Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango”

Reviewed by Jean Harris

Image of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango”

Published in Hungarian in 1985 and recently out from New Directions, Satantango opens with an epigram from The Castle and features characters on leave from Waiting for Godot. The tale includes enough metaphysical speculation to let us know that we’re in one of the tonier quarters of intellectual fiction—department of existential angst. Presented in breathtaking English by George Szirtes, Satantango takes place in a world where Satan rules people’s actions and the meanings of their lives. And it's funny, mordantly so.

Krasznahorkai published the novel four years before the fall of Communism, and, indeed, the book targets the ravages of totalitarianism in Hungary and beyond. Krasznahorkai’s depiction of loutish peasants and a work collective in ruins must have been a slap in the face of Communist censorship. A large part of the action takes place on or around an unnamed estate that is largely abandoned. Its inhabitants include peasants, a mechanic, a headmaster, a doctor, a couple of teenage whores, their drunken mother, vicious younger brother, and demented little sister. They live in its rotting houses and congregate in its tumbledown, spider-infested pub. The autumn rain falls incessantly, and characters smoke nonstop under drizzle and downpour, as if connected to a fire that will not be put out. Residents are at once comically loutish, and incompetent. Krasznahorkai plays with a tradition in which yokels tend to be boobs, and, fittingly, his narrator is an acerbic, misanthrope, the doctor.

Maybe Krasznahorkai got away with his stinging portrait of desuetude by setting his story against a backdrop that was not explicitly Communist. In Eastern Europe, a novel like Satantango would either have to be kept in a drawer until after '89, or else have its ideas cloaked in coded language and its setting confined to some remote, fantastic place. As it is, Krasznahorkai's treatment comes as a masterstroke: it lifts Satantango beyond historic time.

The novel centers on a totalitarian state’s internal spy network. But it opens with a foiled plot. Some of the peasants left on the estate are planning to make off with the collective’s annual earnings but abruptly drop the ruse when they learn that two characters, whom they know and whom they think of as old friends, are on their way to the estate. Because they make the trip from the nearby market town on foot in the rain, it takes the two—Irimias and Petrina—a long time to get to the estate, and the intervening lull consists of Godot-like waiting for their arrival. The dark comedy of errors that follows their coming turns on the fact that, unbeknownst to the peasants, Irimias and Petrina are actually low-level, undercover, renegade state security officers. Irimias, has come to the peasants’ rescue some time in the past, with what passes for aid by his henchman, Petrina. The two are nothing more than confidence men on the state payroll, but the peasants, in their ignorance, regard them as redeemers. It’s enough to say that when Irimias and Petrina enter the novel in chapter two, the secret service starts driving the novel’s action.

If Irimias had a job title, it would be something like a low-grade freelance informer. He wears bright yellow pointy shoes, a loud red tie, and a houndstooth jacket. He has long, thin fingers, a sharp chin, and an aquiline nose. He’s the image of a cheap sharper and comic book devil. Petrina is fat, ugly, and thick-witted. Petrina gives us a key to their relationship when he calls Irimias “old friend, master, savior, slave driver!” Together, they are a noirish Abbot and Costelo.

We first hear Irimias’s and Petrina’s names in chapter one, which has to do with the interrupted theft. The pair come on stage in the next chapter, exactly as they are being called on the carpet by a Security captain. Aiming to humiliate them, the captain demands that Irimias follow orders, act according to “the law” and toe the line: no more freelancing! Infuriated, Irimias winds up in a bar where he vows to “blow them all up.” Evidently, he means both the patrons of the bar and everyone else . . . “We’ll blow them up one by one. Cowards! Worms! One stick of dynamite per jacket . . . Blow up their bridges. Their houses. The whole town. The parks. Their mornings. Their mail.” Irimias exits the bar only to descend into an altogether more sulfurous atmosphere. He cuts a devilish figure, at home amid “the stench of sewers mixed with mud, puddles, the smell of the odd crack of lightning, wind tugging at power lines, empty nests.” Under Petrina’s prodding, Irimias lets it be known that he will finance his vengeance by exploiting the destitute peasants—whom he has manipulated before without their knowing it and who worship him for wonders long ago. Though they seem flat broke, Irimias knows better: “peasants always have something.”

