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When the Devil Danced in Hungary

Satantango

by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
New Directions, 274 pp, $25.95

1.

One evening in October 2010, the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai—a man in his fifties with a biblical look—appeared on the balcony of the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin, a white modernist building that’s a block north of Unter den Linden. At the same time an image of a dog, in silhouette, was projected from inside the building onto a large window below the balcony. Without introduction or explanation, Krasznahorkai then began to speak. And at first, I suppose that the uninformed commuter in Berlin might have assumed that the monologue this man was pronouncing was in the imaginary voice of the silhouetted dog—stretched out, as if leaping.

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Horst Tappe
László Krasznahorkai, Switzerland, 1993

Whenever Krasznahorkai paused, in precise synchronization, a new image of the leaping dog’s silhouette was projected onto the window. Meanwhile, Krasznahorkai didn’t acknowledge the people standing below him on the pavement. He simply spoke to the street. As he continued, the nature of this monologue became more violent, threatening apocalypse. To the confused Berliner, it perhaps now seemed more likely that this man was talking not as a dog but as himself, a deranged prophet:

Withdraw into protection and safeguard all that is important to you, take it down to below the earth, all that you have, take down the jewellery, the food, the children’s photographs, the armchair where you like to sit with a book in your hand, the curtain, behind which you feel yourselves to be safe, from the window; gather together all that was dear to you, gather together the identity cards and baptismal certificates, take the money out of the bank and hide it in the cellar behind the wall, but really every piece of jewellery, every scrap of food, every photograph of the child, every armchair and every beloved book, every curtain and every document, and really all of the money down to the very last cent, and really hide all of these things well, but really well, under the earth, so that at least you will be able to believe until then that there was some sense to it all….

Until finally, with no warning, Krasznahorkai turned around and disappeared. Simultaneously, the lights went dark.

This isn’t the performance of an ordinary novelist. It is instead a pure product of Krasznahorkai’s unique style. And a preliminary description of this style would therefore include his carefully staged obscurity, his playfulness, his comprehensive pessimism, his love of apocalypse, and his delight in the obsessive monologue. Or to put it another way, Krasznahorkai’s subject is a total disenchantment with the world, and yet the manner in which he presents this disenchantment is hypnotically enchanting. He is one of the great inventors of new forms in contemporary literature, like the show that night in Berlin, a staging of a pamphlet made in collaboration with the contemporary artist Max Neumann, called Animalinside.1

And yet although he may have led a countercultural transatlantic life (he lived in Allen Ginsberg’s New York apartment for a while, where he met at the kitchen table with David Byrne, Patti Smith, and Philip Glass), Krasznahorkai still remains little known in New York or London.2 When Animalinside came out, only two of his books—The Melancholy of Resistance (1989; English translation 1998) and War and War (1999; English translation 2006)—had been translated into English. He is perhaps more famous to lovers of arthouse movies than arthouse novels, following his collaborations with the Hungarian director Béla Tarr—the most notorious of which is Tarr’s seven-hour adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s first novel, Satantango. It’s only now that the English-speaking reader can read Satantango itself—which came out in Hungary in 1985, and has recently been published in a translation by George Szirtes. In this beginning we find clues to Krasznahorkai’s startling style.

2.

Satantango begins with desolate ordinariness. It is raining. It will always be raining—comically, oppressively—in the invented world of Satantango:

