Dance in Purgatory: László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango

March 5, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 2 5 min read

cover If there is one element of László Krasznahorkai’s prose to which critics are most often drawn, it is the length of his sentences. Indeed, they are long: comma-spliced and unrelenting. They run on, at times, for pages, requiring diligence of even the patient reader. George Szirtes, the award-winning British poet who has translated three of Krasznahorkai’s novels, describes the effect as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” But Krasznahorkai’s prose is not singular in this regard. Post-war Europe has produced a cabal of writers responsible for similar feats of syntax: Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Bohumil Hrabal, and Witold Gombrowicz, to name a few. Amid such company, Krasznahorkai feels a bit like the uncle whose throat-clearing at holiday dinners causes those at the table to shift uneasily in their seats. He is obsessed as much with the extremes of language as he is with the extremes of thought, with the very limits of people and systems in a world gone mad — and it is hard not to be compelled by the haunting clarity of his vision.

cover cover Satantango is the most recent of Krasznahorkai’s novels to appear in English, twenty-seven years after its publication in Hungary. It will be released this February by New Directions, the publisher responsible for the rest of Krasznahorkai’s English-language oeuvre: The Melancholy of Resistance was first published in 1998 (in Hungarian in 1989), followed by War & War in 2006 (in Hungarian in 1999), and AnimalInside, a slim pamphlet-sized book translated by Ottilie Mulzet with art from Max Neumann, in 2010. Satantango is perhaps best known as the seven-hour film of the same name by avant-garde filmmaker Béla Tarr, with whom Krasznahorkai often collaborates. In Tarr’s long, spare, black-and-white shots, the movement of Krasznahorkai’s sentences — if not their vitality or their rhythms — find an appropriate analogue:

He decided to watch everything every carefully and to record it constantly, all with the aim of not missing the smallest detail, because he realized with a shock that to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order. However apparently insignificant the event, whether it be the ring of tobacco ash surrounding the table, the direction from which the wild geese first appeared, or a series of seemingly meaningless human movements, he couldn’t afford to take his eyes off it and must note it all down, since only by doing so could he hope not to vanish one day and fall a silent captive to the infernal arrangement whereby the world decomposes but is at the same time constantly in the process of self-construction.

The sentences have what the critic James Wood, in his The New Yorker essay last July, called a “self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, these corrections never result in the correct answer.” One sees similarly recursive patterns in Bernhard and can spot his influence in Krasznahorkai’s later work, most notably in the mad, maddening, György Korin, the protagonist of War & War, to whose machinations Wood refers. Satantango, by contrast, is a quieter book. It is more Beckett-like its sparseness, as though Krasznahorkai, for his novelistic debut, chose to privilege the formal architecture of the novel, the neatness of its structure, over the extremity of his prose. The result is a more mannered brilliance.

cover Satantango begins with the epigraph: “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” In the original Hungarian, the line is attributed to “F.K.” — Franz Kafka — borrowed from his novel The Castle. It is unclear why Szirtes has chosen to translate the selection this way and also to leave it unaccredited. In that scene, while waiting for Klamm outside an inn, K. is approached by a man who insists that K. come with him. K. refuses, and the man cannot understand why. “But then I’ll miss the person I’m waiting for,” says K. “You’ll miss him whether you wait or go,” the man replies. Here, in Mark Harman’s translation, K. says, “Then I would rather miss him as I wait.” The implication is comical: faced with evidence to the contrary, we would prefer to believe ourselves better off should we elect to stay. And yet given the choice, who would choose otherwise?

The inhabitants of the nameless, rain-battered village in which Satantango is set are caught in a similarly fraught waiting game. There is the lame Futaki; the libidinous Mrs. Schmidt; the neglected child, Esti, who kills her cat with rat poison; the god-fearing Mrs. Halics; the landlord; and the doctor who, in order to “preserve his failing memory against the decay that consumed everything around him,” maintains extensive dossiers on them all. They are connected by the spiritual poverty — though they suffer different strains of it — that has settled over “the estate.” The estate resembles a failed collective; it has gone to ruin after the closing of a nearby mill, the circumstances of which, like the history of this seemingly forgotten place, are alluded to — often in dreams. Those who have remained on the land do little more than pick fights, sleep with one another’s wives, and toss back shots of pálinka at the landlord’s bar, that is, until Irimiás and Petrina, both thought to be dead, are spotted on the road to the estate. News of their alleged resurrection spreads fast, and with it, the potential for deliverance or destruction. As the citizens of the town continue to wait (a premise owing much to Beckett and Bulgakov), dancing drunkenly late into the night — “Time for a tango!” one man shouts — Mrs. Halics wonders, “Where was the hellfire that would surely destroy them all? . . . How could they look down on this seething nest of wickedness ‘straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah’ and yet do nothing?”

It is at this point in the book that the novel’s two main figures, Irimiás and Petrina, arrive. In a long and impassioned speech, Irimiás offers absolution, promising to lead the villagers to a nearby estate, “a small island for a few people with nothing left to lose, a small island free of exploitation, where people work for, not against each other, where everyone has plenty and peace and security like a proper human being.” But if Irimiás is a prophet, he is a false one. One sees behind his words the same illusions of the very system which has, not long before, broken the villagers themselves. Here, as the people of the town rally behind Irimiás with renewed hope, we begin to get a feel for the dance. The structure of the novel mimics that of the tango: the chapters go six steps forward (part one) and six steps back (part two), with the pivot marked by the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina, and the ending, by the repetition of the first two pages, as if the dance were to continue on in a closed purgatorial loop, the day of judgment remaining just out of reach. And so we, like the denizens of the town, begin the dance again: six steps forward, forever hopeful, forever waiting.

teaches creative writing at Columbia University. He lives in New York.