Waltzing Life Away

Prior to the 20th century, Hungarian literature has been inaccessible. However, the advent of globalization and the exponential rise of technology helped in connecting various parts of the world. They are also seminal catalysts in making literature from different parts of the world accessible to the rest. Like most of the world of literature, Hungarian literature benefited from this. The elevation of Hungarian literature into global prominence was further driven by the rise of writers such as Magda Szabó, Sándor Márai, Péter Nádas, and Péter Esterházy. Not to be outdone, Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. Each of them has left indelible marks on literature, with their works contributing greatly to putting Hungarian literature on the map and on every devout reader’s reading list.

Among the contemporary Hungarian writers who have risen above the ranks in recent years is László Krasznahorkai. With a literary career that spanned nearly four decades, Krasznahorkai built an extensive resume for himself that earned him a distinction as one of the vital writers from contemporary Eastern Europe. Over the years, he has produced a wide array of works, ranging from short stories to essays to novels to even screenplays. His versatility has also earned him several recognitions from different parts of the world, including the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2015. While the translated versions of his works were already gaining attention from readers across the globe, the award was seminal in drawing more global attention to the Hungarian writer and his repertoire.

A foray into the Hungarian writer’s oeuvre would not be complete without a trip to where his literary journey started, his debut novel, Sátántangó. Published in 1985, Sátántangó was warmly received by literary pundits and readers alike. A literary sensation from a rising voice, his debut novel thrust Krasznahorkai into the upper echelons of Hungarian literature. The passage of time has not dimmed its luster and it is recognized as a classic of Hungarian literature. Made available to anglophone readers for the first time in 2012, translation further shone the light on his works and his literary legacy. It even won the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, underscoring the renewed interest and the global recognition Krasznahorkai was receiving for his works.

“However apparently insignificant the event, whether it be the ring of tobacco ash surrounding the table, the direction from which the wild geese first appeared, or a series of seemingly meaningless human movements, he couldn’t afford to take his eyes off it and must note it all down, since only by doing so could he hope not to vanish one day and fall a silent captive to the infernal arrangement whereby the world decomposes but is at the same time constantly in the process of self-construction.”

~ László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó

Krasznahorkai’s first novel transports the readers to a Hungarian hamlet. The estate has been abandoned to rot after failing to operate as a collective. All over the estate, buildings, houses, and other structures were falling into a general state of disrepair. A squalid smell permeated the atmosphere. The air was ominous and pregnant with misery. It was this air of hopelessness and misery that was wrapping around the air breathed by the estate’s inhabitants. Its denizens were comprised of an eclectic mix of characters from peasants to a mechanic to a headmaster, to abusive parents. During the day, they occupied their crumbling houses, and at night, they gathered together in the lone and ramshackle pub. They were, unfortunately, stuck in the dredges of the earth, a condition exacerbated by the incessant rains brought by the advent of the autumn season.

All over the hamlet were physical manifestations of decline and decay. The most pervasive manifestation of decline was the moral decay that has become ubiquitous. The hamlet’s denizens’ were demoralized and bereft of hope and humanity. They were slowly descending into an existence that vividly reflected the world they were currently occupying: declining, decaying, and fading. It was a world where there were no vestiges of order as chaos reigned. We read about peasants coming after each other’s throats, trying to hoodwink each other. At night, they shamelessly sleep with each other’s wives. Rather than studying, young children were all over the estate penetrating their shenanigans. Young girls were taken into prostitution dens. The young boys, meanwhile, were equally demented.

The adults, on the other hand, simply watch the pandemonium unfold before them while wallowing in their misery and sinking themselves into a state of constant drunkenness. Even the few members of the intelligentsia and those who were tasked to look after the village’s welfare were descending into amorality. This hamlet was the proverbial hellhole and yet its denizens were unconsciously waiting for something to happen. It was under these conditions that the novel’s hero arrived. Towards the end of the novel’s opening chapter, the villagers learned about the impending return of someone they believed to have passed away. Eighteen months earlier, news about the death of Irimiás and his sidekick, Petrina reached the villagers. The news of their return elicited some sort of fanfare, with the villagers gathered around to welcome their unexpected visitors.

The news of Irimiás’ resurrection, it seemed, has breathed new life into the villager’s existence. He was a man they believed to possess supernatural powers. In a time rife with misery and recurring images of helplessness, Irimiás’ reappearance, and by extension, Petrina’s, ushered badly needed hope. Their presence was a disruption from the village’s banal days, an unexpected but welcome disruption. For a village in decay, they were a blessing. The crux of the story, however, was Irimiás himself. Was he a prophet, an angel incarnate or was he faux, a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing? Was he the salvation the villagers have long been waiting for?

