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László Krasznahorkai: Sátántangó (Satantango)

This novel, Krasznahorkai’s first, has finally made it into English, some twenty-seven years after it was first published in Hungarian. It was, of course, available in other languages, such as Czech, French, German and Polish. We should naturally be grateful that it has appeared at all in English, not least because it must have been fairly difficult to translate and all credit to George Szirtes for an excellent job. (A totally pedantic aside: the US version published by Atlantic seems to be called Sátántango;, while the US version published by New Directions and the UK version published by Atlantic, both prefer Satantango. The Hungarian is, in fact, Sátántangó (accents on first two letter a’s and the final o), while the US Atlantic translation is Sátántango, i.e. no accent on the final o. Why? I asked George Szirtes, the translator, and his response was Satantango allows the word to pass into the English-language reader’s consciousness fairly quickly. Adding the two diacritics over the a’s offers the foreign flavour that might be welcome for some. You could go the whole hog and add the acute accent to the o in Sátántangó as well but then it looks as though you hadn’t translated it. Seems reasonable to me.) Whatever you chose to call it or however you choose to spell it, it is still a first-class novel and long overdue for an appearance in English.

It is a first-class work but it is neither an easy read nor lots of fun. It is avowedly modern in style, not always giving you much information, leaving you sometimes guessing who the characters are and consisting of long chapters which consist of only one paragraph. It is set on what the English calls an estate, presumably a collective farm, which seems to have been run down and abandoned by most of its occupants. The mill has been abandoned (it is used as a place of assignment for prostitutes) and the remaining properties, houses and elsewhere, are in a poor state of repair. The persistent rain leaks in the roofs and walls, there is mould and damp, doors and windows do not fit and won’t shut properly and everything seems to be falling apart. Most of the people who lived there have long since moved on. We are left with the dregs, who are hanging on, neither they nor we are sure why or what for, scrabbling for money, having sex with one another’s wives and drinking heavily. Apart from the headmaster, the doctor and the landlord of the tavern, they seem to have (or to have had) unspecified jobs. The book opens with Futaki, who is sleeping with Mrs. Schmidt (the married women are invariably referred to as Mrs. [surname] and almost never by their first names.) We later learn that she has slept with other men. Futaki is there not just for Mrs. Schmidt but also to collect some money from Mr. Schmidt who is returning from somewhere with some money. We do not know why, except that it seems to be a longish absence, doing some work, possibly involving poultry. Quite why Futaki is entitled to a share is not clear and does not matter. Like Futaki, most of the characters seem to be just hanging around. The doctor is perpetually drunk, Sanyi seems to torment his younger sister, Esti, convincing her to give him her money for a money tree and many of the others end up in the tavern.

Things change somewhat, when there is a rumour that Irimiás and his sidekick, Petrina, are coming back. Everyone had thought they had been killed in a car crash some eighteen months previously. Who are they? They seem to be a pair of rogues, always finding ways round the system, always up to no good. In some respects they are the literary pairing we find with Vladimir and Estragon or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But, as the title implies, there is an element of evil to them but an evil which people are happily attracted to. When the rumour spreads that they are alive and on the way, the inhabitants congregate in the tavern, eagerly awaiting them. Mrs. Schmidt, for example, had had an affair with Irimiás and seems eager to resume the relationship. But the pair are not necessarily evil, rather wicked, out to cheat the remaining people on the estate out of their savings, who seem more than willing to let themselves be cheated.

But this is not a simple story of dishonesty and rogues. It is a story, somewhat timeless, even though reasonably well identifiable as the period of the decline of communism, of a society in decay and heading rapidly towards chaos. From the killing of a cat and then a young girl, to the veiled, floating body and the madman in the manor, the drunk doctor and the headmaster with his documentary records, the pair of rogues and the remaining couples wondering what will happen to them, Krasznahorkai paints, as virtually no other could, a wonderful picture of a collapse of a doomed society. It may be communism, it may be Hungary as a whole, Krasznahorkai is not saying and probably does not intend it to be either or, rather, to be both but yet more. Indeed, we can all identify with it, regardless of nationality or political views. It is this that makes it timeless and relevant to all of us. It is good to finally have such a high-quality book available in English.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Magvető Kiadó
First English translation 2012 by Atlantic Books
Translated by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet