself along with a darkly funny narrative touch throughout, and makes the reading of the work seem much less frightening than a casual reader might think when they read the words “one-paragraph chapters.”
That’s not to say that the text is easy to digest, because if you truly think about what you’re reading, you are bound to feel some sense of disconsolate melancholy, which seems to be precisely the state of being that Krasznahorkai is the master of describing:
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.
The plot is a classic “return” story: the remaining dozen inhabitants on a failed collective farm (or estate, as it is called in the text) in late-era Communist Hungary exist in a hopeless void of inaction after a mysterious character named Irimiás had come into their lives several years before with the promise of redemption and then subsequently disappeared and is presumed dead; but his return to the collective farm, along with his sidekick Petrina, is the narrative backbone of the novel. The first six chapters exist as six spokes along the same time/space axis: six different narrative points of view prepare the reader for Irimiás’ return by following different characters as they make their way to the bar on the estate, culminating in the drunken dance at the center of the novel that gives the novel its name. The next six chapters recede in number from VI to I as the characters process Irimiás’ return and make plans for the future. Krasznahorkai has said that he likes the idea of the tango as a dance that involves moving forward only to move backwards again, and so he structured the novel, at least in terms of the chapters, along a tango course—forward motion, then backwards again as everything is resolved/dissolved.
The dance of the tango, forward and then backward again, like the feeble steps of the estate as they slog their way through the fields towards a vague Promised Land, demonstrates how far outside of our human understanding of time this novel works. All sense of time is gone in Satantango; the action could have taken place in the 1980s, or yesterday, or 100 years ago; time is an immaterial and forgotten element of existence. None of the clocks seem to work, or if they do, they’re set to the wrong time. And on a cosmological scale, a book about Hungary’s geological history morphs into a work of prophecy, wherein billions of years of natural history culminates in a here and now devoid of historical resonance—time is nothing here, the end is coming:
. . .the book being written now in the present and now in the past tense—confused him, so he couldn’t be sure whether he was reading a work of prophecy regarding the earth’s condition after the demise of humanity or a proper work of geological history based on the planet on which he actually lived . . . he was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenseless, helpless victim of the earth’s crust, the brittle arc of his life between birth and death caught up in the dumb struggle between surging seas and rising hills, and it was as if he could already feel the gentle tremor beneath the chair supporting his bloated body, a tremor that might be the harbinger of seas about to break in on him, a pointless warning to flee before its all-encompassing power made escape impossible, and he could see himself running, part of a desperate, terrified stampede comprising stags, bears, rabbits, deer, rats, insects and reptiles, dogs and men, just so many futile, meaningless lives in the common, incomprehensible devastation, while above them flapped clouds of birds, dropping in exhaustion, offering only possible hope.
Irimiás, whose return offers the residents’ only hope of salvation, is the most important character in the novel; he is given three chapters through which his motives, intentions, and character traits become known, yet he remains the most mysterious and enigmatic character in the novel and in recent literary history. What drives Irimiás is a question that Krasznahorkai does not answer. Is he savior or antichrist, or just a conman, or all of the above, or none of the above? He is alternately described as “Lord of Misrule” and “a great magician,” and he is prone to bouts of philosophizing, denouncement, and moralizing, though he is also upbraided by the Communist authorities who dispatch him on a mysterious mission after he is released from prison. The vagueness in Krasznahorkai’s portrait of Irimiás is deliberate, and corresponds to similar treatment of the novel’s main questions throughout.
“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”
The core issues at the heart of Satantango are big-topic issues of existence and the lack of existence: the beginning and the end of humanness, humanity, history, politics, economics, progress, death, redemption, salvation loneliness, despair, the apocalypse. Krasznahorkai provides no answers to any of the questions he poses. The work could be read as a condemnation of the Soviet-Communist system of economic and social constructions; or it could be read as a biblical metaphor; it could be read as a satire of mankind’s susceptibility to fall victim to every conjurer, ruse, and Ponzi scheme; or it could be, and this is most likely, all of the above, none of the above, and a something else that exists just outside of our human understanding.
They were sober at a stroke but they simply couldn’t understand what had happened to them in the last few hours. What demonic power had taken possession of them, stifling every sane and rational impulse? What was it that had driven them to lose their heads and attack each other ‘like filthy pigs when the swill is late’? What made it possible for people like them—people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom—to rush around in senseless despair, like prisoners in a cage so that even their vision had clouded over? What explanation could there be for them to ‘have eyes’ only for the ruinous, stinking, desolate aspect of their future home, and completely lose track of the promise that ‘what had fallen would rise again’! It was like waking from a nightmare.
Out of all the insanely influential world writers and works to whom Krasznahorkai is compared (Saramago, Bolaño, Foster Wallace, Bulgakov, etc.), Satantango most closely resembles Gogol’s Dead Souls, another novel (or poem, as Gogol called it, a tag that I would not hesitate to apply to Satantango as well, especially with the accomplished poet George Szirtes at the helm of the translation) with a conman at the center, traveling across a ravaged countryside alternating between scenes of the darkest hilarity and the banality of the everyday, all the while painting a timeless portrait of humanity rotten at the core without any hope for change.
And for what it’s worth, in an era of digital ownership, the hardcover first edition of Satantango that New Directions put out is simply gorgeous; the black traced-line cover is striking, and the inside front and back covers feature black matted paper with silvery white text of reviews of Krasznahorkai and Satantango. The book feels damn good to hold in your hands and read, and in sum, Satantango is exactly the type of book worth buying because the value of the physical product contributes to the invaluable content of the text itself. Read it, buy it, hunker down with the endtimes.