Satantango is my first acquaintance with Laszlo Krasznahorkai (as a novelist anyway – I’ve since discovered he wrote the screenplay for Turin Horse which I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival a couple of years ago) and the novel is as authentically East European as his name suggests. The dense, dark woodland of its cover reflects not only the novel’s setting but its style: bleak, impenetrable, unending. (Only the fact that it is not raining prevents the jacket absolutely capturing what is inside). Within this dark landscape the characters root around like animals, lacking any redeeming features, driven only by greed and lust. In other words, it’s not something to read if you want to cheer yourself up, though I believe the author intends to inspire laughter (a kind of despairing laughter, I admit) as much as sadness.
The novel is set in a decayed village, a few houses thrown together whose inhabitants neither like nor trust one another. Within the first few pages we discover Futaki is sleeping with Schmidt’s wife, and Schmidt and Kraner are planning to steal money Futaki is owed in wages. All of them are hoping for something better. These dreams are united around Irimias, believed dead for the last eighteen months but now rumoured to be returning to the village:
“…a great magician. He could turn a pile of cow shit into a mansion if he wanted to.”
Irimias is referred to in the blurb (and presumably the title) as the Devil but this is not a novel in the manner of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye or Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov (I name two of my favourite more recent examples of a very old genre) in which a mysterious character appears and slowly corrupts or torments those around him. The villagers already believe in Irimias before we meet him and abandon all their plans to wait for him. He sends them to a manor house after a rousing speech in a local pub, many of them wrecking their own homes and possessions before they leave, but when they get there:
“…they roamed through the deserted halls of the moribund building, exploring in sombre chaotic fashion the dismantled parts of rusted machinery and in the funereal silence the suspicion grew in them that they had been lured into a trap…”
Just as they have begun to doubt Irimias, however, he appears and, as inexplicably as before, they immediately agree to his next plan.
As with Kafka, the novel works both satirically and allegorically. Krasznahorkai grew up under Communism and it is easy to see how the novel could be read as a critique of that system. It also, however, has deeper things to say about human life that still resonate today – about dreams, for example (in one way, the novel itself is a dream). It is certainly not an easy read – something that can raise suspicion when a novel is lavishly praised by critics – but its difficulty is a fundamental part of its vision.