Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai


Purchased at

Purchased at

Translated by George Szirtes

Satantango is a novel of 274 pages, told in 12 chapters, a total of 12 paragraphs, each featuring a number of narrators. The experience of reading it is as much one of engaging in the author’s approach to structure and voice as it is experiencing the “story”. So let’s open with an example of that from the opening chapter (or paragraph) which extends for 20 pages. It is October, “not long before the first drops of the melancholy long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil”. Futaki wakes to hear bells:

The closest possible source was a lonely chapel about four kilometers southwest on the old Hochmeiss estate but not only did that not have no bell but the tower had collapsed during the war and at that distance it was too far to hear anything. And in any case they did not sound distant to him, these ringing-booming bells; their triumphal clangor was swept along by the wind and seemed to come from somewhere close by (“It’s as if they were coming from the mill…”). He propped himself on his elbows on the pillow so as to look out of the mousehole-sized kitchen window that was partly misted up, and directed his gaze to the faint blue dawn sky but the field was still and silent, bathed only in the now ever fainter bell sound, and the only light to be seen was the one glimmering in the doctor’s window whose house was set well apart from the others on the far side, and that was only because its occupant had for years been unable to sleep in the dark.

That opening excerpt introduces a number of elements to which the author will return as the novel progresses:

  • The “estate” on which this takes place once had an economy — it no longer has one. Everyone who is still there longs to be somewhere else, with some chance of recovery.
  • Sounds, like the bells, will often be an important factor but, again like the bells, their source will be more one of question than answer. They represent a summons or warning, but to what no-one really knows — more than anything else they represent an absence of the known.
  • The story will unfold through the distorted eyes of individual characters as viewed from their confined circumstances, both physical and mental. No one in this book knows more than a small part of the story; all are searching for more.
  • While the present is definitely not right and the future is oppressively ominous, there is always an equally powerful wish that elements that are not understood (where are the bell sounds coming from?) represent a reason for hope, not despair.
  • While Krasznahorkai may decline the use of paragraphs, he does not hesitate to frequently shift points of view — for this reader, the sudden changes in focus were one of the book’s greatest strengths. In that opening chapter, Futaki heads off to the Schmidts to collect his share of some money from a transaction we are given to understand has shady elements. Mrs. Schmidt (her claim to fame is inspiring, and often indulging in, the lust of most of the men of the estate) greets him with a story about a horrible dream where she saw a threatening presence peeking through the curtains at her window.

    “We’re a fine pair,” Futaki shook his head. “I woke — to what do you think? — to someone ringing bells…” “What!” the woman stared at him in astonishment: “Someone was ringing bells? Where?” “I don’t understand it either. In fact not once but twice, one after the other…” It was Mrs. Schmidt’s turn to shake her head. “You — you’ll go crazy.” “Or I might have dreamed it all,” grumbled Futaki nervously: “Mark my words, something is going to happen today.” The woman turned to him angrily. “You’re always saying that, just shut up, can’t you?”

    In fact, Futaki is right. Something is going to happen today: it is announced by Mrs. Kráner not long after in an excited arrival at the Schmidts’ door:

    “They’re here! Have you heard?” Futaki stood and nodded and put his hat on. Schmidt had collapsed at the table. “My husband,” Mrs. Kráner gabbled, “he’s already started and just sent me across to tell you, if you didn’t know already though I’m sure you know, we could see through our window that Mrs. Halics had dropped by, but I’ve got to go, I don’t want to bother you, and as for the money, my husband said, forget it, it’s not for the likes of us, he said and…he’s right because why hide and run, with never a moment of peace, who wants that, and Irimiás, well you’ll see, and Petrina, I knew that it couldn’t be true, any of it, so help me, I never trusted that sneaky Horgos kid, you can tell from his eyes, you can see for yourselves how he made it all up and kept it up till we believed him, I tell you, I knew from the start…”

    Irimiás and Petrinas, gone for a couple of years and allegedly dead, are indeed on their way back. They may be harbingers of hope — then again they may represent the forces that will lead the entire small community into even greater despair.

