Satantango – László Krasznahorkai

YouKnowWhenYou'veBeen...In the darkening embers of a Communist utopia, life in a desolate Hungarian town has come to a virtual standstill. Flies buzz, spiders weave, water drips and animals root desultorily in the barnyard of a collective farm. But when the charismatic Irimias – long-thought dead – returns to the commune, the villagers fall under his spell. The Devil has arrived in their midst.

Irimias will divide and rule: his arrival heralds the beginning of a period of violence and greed for the villagers as he sets about swindling them out of a fortune that might allow them to escape the emptiness and futility of their existence. He soon attains a messianic aura as he plays on the fears of the townsfolk and a series of increasingly brutal events unfold.

After reading this I found out there was a seven hour film of the book which is lauded with critical acclaim but after reading this story, I may have to leave it a few months as it is one of those rare pieces that feels like an experience and not just another good read.

Satantango is a strange, yet thoroughly intriguing book set in a closed world, cut off from civilisation only by the limitations of its characters. For those who like dense prose and stream of consciousness writing – each chapter is one long paragraph – you can’t go far wrong than with this.  It’s a challenge but in the best possible way. as the reader is treated to political and religious allegory, veiled from the communist censors at the time by its subtlety.

Despite being less than 300 pages, I felt like I was putting the work into this one, that’s not to say it was a chore because it wasn’t but what it is, is very slowly paced read layered with meaning.  The translator George Szirtes must have had his work cut out not only capturing the essence of the book but also keeping up with all the looping sentence structure that takes a while to get used to.

Set primarily in a slowly decaying farm, this ruin of the communist dream is a dreary, all but forgotten place of perpetual misery where time has stopped and everything is rotting and anything that is meaningful has been lost under the rubble, this is reflected in the characters themselves.  Even in scenes outside of this small collective, there is a narrow and confined feel to the text, the pressing down of an invisible weight.

Not only has the system failed the people but the inhabitants of this village are failing themselves.  In an atmosphere of decline, this small, aimless community lives in a strange universe that swings between hate and mistrust of each other whilst engaging in a collective willingness to believe that they can be saved from themselves and their lives by others.  This makes any camaraderie seem more beautiful, yet also even more bleak.

There is a brand of dark humour to offset the misery and sloth of these people and their real and imagined afflictions that makes up for the fact that there is little to like about the characters, their idiosyncracies and petty jealousies and their need to blame everybody else.  so when an outsider is introduced with his own machinations, the balance is tipped and a strange metamorphosis takes place and I found myself appreciating the characters for what they are, vulnerable people just trying to get through life.

The claustrophobia both in the sense of the village and the insane bureaucracy of the soviet systems is conveyed well, the message is clear; corruption is everywhere and even when Krasznahorkai penned this in 1985, the sense of waiting for something better was in evidence as the Soviet machine slowly ground to a halt underneath its own administration and scare tactics.

There is a strong theme of religious imagery that runs through the book and the key one involving messianic manipulator Irmias, a character the inhabitants assume will lead them from their lives to something better, as it is easier to expect him to do it than themselves.  Will these victims of themselves be redeemed or will it be a dance with the devil – a Satan tango?

Perhaps I have painted too sombre a picture of the novel but it is extremely readable and although I sometimes felt I wasn’t moving very far along the path, it kept my attention with its strangeness and lyricism that oozes with depth and hidden meaning, this is a story to meditate on.  Krasznahorkai attempts and succeeds to keep the reader off-balance dropping in details that change the perspective on the story, the timeline and the characters.  Most pleasingly of all, everything is not neatly wrapped up which is satisfying as there is plenty of room for interpretation and discussion and those books are, I’m sure you will agree the best sort.

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42 Replies to “Satantango – László Krasznahorkai”

    1. How right you are, every week I find new books to add to the wishlist, although I am ceasing to buy any for the foreseeable future there will be lots to choose from when I get back into it…and tons more on my shelves, which will no doubt add to your piles as well. Sorry!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t be sorry! I love it! But yes, I’m feeling the pain of not having enough hours in the day…and not enough space at home either! I’ve already had to box up part of my book collection 😦

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        1. I share your pain. I still have nine or ten boxes still yet to be moved in to my new place although where they will go I do not know. Hoping to get through a feast of books this year, just in case I can make inroads into the mountain of good literature out there.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Nobody understands our plight, do they? Unless they are bookworms like us. I usually read a hell of a lot but in the last few weeks, not so much. I need to remedy that.

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            1. We should be on The One Show or something asking for donations for house extensions. I lost the reading bug for a couple of months but this year I have realised what I was missing, a break does that and we come back stronger…this will be a good year to read, I can feel it.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Haha can you imagine? People would be like: “you freaks, you’re not getting anything from us with your unnatural habits!” We’d be laughed or chased out of the TV studio 😉

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    1. Nothing like a challenge to get the year going. After reading Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch which only had about three full stops this one was easier but still sometimes I felt a bit lost and then the author would bring me full circle to the plot again and I was relieved if a little bewildered until I got used to it.