“In the tense silence the continual buzzing of the horseflies was the only audible sound, that and the constant rain beating down in the distance, and, uniting the two, the ever more frequent scritch-scratch of the bent acacia trees outside, and the strange nightshift work of the bugs in the table legs and in various parts of the counter whose irregular pulse measured out the small parcels of time, apportioning the narrow space into which a word, a sentence or a movement might perfectly fit.”

~ László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó

Figuring prominently in the story was the looming presence of communism. Following the end of the Second World War, Hungary, like most of Europe, suffered from decades of totalitarian regimes. Sátántangó was set in a dystopian future shortly following the end of the communist rule; the novel was released four years before the ending of Hungary’s communist regime which lasted from 1945 to 1989. Having the novel published during a time the communist regime remained in power was a stroke of genius and an act of resistance. In the years following the Second World War, a book like Sátántangó would have subjected its owner to extensive interrogation, imprisonment, or worse, torture. As such, these books must be obscured from the prying public’s view.

Over the years, literature played a seminal role in capturing images of these dark periods in Europe’s history. More often than not, they examined the adverse effects of communism on small and far-flung towns and villages. Such can be gleaned from Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Krasznahorkai’s countrywoman Magda Szabó’s The Door. Sátántangó was another fine example. They were all bleak and thankfully, Sátántangó was able to slip through the police state’s strict censorship laws. To Krasznahorkai’s credit, the allegories were subtle and references to communism were rarely direct. He stirred the story astutely that his messages still came across, earning him well-deserved accolades. The estate that Krasznahorkai conjured was a vivid depiction of the utter failure of the forced agricultural collectivization that the communist regime attempted several times with disastrous results.

The novel was an indictment of communism but it was also a subtle rumination on the antithesis of communism, capitalism. With Krasznahorkai’s astute writing, he managed to contrast the two socio-political forms. The transition between the two, at times, creates chaos. The presence of Irimiás also factored into this chaos. The chaos that ensued was seminal in the novel’s examination of the psychological profile of individuals and a group of weary people. A group of individuals long detached away from the rest of the world tended to be more gullible. This was an important ingredient in Irimiás’ overall scheme of divide and conquer.

“For minutes on end he could not tell whether he was really hearing howls of pain, or whether it was simply that his years of long, exhausting work had rendered him incapable of distinguishing between the general noise and ancient prehistoric screams that were somehow preserved in time (‘the evidence of suffering does not disappear without a trace,’ he hopefully remarked) and now were being raised by the rain, like dust.”

~ László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó

The villagers saw Irimiás’ “resurrection” as a form of miracle. He was an answer to their prayers, hence, they willingly listened to what he had to say. They took it all in unconditionally. In no time, Irimiás was able to forge unlimited power and influence over the villagers. Little did the villagers know that they were waltzing the night away with the devil fervently believing him to be the one who will take them out of their malaise. The titular Sátántangó is a reference to a drunken dance performed mainly during the wee hours. It is a grotesque dance accompanied by the accordion and performed by the denizens late into the night. On the contrary, the villager’s gullibility and Irimiás’ charisma converged for dark humor, one of the novel’s many fine qualities.

The power of Krasznahorkai’s imagination was spellbinding. As equally spellbinding was the quality of his prose. His writing glued the novel’s other fine elements together. His writing captured the oppressive and bleak air that pervaded the village, turning Sátántangó into an atmospheric read. The direness and hopelessness were ripe in the air. A skilled wordsmith, he painted different scenes vividly. The inanimate, the nature, and the village all came alive with his descriptive writing. The writing, however, can get quite dense as each chapter was comprised of a single long paragraph. Beyond Irimiás, the story introduced an eclectic set of characters that included Valuska, an introvert and a dreamer who was fascinated by cosmology; Eszter, previously a celebrated musician who chose to exist as a misanthropist; the hyper-religious Mrs. Halics; and the beautiful and unfaithful Mrs. Schmidt.

At its heart, a subtle but scathing commentary on the impact and failure of communism, Sátántangó, capably translated into English by George Szirtes was a towering achievement of literature. Through the story of a hamlet, its inadequate inhabitants, and the impending return of its “redeemer” or perhaps destroyer, Krasznahorkai’s debut novel transported the readers to a bleak world where despair and hopelessness resided in every corner. Krasznahorkai was skilled at engaging the readers and making them a seminal part of his literary vision. Sátántangó provided glimpses into the brimming writing talent that Krasznahorkai possessed.

“What demonic power had taken possession of them ,stifling eery sane and rational impulse? What was it that had driven them to lose their heads and attack eath other “like filthy pigs when the swill is late”? What made it possible for people like them – people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom – to rush around in seneseless despair, like prisoners in a cage that cover their vision had clouded over?”

~ László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó
Rating

81%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
23%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

Until 2019, I have never read nor encountered any Hungarian writers. My first encounter was with Magda Szabó and her novel The Door early in the year. Later in the year, I came across two names during the lead-up to the announcement of 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature winners: László Krasznahorkai and Péter Nádas. While neither won, both have piqued my interest and in 2020, I read Nádas’ behemoth of a work Parallel Stories. A year later, I got the opportunity to read my first novel by his compatriot, Sátántangó. When I acquired the book, I barely had any iota on what it was nor did I know it was his debut novel. I didn’t even know it was adapted into a seven-hour-plus film! There was, however, something ominous about the novel – you could say it is the title – but I was overcome by curiosity that I eventually overlooked it.

Finding my footing in the story was a bit of a challenge, especially at the start; venturing into uncharted waters usually does that. I was also overwhelmed by the lack of breaks. Each chapter was comprised of one paragraph that I often find myself breathless at the end of each. Nonetheless, I was enchanted by the world that the Hungarian writer conjured. There was something compelling about the story and the prose that reeled me in. Szabó’s and Nádas’ had the same quality. Its complexity and maturity made it difficult to believe that it was a debut novel. I can’t wait to explore more of their works.

Book Specs

Author: László Krasznahorkai
Translator (from Hungarian): George Szirtes
Publisher: Tuskar Rock Press
Publishing Date: 2012
Number of Pages: 274
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

In the darkening embers of a communist utopia, life in a desolate Hungarian village has come to a virtual standstill. Flies buzz, spiders weave, water drips and animals root desultorily in the barnyard of a collective farm. But when the charismatic Irimias – long thought dead – returns to the commune, the villagers fall under his spell. The Devil has arrived in their midst.

Irimias will divide and rule: his arrival heralds the beginning of a period of violence and greed for the villagers as he sets about swindling them out of a fortune that would allow them to escape the emptiness and futility of their existence. He soon takes on a messianic aspect, as he plays on the fears of the townsfolk and a series of increasingly brutal events unfold.

Satantango follows the villagers as they are exploited and taken in by Irimias, as they drink and stumble their way toward the gradual realization of their mistake and ultimate demise. In its measured prose and long sentences, Satantango is nothing short of a literary masterpiece, a formal meditation on death and avarice, human fallibility and faith.

About the Author

László Krasznahorkai was born on January 5, 1954, in Gyula, Békés County, Hungary to a middle-class Jewish family on his father’s side. In 1972 Krasznahorkai graduated from the Erkel Ferenc High School where he specialized in Latin. He then pursued a degree in law, first at the József Attila University (now University of Szeged) and then at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest. He then pursued Hungarian language and literature at ELTE Faculty of Humanities. His thesis was about the works and experiences of Hungarian writer and journalist Sándor Márai (1900–1989) after he fled the Communist regime in 1948. While pursuing his literary degree, Krasznahorkai worked at the publishing company Gondolat Könyvkiadó.

It was while studying law that Krasznahorkai published his first piece, a short story titled Tebenned hittem that appeared in the journal Mozgó Világ from 1976 to 1977. Post-university, Krasznahorkai worked as an independent author. In 1985, he published his debut novel, Satantango, to critical acclaim. This thrust him into the zenith of the Hungarian literary scene and remains his most renowned work. It was also adapted into an over seven-hour-long film of the same title directed by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tar. He followed up this success with his second novel, Az ellenállás melankóliája (1989, English: The Melancholy of Resistance, 2000), For this novel, he received the German Bestenliste-Prize for the best literary work of the year in 1993. His 2008 novel Seiobo járt odalent (English Translation: Seiobo There Below, 2013) won the Best Translated Work in 2014. His other prominent novels include Az urgai fogoly (1992, The Prisoner of Urga), Háború és háború (1999, English: War & War, 2006), and Báró Wenckheim hazatér (2016, English: Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, 2019).

His most recent novel, Herscht 07769, was published in 2021. Krasznahorkai has also published a score of novellas, short story collections, and essays. He also wrote screenplays for films. A writing career that spanned nearly four decades also brought Krasznahorkai several accolades from different parts of the world. In 1998, he was awarded the Márai Sándor Prize by the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture. He was also awarded the 2002 Laureate of the Hungarian Republic (Magyar Köztársaság Babérkoszorúja), the 2004 Kossuth Prize, the 2008 Hungarian Heritage Award, and the 2009 Prize of the Society of Writers. His 2015 victory at the Man Booker International Prize propelled him to global recognition.

Krasznahorkai has traveled widely, with his first trip overseas coming in 1987 when he spent a year in West Berlin as a recipient of a DAAD fellowship. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc further opened possibilities for travel. He has lived in East Asia, Mongolia, and other parts of Europe.