    I mentioned earlier that structure is a never absent element of Satantango. The first six chapters count from I to VI and are filled with the foreboding arrival of the pair (not to mention the squalor of the present on the decrepit “estate”). They conclude with a multi-page dance sequence (the “satantango” of the title, I presume) involving virtually all the characters in the bar and the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina.

    “The Second Part” (that’s the translator’s device) opens with a speech from Irimiás about what the future holds — the chapters here count down from VI to I. The members of the community bet their future on the vision that he offers — you’ll have to read the novel to see whether or not that is well placed.

    There is no doubt that Satantango has its fans. It first come to my attention with an enthusiastic review from Max at Pechorin’s Journal — he went on to name it his best novel of 2012 and his review provides a much more detailed analysis than I have offered here. And Satantango is a fixture on the various translated book prize longlists that are currently in play.

    As much as I respect that, I have to say it was not a novel for me. I was never tempted to put it aside but the entire reading process was a frustrating struggle — I could appreciate the elements of technique that were on display but found little underneath that to reward the effort of paying attention. I don’t think that I am completely averse to either modernist or existential fiction, but Satantango never succeeded in engaging me in the author’s journey.


    11 Responses to “Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai”

    1. Max Cairnduff Says:

      Well, I’m sorry you didn’t like it more Kevin, but then it would be dull were we always to love the same things. It’s still for me my book of 2012, but I think I referred to it as a mudslide of prose and I can certainly see how that might become a struggle.

      You have I think been very fair to it, in terms of bringing out the elements and suchlike and giving it a decent chance. Hopefully the next read will be a more rewarding one for you.


    2. leroyhunter Says:

      I’m lined up with Max on this one: I thought it was an extraordinary book, immersive, challenging, hypnotic.

      I think there are certain books that you need to experience as much as read – this could be one of them. I know that when that piece is missing the book misfires – that happened to me when I read (trudged through, more like) Crime and Punishment years ago.


    3. Max Cairnduff Says:

      I am so happy that someone else struggled with C&P. I’ve always felt so guilty for abandoning it, which I guess is fitting given the theme but not ideal.


      • leroyhunter Says:

        I did struggle with it Max, and it put me off Fyodor Mikhailovich for many years – until Guy’s enthusiasm pointed me back to him in fact. I had a similar experience first time out with Faulkner.


    4. KevinfromCanada Says:

      “Mudslide of prose” perhaps provides the summary explanation for my issue — too often I found myself paying attention to the onrush of words rather than being interested in what they were saying. Having said that, I should admit that I seem to set a higher bar for works that feature unconventional writing or where authors seem to be wanting the reader to pay attention to the writing itself. I prefer writing that tells me something and is not the end in itself.

      I could certainly see why others were impressed with this novel — it just did not push many buttons for me. Even as it was coming to a close, I was still have a problem keeping some of the characters straight.

      I never had any problems with any of my readings of Crime and Punishment (the last just a few years ago) which would seem to prove Leroy’s point.


    5. sshaver Says:

      Hmm. Although I write, I never thought about what sounds appear in a novel. Will have to re-examine Steinbeck, Hemingway, Cather….


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I am a “seeing” reader not a “hearing” one (I often miss obvious puns for example) so I am sure I miss many references about sound from authors. It stood out in this book since the author used the uncertainty of what the characters were hearing is yet another part of the confusion that surrounded them.


    6. Andrea Says:

      There is also a film of Satantango, a long black-and-white film by Bela Tarr from 1994, with a very Hungarian mood and look (naturally). It opens with a long scene of a cow wandering about in a muddy field. Quite memorable and wonderful.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        There was some discussion of the film in the comments at Pechorin’s Journal when Max reviewed the novel. I must admit the prospect of 7 hours of this in film doesn’t have much appeal to me — I don’t think the parts that I did like would transfer very well to film treatment.


        • Max Cairnduff Says:

          To be fair, seven hours of black and white misery isn’t everyone’s cup of tea even if you love the source material. Had you loved it I can see the film might have appealed, since you didn’t I can’t imagine the film would have the slightest lure.


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