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 setting is a collective farm that has been formally closed down, but whose inhabitants molder on, living off their scrimped savings. It’s presumably sometime in the early 1980s, as Hungarian communism enters terminal decline. The collective farm, “once the home of a thriving industry,” is “now nothing but a set of dilapidated and deserted buildings.” But this dilapidation is nothing new. In this novel, disintegration is the world’s constant condition—which is why Krasznahorkai also uses the outmoded vocabulary of the old regime. Nearby are the ruins of manors, estates, and castles: the paraphernalia left behind by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This deliberate blurring of historical references is an example of a wider principle in Krasznahorkai’s work. He delights in planting small contradictions inside what his fictions take as real—like the bells that wake Futaki. They seem ordinary, as he lies in bed with Mrs. Schmidt, a woman who is not his wife. Her husband is a farm worker who is currently looking after some cattle. Hearing the bells, Futaki can think of no rational explanation for the sound, since the closest possible source, he considers, is at least four kilometers away on the old Hochmeiss estate—“but not only did that have no bell but the tower had collapsed during the war and at that distance it was too far to hear anything.” Then suddenly there is silence. Futaki goes back to bed with Mrs. Schmidt, but is too afraid to close his eyes: frightened by both the “ghostly bells” and also the silence that followed. This leaves the reader with a choice. Either Futaki’s intuition of the ghostly and otherworldly is true, or there is another rational reason for the sound of bells, which he has not considered.

Krasznahorkai likes to trap the reader inside the cracked thinking of his characters. And this delight in encompassing the reader’s perspective has its typographic form—his refusal in Satantango to use paragraph breaks. The unit of composition in this novel is the chapter, which unfurls as a single block of text. In his later fiction, Krasznahorkai has continued to play with the usual lengths, not just of paragraphs and chapters, but also of sentences. (In 2009, he published a story called “El último Lobo.” It is written in a single sentence, and lasts twenty-eight pages.) This act of magnification has a compelling effect. With no paragraph break to pause at, the reader is forced forward, following the strange flowing line of Krasznahorkai’s narrative, just as this story continues, with the mystery of the bells left unresolved.

The reason for Schmidt’s absence from his house is that he and another man, Kráner, are due that morning to be “rounding up the cattle to drive them west from the Szikes toward the farm byres in the west where they would eventually receive eight months’ worth of hard-earned wages.” (Actual economic details, like from whom they will receive these “wages,” are never made explicit by Krasznahorkai.) The money—or so it has been agreed—is to be split equally among the farm’s remaining inhabitants; but Schmidt and Kráner have privately worked out a scheme to take the money entirely for themselves, return home in secret to pack up, then run away, leaving the others behind to their destitution. His premature return therefore nearly leads to the discovery of Futaki in bed with Mrs. Schmidt, but Futaki manages to scramble out of the house without being seen. Intuiting the criminal reason for Schmidt’s early arrival, he immediately goes back to knock at the front door, as if by chance. He confronts Schmidt, and threatens to tell the villagers about Schmidt’s plan to defraud them, forcing him to agree to a three-way split. The embezzled wages will now be divided between Schmidt, Kráner, and Futaki.

It seems, therefore, that this story will consist of the dirtiest realism. Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt and Futaki wait for dark, so that they can escape. But then the story disintegrates.

Kráner’s wife comes knocking at the Schmidts’ door to excitedly announce that two men, Irimiás and Petrina, who were believed to have died two years earlier, have been seen alive and on their way back to the farm. In only a few sentences, this news converts these characters, so recently intent on flight, into delighted optimists. For Irimiás, in Futaki’s words, “is a great magician. He could turn a pile of cow shit into a mansion if he wanted to.” It was Irimiás who in the past had always been able to rescue the farm from financial catastrophe. Perhaps, therefore, he can do it again, and restore the farm to its former success. Yes, in this surprising state of hope, which means that the issue of the embezzled money is for the moment forgotten, they gather in the village bar: suddenly, improbably, resplendent with a glowing future, waiting for Irimiás.

A story that looked like dead-end realism now seems more like a messianic allegory.

In interviews, Krasznahorkai presents himself as a yogi of aesthetic severity. “The reader must content themselves with these lone concrete, but vague, indications, quite simply because what I describe…can happen anywhere.” For after all: “Time and space aren’t very important. Only the situation counts.”3 This aesthetic of restriction has its modernist history—in the novels of Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett—but I think that Krasznahorkai’s fiction is in fact more mischievous than his statements might imply. It isn’t simply that he leaves information out; he also presents the information he does offer in a systematically oblique way.

