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.
The metalled road at times figures as the most stable configuration on the crumbling estate, and at others as simply another place to be lost. In one scene, the drunken doctor, heading to the bar to refresh his liquor supply, runs into the young Esti Horgos. She clings to him briefly, craving human contact she does not get at home, and then runs away: “He stepped onto the metalled road and shouted out in the darkness. ‘Esti! I won’t harm you! Have you gone mad?! Come back here at once!’ There was no answer.” This brief moment of shared intimacy between a lonely hermit and a young girl teetering on the edge comes at the cost of losing their way: the doctor “turned back and was astounded to observe that he seemed to have moved a long way from the bar. He started toward it but after a couple of steps the whole world went dark in an instant and he felt his legs sliding in the mud.” The word “dark” and its variants, as in the two quotes above, occur 76 times throughout the novel.
Krasznahorkai structures Satantango as a Möbius strip, rendering topologically the movement from isolation to a more collective identity in the middle of the novel, hinging on Irimiás’s return and young Esti’s tragic death. The story buckles and spirals back on itself while still remaining intact — frayed, perhaps, chaotic, in as well as outside of time, maddened and utterly exhausted, yet somehow stoically in one piece. This movement is crucial to the novel, as well as to Krasznahorkai’s analysis of individual and group psychology. As Jacques Lacan reminds us, the Möbius strip allows us to see how “that which is interpersonal (conscious and spoken) is connected to that which is intrapsychic (unconscious and pre-spoken),” thus “indicating how an ‘inside’ (the unconscious) has continuity with an ‘outside’ (the conscious).” This continuity is exactly what Krasznahorkai is exploring so ambitiously in Satantango. When the resurrected Irimias — perhaps savior, perhaps devil — gives a speech that brings the community together in a state of hope (or delusion), it is eerily reminiscent of what Freud says of group psychology: “The impulses which a group obeys may according to circumstances be generous or cruel, but they are always so imperious that no personal interest, not even that of self-preservation, can make itself felt.”
Esti’s death and Irimias’s speech rally the residents together, and a particular kind of group psychology takes over. For example, “the kid” who joins Irimiás and his sidekick, Petrina, realizes that he must shed his personal identity and mimic “the master” in order to be accepted: “It was perfectly clear to him that his own best option was faithfully to copy Irimiás in every small detail because this way he was sure not to get a nasty surprise.”
The living spaces are overrun with spiderwebs and yet, as the barkeeper says, they “never once saw an actual spider.” It was as if the spiders sensed the bartender “watching them, and they simply wouldn’t appear. Even after he had resigned himself to the situation he still hoped — just once — to set eyes on one of them.” All the characters —from Futazi to the beautiful and unfaithful Mrs. Schmidt, from the local driver, who has last seen Irimiás whom they all await, to the hyper-religious Mrs. Halics — are caught in the web of whomever orchestrates what transpires, be it Irimiás the redeemer, Irimiás the destroyer, or, not to ruin the final turn of Krasznahorkai’s spiraling narrative, a more absent figure who suggests the travails and torments involved in the storytelling process.
A drunken dance, a Satanic tango, prefaces the backward structural twist in Satantango’s Möbius strip. In the space of the dance, the community comes together to experience the trauma of Esti’s death and the return of Irimias; with the backward spiral in the second half of the narrative, we see the individuals revert to their prior state of isolation and alienation. The dance embodies Krasznahorkai’s mix of dark comedy and crippling sense of anxiety: the dance is celebratory and funeral, hopeful and despairing. The dance is also the point at which Krasznahorkai begins numbering his chapters backward: we begin at one and progress to six, at which point six is repeated and the journey back to one is recommenced along the Möbius’s turn — six being the number of the wild beast, judgment, and also mankind.
The virile voice of Irimiás blames them all and none of them — ”I am not accusing any particular person of anything and yet ... let me put this question to you: are we not all to blame?” — a perverse acknowledgment of collective complicity or else a brazen refutation of it, or, better, an ambiguous combination of the two. Indeed, it is at this point that the narrative cleaves, becoming Bosch-meets-Beckett in a nightmarish scene at which even words fail to function, melt: “itwasneithermorningnoreveningitjust carriedondawnnortwilightwhichever...”
Self-preservation is subsumed by a more blatant desire for acceptance, despite a host of characters spectacularly selfish and greedy. What does the tension between community and alienation mean for individuals living in limbo, on the cusp of some indefinable and intangible world while still visually reminded — and the metalled road reappears to underscore this point — of the shackles of their lives under communism? Krasznahorkai handles this question deftly, but he never attempts to answer it one way or the other. His textual ambiguities make any concrete reading of Satantango nearly impossible, and we are put in the same befuddled, liminal state of mind as the fictional residents themselves: missing the thing by waiting for it.