Satantango by László Krasznahorkai (trans. George Szirtes). New Directions. 320 pp., $25.95.
László Krasznahorkai’s first novel, Satantango, was originally published in 1985 in Hungary. A contemporaneous review by Miklós Györffy in the New Hungarian Quarterly called it “a milestone in Hungarian fiction,” while also emphasizing its universality. It may well be a milestone in fiction as such—though we can debate exactly which mile it marks in world letters, given its circuitous path around the globe. Its reception has occurred in stages: translated into German in 1990, then into French in 2000, it has just been released in English by New Directions, the publisher of Krasznahorkai’s three existing works in English translation. Satantango is a brilliant, original and unsettling work; it is also a product of its time and place (late Communism, high postmodernism). Reading it twenty-seven years on, though, makes clear the transcendent power of Krasznahorkai’s art and the universal dimension of its dizzying, half-stabilized visions.
At the level of plot, Satantango is concerned with money, redemption, and damnation. It takes place in an impoverished and nearly abandoned village, inhabited by single adults or couples (with one exception, all childless). Two scoundrels, Irimiás and Petrina, believed to be dead, return unexpectedly to propose the salvific founding of a new community. The villagers expect a primarily economic salvation, although some have different millenarian visions. One of the few individuals not taken in by Irimiás’ scheme, a solitary doctor who also keeps detailed files on everyone in the village, is both a comic and authorial figure. He also seems uniquely free of financial motives; even the novel’s two children participate in a miniature version of Irimiás’ scheme when the little girl gives her money to her tormenting older brother to plant and grow into a “money tree.”
Krasznahorkai layers several narratives, and multiple narrative registers, over one another, and threads the result along a somewhat oblique series of tropes—the tango of the title, religious (often Biblical) figures, spiders and webs. In addition to the organizational complexity, many signature aspects of his later fiction can be seen here as well. There is an ensemble cast of characters, with narration focalized through multiple characters and incidents often retold from different points of view. There are visionaries of various kinds; crime, often petty crime; a climactic act of violence or sacrifice (although in many cases the violence and sacrifice are not identical, but complementary); and disillusionment, if not always very substantial disillusionment—characters tend to cling to old illusions or find new ones. The novels end in irresolution disguised as massive resolution. Satantango‘s metafictional ending doesn’t quite reach the level of the truly inspired conclusions of Krasznahorkai’s later novels, but it may provide some retrospective guidance in reading.
To see how, you must bear with me for a moment as I channel the critical spirit of the mid-1980s, and examine figures of writing and narration within the novel. These figures, in the rather older spirit of Goethe and Faust, depend in part upon the play between word and deed. Amid a profusion of words (spoken and otherwise), Satantango‘s plot is anchored by three deeds: Irimiás’ collusion with higher authorities to ensnare the villagers; the little girl Esti’s destructive “unraveling” in chapter V; and the observations and interpretations of the doctor. Irimiás’ return to the village, his inflated promises to lead the villagers to a new life, and their subsequent dispersal when this vaunted plan dissolves, make up the primary plot arc. His charismatic authority is entirely an effect of perception by the villagers—we see him initially as a deluded fool who wanders into the registry of prostitutes by mistake—but his worldly power is real. He can command rhetoric, but it appears under a layer of irony: a nihilist about even imagination itself, he is tied down in actions to a plot that might belong in any Communist-era potboiler. There is in fact a strong division within the novel between action and yearning or dissatisfaction, which these three pivotal characters embody in different ways. For Irimiás the spiritual, contemplative dimension is almost entirely rhetorical and ironized. Quasi-religious delusions play a more significant role for Esti, the “half-wit” child who inflicts and absorbs a village’s worth of petty cruelty, and for the unnamed doctor, who serves as the estate’s secret archivist.
So much for deeds; what about words? As I read it, Satantango comprises at least three forms of authorship, each roughly aligned with one of the actions above: the report Irimiás submits to the authorities near the end of the book (edited, collectively and according to cliché, by a team of bored functionaries desperate for coffee); the doctor’s diary keeping and his “discovery” that he can cause events to occur by writing them down; and finally, the myths engendered by Esti, who escapes from language and resists it. These characters and their actions come to form a hierarchy of agency. Esti puts her faith in her brother Sanyi, who joins up with Irimiás, who works for the police, who may or may not be the invention of the doctor, the ultimate collector of information. It’s elegant and a bit terrifying, but it is also ultimately an ambiguous and unstable structure, emerging into clarity and then quickly submerged again in the confusion of the “dance.” (The twelve chapters—six forward, six back—are collectively referred to in Szirtes’ translation as “The Dances,” although the Hungarian “Táncrend” is closer in literal meaning to the “Order of Dances” that might appear on a fin de siècle dance card.)
Two examples may help illustrate the interplay between action and the novel’s complex narrative structure. In the stunning and horrific chapter devoted to Esti, her acts of violence—their martyrial complicity with the cruelty that others, particularly her brother, inflict on her—are fundamentally negative, removing people and things from the world. They create an uneasy vacuum, to be occupied first by Irimiás’ sermon-cum-sales pitch to the village, and later by a disarming vision shared by Irimiás, Petrina and Sanyi. The vision is handled with careful ambiguity: all three terrified characters dismiss it as hallucination, the product of shared exhaustion, and Irimiás uses the occasion to offer this bleak philosophy:
It doesn’t matter what we saw just now. It still means nothing. Heaven? Hell? The afterlife? All nonsense. Just a waste of time. The imagination never stops working but we’re not one jot nearer the truth. . . . 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 senses, 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. . . .
While Krasznahorkai’s multi-page sentences have drawn plenty of critical commentary, a more significant stylistic practice in this work (and others) is his embedding of quoted phrases in sentences without attribution (e.g. “Irimiás would be here soon ‘to shake things up good and proper’”). The technique seems to serve disparate purposes for different characters. On some occasions, they function as one would expect: as boilerplate or cliché, referring not to a single utterance or speaker but to routine usage. In the doctor’s narrative, however, the quoted phrases are more particular and could plausibly be lifted from his diary entries. For Esti, the quoted text consists of recalled statements that others have made in her hearing, and her despair is described as pursuit by a chorus of terrible voices. But in every instance, the narration of an individual’s thoughts and actions is interrupted, jarringly, by phrases from other times or other minds. It upsets the integrity of each character, subjecting their thoughts to external pressure in a way that echoes Irimiás’ image of the senseless network of dependencies.
But does Krasznahorkai really vindicate Irimiás’ view of life? The salient metaphor of the dance—with its prescribed moves and limited, but significant, role for individual agency—could certainly fit Irimiás’ description. In addition to the explicit tango that closes part one, there is a more muted “dance” within a central episode of the book. In a fleeting encounter, Esti approaches the doctor and holds fast to his coat; he pushes her away, she runs, and he chases her until he falls. The scene appears twice: once from his and then from her perspective. For him, it’s a merely baffling and frustrating incident; for her, rejection by a man she recalled as spontaneously kind and caring is devastating. The missed connection troubles both the economy and the hierarchy of the novel’s world, but ultimately maintains them. Yet the force of both characters’ imaginations is not nonsense at all. If we take the ending seriously, it creates the fictional world—and, beyond Irimiás’ bleak and accurate assessment of blind dependency and dynamism, offers its sole dormant hope of salvation. The complexity and contingency of this picture, and the virtuosity already apparent in Krasznahorkai’s prose, haven’t aged a day.
Jessie Ferguson is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on essayism in twentieth-century fiction, and on fictionality and its discontents more broadly.
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