Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai


Confusingly Brilliant

In a small unnamed village in Hungary, a handful of people are waiting to be rescued from the trappings of their crumbling surroundings.  There’s the doctor, a drunkard who keeps tabs on his neighbors by keeping a separate notebook for each in which he feverishly jots down the minutia of their everyday lives along with his own color commentary.  There are the local prostitutes who sell themselves cheaply at the abandoned mill.  Meet the trio comprised of the disabled man Futaki, Mr. Schmidt, and Keleman, all of whom scheme to rip each other off when they aren’t busy trying to find new ways to coerce Mrs. Schmidt into the sack that is.  Oh, and let’s not forget the young mentally disabled girl and her cruel older brother.  Yes my friends, everything is rotten in this undisclosed location, not just the inanimate objects.

The people are slowly dying from the inside out.  Rotting.  Decaying.  Living in poverty in run down structures that are covered in mold and mildew they spend their days painfully biding their time until change arrives.  These things take time, especially when no one is willing to be the catalyst for it.  But what form will change take?  How will they know it if does finally pay a visit to their ruined lives?

Green mildew covered the cracked and peeling walls, but the clothes in the cupboard, a cupboard that was regularly cleaned, were also mildewed, as were the towels and all the bedding, and a couple of weeks was all it took for the cutlery saved in the drawer for special occasions to develop a coating of rust, and what with the legs of the big lace-covered table having worked loose, the curtains having yellowed and the light-bulb having gone out, they decided one day to move into the kitchen and stay there, and since there was nothing they could do to stop it happening anyway, they left the room to be colonized by spiders and mice.

Almost all of the inhabitants hear unexplained noises like the sound of church bells.  They believe in signs.  And then rumors of the return of Irimiás, a man thought to be long dead, start to spread through the tiny town.  Could he hold all the answers they seek?  Is their long self-imposed suffering finally coming to an end?

Krasznahorkai’s debut novel (it was originally written in 1985, though it is not the first of his works to be translated for English speaking audiences) is a dazzling affair which immediately sets about on its mission to disorient the reader.  Each chapter is one long paragraph of amazing construction.  Confusion reigns supreme.  Sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly who is speaking and to whom or why.  Often times the reader finds themselves dropped into the middle of a situation, left to fend for themselves in terms of discovering the truth behind what is occurring.  Chapter after chapter, viewpoints are switched as the author delights in presenting the fractured existence of one flawed individual after the next.  There’s never a sense of hope.  No one is likable.  It’s always fucking raining.  Things never go right for anyone, not even the poor neighborhood cat can catch a break.  In short, Satantango is brilliant.

There’s something hypnotic about Krasznahorkai’s clever use of language.  He lulls the reader into a hypnotic trance.  He mesmerizes them as only a master wordsmith can.

Is the people’s supposed savior Irimiás truly a zombie resurrected from the land of the dead?  Will this collective of broken humanity find its way to salvation?  The beauty lies not in discovering the answers to these questions, but rather in the luxurious movements of the dance itself.

We’re all slowly dying.  Just try not to think about it.

Come, do the Satantango with me.

Satantango ★★★★½
By Laszlo Krasznahorkai
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
New Directions
(1985) 2012
288 Pages
ISBN 9780811217347

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.