Sunday, February 28, 2016

Satantango

As a writer, László Krasznahorkai has accurately, I think, been compared to Kafka, Gogol, Bulgakov and Beckett. To that list I might add Maxim Gorky, whose play, The Lower Depths, also paints an unflattering portrait of the bottom classes. The novel is set in rural Hungary on a failed communal "estate" during the communist period. It begins in late October as the farm laborers are being paid their shares from the proceeds of their summer work and the inhabitants are settling in for the winter.

Most of the characters are leading abject lives and would rather live elsewhere, but they have nowhere to go. They entertain themselves by spying on their neighbors, and most of the men lust after Mrs. Schmidt, who sometimes accommodates them. During the winter months the residents have nothing to do except drink. In the worst family, the Horgoses, the two elder daughters are prostitutes, the young son is an unsupervised juvenile delinquent, and the young daughter, Esti, is learning disabled. In the saddest chapter of the novel, which I found difficult to read, Esti, who is mistreated by her mother and brother after being rejected by the special school to which she had been sent, kills herself with rat poison. The setting is utterly depressing, with continuous rain, mud everywhere and constant bickering. All of the buildings are falling apart, with windows and doors that don't close; some rooms have weeds growing in them and others are full of spiders.

The novel revolves around the return of Irimiás and his assistant, Petrina. Irimiás had been credited with bringing success to the estate a few years earlier but had inexplicably disappeared along with Petrina, and both were thought dead. When word gets out that the two were seen on the road heading toward the estate, the inhabitants become ecstatic and party all night – hence the tango – hoping that Irimiás will set things straight again. Irimiás agrees to help them by employing them at a new project a few miles away, but shortly after they arrive there they learn that the deal, if there had really been one, has fallen through, and that he has arranged to break them up and send them off to new positions that he's found for them at various other locations. They become part of a mysterious plan that he is presenting to the authorities, perhaps to form some sort of spy network under his direction. One of the most humorous sections in the novel describes the attempt by bureaucrats to rephrase Irimiás's candid, colorful descriptions of the people in order to create a proper document for the project, whatever it is.

There are structurally interesting aspects to the novel. In places, the same scene is recounted several times, each from the point of view of a different character. I didn't notice it initially, but the chapter numbers go from one to six and then backwards from six to one, rather than from one through twelve. Standing above the fray for the first few chapters is a reclusive, obese and dissolute doctor who observes the other inhabitants from a window in his run-down house and takes copious notes. At the end of the novel, when most of his neighbors have moved away, he decides to write a novel instead, which, of course, is Satantango. Thus, the novel turns back on itself, like a serpent eating its tail or the hands drawing themselves in the M.C. Escher lithograph.

The main tension of the novel has to do with whether Irimiás represents good or evil: is he Satan? Certainly he has more intelligence and cunning than the others, yet he is also highly secretive, and one can never know his true motives. Some of the characters are religious or superstitious, and events occur, such as the unexplained sound of a ringing bell, that they interpret as signs or omens. However, in the course of the novel, Irimiás plainly states that he is an atheist, and any hints of the supernatural are explained by natural phenomena. If anything, Irimiás is an offhand force for good who faces obstacles and limitations of his own that impede his ability to meet his goals: he too leads a troubled life, but is somewhat more competent in his execution of it than the others.

What interested me about the novel, aside from its successful artistry in both language and form, is its perceptiveness of human nature. It reminded me of the printing plant where I once worked in Dixon, Illinois. Some years before I arrived there it had been a failing company that was poorly managed by the son of the local newspaper scion. In order to save money on heating they used to turn off the heat on weekends, and then on Monday mornings during the winter it would take several hours to start up the presses because the ink was all solid. The plant was built on the previous town circus site. Eventually the facility was sold to a Chicago-area businessman who hired a new president to run the operation. That person, Larry Dussair, was the most effective executive I ever met, and, like Irimiás, he was excellent at manipulating people, and you never knew what he really thought. He even had his office set up such that his desk and chair were elevated, so when you spoke to him he looked down on you. One of his interview techniques was to suddenly stop talking without explanation and then watch you squirm in silence while he stared intensely at you. In hindsight, Larry just knew how to get things done, and he had developed an arsenal of techniques to that end; sometimes he seemed above the law and sinister, but in the end he was just an ordinary but talented person working very hard to succeed at his job. The reason why I mention Larry is that he had the same effect on some of the local people in Dixon that Irimiás had on the people on the estate. They attributed an almost supernatural power to him, and I recall one employee telling me that someone she knew who visited the plant had sensed a strong power there. Thus, superstition isn't restricted to the likes of rural Hungary.

Although, as I said, in some respects the book is highly depressing, it is still rather refreshing to me, given that literary fiction in this part of the world tends to be contrived in order to fit current literary fashions – such as those favoring identity politics. For example, rather than depicting Mrs. Horgos as stupid, lazy and irresponsible, as Krasznahorkai does, here she would have to be described as an innocent victim of prejudice and discrimination whose cultural values have been unjustly denigrated. In the U.S., calling anyone stupid, lazy and irresponsible is almost tantamount to a hate crime. Ideally, I prefer a balanced portrait of people that shows all sides of their personalities – which are there whether or not writers choose to acknowledge them.

As to whether or not I recommend the novel, it depends on who you are and what kind of fiction you like to read. If you are unfamiliar with the authors mentioned in the first paragraph and read mainly for light entertainment, you may as well skip it. However, if you have a serious interest in literature as an art form, Satantango is de rigeur; I think that it may well be one of the most important novels of the twentieth century and that Krasznahorkai may deservedly win a Nobel one day. Although my natural preference for novels lies with ones about educated and intelligent people, Satantango is a fine work of art, and I'm glad to have read it.

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