Satantango – A Seminal and Unsettling Portrait of Universal Decay


What if existence is a recurring, empty dance directed by Satan and staged in hell? A brooding question skillfully put forth by Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai in his first novel Satantango (aka Satan’s Tango). The novel was first published in Hungary by 1985, but only got translated into English by 2012 (third of Krasznahorkai’s novel to be brilliantly translated by British poet George Szirtes). The world of Satantango is riddled with desolate mundanity and existential angst. The people living in this world are limited by the maddening system that constantly keeps them in a trap. The novel is set in a collective farm (the estate); the one which has been formally closed, yet its semi-crazed inhabitants live off their savings and by ‘rounding up the cattle’. The mud-flowing, autumnal rain-battered, cob-webbed, rotten buildings and weeds-ridden fields set up a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The novel’s first part of action circles around the arrival of a man, who may either guide the inhabitants’ into path of salvation or he may be Satan himself pushing them into a bottomless pit.

The bands of colorful characters in this decadent society are: Futaki, an aging mechanic; an unnamed alcoholic doctor, who obsessively watches his neighbor to weave an order out of chaos (the author’s alter-ego); three scheming couples –  the Schimdts, the Kraners, and the Halicses (all three of them childless); two teenage girls selling themselves in a ruined mill; a vicious single mother; a giant, perpetually drunk farmer; lustful landlord, running the spider-infested pub; the neglected kid Esti and her cruel brother Sanyi; the powerful swayer Irimias and his stupid side-kick Petrina. Writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai conveys his extreme thoughts through a serpentine prose that deliberately wants to disorientate the readers. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the writer’s magnified vision of perpetual human suffering. And, it’s mordantly funny too.

Satantango is divided into two parts and 12 chapters; each chapter devoid of paragraph breaks and few sentences run for ten lines or more, vividly detailing a world that has gone mad. One of my most favorite long sentences goes like this: “He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall, and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity………..[the sentence uncoils for another nine lines]”. Every chapter opens from an inscrutable or unknown point. It’s like traveling into dense forest in a dark night with a small flashlight. Little by little, we get acquainted with Krasznahorkai’s entangled language and thoughts to find a path out of the formidable chaos. With absence of paragraph breaks and usage of long sentences, the writer delightfully traps us inside the characters’ perturbed existence. If readers arm themselves with abundance of patience, they can find themselves propelled forward by this strange flow of language (although I have come across this mode of writing in the novels of Jose Saramago, Nikoloi Gogol, etc, this is my first Krasznahorkai novel; and it is said that this is his most accessible one).

Writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Satantango was published four years before the fall of communist dictatorship in the East European nations. A lot of parallels could be drawn from the story’s destitute backdrop to then incompetent, creaking system. While trying to convince the villagers to pour money for collective farm through kitschy monologue, Irimias says, “a model economy that offers a secure existence and binds together a small band of the dispossessed”, the call of totalitarian communist ideology that has badly failed. In fact, it turns out that Irimias and Petrina have been imprisoned couple of years for being ideologically wayward and now they are working as informers on behalf of the ‘captain’. The villagers’ perception of Irimias as one with charisma and authority is a reflection on the worldly power savored by the totalitarian-era authorities. For readers’ mind, Irimias is depicted as decorated fool with short-temper and penchant for speaking in sentimental sermons. But, he is lionized through the villagers’ imagination. A chapter in the second part unfurls from the point of view of two insipid bureaucrats engaged in an act of censoring a profanity-ridden statement (a comical take on Communist censorship). Furthermore, the whole novel’s depiction of ill-mannered peasants and ruined collective is a big challenge to the brutal form of censorship. Nevertheless, Satantango was went past the censors of the totalitarian era because there is no mention of space and time and may be due to its aesthetically severe coded language.

Like all great modernist works of Kafka, Beckett, Bulghakov or Gogol, Kraszhnahorkai’s fiction doesn’t needs a space or time to convey the universal feeling of disintegration. In one of the interviews, Krasznahorkai has said, “The reader must content themselves with these lone concrete, but vague, indications, quite simply because what I describe…can happen anywhere….. Only the situation counts.” The collective despair, the false sense of hope, the collective hallucination, the senseless dependency, etc could be found all across the dormant populace, dancing to whims of those with power. The complexity and the virtue of this setting and prose would never face the danger of aging.

The desolate ‘estate’ crafted by Bela Tarr in his adaptation of the novel

With the exception of darkly comical doctor character, all the others are driven by money and desire for redemption. They all expect a collective economic salvation and a personal redemption, a freedom from ensnaring feelings of lust, rage, and powerlessness. Like the tango in the title, Krasznahorkai embeds his story with multiple narrative perspective, each thread ruminating on the complexity of human condition. Apart from the Biblical references, one of the oft-repeated references is the spider’s web. The character’s oblique nature and actions resembles that of intricately woven spider-web. Through their disillusionment, the one’s who have woven the web itself gets caught (the only exception is innocent Esti). Satantango starts off with a vivid, dirtiest form of realism. Yet, the mundane is often punctuated with obscure as well as magical events. From Futaki waking to bells to Irimias and Petrina’s ‘hallucination’, the free-flowing narrative breaks away from acidic depiction of reality to levitate towards the divine. It’s only that Krasznahorkai is mischievous enough to suggest that the possible ‘divinity’ may be deceptive act conjured by the creature from hell. The author reaches the peak of wicked humor with his tricky, spellbinding meta-fictional finale. All we could do is fascinatingly read as ‘the circle closes’.

In a way, the literary works of great writers like Laszlo Krasznahorkai are like the distant bells, heard by Futaki and the doctor. It attracts us with the prospect of bestowing transcendent answers, while we wait to discover that it only delivers more burning questions. And, we find these questions oddly allaying us from the existential angst.  Existence does seem like a recurring, empty dance, directed by Satan and staged in hell. But as long as we have novels like Satantango, the burden of inescapable disintegration becomes a little easy to bear.

[Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr has marvelously adapted Satantango into a seven-and-a-half-hour epic. Krasznahorkai has written the scripts for Bela Tarr’s Damnation, Werckmeister Harmonies – based on the author’s second novel The Melancholy of Resistance – The Man from London, and Turin Horse].


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