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When the Devil Danced in Hungary

New Directions
Drawing by Max Neumann from Animalinside, his 2010 collaboration with Krasznahorkai.

Between the two chapters that describe the night of drinking, there’s a chapter narrated from Esti’s perspective. She is neglected by her mother and sisters, and bullied by her adolescent older brother, Sanyi, and the village thinks of her as mad. Earlier that day, in a state of manic sadness and anger, she attacks and kills her cat—quickly followed by a wild regret. Desolate, and trusting in an afterlife, she makes off with the cat’s corpse to another nearby ruined estate, the Weinkheim Castle. She has decided to commit suicide. “‘Yes,’ she quietly repeated to herself, ‘the angels see this and understand it.’” When she reaches the Weinkheim ruins, she places the cat beside her, lies down, and then takes poison. “She knew perfectly well her guardian angels were already on the way.”

There’s a gap in Satantango between the end of the first half, when Irimiás and Petrina arrive, and the beginning of the second. This gap represents what appears to be a day and a night during which the village has gone searching for the missing girl, a search that has finally ended with the discovery of her corpse. The second part then opens with Irimiás presenting a monologue to the village’s dejected inhabitants—a tissue of pious, distantly Communist kitsch. Moved by Esti’s death, he wants in response to once more set up a working collective—“a model economy that offers a secure existence and binds together a small band of the dispossessed”—perhaps in Almássy Manor, another nearby collection of disused buildings. Naturally, he adds, this will need money.

And so, trusting entirely in Irimiás, and burdened with guilt at Esti’s death, the villagers give Irimiás whatever savings they possess (including the embezzled wages). Then they set off for the manor, while Irimiás, Petrina, and Sanyi go into town, ostensibly to organize the scheme. Although, of course, this plan is a pure invention—for Irimiás is a skillful opportunist. He had only come for money, but has now seen a much larger prize: “the network, that enormous spiderweb, as woven and patented by me, Irimiás.” Not content with stealing their money, he will impress the authorities by converting the villagers into a personal mafia of informers.

But here, deep in ordinary corruption, the usual reality buckles. As Irimiás, Petrina, and Sanyi are walking on the road into town, which leads them in the direction of the ruins of Weinkheim Castle, they hear an unexplained humming, then see “a white transparent veil” billowing in the wind, that vanishes when it touches the ground. When they reach the grounds of the ruins of Weinkheim, where Esti killed herself, the humming has become “the sound of something like sniggering.” No movement, however, is visible in the trees or foliage. Terrified, they keep going, until finally they see Esti’s corpse, wrapped “in a series of transparent veils.” They have only recently seen her body buried in the ground, in a coffin. Now, it seems to have reappeared—and they see it levitate and fly off among the clouds: “Then the tinkling-chiming voices reached a triumphant crescendo above their heads before slowly fading away.”

The scene is unexplained, gorgeous. Irimiás and Petrina try to calm Sanyi by describing what they have seen as a hallucination. In private, they are less sure. Perhaps they have witnessed the supernatural—a possibility angrily rejected by Irimiás: “It doesn’t matter what we saw just now, it still means nothing,” says Irimiás. “Heaven? Hell? The afterlife? All nonsense.” For humans, argues Irimiás, are “trapped forever,” with no transcendent escape route from the rain and mud. “We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.” And they continue to walk into town.

But the reader is troubled by a spell that is difficult to dissolve. This episode could be explained away as a hallucination, but the two characters who should most believe this are unconvinced. The possible reality of apocalypse hums over the mud and lust of this novel, like a telephone wire. (Just as Krasznahorkai’s prose, in George Szirtes’s agile translation, can smoothly move from his characters’ secondhand vocabulary, like Futaki observing “‘his own careworn features’” reflected in a window, to a melancholy beauty: “He felt that what the rain was doing to his face was exactly what time would do. It would wash it away.”)

It’s therefore possible to construct some kind of transcendent theory of this novel, a theory that would link the levitation of Esti’s corpse to the bells heard by Futaki and the humming heard by Irimiás, and that would connect the Satan in the novel’s title to Irimiás himself, who is addressed as “Lord of Misrule” by a barman—Irimiás as the novel’s false messiah, peddling mendacious messages of hope. But then, against this there is Mrs. Halics, obsessed by the Book of Revelation, who is only comical; and if Irimiás is Satan then he is a very minor Satan, just an everyday Communist atheist, terrified of what he has seen.

Krasznahorkai, in other words, has invented a way of writing disenchanted fables.

And what follows seems to return the story to its mode of acid description. Irimiás successfully concludes his scheme. The authorities, he sadly says, will not allow their project to go forward, at least for the moment. So he recommends that they should all disperse and wait for an opportune moment of regrouping—meanwhile remaining “in lively, continual communication” with him, maintaining an “unceasing, vigilant observation of their immediate surroundings.” Then Irimiás files an official report on his activities to the authorities, with descriptions of each of the villagers. And with this penultimate chapter, the story seems to have ended, the process of disintegration complete—a systematic cancellation that was perhaps always obvious from the chapter numbers. In the first half they are numbered I to VI. In the second, they’re numbered backwards, from VI to I. This novel traces, in other words, the canceling steps of its title’s tango.

