Béla Tarr’s 1994 screen translation of Satantango opens with a long-shot of cattle standing indifferently in the rain, up to their hocks in mud, and then – after an almost endless pause – closes in on the human beings who exist under the same sky, soaked by the same rain, immobilised by the same mud. I’m a big fan of Béla Tarr (who also filmed one of Krasznahorkai’s later novels The Melancholy of Resistance) and was interested to see how the novel Satantango would relate to the film, but not being a Hungarian speaker, I’ve had to wait until now to find out. Apparently George Szirtes deliberately avoided the film while doing the translation to avoid cross-contamination. But I found that film and book carried on having a dialogue in my head as I read, and one illuminated the other in a very positive way.
In the opening sequences of both film and novel Futaki, woken by bells, listens to the rain from the warmth of Mrs Schmidt’s bed, and watches the dawn through the ‘mousehole’ of a window that provides a view of the derelict estate that is a product of the collapsing political system. And he sees himself ‘nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin’.
The story is set on a derelict ‘estate’ where all but a few of the workers have already moved on to other lives. The remaining characters – the Halics, the Kráners, the Schmidts, the crippled Futaki, the alcoholic Doctor, Kerekes the drunken farmer, the widowed Mrs Horgos and her four children, are all in a state of perpetual indecision. They are waiting for something to change, for some sign that will tell them where to go or what to do.
When someone reports that they have seen Irimiás and Petrina (rumoured to be dead) walking towards the estate in the rain, all their hopes are raised. For Mrs Halics Irimiás is Satan himself, for others he is a petty crook, devious political operator, or even a Messiah. Irimiás inspires fear and devotion. But all are certain that his coming means that nothing will ever be the same again.
‘Like the others, [Futaki] no longer believed that anything could change. He had resigned himself to staying here for the rest of his life because there was nothing he could do about it. Could an old head like his set itself to anything new? That was how he had thought but no longer: that was all over now. Irimiás would be here soon “to shake things up good and proper”….’
Bells are heard ringing like a premonition, a young girl goes missing, the rain is relentless, the names ‘Irimiás and Petrina’ repeat like a litany while the characters dance drunkenly through the night in the bar. The reader has a glimpse, through ‘the dead skin’ that covers everything, of something much more profound about ourselves and the society we live in. The revelations are sometimes comic, sometimes tragic.
While the setting of the book fits perfectly into the dramatic shift at the end of the Soviet era that forced the move from totalitarian dependency to capitalist individualism, nothing is specific and it could just as easily describe any kind of regime change and the inability of ordinary people to deal with it. Towards the end of the book, the characters begin to reflect on their own vulnerability.
‘What made it possible for people like them – people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom – to rush around in senseless despair, like prisoners in a cage so that even their vision had clouded over.’
This is a brilliant, hypnotic book. I can’t adequately describe the sheer pleasure of reading prose that generates a shiver of delight by its perfect, intricate syntax, and the total originality of its language and imagery.
‘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 on the western horizon, where its countless terrors vanish one by one like a desperate, confused, defeated army.’
The rhythm of the book follows the rhythm of the dance, Tango, an erotic ‘tease for two’, with its circularity, its leg-hooking and displacement manoeuvres. It’s the ultimate dance of the devil, and as we know, Satan has all the best tunes.
Throw away the creative writing text books, prescriptive ideas of plot and character construction, the trickery of narrative hooks. Satantango has no formulaic back-story ‘reveals’, just a space in the narrative for that old-fashioned mechanism, the imagination. Short sentences? The novel has winding syntactical units like tentacles that reel you inexorably into the centre of the story. This is the real thing – the thing itself.
This was László Krasznahorkai’s first novel, but it’s a masterpiece of European literature beautifully translated. George Szirtes is a poet who knows that translation isn’t simply the substitution of one word for another, but using the right word in the right place to convey the layers of meaning in a text, allowing the reader to experience the rhythms and textures of the original as faithfully as possible. Why did we have to wait twenty six years for a translation into the English language? Is this a symptom of the ‘dumbing down’ of publishing generally over the last couple of decades?
Any Cop?: This book demands your complete attention – it isn’t an easy read, but it rewards perseverance with a breathtaking awareness of what literature can be and do when you throw away the rule-book. It’s also unsettling. The stink of desolation will stick in your nostrils for a long time, tempting you to say ‘at least my life’s not like this’. But can you be sure?