Thursday, April 25, 2019

László Krasznahorkai – ‘Satantango’

Reading this just before Easter, I wondered if there was some deliberate connection between the figure on whom most of the characters pin their hopes, Irimiás, and Jesus. The way they await his coming, to their grim, moribund village, where it always rains, and no-one besides the pub’s landlord has worked since an unspecified big employer left the area many years ago. There is something like a resurrection, too, witnessed by Irimiás. It took a while to place the action in time: an estate is mentioned, the villagers in their hovels seem like serfs, it could be the nineteenth century or earlier, but modernity does intrude now and then (there’s a truck, for instance). In the opening chapter, the lame Futaki is in bed with Mrs Schmidt, and has to get up, sneak outside and come in again when her husband arrives unexpectedly. They then argue about money. In a house nearby a doctor sits at a window drinking, observing the comings and goings of his neighbours and writing down every detail in a set of notebooks, one per person observed. He does this all day every day, and keeps doing it even after everyone has left to follow their saviour, who doesn’t see himself as anything of the sort:
God was a mistake. I’ve long understood that there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay […] It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. (p. 220)
The setting, with the squalor, the rain and the mud, is reminiscent of Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, though without the Southern Gothic flavour. The book is Hungarian, so presumably the setting is Hungary. Irimiás is resolute and mysterious, the above passage is (or seems to be) a rare moment of candour, though it’s also a pointless one, his companion Petrina being a coward and an idiot. Futaki, perhaps the most sympathetic character, has similar thoughts (he reflects on ‘this sty of a world’ (p. 145)), and provides this terrifying assessment of the defense reflex:
It was as if the real threat came from elsewhere, from somewhere beneath their feet, though its source was bound to be uncertain: a man will suddenly find silence frightening, he fears to move, he squats in a corner that he hopes might protect him: even chewing becomes a torture there and swallowing agony, so eventually he doesn’t even notice that everything around him has slowed, that he is ever more hemmed in, and then discovers that his strategic withdrawal is in fact nothing less than petrification. (p. 135)
It’s like ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ again, but in this version aspiration is starting from a lower base than for Tom Hanks’ Steve Wong. Steve wants to have fun bowling; Bartleby prefers not to do anything; Futaki wants to live, but life keeps receding (he also keeps falling over in the mud). Satantango is the end of the road for many of its characters, their only hope a man who gives them the comfort of instructions to follow, but there is nothing behind the instructions, except (it is hinted) an intention to exploit them. The only characters who do not fall into Irimiás’ trap, or the wider worldly trap he outlines above (which sounds a lot like freedom of opportunity) are the insane: the drunken, obese, obsessive doctor, and Esti Horgos, a girl abused by her family who poisons their cat and lays down to die.

Here is a sunrise, though. Ain’t that enough?
Irimiás scrapes the mud off his lead-heavy shoes, clears his throat, cautiously opens the door, and the rain begins again, while to the east, swift as memory, the sky brightens, scarlet and pale blue and leans against the undulating horizon, to be followed by the sun, like a beggar daily panting up to his spot on the temple steps, full of heartbreak and misery, ready to establish the world of shadows, to separate the trees one from the other, to raise, out of the freezing, confusing homogeneity of night in which they seem to have been trapped like flies in a web, a clearly defined earth and sky with distinct animals and men, the darkness still in flight at the edge of things, somewhere on the far side of the western horizon, where its countless terrors vanish one by one like a desperate, confused, defeated army. (p. 47)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tom Hanks – ‘Uncommon Type’

No one has typewriters anymore, none that work. But typewritten letters are special. Some folks come with letters they’ve composed on a computer they want me to type out for them and make one of a kind. Before Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, I could sit here for hours and type notes for folks lined up around the block. If I charged, I’d be as rich as a good florist. (pp. 381-2, from ‘Our Town Today with Hank Fiset: Your Evangelista Esperanza’)
Typewritten letters are special? No, no, no: handwritten letters are special. But let’s go with it for a while. In the story ‘These Are the Meditations of My Heart’, a typewriter salesman makes his pitch along similar lines: ‘You are seeking permanence’ (p. 235). Most of the characters in these stories (all of which feature typewriters in some capacity) are seeking something like that: they need something to cling to in a world in flux. Some are refugees or newly naturalised citizens; others are film stars or property magnates worth billions of dollars. Some stories are set when typewriters were current technology; most are contemporary. Most feature broken relationships, too, and there is more than a suggestion that while people will inevitably let you down, these sturdy machines, well looked after, will not. The salesman again:
        ‘They are made of steel. They are works of engineers. They were built in factories in America, Germany, Switzerland. Do you know why they are up on that shelf right now?’
        ‘Because they are for sale?’
        ‘Because they were built to last forever!’ The old man actually shouted. In him, she heard her father hollering, ‘Who left those bikes on the front lawn? … Why am I the only one dressed for church? … The father of this house is home and needs a hug!’ (p. 232)
There is a touch of Alan Partridge maleness about this: the reliance on understanding the mechanical as a substitute for understanding people.

