Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango”

ImageFirst-time readers of the post-war modernist writer, Laszlo Krasznahorkai: celebrated Hungarian avant-gardist, need tread warily when they delve into his work. Nothing about Krasznahorkai is easy to get through, from his dizzyingly long sentences, to the pitiful world upon which his scope is trained.

“Satantango” was Krasznahorkai’s first piece, yet a translation by the celebrated writer George Szirtes went on the market last year. The book, as its dust jacket, splayed with gushing remarks by formidable writers proclaims, is nothing short of a literary masterpiece.

Yet should you attempt to penetrate the world of “Satantango” in the hopes of uncovering the high mysteries and philosophies of life, you will find instead an oppressive, terrifying nothingness, which is of course Krasznahorkai’s point. He, as the New Yorker critic James Wood once remarked, is fascinated by the apocalyptic and the confusing; elements which are embodied best by divagating, self-reflective sentences that build metaphor atop of metaphor, each one of which fleshes out another pathetic quality, another tragedy.

See for example, how a paragraph that takes as its headlining subjects, a clock and the concept of waiting, grows quickly to span a pugilistic monster such as this:

 “And so the words prepared for the occasion tumble over each other and begin sparring round as in a whirlpool, having formed the occasional frail, if painfully useless, sentence that, like a hastily improvised bridge, is capable of bearing only the weight of three hesitant steps before there’s the sound of a crack, where it bends… (22).”

Notice the punch and the uncertainty conjured by the vertiginous images of the vortex of the “whirlpool,” or the heights of the “improvised bridge;” notice too how the narrative scope seems to raise up as the sentence progresses, beginning first at river level from where it rises, to acknowledge the “painfully useless sentence” of, perhaps, the narrator himself, who suddenly finds his vision locked upon the “hesitant” steps (his own?) on the faltering bridge.

These images of constant uncertainty and near-guaranteed failure, coupled with “Satantango’s” atmosphere, a village of poverty-stricken and rain-drenched hamlets nestled in the hinterlands of, maybe, Hungary (time is never disclosed; only through the inclusion of details such as typewriters, cars, and neon signs is any sense of historical context grounded), give the work a tonality such as that found in The Waste Land or indeed, any of Eliot’s early work.

The moribund townspeople whom Krasznahorkai chooses for his cast, perennially drunk on palinka and paralyzed by their own demoralization to the point that their first reaction to the suicide of a ten-year-old girl is with disparagements and sneers, surely inhabit the lifeless world of Eliot that inspired images of “the child’s hand, automatic” and “a madman [shaking] a dead geranium.”

Much of “Satantango” is devoted towards the characterization of such a world and the sorry people who find their home in it. Numbed, depressed, hate-filled, they go about the routine of backbreaking labor and alleviate their condition with cigarettes and drink, or with gossip. Even so, they keep their eyes peeled for a sign of their eventual salvation, or for anything that will break the monotony.

Salvation comes in the form of Irimias and his lackey Petrina. The pair disappeared from the town 18 months ago and were presumed dead: needless to say that his reappearance grants Irimias the social status of a risen Christ, which he not only recognizes, but realizes how to exploit. For Irimias is nothing more than a first-class scammer, a devil resurrected (his coming sparks no less than a frenzied, bacchanalian celebration, from which the book takes its name) in order to lead the impoverished sinners towards a future that, worse than hell, is nothing less than more of the same.

Punctuating the darkness of Irimias and the poor townspeople are scenes of profoundly candid horror and smothering grief, though the force of his conjured darkness threatens, particularly in the scene of the young and ultimately suicidal girl, to drown the characters utterly.

Even so, the scene itself falls in comparison to Krasznahorkai’s imposing use of the sentence. Dipping fluidly into stream of consciousness, mercilessly pin-pricking the thoughts of his characters, and even sewing together these same consciousness-es, as is done in a brilliant dream sequence, Krasznahorkai has explored and opened new avenues for the exploration of mind and language. “Satantango” deserves all the praises it has and will continue to receive.

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