By László Krasznahorkai
Trans. George Szirtes
László Krasznahorkai’s moment, at least in the United States, is now. The Hungarian novelist, best known outside his native land for the film adaptations/collaborations he’s undertaken with countryman Béla Tarr, is finally receiving from the West the recognition and appreciation he deserves more than two and a half decades after his first work. In a comprehensive overview in the New Yorker last July, James Wood aimed his spotlight at Krasznahorkai, and now New Directions—publisher of the only Krasznahorkai novels translated for American readers, The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War—has put into print an English version of the writer’s most well-known title, Satantango.
Satantango is Krasznahorkai’s 1985 debut novel; it is also the source of Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour 1994 film of the same name, one of the titanic masterpieces of the last quarter-century of world cinema (Krasznahorkai co-wrote its script with Tarr). It will thus be impossible for at least some Americans to avoid thinking of Tarr’s Satantango while reading Krasznahorkai’s. Indeed, what’s immediately striking about Satantango the novel is how interior it is: while Tarr’s epic, naturalistic long-takes remain resolutely on the outside of the story’s action, Krasznahorkai’s unbroken paragraphs of endless, labyrinthine stream-of-consciousness plumb its subterranean depths.
The story centers on a godforsaken rural village, once organized around a collective farm that has collapsed and thus left the surrounding community bereft of financial prospects or hope. Several villagers, backstabbing among themselves, scheme to leave town with some stolen money, but before they can, they hear of the impending return of Irimais, a confident, smooth-talking village leader secretly in the employ of the authoritarian state. Irimais was once thought dead, so his presence in the village inspires expectations and fears of biblical proportions, especially in regard to events—a young idiot girl’s suicide, an obese doctor’s further descent into eccentric hermitism, the tolling of unseen church bells—coinciding with this anti-prophet’s dramatic reappearance.
Though only 274 pages, Satantango is dense with hand-me-downs of aggressive modernism that also appear throughout Krasznahorkai’s later work: the scorched-earth purgatories of Beckett, the digressive inner monologues and shifting points-of-view of Woolf, the dark magical realism of Borges, even the smalltown tragedy and slapstick of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. What prevents Satantango from devolving into a mere exercise in clever derivation, however, is Krasznahorkai’s fervent mission to thoroughly mine the mysteriousness, and potential miraculousness, of a seemingly corrupt physical reality. His wry, snake-like sentences produce—or unspool—layer upon layer of psychological insight, metaphysical revelation, and macroscopic historical perspective (both the contemporaneous drabness of the Communist era and the eternity of geological time are deftly evoked), as if in obsessive creation and truth-seeking against the cynical, destructive con jobs perpetrated by the Irimaises of the world. No surprise, then, that the novel should end on a meta-trick revealing the author of Satantango to be a character (shades, again, of Beckett) who believes that “to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” Krasznahorkai chooses not only to defend, but also to become, that bridge.