The systematic genius of Krasznahorkai’s Satantango
by Dan Bevacqua
Twenty-seven years after it was first published in his native Hungary, László Krasznahorkai’s debut novel, Satantango, has materialized in America. Published by New Directions, it is the third of Krasznahorkai’s works to be translated into English by George Szirtes, Hungarian-born poet and winner of, among other honors, the T.S. Eliot Prize in Poetry for his book Reel. (Szirtes’ work deserves more than a nod; it is a terribly skilled and patient man who can translate, as he did with Krasznahorkai’s novel War and War, a seven-page-long sentence motored by madness without missing a single rhythm, beat, or complex plot point.)
Set in an unnamed Hungarian village, Satantango is the story of an almost forgotten group of people, forgotten to themselves, to one another, and to the world, who wait — fighting, and dancing, and drinking, and dreaming, and trying to get it on all the while — for a pair of saviors to rescue them from the misery of their lives. Imagine if, instead of waiting on Godot, Vladimir and Estragon were themselves a reckless, absent, and know-it-all God? How hard up and bad off would the poor bastards waiting for them have to be?
Pretty hard up and bad off, as it turns out. The citizens that populate Satantango are some of the most miserable characters in literature. They make Thomas Bernhard’s monologists (to whom Satantango’s narrative point of view eventually owes a great debt) seem as sentimental as they truly are. By this reviewer’s count, there are only two moments of actual kindness in the book. In one, a bar owner cleans the mud off a drunk cripple. In the other, a boy teaches his mentally retarded sister the best way to commit suicide. (She thinks of it as a type of favor.)
In Satantango, sex is a meaningless act, except as a way to make money or cure boredom. Teenage girls turn tricks in an abandoned factory. A certain Mrs. Schmidt (her beauty, in a wonderful way, matched only by her girth) sleeps with every man in town but, so it would seem, her husband. Furthermore, everyone despises everyone — and with good reason. Every single character in Satantango, in their own way, is trying to cheat, betray, wound, destroy, or escape the other. All this drama is set inside a rain-pelted, fog-swallowed, dark and crumbling village, where, as the image of the once impregnable, now decayed estate at its edge suggests, the words comrade and serf are all but interchangeable, and as equally dehumanizing and ridiculous.
While the ghosts of feudalism and a dying communism linger and affect the characters in Satantango, Krasznahorkai is not merely interested in how the Hungarian psyche suffered under failed sociopolitical systems. He is more interested in the illness of the human individual inside all systems, and the visions we experience and delusions we create in order to “attempt to forget despair.” Krasznahorkai’s mastery of structure, character, and language is matched by his ability to simultaneously weave all three together; readers can feel themselves physiologically immersed in the world of the book, itself a finely orchestrated system.