Satantango, starts in some mouldering Hungarian hamlet, the home of the workers of a collective long since closed and stripped of anything of worth, and like the inhabitants of the hamlet forgotten by the outside world. In fact the only growth market appears to be rot and spiders, very little happens here. Within the first few pages we realise that the rot has spread to all and sundry, there is not a single character of worth, all are, to varying degrees, corrupt, paranoid and full of loathing whether of self or of their neighbours. We also learn that they are waiting for Irimias, who may or may not be Satan, not that this matters as these individuals are so deep into the morass of all that’s bad about humanity, that Satan would be worried about contamination. The villagers wait at the inn for Irimias, who has been seen on the road heading their way with his sidekick Petrina, which is strange because Irimias, is supposed to be dead. Irimias has the ability to charm and mesmerise all to his way, even those who are deeply suspicious of him, still follow his bidding even parting with the collective’s small pot of money. This leads to a series of events that breaks what little bonds they once held and violence erupts, although this is brief as all are so ensnared by Irimias machination, that they can see little else.
Although this may be alluded to within the book Krasznahorkai, is not one for spelling things out. Irimias may be the devil/ trickster or just some cheap con man. With the action (?) confined pretty much to the hamlet, this book come across as really claustrophobic, everything cycles through like the seasons, but unlike the seasons nothing is resolved there is no growth everything appears thwarted, even stunted. The dance just goes on with no joy or release – just an increasing heaviness, everything simmers and yet the kettle doesn't boil, the pressure cooker doesn't release its pressure. There is no end.
This book has also been described as an indictment of Hungarian Collective farming in the dying days of communism and a reaction to the reality of the capitalist dream on a communist utopia. It has also been described as a book on the nature of storytelling. None of this is spelled out in the book, as stated above, very little happens on the page, like the stage direction “Offstage action”, most of what happens here, happens within your head and continues to do so long past the turning of the final page.
This post is a series of reactions to what is basically a very simple story and yet I cannot write a cohesive review of it. The obvious place to start would be that it is divided into 12 chapters, most consisting of a single paragraph, or that the book is split into two with the chapters in the first part going from one to six and in the second part from six to one, also the last chapter is named The circle closes, which is apt. The book is set in the twentieth century, although it’s shading would lends itself to some medieval setting, or anything apocalyptic. Referring back to my kettle analogy and taking it to it’s conclusion, the kettle boils dry leaving only the husks of what was once human, the threshings of humanity.
All that I've written are bullet points, headlining some points yet neglecting others, I guess like storytelling itself, in that you choose a certain path whilst omitting others, and even whilst on that path you do not see, or choose not to see everything - defining yourself and your tale by what you put forward. Satantango, circles on itself like some mythical serpent and within that circle the characters dance their own isolated geometries like marionettes in some brutal puppet play, whilst the story eats it’s own tail.
As previously stated, this is a book that happens more in the mind than on the page, this makes it all the more baffling and all the more interesting, what I didn’t state is that I have read three books since Satantango, and it still haunts me - still has me trying to comprehend what this paradoxically simple tale is all about.
"The imagination never stops working but we're not one jot nearer the truth," – Irimias
This book’s translator was George Szirties, whose skill in translating this novel into a language that I could read gets my undying thanks. Although my understanding of Hungarian is somewhere below nil and thus I’m not able to judge how accurate the translation is, I can form an opinion of how it reads in my own language and it reads beautifully.
George Szirties (1948-) is a poet and translator who settled in England after his family fled the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and is trained as a painter. His poetry has won many awards, including the Faber Memorial Prize (1980), the T.S. Eliot Prize (2005) and the Forward Poetry Prize (2009).
New Directions (László Krasznahorkai)