Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes, Tuskar Rock Press, 320 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1848877641
In the final pages of The Melancholy of Resistance (1998), a riotous and wonderfully unsettling tale of a travelling circus, an enormous whale and small town subterfuge that was the first of Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s novels to be translated into English, the reader is presented with an unexpected and unforgettable description of the natural processes of putrefaction.
Over a few hundred words we follow “the unchained workers of decay” as they begin their attack on the condemned body, whose defences give way under the relentless onslaught of microbes and “the internal enemies of the hapless, once miraculous, organism”. This double-sided assault which sees the body assisting in its own breakdown through the process of self-digestion prompts Krasznahorkai to remark that the term for this ‑ autolysis ‑ throws “a pitiless light on the truth it hides, which is that from the moment of birth every living organism carries within it the seeds of its own destruction”. An apt reflection, for it not only gets to the heart of the biological processes in question, those “moist relentments” as Sir Thomas Browne would have it, but it serves as the most precise description of Krasznahorkai’s wildly mutative and metastatic writing style that we are likely to find.
The line itself is a reference to Hegel’s Science of Logic, in which he says of finite things that “the hour of their birth is the hour of their death”. For Hegel, our understanding of the world grows through a constant process of creation and destruction. We develop more and more precise concepts with which to determine how things are, but these concepts inevitably prove themselves to be inadequate and thereby call for their own abandonment. In Krasznahorkai’s novels we are witness to precisely this dynamic as it plays itself out not only at the level of plot but also of character and even of the sentence. Clauses pile on top of each other, each trying to qualify and specify what has come before in a futile attempt to clarify the confusion which generally faces whatever character we happen to be following. The characters themselves usually oscillate between two options, resigned passivity or pointless and often self-destructive activity. Meanwhile the narrative crawls relentlessly onward, often snaking and curling back on itself to examine the same events from multiple points of view without ever getting any closer to the truth of what exactly is going on. And yet, for all this uncertainty and indirectness, Krasznahorkai produces novels that are riveting in their sinewy momentum and deeply engaging in the utter humanity of their vision.
In all three novels so far translated into English, Krasznahorkai describes a world that, like a house of cards, is constructed through the strange and delicate tension between a precarious inertia and total collapse. Indeed it seems that the animating tension of his work resides not, as is usually the case in more conventional novels, in questions of who did what or what happens next, but rather in the question of what such a total collapse might look like, given the pervading sense of its inevitability. In The Melancholy of Resistance, our hero Valuska walks the town endlessly with his eyes to the sky while the townsfolk drink or hide themselves away in their houses. Only the arrival of outside forces, the mysterious spectacle of the leviathan, can unleash the tensions hidden beneath their lassitude and fears. In War & War, published in translation in 2006, it is the accidental discovery of a manuscript of inexplicable beauty that drives the archivist Korin to New York so that he might, for reasons even he himself cannot understand, post it on the internet and so have it take its rightful place among the “eternal” things before he kills himself. The manuscript itself tells a tale of travelling comrades trying to find a home as they flee the demonic Masteman. In Satantango the inhabitants of a decaying estate watch each other suspiciously as they yearn for an opportunity for escape. Only with the reappearance of the mysterious Irimiás does such liberation seem possible, but it is never clear whether this escape has taken the form of salvation or destruction.
Satantango, which is in fact Krasznahorkai’s debut novel, is structured to mimic the form of a dance: six chapters draw as many characters into the centre of the novel, the point at which they converge in a wine-fuelled revel as they wait expectantly for their saviour, Irimiás. From this centre-point the novel moves back out again through another six chapters, this time numbered backwards, which trace the events following Irimiás’s appearance. The bar where they wait and drunkenly dance is beset by flies twirling in a figure of eight round a bare light bulb and spiders that cover everything and everyone with a fine network of threads without ever once being seen. These folk have left their homes and petty schemes to wait upon rumours of a man they thought dead and whom they seem to believe is the only one with the power to save them from their miserable existences:
The sheer hope that Irimiás would look after things and that everything would improve as a result might mean that they could finally “make it all work” because Irimiás was the only man capable of “holding things together that just fall apart when we’re in charge.”
In all of this we are privy to the innermost thoughts of people who struggle to comprehend the larger forces surrounding them. And likewise, through Krasznahorkai’s deft ability to withhold information and yet still move the story on without ever really telling us anything definite, we too as readers share in this struggle to understand the deeper currents, the necessities and the reasons why things are and must be the way they are.
The novel opens with an inexplicable event, a ringing of bells, coming from a church with no bell and a collapsed bell tower. It is the first in a series of occurrences that admit of little resolution and which hang over the proceedings like omens and harbingers of doom. As the estate folk hear rumours of Irimiás’s return and begin to gravitate towards the bar, they are observed by the Doctor, who has confined himself to his home and has long ago “decided to watch everything very carefully and to record it constantly, with the aim of not missing the slightest detail, because he realized with a shock that to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and the falling of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” Yet while careful observation holds the promise of order for the doctor, the others hold out for a messiah, a master, one who can tell them what to do, one who can show them the way out and rescue them from “the roaring cataract of fate”.
Indeed the question of the difference between master and messiah is one which underpins much of the comedy and tragedy of Satantango. When Irimiás does appear the people are happy to imagine him as a messiah since this in turn makes them a kind of “chosen band who had just passed through the painful process of liberation”. Despite ultimately being a confidence trickster even Irimiás himself seems to share in this view on occasion, as when he tells his companion, Petrina, “listen, I am an evangelist …” and exhorts his followers to confess their sins and take responsibility for their failings. Yet when he leaves again to put in motion his mysterious plan that will be the salvation of the people, they darkly perceive that what they want even more than a messiah is simply someone who will tell them what to do, and thereby absolve them of responsibility for their inaction, absolve them from their very liberation. The irony of this is compounded by the fact that Irimiás and Petrina are both apparently informers, though for whom exactly and to what end remains typically opaque. Thus despite appearing as saviours to the inhabitants of the estate, they are themselves merely servants to a master who is known only as the Captain and who is himself only one part of a vast bureaucratic network. Freedom is thus what Krasznahorkai’s characters most desire and yet most fear.
This tortuous relationship to freedom is what lies behind the use of the term most frequently associated with Krasznahorkai’s writing, apocalypse. In 1999 Susan Sontag, in a blurb for The Melancholy of Resistance, described him as “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse” while today it would be a good puzzle to get through any recent interview with Krasznahorkai without passing the word or one of its derivations. His characters’ desire for change, coupled with their inability to bring it about, mean that they are forever facing the future with a sense of terror. Either things remain the same, which is unbearable, or things change, which is unfathomable. This too is what holds them together for, as the bumbling Halics realises while waiting in the bar, “he immediately felt better that he was able to sit here, whiling away his time ‘among other people,’ certain in the knowledge that harm was less likely to befall him in company”.
Yet Krasznahorkai’s vision of apocalypse is peculiar and not unconnected to his understanding of those natural processes whereby what is living contains the seed of its own destruction. During a public event that took place at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in July of this year, Krasznahorkai stated, in response to a question about the apocalyptic nature of his work:
We are living in the time of the last judgment, we are living in the time now since years—or I don’t know since when—in the judgment of apocalypse. I can say only we don’t need to wait for the apocalypse. We haven’t need to feel some fear of apocalypse. We are living in it […] Actually I think that the first moment of life was the first moment of the beginning of apocalypse. The apocalypse is not a bad thing or some absolute dark thing. It belongs to the universe. This is a dynamic of the universe, the creation of the apocalypse, you know, the birth. This is two sides of one fact. I don’t fear ‑ and please don’t fear ‑ apocalypse.
For Krasznahorkai then, the apocalypse is not part of some eschatology that would place it at the end of time. Rather, it is itself the very process of time, it is the fact that history and nature are one and the same ongoing process of destruction that we can as little comprehend as we can escape. Not only is it inescapable, but it is in fact the very story of our lives. Thus the imminent collapse of order that his novels seem to promise and that his characters so fear has in truth already happened. Their confusions and uncertainties are but symptoms of the chaos we perceive when face to face with the signs of destruction in nature. As with today’s post-boom money markets, uncertainty is here the new normality.
Yet one of the most enigmatic aspects of Satantango is the one character who seems to have developed a strategy to deal with these uncertainties. The Doctor, who keeps journals on his neighbours and commits himself to the strict recording of all that he sees, provides a characteristically self-reflexive conclusion to the novel, a strategy that perhaps shows the age of the novel (it was originally published in 1985, the heyday of postmodern self-reflexivity) but one that Krasznahorkai has also employed to varying degrees in both The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War. With this, Krasznahorkai is possibly pointing to the ability of literature itself and the creative power of the human spirit to lift us out of the chaos. But then again, as one hilarious chapter among the bureaucratic editors of informant reports reminds us, it is not only the artists who are observing and describing the world. As ever in the pages of this maddening and madly beautiful novel, possibilities are born and possibilities die, while all the time the ambiguities multiply.
Aengus Woods is currently completing a PhD in philosophy at the New School For Social Research. He is co-editor of Other Edens: The Life and Work of Brian Coffey (Irish Academic Press, 2010) and his reviews have appeared in The Irish Times, Publishers Weekly and NPR.com. He is based in New York, where he is co-curator of the annual IAC PoetryFest, a three-day festival of Irish and American poetry.