Some variations on the nuclear family, cracked or otherwise: the boy in ‘A Special Weekend’ spends a weekend with his mother and her new partner, just prior to his tenth birthday. They take him for a plane ride as a treat, even allowing him to take the controls for a while, but he knows this is no substitute for the home life he has lost, so young. In ‘Welcome to Mars’ a young man goes surfing on his nineteenth birthday, busts his leg on his board, and in trying to get help sees something he shouldn’t’ve: his father kissing a stranger in a car. In ‘Christmas Eve 1953’ two Word War Two veterans drift further apart every year. One is a lone wanderer, and gay; the other is a family man, missing a leg but utterly settled: he loves his family and they love him, there is no longer any story. ‘A Month on Greene Street’ is better: a mother and children move into a new neighbourhood following her divorce, and she tries to avoid encouraging the friendliness and ‘Are you doing anything tonight’-ness (p. 126) of her new neighbour, a teacher with a telescope which fascinates all the children nearby, and some of the parents too. The mechanical substitute, again (isn’t that what’s bad about the internet age? People on their phones ignoring other people? Is the debate about the quality of the distraction?)

Permanence is an illusion for the rich, too, they just have more liberty to chase it, more garish ways to imagine it. In ‘The Past Is Important to Us’ a billionaire pays $6m to travel back in time to the New York World Fair of 1939. He meets a woman there who begins to obsess him, perhaps because she is so obviously unattainable, as the rules of the travel company, and the pseudo-science, dictate that he can only ever travel back to the same day, and can only spend 22 hours there each time. On every trip he manages to spend slightly longer with Carmen and her young niece Virginia, seeing the sights, eating pie, flirting. The interest comes from the variations in the scene which keeps being repeated and extended, as the seemingly spontaneous is revealed to be merely automatic. ‘A Junket in the City of Light’ is about Willa Sax, star of the wildly popular Cassandra Rampart film franchise, and the Paris leg of the press tour to promote the latest instalment, told from the point of view of her much-less-famous co-star Rory Thorpe. A news story breaks about her husband being caught high and with some hookers, and the whole circus stops dead, cancelled. Rory shrugs, does some sight seeing instead. It’s hyper-real and un-real all at once, as though in increasing the possibilities, wealth diminishes the outcomes. The only attachment worth the name in these rich folk stories is in ‘Stay with Us’, when Ms Mercury, personal assistant to a ludicrous property magnate, falls for a mechanic and quits to marry him.

Most of the stories’ settings fall into one socio-economic category or another, but there is a group of three stories which aims for more of a melting pot. In ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ (which opens the collection), ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’ (which is the funniest thing in it) and ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ (which closes it, and is the bleakest), four friends hang out, go on holiday, chat, say ‘atta baby’ a lot. Two are rich enough to contemplate a holiday to Antarctica without particularly considering the cost. Two work at a hardware store. One of the latter, MDash, becomes a US citizen in the first story, and has a naturalisation ceremony. The other, Steve Wong, has ‘grandparents [who] were naturalized in the forties’ (p. 3). ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. In it, the four friends go bowling to celebrate a year since MDash’s naturalisation. Steve Wong scores all strikes. They go back a few more times over subsequent weeks, and it keeps happening: every time he scores a perfect 300. This gets noticed, and he is offered a $100,000 prize if he can repeat the feat on TV. As the story progresses, Steve takes less and less interest in his performance, and he refuses to engage in the hyperbole of television: ‘Like I said. I bowl for fun’ (p. 396). In fact, the TV appearance stresses him out, and he throws up in the parking lot before going on. I think what is going on is the emptiness at the heart of the American dream. In the land of the free, what if you do take every opportunity? What if your numbers do keep going forever upwards? So what?

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