Look at you. Sitting there with your beach novels. Blissfully, ignorantly happy with your paragraphs. You don’t know what I’ve seen. What I’ve suffered.
This is a book that was made into a movie filmed in black and white. This movie is seven hours long. The first shot lasts ten minutes. It is of cows in a field. Oh god. Yes, friends, it is that sort of novel. Set in an Eastern European community that has collapsed in on itself and inhabited by small, grey people living small, grey lives. The setting itself is not small. It is large in such a way that one feels the muddy fields will never end. They will go on and on forever and there will be no escape. (And this review may contain spoilers, so read at your own risk.)
There is a sense of foreboding one might infer early on; something terrible will happen to these people, and one accepts that as inevitable. One feels no sense of dread, but fatality; this whole place is in the process of dying. If someone should hurry it up, that can be only a small kindness. The people of this place – “the estate” – will not be missed, especially by each other.
There are a handful of children in this novel. The younger ones are quick and panicky, like rabbits who smell a fox. The older ones know the place is dying, know it better than the adults, and they will be gone as soon as they can manage it. And one, one in particular, is stretched thin and tormented and strange.
Krasznahorkai jumps from head to head, often within a single page, with each head filled with small hatreds, greed, and ego. Each person seems to think themselves the one sensible, intelligent creature amongst vermin – until Irimiás arrives.
Irimiás is Christ and Satan, halo on his head and temptation in his hand. He reminds the people of the Estate of their dreams, accuses them of their faults, inspires them to act. Irimiás is a catalyst; with him returned these people at last come alive again. But the newfound energy is a nervous energy; like corpses raised by the necromancer they are not truly alive, and if they stop moving they will die. In the end it is only Futaki who realises Irimiás is as doomed and hopeless as any of them. Alas, this realisation does not help him.
The dragging difficulties of these people are underscored by the manner in which it is presented, for my friends, this book has no paragraphs. There are some exceptions: a couple of snippets of song, one excessively long speech (although why he bothered in that particular instance I cannot tell you), and one incredibly puzzling instance in the middle of a page. Was this intentional? Is it meant to suggest something in an artistic manner? Was it a printing error?
The chapters in Part 2 are all numbered backwards. Having finished the novel, I can now see why, but I honestly only discovered this because I got to the last Chapter I, actually noticed it said “Chapter I”, and went back to check. My first reaction was “of course they are”, because Satantango will not make it easy on you.
It makes one think. The Guardian describes Satantango as “obviously brilliant”, and in its way, it is. It’s richly painted, gloomy, and dripping with the very essence of decay. But in reading it one couldn’t help but wonder, would it be considered “publishable” today? Readers, writers and agents swap tips on the internet on how to get your manuscript seen. “What not to do”. Satantango would send some agents into conniptions. Very long sentences, no paragraphs even for dialogue, a lengthy existential tangent on page three, a confusing collection of characters (not helped by several of them having names beginning with K). Frankly I am still not sure what happened in Chapter II. It all makes one wonder how many masterpieces are unceremoniously added to the slush pile because they have so sinned within their first few pages. If this is brilliance – and I’m not disagreeing – are these helpful tips snuffing out other potential works of brilliance? Perhaps we should all spend more time on creating and polishing, and less wondering what it is agents or publishers are looking for.
Also, what the hell was that in Part 2, Chapter IV? I’m not going to spoil it for you, dear readers… suffice it to say that a strange thing occurs that is described in great detail, doesn’t have a great deal of actual impact and is never explained. Which, now I think about it, rather sums up the book in general.