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Satantango by Laslo Krasznahorkai — Dancing to the Devil’s tune

Evil comes in many forms.

In Satantango it comes in the shape of Irimiás; a low level cog in a machine deemed essential by all totalitarian states — their secret network of police informers.  For the bunch of decrepit peasants who live on the edge of substance amid the ruins of a rain-drenched collective farm, news of his impending arrival is a cause for celebration.

They await his arrival in the estate’s only bar, slugging back plum brandy and indulging in a few fumbling, ogling dances amid the buzzing horseflies and dense cobwebs. Their discomfort doesn’t matter for Irimiás is not dead (as they had believed), but is returning, a year after they last saw him in the collective, to save them from their mouldering lives of desperation. Or so they believe.

.. from tomorrow on, everything would be different … they’d really struck it lucky this time. without him [Irimiás] they’d just be stumbling about like the blind, without a clue, ranging on, fighting each other like condemned horses at the slaughterhouse. Irimiás was the only man capable of holding things that just fall apart.

If only they’d recognised that the ghostly sound of chapel bells some of them heard that morning, was a signal not of impending salvation but of danger.  It turns out that Irimiás and his travelling companion Petrina had once lived on the collective farm but, unknown to the other inhabitants, were informers of some kind on behalf of the Communist regime.

Having become ideologically wayward— (the detail of their crime is only obliquely alluded to in the book) —they were sent to prison. Now released, they are ready to resume their role once more. Irimiás is not however returning to the farm with any desire to rekindle old friendships and to help his former workers but to fleece the villagers he despises and play them for his own ends.

He despises these peasants, knowing exactly how they will act and react.

They’ll be sitting in exactly the same place,on the same filthy stools stuffing themselves with the same filthy spuds, and paprika every night, having no idea what’s happened. They’ll be eying each other suspiciously, only breaking the silence to belch. … They are waiting, belly to the ground like cats at pig killing time, hoping for scraps. They are like servants that work at a castle where the master has shot himself: they hang around at an utter loss as to what to do…

If this summary of the plot sounds clear, its a lot more straightforward than   the actual experience of reading the book. Laslo Krasznahorkai’s translator George Szirtes calls his work a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type”, where sentences take you down “loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars”.

László Krasznahorkai seems to delight in confounding his readers, often beginning his chapters with an event that he doesn’t explain or with some characters that he does not introduce.  In chapter two for example two unidentified men wait in a corridor of some bureaucratic organisation for an interview; about what and with whom is not revealed for nine pages. Only at the end do we discover that this is the point at which Irimiás and Petrina are re-absorbed into the intelligence operation and sent out with new instructions.

It’s told in long continuous sentences sometimes running over several lines and in chapters that consist of a long paragraph without a line break. In a Henry James novel, that technique has the effect of slowing the reader down so that we appreciate every detail and nuance of meaning. But with Krasznahorkai it has the reverse effect, forcing us forward; somewhat perplexed at times but always engrossed.

Satantango is a compelling if astoundingly bleak novel; one where you take an inward breath at the the start and then can’t let it out again until the end. It’s one where there is a sense of impending doom and inevitability yet you can’t help hope that there will be mercy for these unfortunates. First published in Hungary in 1985, but not available in English until 2012,  it gives us a perspective about life in an oppressive modern state and the abject failure of an experiment in collectivisation. I’m not sure when it was written but it would certainly have been an incendiary novel to have been discovered writing during the height of European communism.

Satantango was published by Atlantic Books. It was long listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013. I read this book as part of my World of Literature Project to read books by 50 authors from around the world.

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