If Irimias is diabolically Gothic, the Security captain who chastises him is positively Miltonic. He operates out of a building that literally swallows light. (Indeed the captain himself is Anti-Light, a kind of Great Satan and protagonist of darkness.) As Irimias exits his chief’s office, this captain rubs his brow and “it is as if he were covered in armor; grey, dull, yet metallic; he seems to be swallowing light, some secret power is entering his skin; the decay resurrected from the cavity of [his] bones, liberated, is filling every cell of his body as if it were blood spreading to the extremities thereby announcing its unquenchable power.” The captain holds power over everything and everyone in this novel. He is master of the body politic Krasznahorkai calls Hungary, and the rot and decay everywhere are metaphorically extensions of his body.

So it seems appropriate that Irimias’s encounter with his boss kicks off the novel’s action. For all his animus against the captain, Irimias will go on operating (according to his nature) as a Security operative. Here, belonging to the security apparatus is synonymous with diabolism, and since in any full-fledged totalitarian state everyone can be turned into an informer, the renegade Irimias will work toward creating his own spy network when he gets his mitts on the peasants.

So what happens when Irimias and Petrina finally descend on the dilapidated estate? All hell breaks loose, for one. But, in effect, the hapless peasants ultimately join the security apparatus themselves. Irimias lets a selected group of peasants think that they are being sent around the country for safe keeping until he can delivers them to a collective Utopia. They will have no such luck. Irimias is instead getting them to inform, unwittingly, at society’s lowest levels. At the political level, Satantango is about how, one way or another, the state’s secret service satanically and indiscriminately swallows citizens whole, incorporating them into its limitless informer network. Krasznahorkai has, moreover, imbued the security apparatus with darker overtones that transcend its daily machinations and particular abuses. His real target, finally, is evil itself.

In the world of Satantango, everything is caught up in an infernal dance. As the peasants drunkenly await Irimias, they dance the tango and the czardas, and when they fall asleep exhausted, spiders creep out of the woodwork and cover the entire bar, drunks included:

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 they, 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

These people are enmeshed in an infernal web. And it leaves its mark in myriad ways. Callous egocentrism reigns. By the time Irimias sets out for the estate, its inhabitants have driven one character—Esti, a child who seems slightly demented—to commit suicide at a ruined castle close by.

At one point, Irimias and Petrina leave to haggle for arms in town. Travelling through the rain, accompanied by Esti’s dreadful brother, the travelers are horrified by an enigmatic resurrection in which Esti’s body, veiled in transparent, web-like shrouds, rises into the air three days after her death. Is this a genuine resurrection or an evil game played by dark forces? It seems impossible to know since we see Esti’s rising exclusively through the eyes of “negative” characters, who resolve to disbelieve what they have seen.

But we do not depend on their eyes alone. Satantango’s putative author is the estate’s unnamed doctor, a misanthrope with penchants for making observations and reading encyclopedic geologic texts from which metaphors for current existence are born. The first words of the section in which the doctor appears are: “At the end of the Paleozoic era the whole of Central Europe begins to sink. Naturally, our Hungarian homeland is part of this process. In the new geological circumstances the hill masses of the Paleozoic era sink ever lower until they reach rock bottom, at which point the sedimental sea inundates and covers them.”

From the doctor’s point of view, it has been all downhill from there. He has spent so long recording the doings of the idiots on the estate that at one point he believes he can intervene in their lives by writing them down. But this is merely illusion. When the veil is ripped from his inner eye, he gives himself over to a kind of clairvoyant vision of the small world of the estate.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose, adjusted his glasses then propped his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands. He saw before him, as clear as if by magic, the path prepared for him, the way the fog swam up from either side of it and, in the middle of the narrow path, the luminous face of his future, its lineaments bearing the infernal marks of drowning.

Later, he writes:

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.

These are the novel’s first words as well as the first lines of its final passage. Built in a circle that hermetically enfolds its world, Satantango is the doctor’s meditation on the dark, Satanic web that enwraps a country much like any nation fallen under the spell of totalitarianism—a world in which all men are merely pawns, deluded colluders, merely players. In his disillusion with the Satanic system and his full awareness of its extensive toils, the doctor goes on to suspect that the entire (cosmological) system of the world precludes the possibility of salvation, symbolized in this novel by the ringing of bells. And so the doctor speculates that “… the whole of time [might be] a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, 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.” For him, this is as good as saying that life is a malicious tale, told by cosmic idiocy, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What counts most, in the end, though, is not so much Krasznahorkai’s plot as a subject for study, or his astonishing use of language, or even his cosmology. Rather, it is that all this literary material binds us to the writer as accomplices in his vision. We are somehow altered by having seen the characters and their world along with him, while we read and he writes.