On Monday, July 2, László Krasznahorkai read before a considerably rapt crowd at the Housing Works Bookstore in Manhattan. The Hungarian writer read from Satantango and spoke about his elliptical and enigmatic prose style, offering the following anecdote when asked about his long-winded and often maddening sentences: “Everyone knows that the dot belongs not to human beings but the dot belongs to the gods. The gods will get the last dot.” As Satantango deals with people’s reactions to promises of hope and salvation, Krasznahorkai’s comments during the question-and-answer period underscore a major concerns in this novel: “I'm not interested to believe in something, but to understand the people who believe.”
The epigraph to Satantango — Krasznahorkai’s first novel, published in Hungarian in 1985, and this year by New Directions in an impeccable English translation by poet George Szirtes — is from Kafka’s The Castle: “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” This sets the tone for the novel’s perverse, absurdist humanity and desolation. Fans of Krasznahorkai’s other books published in English — The Melancholy of Resistance (1989/2002) and War & War (1999/2006) — may have seen the impressive Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s seven-plus hour film adaptation from 1994, but for most this is a first encounter. It is set on a rundown estate near an abandoned mill, just after the end of communist rule. Depravity abounds; the young girls living there have taken to prostitution; getting drunk and swindling one’s neighbors are the only ways to pass the time. And yet, everyone is waiting for something without knowing it, whether an end or a new beginning. Do they miss the thing by waiting for it?
The very first sentence of the novel highlights Krasznahorkai’s inimitable prose (deliberate omission of commas replicated below) as well as the dark sense of foreboding with which all the characters grapple:
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 same bells are remarked upon by the doctor, a drunk who has retreated into his apartment and his books. Although neither Futaki nor the doctor realize it, the bells are signs of the “resurrection” of Irimiás, who vanished from the estate some eighteen months before and had long been considered dead. The plot of Satantango is too simple — or too complex, depending on how one reads the novel — to reduce here without giving some critical element away. Krasznahorkai’s ambiguous use of metaphors and symbols is compounded by his odd juxtaposition of opposites — darkness and light, salvation and damnation, or, as a chapter title puts it, “Heavenly Vision? Hallucination?” Alongside the never-ending rain, the “metalled” road is Satantango’s most ambiguous metaphor, signifying less a link to civilization than a reminder of it, and nearly each character makes reference to the road as if measuring his or her space in time and ruin by their relation to it....read more