In the middle of the night, the clang of a distant belltower resounds through a run-down, rain-drenched village. Could it be a sign, an ominous portent of the town's impending fate? Or the welcoming tone of a vengeful devil, hell-bent on manipulating the cruelly cast fate of the helpless townsfolk? But perhaps it's nothing. Perhaps the age of sprits and superstitions is over, pushed aside by time's insufferable progression. The characters in Laszlo Krasznahorkai's (Animalinside) outstanding novel Satantango are not sure what to believe in, or even how believing in anything could make a difference in their impoverished agrarian lives. Following a few momentous days in a rural community, Krasznahorkai tells the story of a handful of impressionable citizens as they evaluate their existence against the looming face of change. Men and women once governed by "the people's law" and "the law of relative power" will now realize how powerless they really are.
It must be said from the outset: Satantango is a difficult book to read and Laszlo Krasznahorkai writes like no other writer. Some readers may be familiar with Béla Tarr's seven-and-a-half hour film adaptation of Krasznahorkai's novel, which is often considered a rite of passage for many an eager cinephile. There's no reason Satantango the novel should be held in any less esteem: this is a daunting book and one that returns patience and careful, syntactic reading with brilliant, almost euphoric results.
Translator George Szirtes is spot-on in describing Krasznahorkai's text as a "slow lava flow of narrative": each chapter of the novel consists of a single, seemingly endless block of text. A full stop is a welcome rarity in Satantango, and often feels like a reward from Krasznahorkai for struggling through his seething, serpentine prose. What's especially interesting is that while Krasznahorkai's sentences are difficult to untangle, the actual plot of Satantango is fairly straightforward (with the exception of its hazy historical setting). Originally written in 1985, Satantango is loosely set in the transitionary afterglow of communism in Eastern Europe, a time when communal farming was shifting towards privatization. The few remaining populace of a small, rural village will each come into some money for their share of the farm, but the townsfolk suffer from a troubling stagnation: they're brutally unhappy with their poverty, but lack the drive to take charge of whatever's left of their miserable existence. In an early scene, the cripple Futaki contemplates this shared affliction of immobility:
"Suddenly there was a sour taste on his tongue and he thought it was death. Ever since the works had been split up, since people had been in as much of a rush to get away as they had been to come here, and since he--along with a few families, and the doctor, and the headmaster who, like him, had nowhere else to go--had found himself unable to move, it had been the same, day after day, tasting the same narrow range of food, knowing that death meant getting used to, first the soup, then to the meat dishes, then finally, to go on to consuming the very walls..."
Now, it's been raining for days. The pálinka supply is growing thin, and the promise of money and hints of a brighter future have rendered the waterlogged townsfolk increasingly vulnerable. They've unknowingly become the targets of the tricksters Irimias and Petrina, a pair of charismatic locals who have their eyes set on swindling the town out of their newfound fortune. Recently released from prison, Irimias and Petrina had successfully spread a rumor of their own deaths before their incarceration-a carefully planned ruse that allowed the duo to traipse back into town as "resurrected" souls. With providence on their side, Irimias and Petrina are able to sway the townsfolk into believing their plans of establishing a reconstructionist communal society, and capitalize on the hopelessness of their former neighbors.
Consisting of two sections of six chapters each (in theory, mimicking the six steps forward and six back of a tango), Satantango unfolds at a deliberate, episodic pace. Each chapter focuses on one character, detailing their miserable lives before and after Irimias and Petrina enter the scene. The strange joy in reading Satantango lies in Krasznahorkai's startlingly eloquent, doomsday prose, where even the grimiest scenes spill forth with a relentless ire. Here's Krasznahorkai describing the torrential rains, a foundational detail in setting the stage of Satantango:
"...the stench of sewers mixed with mud, puddles, the smell of the odd crack of lightning, wind tugging at tiles, power lines, empty nests; the stifling heat behind low ill-fitting windows... impatient, annoyed half-words of lovers embracing... demanding wails of babies, their cries sliding off into the tin-smell of dusk; streets pliable, parks soaked to their roots lying obedient to the rain, bare oaks, half-broke dry flowers, scorched grass all prostrate, humbled by the storm, sacrifices strewn at the executioners feet."
Once in step with Krasznahorkai's style, it's easy to revel in his fiendish, tentacled run-ons. Unfortunately, he doesn't maintain this flow throughout the entire novel. Later chapters lean too heavily on dialogue, and begin to read like a schizophrenic one-act play. But this misstep doesn't last: like Irimias's careful plotting, Krasznahorkai sets up a brilliant, confounding finish long before the novel's close. It's as perfect a finale as one could hope for, and one that wraps this potentially endless novel into a tightly wound coil.