Satantango is structured in two parts, two halves of six chapters each, which form a quilt of both time frames and perspectives, moving from character to character, all arranged around this particular evening at the local bar and the following couple of days. The second chapter of Satantango, for instance, begins a little further back in time than the first. This isn’t, however, made clear until toward the chapter’s end. It is also written from the perspective of new characters: two men who sit waiting in the corridor of what appears to be a government office. After four pages, the reader discovers that one of them is Petrina; after another five, that the other is Irimiás—the two men whose arrival at the collective farm so excites Futaki and Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.

The teeming surface obscurity that this structure creates has, I think, its philosophic rationale. “Every story is a story of disintegration,” says Karrer, the hero of Béla Tarr’s film Damnation—the first Tarr made with a script by Krasznahorkai. In this world, Krasznahorkai’s characters forage for impossibly permanent meanings—in politics, or religion, or sex. His oblique technique of composition forces the reader to develop the same “indispensable skill of distinguishing between favorable and unfavorable signs,” scrutinizing the surface of the story for possible meanings. (The hangouts of West Coast dope fiends may seem far from Krasznahorkai’s rain-soaked bars, but it’s not so surprising that Krasznahorkai admires the fictions of Thomas Pynchon—from whom he borrowed the epigraph to his recent book, Seiobo. Both construct fictions that hint at incompletely understood meanings.) But perhaps there’s also a more playful, novelistic motive for Krasznahorkai’s oblique forms. It means that he can entertain different levels of meaning—political, or theological, or psychological—and not be limited to any one of them. His economy of detail represents a kind of aesthetic freedom.

For after all, the situation that emerges in Satantango does have a time and place. The novel’s basic armature is a collective farm within a totalitarian state. It turns out that Irimiás and Petrina had been informers of some kind on behalf of the Communist regime while living on the collective farm. They had then become ideologically wayward—the detail of which is only alluded to obliquely—for which they were sent to prison. Now, two years later, on the same day that Futaki wakes up beside Mrs. Schmidt, they are sent back out to work. Irimiás, the brains of the duo, decides that they should make for the farm: “We’ll take their money then we’ll move on.”

Before they arrive, at dawn, Krasznahorkai offers a description of the evening in the village bar: two chapters of depressed, apocalyptic, comical drinking. The condition of entropy, where the world is winding irrevocably down, is a grand theme for fiction. Here, it is given its richly sodden form. The bar is infested with spiders’ webs. The bar’s owner lusts for Mrs. Schmidt. He turns the heating up, trying to force her to remove more layers of clothing. Mrs. Halics makes her husband read the Book of Revelation. Mrs. Horgos wanders in, looking for her young daughter Esti, who has gone missing. No one cares. Mrs. Halics tries to seduce Mrs. Kráner. It adds up to a detailed portrait of human sin or human nature, depending on the vocabulary. Throughout the night, they keep drinking, finally performing the drunk, slow tango of the novel’s title, observed by Mrs. Halics, who sits there “only wondering why judgment was so slow in coming.” Soon, they are all dead asleep in the bar, where they are eventually discovered by returnees Irimiás and Petrina.

And here, at the novel’s midpoint, Krasznahorkai intensifies the two strands of his style—a portrait of universal decay that is also buoyant with the hazy possibility of transcendent meaning. And both these strands develop from the missing young girl—Esti Horgos.

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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.

3.

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. 1

    László Krasznahorkai, Animalinside, with images by Max Neumann, translated by Ottilie Mulzet and with an introduction by Colm Tóibín (New Directions, Sylph Editions of London, and the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, 2010). 

  2. 2

    Interview with László Krasznahorkai, The Hungarian Quarterly, Winter 2011. 

  3. 3

    Interview with László Krasznahorkai, Le Matricule des Anges, June 2011. The translation from the French is my own. 

  4. 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.) 

  5. 5

    Interview, Le Matricule des Anges, p. 33. 

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