Perhaps most famous for its seven-hour film adaptation by Bela Tarr, this is the first translation of Lazlo Krasznahorkai‘s breakthrough novel, Satantango (New Directions), to appear in English since its original publication in 1985, twenty-seven years ago. Renowned poet-translator George Szirtes’ (The Slant Door) latest contribution makes a strong first impression for Western readers otherwise unacquainted with the Hungarian giant, Krasznahorkai.
Even in its recent contemporary translation, smartly laced with idiom and profanity, reading Krasznahorkai can feel a bit like slogging through mud. Nevertheless, it’s with a delirious kind of joy that we read Krasznahorkai. His writing is notorious for its obsessively long sentences; running readers ragged trying to catch up to an endlessly rolling train of metaphor. A period has never felt like such relief, or such a death. (He’s not a fan of indented paragraphs, either. Even punctuation, including spaces between words, if that can be called punctuation, gets to be expendable). Sentences like Krasznahorkai’s have the stamina of dream consciousness, obliterating all universes outside their solipsistic existence. Taking liberties with grammar is not much of a crime when the logic in these pages has the power to ring so violently true, probably because what they describe is the brutish chaos of being alive.
Satantango begins on a dilapidated rural estate and stretches over the course of several days of endless rain. A motley crew of villagers have remained on the farm like delinquent squatters, living out the vestiges of communism in Eastern Europe in the wake of privatization. The townspeople, although distressed by their poverty, take no action to change their circumstances, whether as individuals or a collective. They find themselves prisoners of a strange paralysis that seems to have fallen over the entire place, and so like a town populated entirely by Hamlets or like the idle idiots of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, they stagnate in this sodden wasteland of post-communist Eastern Europe, landlocked. While their pitiable desperation mounts by the hour, these absurdly despicable men and women make the least and worst of their time. They drink, screw each other’s wives or fireside whores, or they merely resign themselves to lust after Mrs. Schmidt’s tits, glowing in the gloom of the bar like small radiant moons. Meanwhile, two rumored-dead local tricksters, Irimias and Petrina, have been recently released from prison and are journeying back to the town with a plan to hoodwink the gullible townspeople out of their stash of government money delivering promises of the beautiful future that awaits them just beyond the farm.
Outwardly, the villagers’ lots in life appear inescapably grim, which is especially agonizing in that each of them adopts mechanisms in which to somehow accept his loser circumstances. Yet inwardly, these characters collectively long for some glorious out, a shiny piece of redemption. This dilemma seems to be the central motivation of the book’s chaotic trajectory: embodying this forward-backward circling motion among various states of hope and hell. Such starved souls are quick to rejoice. Yet no sooner does euphoria peak than it pitfalls, leaving them as stupefied as Sisyphus. As reality trumps hope, the villagers are continually faced with that inexorable slippage from great heights, with its well-worn groove, humanity’s entropic slide from sacred to status quo. Still, the villagers’ attempts to reconcile their misery with the Mystery is actually responsible for much of the novel’s clairvoyant beauty. Their persistent desire to be good—to reach for the higher thing that belongs to a humanity that is more deity—is universal, and, as such, incredibly moving.
The novel’s action takes place over a matter of days, although it engages a flowing multiplicity of narrative voices and temporalities. As the title suggests, the book itself is structured like the dance. As with the tango, it contains two pairs of sixes, counting up roman-numerically to six, followed by a second part, counting down in reverse order from six. As dances go, the tango is a controlled chaos, six forward, six back, never repeating, and yet never veering outside of a very tightly bound realm, so absorbed is it in its own overwhelming albeit confined little universe. Likewise do these characters lackadaisically trace their doomed loop ad infinitum. Here, no matter what happens, real breakthrough transformation seems all but impossible for them.
The single-line epigraph, attributed to one FK, or Franz Kafka, refers to a scenario that takes place in Kafka’s last, unfinished novel The Castle. It reads, “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” While waiting for someone one afternoon, its protagonist, K., is approached by a strange man who insists that he come with him. Not wanting to miss the man he expects to come at last, K. refuses, saying he would rather stay and wait, regardless of whether the other appears or fails to. The parallel is fitting. Of course, it’s illogical to wait when another opportunity, freedom from an otherwise useless act, presents itself. But to most, this act of waiting in this situation resembles our human compulsion to maintain hope at all costs. In a way, a man who reacts like K. is irredeemable, but is it by choice or by chance? Satantango opens with one of our principal fools, Futaki, awaking to the sound of bells in the hills. He convinces himself the bells are a clarion call of great, saving significance. In fact, it’s the deranged music of a madman, black-eyed and alone in a bell tower, clanging for its own stupid sake: no angelic revelation, after all.
Modern literature—think Kafka, Nabokov, Sartre, or Camus—likes to deal in this notion of life itself being a cosmic comedy (only obliquely funny), an illogical ruse. In Satantango, the action between the two main acts is the ritual enactment of this hopeless dance, circling chaotically in a void forever. The hope these bleak little Hungarians so resolutely keep, despite its hollowness when confronted with the banality of reality, is compelling enough to seem momentarily absolute, even godlike. For this, the dance continues.
László Krasznahorkai is a contemporary Hungarian author whose works have been translated into many languages. He was born in Gyula, Hungary, in 1954. He worked for some years as an editor until 1984, when he became a freelance writer. He now lives in reclusiveness in the hills of Szentlászló. He has written five novels and won numerous prizes. In 1993, he won the Best Book of the Year Award in Germany for The Melancholy of Resistance.
Audrey Schomer is a freelance reader, writer and lover of the arts living in New York City. A New England native, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Film Studies from Mount Holyoke College in 2007. Contact her at