Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review: "Satantango" by Laszlo Krasnahorkai

      Though not long enough to be depressing Satantango is ultimately a brooding danse macabre through the dark side of the human spirit with appropriately placed humor. Realistic enough to strike fear into your heart while, at the edge of vision and hearing something stirs: possibly supernatural, perhaps just the wind... Shows hints of Peake, Tarkovsky, and was appropriately made into a SEVEN HOUR FILM by Bela Tarr. Satantango presents a view of Hungarian country life that is anything but pastoral. Krasnahorkai is skilled at creating and maintaining a sense of impending catastrophe while relegating activity, for the most part, to bar conversations, drunken walks and sullen contemplation. The End appears to always be at arms length, ever approaching. Yet it never arrives.
      The Hungarian fruit brandy palinka is the central character of the novel and easily gets the most pagetime in the book. The rest of the plot follows a sad sack group of practically interchangeable peasant couples eking out a horrid existence on a defunct farm estate who spend their time drinking, fighting, fucking each other's wives and ignoring their own. On the periphery are an observer: a doctor with easily the strongest alcohol addiction, his days a jumble of passing out in the street, recording meticulous details of the estate and mentally disparaging the other villagers, and an innocent: an apparently retarded little girl from a broken and abusive house who lives in her own perfect world. Each are separate from the village in their own way yet are caught in the grasp of despair which penetrates, the only human casualties of the malaise which lays over the town. Depending on the situation certain characters are portrayed in very different ways. The "savior" Irimias at first appears dimwitted in a police station yet becomes godlike when among his followers, a boy is callous and controlling to his younger sister yet is later controlled by Irimias. This can be a little off putting (we want consistency in our characters after all) yet is accurately portrays the subjectivity of identity.
       The central event of the work is the return of a sort of savior who makes grandiose promises and leads the villagers, divided for and against him, "out" of the estate and into perhaps greener pastures. Immediately after leaving the estate they return to their old ways. It's very clear that their destructive behavior is entirely self determined, the savior only stands as a symbol really, the villagers are capable the whole time of making their lives better but choosing to remain in despair while blaming it on outside forces. Krasnahorkai's view of human nature is dark but optimistic: we are often condemned to pain and stagnation but it is ultimately our choice whether to attribute outside of ourselves and remain or find the source inside ourselves and become liberated.
      For a novel of this type the narrative is relatively straight forward: this isn't a difficult novel, nor long. Some parts are a little disjointed, and the story follows the back and forth, recursive steps of the tango: there is no beginning or end, we see the same events and characters from different angles and they are altered appropriately. Unusual, supernatural events occur: bar patrons drunkenly fall asleep and are almost instantly covered in spider webs, a little girl is whisked away into the sky by a chorus of ghostly humms. None of these are uplifting or "magical" in the way of Marquez or H. Murakami and very well may be hallucination. Perhaps Satantango could be accurately listed as "cursed realism".

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