But if the world is total emptiness, then what can writing do? One answer may be found in the seemingly minor figure of the farm’s doctor. He is a recluse who, ever since work stopped on the farm, decided to stay there, spending his days in observation of the village’s remaining inhabitants. He is haunted by “the triumphal progress of the wrecking process…the power that ruined houses, walls, trees and fields.” The best he can do, he decides, in the face of the world’s inescapable disintegration, is to “use his memory to fend off the sinister, underhanded process of decay.” He therefore vows to “watch everything very carefully and to record it all constantly, all with the aim of not missing the smallest detail.”

On the night of Irimiás and Petrina’s arrival, he stumbles out into the rain, making for the bar to get more pálinka, but becomes disoriented in the dark and wanders into the fields, then onto the road into town—where he is found the next afternoon, alive but delirious. In the novel’s final chapter, he has apparently arrived back home after a three-week absence in a hospital. As usual, he tries to resume his observations, but now there’s no one left to observe, since the villagers, following Irimiás’s orders, have left.

It seems like a gentle coda, and this impression increases when the doctor hears the sound of bells—the same bells, the reader assumes, that Futaki heard at the novel’s opening. Like Futaki, the doctor cannot understand it. Puzzled, he keeps looking frustratedly out at the empty farm. There is nothing left for him to describe. Then he has a sudden illumination. He doesn’t need the villagers to be present in order to describe them. He becomes a visionary, or writer of fiction. But his excited scribbling is interrupted by the bells again. He makes his way through the rain to the chapel on the Hochmeiss estate—which Futaki had earlier ruled out as being too far away to be heard—and discovers a madman, ringing “a quite small bell…hanging in the middle of the exposed, improvised structure.” The possibly transcendent has its ordinary explanation, after all. With this matter resolved, the doctor goes back home, nails his door shut, and returns to his notebook:

Careful not to damage the paper, he started writing. “One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall….”

Yes, he begins writing Satantango. This novel, it turns out, is on an endless loop.


There are various ways of philosophically finessing this metafictional finale. The most immediate is to see the novel as a dark statement of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return (or, as Samuel Beckett once described James Joyce’s similarly circular novel, Finnegans Wake, a Dantesque purgatorial process). The true referent of the title’s “Satantango” isn’t therefore the villagers’ drunken dance but all existence—a repetitive, vacuous dance directed by the devil. But it also creates an even more disturbing effect. It might be possible to recuperate a prosaic rational frame, if the reader assumes that everything up to the moment when the doctor is found delirious on the road is real, and that the novel’s subsequent events represent his imagined attempt to explain the sudden emptiness of the village on his return from the hospital.

The problem is that there’s nothing within the novel that might provide a basis for this distinction. Unlike, say, Camus’s novel The Plague, where it is also revealed that the novel has been written by one of its characters, there is no moment within the novel to separate different layers of fictionality, except perhaps for the precise moment when the doctor decides to write it. So while the doctor imagines his account of the village as a bulwark against the world’s disappearance, it becomes in fact a form of that disappearance, a literary illusion. The novel eats itself up in its own construction. And yet, on the other hand, there it is—and the aura of the supernatural that the story has created is still real.

Like the episode of Esti’s levitating corpse, this ending is open to multiple interpretations, which the novel never works to sustain but also never denies—a parable with no fixed doctrine.

The epigraph to Satantango is a single sentence: “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” Krasznahorkai offers only an oblique attribution—”F.K.”—but its source is Kafka’s novel The Castle. In the eighth chapter of Kafka’s novel, called “Waiting for Klamm,” a “gentleman” asks K to leave: “‘But then I’ll miss the person I’m waiting for,’ said K., flinching.” To which the gentleman replies: “You’ll miss him whether you wait or go.” And K’s triumphant riposte is this: “Then I would rather miss him as I wait.”4

In the novel, it’s an example of how K has the defiant courage of his self-defeat. As an obscurely attributed epigraph, however, the sentence becomes stranger: a near oxymoron—whose tone could be despairing or euphoric. “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” It is a miniature example of Krasznahorkai’s style—where the everyday is revealed as a tragicomic mystery. Sure, the roots of this are in Kafka. “Without Kafka,” Krasznahorkai has said, “I could never have written.”5 But the excitement of Krasznahorkai’s writing is that he has come up with his own original forms—and one of the most haunting is his first, Satantango. There’s nothing else like it in contemporary literature.

  1. 4

    Franz Kafka, The Castle, translated by Mark Harman (Schocken, 1998), p. 105. Without, obviously, speaking any Hungarian, I can’t tell if the alteration of “him” to “the thing” is Krasznahorkai’s or Szirtes’s. (And I’m grateful to Daniel Medin, one of the editors of Animalinside, for pointing me to the complications of this provenance.) 

  2. 5

    Interview, Le Matricule des Anges, p. 33. 

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