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)

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