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.