In a small, derelict settlement on an abandoned estate, a few lost souls wake up to a day that could be as devoid of hope as any of the others preceding. In what was “once the home of a thriving industry, now nothing but a set of dilapidated and deserted buildings” surrounded by a seasonally unpassable sea of mud, where the gaze runs from “the topmost beams of a derelict farmhouse from which the roof tiles had been stripped” to the “green mildew” that “covered the cracks and peeling walls” in Mrs Schmidt’s house, everything shows defeat and resignation on the inhabitants’ part.
Yet the day, which gets off to an early start on the prompting of the unusual sound of bells in this church-forsaken area, ends up bringing momentous changes as it is announced Kelemen, the driver, has seen Irimiás and Petrina. That the two, long thought dead, should reappear and be rumoured to be heading back to the settlement, cannot leave the community indifferent.
A village enthralled by a false prophet
While some on the estate are sceptical, others such as Futaki the cripple already start dreaming of a new, brighter future: “Irimiás (…) is a great magician. He could turn a pile of cow shit into a mansion if he wanted to.” He is the only man capable of “holding together things that just fall apart when we’re in charge”, Futaki says.
Yet, at times prophetic and at others scathing, admired and reviled in equal measure, patronising in public but dismissive in private, Irimiás, the “Lord of Misrule”, wreaks havoc with the settlement’s inhabitants.
Himself a despised informer for unspecified powers in town, he recruits most of “the long-suffering lot” for the same cause, after having led them to believe in “a new model economy” established by him, an empty, hopeless scheme for which they sacrifice crumbling homes and hard-earned cash.
Only a few remain behind – the doctor, an overweight pálinka-drunkard obsessed with order and with minutely recording his surroundings; the two Horgos girls whoring in the old mill; and Esti, their defenceless, simple-minded younger sister whose suicide before Irimiás and Petrina’s arrival is a smaller scale pre-run of the other inhabitants’ figurative collective death at the end of the book.
On screen too
When referring to Satantango, László Krasznahorkai’s first book (originally published in Hungarian in 1985), it is usually de rigueur to mention the similarly named 1994 film, to which the epithet “epic” is often attached for its duration (over seven hours) and for film director and long-term Krasznahorkai associate Béla Tarr’s relentless, black-and-white filming of the hopeless gloom and flaws of humanity in general and certain aspects of Hungarian society in particular.
At 275 pages of dense prose, the book may seem to be less epic but it is certainly rain-soakingly bleak. Krasznahorkai, in fact, excels at depicting the slow inner decomposition of human communities where “death meant getting used to, first the soup, then to the meat dishes, then, finally, to go on consuming the very walls, chewing long laborious mouthfuls before swallowing”.
This, he has said in interviews, should not be taken as showing too literally any particular aspect of life in a village under Hungary’s brand of communism (though Krasznahorkai’s one-time job as a night guard on a dairy farm in eastern Hungary in his early years certainly contributed some local colour).
It is, rather, an early expression of Krasznahorkai’s disillusion with humanity and human nature, a theme also pervading some of his later output, among which War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance are also translated into English (more recent works such as Seiobo There Below, a collection of reflections on art and metaphysics, also recently released in English, show a less gloomy and more peripatetic side to his writing).
Satantango abounds in symbolism, from the dance-like chapter numberings to the biblical references and surprisingly circular construction. What the characters stand for, whether Krasznahorkai aimed for them to stand for anything, and how Satantango should be interpreted, remains up to each to decide – it is too rich to be pinned down so easily.
There is, at the same time, nothing too hermetic about the natural and flowing prose dressed in long sentences beautifully rendered in English by George Szirtes. Deemed to be Krasznahorkai’s most easily accessible work, Satantango is an intricate, intriguing and thought-provoking novel by one of Hungary’s leading contemporary authors.
Buy the book
By László Krasznahorkai
Translated by George Szirtes
Tuskar Rock/Atlantic Books, 2012
Hardback, GBP 12.99