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  1. Any form of the Booker prize usually signals a very good read, one that also usually approaches subtlety while being accessible (though maybe with a little effort) to the ordinary reader. Yeah!
    Keep reading and reviewing, Ste J! You call way more things to my attention than I have room to cover, but at least if I get invited to any cocktail parties of the literary kind, I can pretend that I know what’s going on!

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    1. I tend not to follow any of the prizes that go out but I am sure a blogger mentioned this so thought I would take a punt. I am glad I did as it made for one of those rare reviews I am satisfied with. If you find yourself at a cocktail party then have a drink for me. I am enjoying my reviewing again and just yesterday started on book six of A Dance, a review of Summer will follow soon after I finish it, naturally.

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      1. And are you keeping up with developing character of “Widmerpool”? He’s a real mystery to me by the end of the whole series. Sort of an alter ego of mocking sort for the main character himself–at least that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.

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  2. Never say never, but I feel like saying; I’ll never read this.
    I think you have painted a review that I’m sure lives up to the story’s bleakness.
    The bleakest book I ever read was “We the Living”. I felt every miserable moment of communist life in Russia. Excellent work, Ste J.

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    1. I’ll add that to the list then! At least the bleakness is shot through with some grim comedy for relief, I think I am just happy not to be in such a situation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This looks extraordinary. I’m really tempted by the sound of the prose, but it looks pretty disturbing. I can deal with murder,but spiritual/religious weirdness freaks the bejeezus outta me!

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    1. It is done subtly so don’t be too afeared. No, in fact I demand you read it as you read Irmina first and I was looking forward to being the only person ever to have read it until you posted about it…ha!

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  4. I shall have to plop this post in my European novels to seek out folder. It sounds rather like a people brink, and heading for either of those Christian end of times narratives: apocalypticism or messianism.

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    1. It does have that vibe, it’s a good look at why Communism didn’t work as well as all the end times stuff which in context of the setting seems over dramatic but reading it, I was thoroughly pulled into the situation.

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    1. I read The Greatcoat by Dunmore, I wasn’t impressed but will see what The Siege is like. I am quite partial to bleak, it’s like a literary version of watching the Jeremy Kyle show and thinking, at least I’m not THAT bad.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hehe! I don’t know The Greatcoat. I’ve read a few of her books and her stories all feature characters struggling with adversity – some books are better than others. I do like her poetic prose so even if the book is a bit of a disappointment there is usually a description or two that makes the reading of the book worthwhile.

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  5. Communism is one of my favorite topic! I come from Poland and I can easily imagine place that you described in the review! Definitely I will get this book!

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    1. It’s a powerful and emotive subject, the book could have easily been set in Poland, in fact anywhere in The Soviet Union for that matter. The universal messages are always the best ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sounds like a very different read. Though, whenever I read stories with the erstwhile USSR or its ilk as the backdrop, I feel a certain uneasiness…as you’ve used the word claustrophobia, that goes very much with the idea of a commune, to me.

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    1. It seems unreal that people lived through such a terrible time and aren’t emotionally scarred by all the grimness and paranoia. Perhaps the only good legacy that Communism has ever given the world is the classic literature that it has spawned.

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  7. Ahhh so it IS worth the work to read this one, you say.. A long paragraph for each chapter sounds tough for a reader but I’d be up for the challenge!

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    1. I didn’t really notice the lack of paragraphs until I wanted to stop reading the first time, I always try and finish at the end of the first or second paragraph on the left hand page but this time it was look for a suitable full stop somewhere about a quarter of the way down. It is a good book, not the cheeriest but definitely worth a read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OMG I’m the same where I end at the top of the left hand page for the day. My mom ends wherever she wants on the page, she says, hehe. She’s a rebel, hey?!

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        1. We are orderly and always know where to begin from. If I did it any other way I would instantly forgot where I finished on closing the book. Rebel indeed, at least with your poetry we can end at the conclusion of a poem…you make putting the book down easier, yet also more of a challenge with your writing.

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  8. I love the idea of this, I’ll have to get it. But Jeez, seven hour film? That’s almost a day at work! Then again, if it was instead of going to work, I’d be up for it.

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    1. I was thinking the same thing but then I think of all the films I could watch in that time, Flight of the Navigator, The Warriors, Hellraiser 3 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me with 11 minutes for a toilet break and a microwave meal. The latter is just too tempting.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have yet to read Krasznahorkai. Sometimes the writers closer to home seem so distant. It’s like borrowing books from library and friends whilst your own are waiting on the shelves. You have a feeling that you already know them just because you’ve been sharing space with them.

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    1. Yes like old friends and then when you get around to a gem, you wonder why you hadn’t read it before hand but that doesn’t stop the borrowing whilst the others sit patiently on the shelves waiting their turn.

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    1. It is great and well worth a look, the amount I get away with reading in bookshops is almost criminal. If I forget my book, I make review notes whilst hiding from staff.

      Liked by 1 person

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