Even thought the narrative events themselves are rather quiet, Krasznahorkai’s prose is so intense that I just plowed through his first novel. i expected something fantastic but i didnt expect to have as much fun as i did. 12 chapters, no paragraph breaks, enumerated I to VI then VI back to I, like a tango, as so many have already said. The dance is at the novel’s mathematical center.
There’s something very disturbing lurking in text’s thematic center. i remember the second time i watched Bela Tarr’s film adaptation, being struck by the landlord’s behavior when he learns that Irimias and Petrina, thought dead, are back and approaching the collective farm estate. He retreats to the storeroom of his tavern and starts smashing up his empty bottles screaming “You won’t take this away from me! It’s mine!” etc. It became extra creepy when you know how the plot unfolds, how Irimias, working for the police, cons the mean and miserable villagers into pitching in for a farming co-op which never happens, having them lose all their possessions and get scattered across Hungary. The film is a circle, the events looping back to the beginning by means of the town doctor setting down the prose that is SATANTANGO. The landlord’s outburst was almost like a wrench out of the circle, as if he were aware that all this has happened before, and it will happen again. In the novel we learn that Irimias had ripped the landlord off by getting a shit load of free drinks just for suggesting that he buy the place.
i almost resist a book vs. movie angle because all people want to talk about is the fidelity to the book’s plot, which is just so boring compared to the other issues of adaptation from one medium to another. The film SATANTANGO temps you to emphasize this kind of fidelity. It’s quite a long movie, seven hours and change; perhaps the running time approximates the reading time. Long passages from the novel’s opening and the ending of each chapter is read aloud by a narrator. It’s broken into twelve chapters in just the same way as the book.
But Tarr goes for totally different effects. The film is like an avant-garde theatre production; characters recite odd, poetic lines — much of it is actually quoted poetry, which makes Krasznahorkai’s book still dominant, but also part of a mixture of adapted texts. The novel’s rough and ready dialog, (L.K. has a lovely ear for this kind of tavern speech, and the juxtaposition with his elevated, mandarin narration is so pleasurable) drives the story forward like a bat out of hell. But in his collaboration with Tarr for the film, the same spaces and events became opportunities to depart from story, taking really long pauses.
In chapter one, we meet Futaki sleeping with Mrs. Shmidt while her husband and neighbor Halics are liquidating the collective farm’s cattle (that famous seven-minute opening shot). They plot to steal away with the wad of cash. Futaki sneaks out of the house when Mr. Shmidt comes back earlier than expected, then comes back in as if for the first time. They resolve to sit tight in the house and wait for news from Halics so they can negotiate splitting the money. The rain pours:
The weak sunlight only just succeeded in penetrating a jumbled mass of clouds that was slowly proceeding eastwards: the light in the kitchen dimmed as if it were dusk and it was hard to know whether the gently vibrating patches on the wall were merely shadows or symptoms of the despair underlying their faintly hopeful thoughts. “I’ll go south,” Futaki declared, gazing at the rain. “At least the winters are shorter there. I’ll rent a little land near some town that’s growing and spend the day dangling my feet in a bowl of hot water…” Raindrops were gently trickling down both sides of the window because of the finger-wide crack that ran all the way from the wooden beam to the window frame, slowly filling it up then pushing their way along the beam where they divided once more into drops that began to drip into Futaki’s lap, while he, being so absorbed in his visions of faraway places that he couldn’t get back to reality, failed to notice that he was actually wet. “Or I might go and take a job as a night watchman in a chocolate factory…or perhaps as janitor in a girls’ boarding school…and I’ll try to forget everything, I’ll do nothing but soak my feet in a bowl of hot water each night, while this filthy life passes…”
Futaki’s mini-monologue is done in this take that slowly dollies forward.
But like many of the shots in the film, the camera keeps rolling long after any significant action is done or line is said. The dolly is stately, and pushes forward until we are right up to the window’s doily curtains.
And here we stay for what seems like quite a long while — i thought it was until the film’s magazine runs out, but the shot is only five minutes. It stretched in time in my memory. This is one of the many beautiful passages when drama is paused to make room for video art. The presentation departs from narrative, straining the connection almost to the breaking point. i was blown away the first time i saw this: it’s exhilarating when art so effortlessly poses what you didnt imagine was possible.
The novel ends with the repulsive, bilious, alcoholic doctor boarding up his house to sit in darkness, writing what ends up being the words of SATANTANGO. Lots of written works end with the narrator going home to write what we’ve just read, like some of Wordsworth’s poems. But usually this serves as a commentary on how it is to try to capture the material of the world and turn it into art; a Modernist gesture to sustaining the actual struggle of articulating those aspects of human experience that elude art itself. Here, there’s a sense of total entrapment. The doctor (maybe he’s gotten totally unhinged) seems to fully believe his words are dictating reality. Postmodernism didn’t invent the insight that language is just a projection onto the world — that’s all from bourgeoisie Enlightenment. But this is a hopeless surrendering to that problem. Who is the doctor (or LK) to say that Futaki woke to the sound of bells one October morning, as opposed to a November afternoon, on what authority? There isn’t really an answer.
Or if there is an answer, is has abandoned humankind in this novel, as God has. Everything is in decay, especially the doctor’s house. “God was a mistake,” Irimias says to Petrina after conning the villagers with his silver tongue. “I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.”
But Petrina points out that Irimias says this right after the strangest fantasia in the novel, when they think they’ve seen the ghost of Estike, the abused little girl who committed suicide with rat poison, whose death Irimias used to exploit the villagers’ guilt.
There are a few other kinds of alienating moments. (Speaking of Walter Benjamin’s thing about flashbacks in the Sebald post) Futaki at the beginning looks out the window of the Shmidt household:
He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw 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…and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself — utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials — into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.
Plagues, totalitarianism, cradle and coffin, eternity. The illusion of necessity from what is really chaos is all we have to cling on. Anyway, LK’s writing has only gotten more disciplined since this novel. i hugely admire it for rendering such an earthy, gritty hell on earth while also addressing the Big issues.
There was more i wanted to talk about but this is long enough.