There’s a DVD I’ve had for years but never watched, except for the first ten minutes or so. I’ve always been overwhelmed at the prospect of the long haul that lies ahead. Made by the director Béla Tarr, it’s a seven hour long adaptation of the first novel by fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, called Sátántangó.

The book was published in Hungary in 1985, and Bela Tarr’s film came out nine years later.  But it was only in 2012 that an English translation of the novel appeared. Lent it by my friend Dave, I finished it in just less than the time it would have taken me to watch the film version. But what to make of it?

Satantango cover

Sátántangó is a strange and bleak work, and one of the most pessimistic about humanity that I can recall ever having read. Written in twelve chapters, each composed of a single paragraph formed of sentences that sometimes spool out for a page or more, the novel portrays a windswept landscape drenched by endless rain and drowning in mud, in which a group of imbecilic, loutish and drunken villagers while away the hours in rotting buildings infested by spiders, waiting for a saviour who they believe will lead them from the misery that paralyses them.

Krasznahorkai writes hypnotic, near-hallucinatory prose which soon immerses you in the strange goings-on in in a decaying hamlet on an abandoned estate where farming has finished and a mill has been shut down. It’s possible that the story is allegorical – that the time is the early 1980s and that the setting is a collective farm, shut down as communism enters terminal decline. It’s never clear, though: much of the language applied to the local terrain – manor, estate, castle – could mean we are in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or even centuries earlier (though there is machinery, and a lorry).

There’s something of the atmosphere of Kafka here (the epigraph is from The Castle) or of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot: Kafka, especially, in the chapters set in the office of some bureaucratic, Orwellian institution in the local town; and Godot in the fact that the obese and dim-witted villagers, soused in the local tipple pálinka, are also waiting for a mysterious saviour.

Satantango: a scene from the Bela Tarr film
Satantango: a scene from the Bela Tarr film

When the story opens the villagers have heard that Irimiás, a former resident whom they had believed to be dead, has been sighted heading their way. They convince themselves that he will rescue them from economic ruin. One villager enthuses that he is a great magician: ‘He could turn a pile of cow shit into a mansion if he wanted to’, conveniently forgetting that Irimiás had fleeced them once before.

Satantango: waiting in the bar (scene from Bela Tarr's film)
Satantango: waiting in the bar (a scene from Bela Tarr’s film)

The book is in two parts, each consisting of six chapters. The sixth chapter appears twice (in different forms) as the last one of the first part and the first one of the second part. In these chapters all the villagers except one (more about him later) are gathered in the village bar, knocking back the pálinka, arguing about the meaning of the reappearance of Irimiás, and getting steadily pissed until they collapse after drunkenly dancing what is presumably the eponymous Satanic tango.

As the villagers fall asleep, Kerekes the accordionist plays on, the sound of the accordion stimulates the multitude of spiders that inhabit the bar to a frenzy of activity:

Every glass, every bottle, every cup and every ashtray was quickly veiled over with a light tissue of webs. The table and chair legs were woven into a cocoon and then – with the aid of one or another secret narrow strand – they were all connected up, as if it were a matter of some importance that the spiders, flattened in their secret, remote corners, should be properly advised of every slight tremor, each microscopic shift, and would be so as long as this strange, all-but-invisible network remained intact. They wove over the faces, hands, and feet of the sleepers too …

The chapter ends with the semi-conscious Kerekes sensing, rather than knowing, that Irimiás and his side-kick Petrina have just entered the bar.

The first chapter of part two (number 6 again) opens after some time has passed. The chapters are now numbered from six to one, causing Thomas Kahn in his review for the Los Angeles Review of Books to liken the book’s structure to a Möbius strip.

If you ask me whether I liked this book – the degree to which it moved or stimulated me – I would have to admit that – though I grew to admire Krasznahorkai’s ability to evoke an almost hallucinatory atmosphere and the cleverness with which he constructs his narrative – in the end, I was not convinced that there was much more than cleverness there.

For example. The book opens with this sentence:

One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.

The third chapter introduces the character of ‘the doctor’, a grossly obese man who spends every minute of his waking life seated by his window, watching the comings and goings of the other villagers and recording them in minute detail in a series of notebooks while consuming vast quantities of pálinka. His life is truly squalid: he shits in an overflowing pail and the house is neglected and piled with rubbish.

The doctor is convinced that only by recording everything he sees in meticulous – not to say ridiculous – detail can he make sense of what seems to him a terrifyingly meaningless world:

He was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenceless, helpless victim of the earth’s crust, the brittle arc of his life between birth and death caught up in the dumb struggle between surging seas and rising hills.

As we approach the end of the book we once again join the doctor in his vigil, still making notes. Now quite mad and deluded he comes to believe that the words he writes can do more than make sense of the world: through his words he can control the actions of the other characters. And so the novel’s first words – ‘One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall…‘ – become the first lines of its final passage. The book we have just read is the doctor’s meditation on the dark, Satanic web that enfolds a world in which all humans are trapped – mere deluded pawns.

The doctor speculates at one point that the whole of time might be ‘a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity’. It’s a deeply cynical and pessimistic view of humanity which ‘the doctor’/Krasznahorkai presents to us. It may be a tour-de-force, but I disliked Krasznahorkai’s view of humanity as incorrigible dolts. As Irimias moans at one point:

The imagination never stops working but we’re not one jot nearer the truth.

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2 thoughts on “Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud

  1. Excellent review. You certainly got the best out of that. I’ve read somewhere that Krasznahorkai does acknowledge his debt to Kafka. I read the book as an exercise in metonymy (and possibly in misanthrope too)

    Too clever by half? Maybe. Certainly Krasznahorkai seems to be something of a ‘pseud’, judging by his comment to the Guardian:

    “If there are readers who haven’t read my books, I couldn’t recommend anything to read to them. Instead, I’d advise them to go out, sit down somewhere, perhaps by the side of a brook, with nothing to do, nothing to think about, just remaining in silence like stones. They will eventually meet someone who has already read my books.”

    Love it :-)

    Now watch the film. It’s absolutely brilliant – especially the 15-minute tracking shot as Irimias and Petrina slosh their way up a muddy path in the pouring rain.

    1. Thanks, Dave (and for the loan of the book). You’re right I really must watch the film, along with The Turin Horse which I also possess, but haven’t watched.

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