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Hungary’s Opus Magnus of Despair

Though Béla Tarr’s Satantango has been a success among cinephiles since its release in the nineties, the book upon which the film was based has remained shrouded in mystery. Hailed as a masterpiece at home in Hungary,  László Krasznahorkai’s novel has been sadly unavailable in English since its publication in 1985. Finally George Szirtes’ new translation has brought the book the wider readership and critical recognition it deserves.

Still from Bela Tarr's Satantango (1994) courtesy of Chico Fireman at Flickr

Satantango follows the lives of a handful of Hungarian hamlet-dwellers. Set on an abandoned communist farm in a post-soviet wasteland, it is a story of the inescapable effects of desperate circumstances on those they circumscribe. Krasznahorkai unflinchingly plumbs the depths of village politics, dragging dirt out of some of the darkest places realist fiction has been, to produce an anatomy of a very melancholy society.

Foremost among Krasznahorkai’s skills as a writer is an astonishing ability to coordinate the particular and the universal. The book confronts its vast existential themes through the experiences of a set of characters, who are described in horrific detail, yet with profound understanding and circumspection. Its scope and ambition have been praised by the likes of W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag, but equally noteworthy in the book is the way in which the pathos and humour of Krasznahorkai’s writing mediate even the most nihilistic of his visions.

Still from Bela Tarr's Satantango (1994) courtesy of Chico Fireman at Flickr

The apocalyptic gloom is also lifted, or perhaps pleasantly thickened, by the poetry of his language; Szirtes’ translation has realized the work of an auteur at the height of his powers. In terms of structure, for instance, Satantango is a strikingly innovative form, modeled on the dance steps of the tango. It moves forward six chapters and then back six chapters, advancing and reversing time, meanwhile curling in a circle to bite its own narrative tail at the end.

The whole is patterned according to Krasznahorkai’s own peculiar symbology; the images, sounds and rhythms that make up his world. There is the recurrent ringing of bells echoing through the text; the darkness ever dogging its pictures; the spectre of madness that haunts many a plot line; the primitive threat of bestiality underwriting almost every passage; and then, most uplifting and unexpected, a quiet mysticism queerly hovering above it all. He deploys an extraordinary range of idioms, too, from sketches in the parochial vernacular to philosophical tangents redolent of Dostoevskean monologue. Across such a range, Krasznahorkai develops a singular style comprised of staggeringly long sentences, all sustained by the elegant or visceral rhythms of his prose.

If you are willing to be pitched into its depths, it certainly should not let you down.

Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes. Atlantic, 320 pp., £12.99, May 2012