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Dance with The Devil

The systematic genius of Krasznahorkai’s Satantango

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.

Irimias, one of the more brilliant characters in the novel, seems to address Satantango’s preoccupation with systems directly when he proclaims:

There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressure. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.

“The network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressure” is, in all its glorious meaninglessness, most likely the universe, but it could just as well be, in the world that is Satantango, a community, or a political structure, or a con job. The network, the system, is ubiquitous, relentless. It takes the form of a Robert Walser–meets–Dr. Strangelove government office that dominates the second chapter. (“‘The two clocks say different times, but it could be that neither of them is right. Our clock here… is very late, while that one there measures not so much time as, well, the eternal reality of the exploited…’”). It infects the minds of the townspeople. (“He sometimes felt an irresistible desire to break off a chunk of nitrous plaster in the machine hall of the old engine-house where he lived and to cram it into his mouth…”). It is the order of all things. (“‘[F]or who could possibly comprehend the idea that someone who, for whatever reasons, would happily carry on living for ever, should be kicked off the face of the planet and spend eternity with worms in some dark, stinking marsh.’”)

The system is everywhere and everything, and there’s no stopping it; one may only dream of an impossible alternative, or experience a vision of death or the sublime as a means of escape.

For example:

After all, this was precisely what they’d been waiting for all these hours — these liberating words pointing to the last prospect of “a better, fairer future” and their disappointed looks now radiated hope and trust, belief and enthusiasm, decision and the sense of an ever more steely will….

Or:

[A]nd he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself — utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials — into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin…

Or even:

She realized that the gates of the kingdom would only be opened to her when “her skin felt hot all over,” when her body and eyelids started to shudder.

In reverse order, those examples were: the previously mentioned retarded girl, an out of work factory manager, and lastly, up to 15 different characters — a “they” — thinking all at once.

The smallness of that word, they, is misleading. In Krasznahorkai’s hands, it evokes a multiplicity of voices humming on the page with the sound of each individual’s longing. Constantly, often from one sentence to the next, the third-person narrative perspective switches, and then switches back, and then switch-switch-switches over and over again, endlessly, until the reader has shuffled in and out of at least 10 or 12 different characters — and experienced the collective consciousness (and unconscious) shared between them. That each character be wildly different from the next is already a rare achievement in fiction, but that they should be so distinct in such close proximity is a kind of miracle. Continuing the pattern, it is inevitable that they would dream together.

[Schmidt] was lying on the bed and was trying to pull the nightshirt off his wife but she started screaming as he leapt after her and the nightshirt got torn. Mrs. Schmidt turned to face him, cackled, and the nipples on her enormous breasts bloomed like two wonderful roses. It was horribly hot inside, the sweat was dripping off them. He looked out the window: it was raining outside. Kraner was running home with a cardboard box in his hands but then the bottom of it flew open and the contents were strewn everywhere. Mrs. Kraner was shouting for him to hurry so he couldn’t pick up the half of the stuff that had rolled away and he decided to come back for it the next day. Suddenly a dog darted at him and he cried out in fright kicking the creature in the face and it yelped once and collapsed, remaining there on the ground. He could help himself: he kicked it again….

It is far less inevitable (and a much greater shock) that the reader should succumb to dreaming as well, as the concise language of the novel disintegrates into a sleep-spell rhythm:

… Mrs. Schmidt was a bird happily flying through the milk of theclouds seeing someonedowntherewavingather soshedes cendeda littleand could hear Mrs.Schmidtbawling whyisntshecooking youscoundrelcomedownim mediatelybutshe flewoverher andshechir ruppedyou won’tdieofhun gerbeforetomorrow shefeltthe warmsunonher backsuddenlySchmidtwas therebesideherStopit immediatelybutshe paid noattention anddescendedfurther shedhavelikedtocatchaninsect theywerebeatingfutakisback withanironrod…

As words and entire sentences are pressed together and disassembled, the difficulty of following the dream narrative—of misplacing pronouns with adjectives and confusing nouns with verbs—demands that the reader slow down, even enter the garbled cadence itself. Krasznahorkai manages to replicate what it is like to fall asleep. The walls of the system break down. Dreams and thoughts, actions and desires, hopes and regrets: We are these characters: a psychic mass, a mess.

Many writers are able to do whatever they damn well please with language inside a complex system of their own design. It just so happens that Krasznahorkai does it much better than they—and with considerable more flourish. Each of the 12 chapters in Satantango is a single unbroken paragraph. It is a relentless approach. There’s no room to breathe (no indents or section breaks to pause inside of), and the result is that the reader runs the risk of sensory overload, perhaps exhaustion. It remains only that, however: a risk. It never actually occurs. Why? Because Satantango’s overall narrative structure hems in Krasznahorkai’s tendency to let his language topple over from mania into madness.

As one dances the tango — “and 6 and 6!”— turning around with one’s partner, moving backward to finish the pass — “in reverse now!”— steps seven through 12. The pattern, with slight variations, is then repeated. Among dances, it is unique. It’s cyclical without being a circle. It goes around, but never comes back the same way. It is controlled chaos — or a system for it, if you will. At a crucial point during Satantango, several of the characters perform the dance. They bash around just like the book’s 12 chapters do, supporting and ruining one another, mirroring and reinventing themselves, infusing and exhausting every last bit of their forms. These characters, and these chapters, do what we do.

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