Thursday, 2 May 2013

'Satantango' by László Krasznahorkai (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 16)

When the longlist for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was released, I frantically scanned the list, working out what I needed to do to get through it in time.  I had already finished four of the titles (all review copies) at some point in 2012, and I was able to obtain a further review copy fairly quickly.  The next stop was The Book Depository, where I bought the French-language version of Alain Mabanckou's Black Bazaar, leaving the bulk of the heavy lifting to my wonderful local library system.

While the majority of the books came in fairly quickly, one remained stubbornly in the hands of a library patron in the north of the state - and as that was the only copy in our consortium of libraries...  After weeks of constantly checking online, I began to lose hope, until one day I got the text message I'd been waiting for - Satantango had finally arrived :)

But was it worth the wait?

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai (translated by George Szirtes - from Tuskar Rock Press)
What's it all about?
Krasznahorkai's classic novel dates from 1985, but only appeared in English for the first time last year.  It's a dark, demanding tale, a novel set in the Hungarian backwaters of an abandoned estate, where a small group of villagers have been hanging around for years, waiting for someone or something to rouse them from their torpor and lead them to happiness.  Deserted by the rest of their group, the remaining families pass their time drinking and sleeping with the neighbours, while all around them nature swiftly takes back what civilisation had carved out of the wilderness.

Just as it appears that some of the characters have summoned up enough energy (and cash) to make a run for it, a rumour reaches the village, news of the return (or resurrection...) of a man long thought dead.  The charismatic Irimiás is on his way back to the village, and thoughts of flight are immediately shelved.  The poor, deluded villagers are prepared to put all of their trust and belief, not to mention their hard-won cash, into the hands of the prodigal son.  While the hope they invest in Irimiás is understandable, given the circumstances, you sense that it's a decision they'll come to regret.  You see, Irimiás is no angel - unless it's one of the fallen variety...

Satantango is highly allegorical, of course, a story of people rotting amongst the ruins of a failed forced agriculture project in Hungary.  It consists of twelve chapters divided into two parts, labelled I-VI and then VI -I, making up a story which, while moving forwards, also turns in a circle, bringing us back to where we started.  It also plays with narrative viewpoints, with the first half of the book consisting mostly of the same day and events told by several different voices - in fact, the occurrence promised in the first few pages of the book doesn't eventuate until we are well past the half-way mark...

Most reviews of Satantango address the style, and Krasznahorkai's way of writing is certainly noteworthy.  Satantango is made up primarily of lengthy, one-paragraph chapters, with long, long sentences spiralling off into the distance:
"His imagination was bewitched, almost to the point of paralysis by the notion that this estate with its rich, generous soil was, only a few million years ago, covered by the sea...that it had alternated between sea and dry land, and suddenly - even as he conscientiously noted down the stocky, swaying figure of Schmidt in his soggy quilted jacket and boots heavy with mud appearing on the path from Szikes, hurrying as if he feared being spotted, sliding in through the back door of his house - he was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenseless, 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..."
p.58 (Tuskar Rock Press, 2012)
Apologies - my aching fingers just couldn't quite make it to the end of that sentence ;)

The novel is deliberately obscure, confusing and unsettling.  There's an epigram from Kafka's The Castle at the start, and this is rather apt for what follows, as the reader spends much of the book in a Kafkaesque muddle, unsure as to what is actually happening (and why...).  The second chapter, where we meet Irimiás, has particular shades of Kafka, set as it is in a bureaucratic nightmare, with stairs leading off into the distance, offices leading into further offices and hours spent waiting for appointments.  There's another similarity with Kafka here - if you think you understand what the writer is trying to do, you're only kidding yourself...

Of course, there's so much more to Satantango than a stylistic homage to The Castle or The Trial.  The slow pace allows for some great characterisation, and Krasznahorkai spends time sketching out a cast of wonderful creations.  As the story progresses, each of the characters becomes more fleshed out, and the links between them become more established, allowing us to almost predict how a person is likely to react, and what they might say when events take a turn for the worse.

