Satantango – Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated by George Szirtes) – Best Translated Book Award 2013 – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013

In an interview with “The Guardian” back in 2012 Laszlo Krasznahorkai apparently “discussed his disenchantment with the paragraph break and the full stop”. If you have read Satantango you’d understand why he was asked questions about punctuation. Here’s an excerpt of that interview:

“… the short sentence is artificial – we use almost never short sentences, we make pause, or we hold on a part of a sentence end …” he reaches for it with his left hand as it passes “… but this characteristic, very classical, short sentence – at the end with a dot – this is artificial, this is only a custom, this is perhaps helpful for the reader, but for only one reason, that the readers in the last few thousand years have learned that a short sentence is easier to understand, this is also a custom, but if you think, you almost never use short sentences, if you listen …”
This is not only when writing, when thinking, he continues, but “… in daily life – if you are in a bar, and if you drink with somebody – your friend, your acquaintance, an unknown person who speaks, who tells you something – he wants or she wants to tell this something very, very much, because we all have only one sentence, and we are looking for this sentence where we have some power to say something, for one sentence, in one life we have only one sentence and everybody in a bar or in a school or in a university or everywhere, in the street are looking for their own sentence, and this man or this woman doesn’t look for a pause, for this artificial, very easily understandable kind of sentence, no, he or she always uses always very, very long, fluent word combinations – this is very fragile, but fluent, you can’t cut it …”
I know I’ve got a great idea, let’s not talk to a writer about his actual novel, let’s talk about his punctuation! Seriously???
Satantango is split into two sections of six chapters each – and each chapter is a single paragraph, twelve paragraphs in total (but don’t think you got a quick read on your hands, each paragraph runs for 20 or 30 pages. “The First Part” runs from Chapters I through VI, “The Second Part” From Chapters VI through I, is it circular in structure, or is it ?
At the core of the novel is a meeting at the bar of this desolate village’s inhabitants, unemployed farmers, ex-mill workers, mothers of “whores”, ex-headmasters, a cripple and the landlord (the Doctor pays a fleeting visit). And why are they meeting? To await the arrival of Irimias, long thought dead (a resurrection?), as he is the only one who can lead them away from this desolate place.
Is this the meeting of the disciples, after the saviour’s rebirth? But this novel is no salvation story, it is the coming of the apocalypse, a dark, dark, bleak and gloomy tale of poverty, boredom, abuse, lust and premature death. But is that what’s really happening?
“Something might have happened.” But what precisely happened, that could only be determined by a maximum joint effort, by hearing ever newer and newer versions of the story, so that there was never anything to do but wait, wait for the truth to assemble itself, as it might at any moment, at which point further details of the event might become clear, though that entailed a super-human effort of concentration recalling in what order the individual incidents comprising the story actually appeared.
Again, this is no, I’ll sit by the poolside and knock this one over, easy read, but one where you become entranced by the web that is being woven, just like the mysterious spiders in the bar who cover everything (and everybody) in their webs, without even being seen! A tale of a desolate village in Hungary, putrefaction at work.
Because what did it mean to say that something represented a cross between primitive insensitivity and chillingly inane emptiness in a bottomless pit of unbridled dark?! What sort of crime against language was this foul nest of mixed metaphors?! Where was even the faintest trace of striving for intellectual clarity and precision so natural – allegedly! – to the human spirit?!
Is this Krasznahorkai having a go at editors, even his own style of writing?! A wonderful character portrait of people on the edge of an abyss, will the resurrection send them straight to the depths of hell? Are their plans beyond their drunken dance a way to erase the past?
That rat-faced bastard has ruined me for good.” He knew that by evening, when he had finished packing – because until then nothing else could go in the van apart from the coffin, not next to it, not behind it, not on the seats, anywhere – once he had carefully locked all the doors and windows and was driving to town in his battered old Warszawa, cursing all the while, he wouldn’t be looking back, wouldn’t turn around once, but would vanish as fast as he could and try to wipe all trace of this miserable building from his memory, hoping it would sink from sight, and be entirely covered up, so that not even stray dogs would stop to piss on it; that he would vanish precisely the way the mob from the estate had vanished, vanish without a last look at those moss-covered tiles, the crooked chimney, and the barred windows because, having turned the bend and passed beneath the old sign indicating the name of the estate, feeling elated by their “brilliant future prospects”, they trusted the new would not only replace the old but utterly erase it.
If you want to challenge yourself to a language feast, a novel that is constructed as a drunken tango, side step, forward step, back step, side step, forward step, back step, start all over again, then I would hunt this one down. This is a world where nature has taken control of these hapless worker’s lives:
…and suddenly on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity…
Another amazing European work in translation, which uses language to meld a picture, a creative work of art on the page, paragraphs that decompose in front of your eyes, yet another challenge to our standard planes of thought.

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3 thoughts on “Satantango – Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated by George Szirtes) – Best Translated Book Award 2013 – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013

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