More than the descriptions of the villagers though, it is Krasznahorkai's portrayal of the environment which is most striking.  Satantango takes place amid a winter of mild discontent, and the reader can feel the cold, the wet, the mud, the rot and the decay:
"The Schmidts hadn't used the room since spring.  Green mildew covered the cracked and peeling walls, but the clothes in the cupboard, a cupboard that was regularly cleaned, were also mildewed, as were the towels and all the bedding, and a couple of weeks was all it took for the cutlery saved in the drawer for special occasions to develop a coating of rust, and what with the legs of the big lace-covered table having worked loose, the curtains having yellowed and the lightbulb having gone out, they decided one day to move into the kitchen and stay there, and since there was nothing they could do to stop it happening anyway, they left the room to be colonized by spiders and mice." (p.7)
In describing how nature has invaded the village, taking back what was once torn from its grasp, Krasznahorkai shows the extent to which the villagers have given up, retreating into themselves and waiting for an unlikely change.

Enter Irimiás...  The star of the show is an enigmatic figure, and it takes a while to find out just who he is (and we never find out exactly what he is doing).  There is a lot of talk in the book about networks, establishing connections to insulate the villagers from the realities of the outside world - and this is something echoed by the vast networks of webs spun by the mysterious spiders at the bar.  However, what he's really up to is swindling money from the villagers.

What's surprising though is just how easy it is for him to do it, especially in such a short time.  He even tells them that there is a good chance that they can lose all the money they eagerly place on the table in front of him.  Devoid of hope and desperate for a way out, the jealousy and infighting leaves the villagers easy prey.  Mrs. Schmidt's lust, Mrs. Halics' faith, the men's greed...  They want to believe, sheep needing to be led.

In fact, Irimiás hypnotises them, to the extent that they are prepared to burn all their bridges, smashing furniture before their supposed impending departure from the village.  However, the greater the drunken (mass) delusion, the more painful the wake-up call:
"It was as if they were just now emerging from some evil spell.  They were sober at a stroke but they simply couldn't understand what had happened to them in the last few hours: What demonic power had taken possession of them, stifling every sane and rational impulse?  What was it that had driven them to lose their heads and attack each other "like filthy pigs when the swill is late"?  What made it possible for people like them - people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom - to rush around in senseless despair, like prisoners in a cage so that even their vision had clouded over?" (p.237)
It's a case of fools fooling themselves...

It seems churlish to look for negatives in a book like this, but there were a few things I didn't like.  The dialogue was noticeably Americanised in places, especially in the early chapters, peppered with expressions like 'buddy', 'pal', 'asshole', 'sonofabitch', and 'dumb ass', and this jarred (perhaps deliberately so) with the style of the descriptive sections.  There was also a rather odd convention where seemingly normal expressions were enclosed in quotation marks, drawing attention to themselves for no real reason.  In addition, I wasn't overly convinced by the ending; it all seemed a little too convenient and perhaps unworthy of the book as a whole...

The title?  Well, it has to do with both a pivotal scene mid-way through the book, one where the drunken villagers decide to dance while waiting for the 'devil', and the structure of the novel.  You see, the way Krasznahorkai has constructed his work apparently reflects the steps in a tango - six steps forwards, six steps back...

Do you think it deserved to make the shortlist?
Of course, I do.  While I may have discussed a few minor issues with the book, the reality is that I'm not judging this to see if it's good or not, but on the level of whether it deserves to be crowned best in (Shadow) show.  It's a wonderful book, and one which I'd love to try again some time.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
I have two theories...

One - The panel had just written down the six names on the shortlist (of which Satantango was one) and sealed it in an envelope, when the five of them suddenly froze in mid movement.  An alien appeared from nowhere, opened the envelope, erased Satantango from the list with some kind of sonic device, replacing it with Bundu.  After resealing the envelope, the alien then disappeared, and the panellists went on their way (none the wiser), only realising what had happened when the envelope was opened and the news was made public - alas, too late to rectify the error.

Two - The five panellists, having read the sixteen books on the longlist, decided that Bundu was a better novel than Satantango, one which would stand the test of time much better than Krasznahorkai's work.  Then they all went off for tea.

Yeah, I know - theory two does seem a little far-fetched...

Well, that's it - sixteen books read and reviewed.  Very soon, my colleagues and I will begin deliberations to see which of the six works on our shortlist will take out The Shadow Panel prize.  Keep an eye out for our verdict...

...oh, and we'll see if the real panel can come up with a worthy winner too ;)