01. 10. 2007. 11:11

The devil has all the good tunes

László Krasznahorkai: Satan Tango

Satan Tango is a novel about trust and its betrayal in many forms. The message is bleak: anyone who invests trust and hope in anything or anyone is almost bound to be disappointed and can only blame themselves for giving that trust and hope in the first place. There is certainly no redemption or transcendence to be had in this world.

One difficulty of writing for an English-speaking public about foreign-language books that have not (yet) been published in English translation is that it is usually hard to find information (in English) about even such basic aspects as the plot. Let me try to remedy that at least for one major work by László Krasznahorkai that has not (yet) made it into English, though it is likely to be the third, after The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War, to do so.

One late October morning, not long before the first drops of the relentlessly protracted autumnal rains had fallen on the cracked, alkaline soil at the western side of the settlement (for the stinking sea of mud then to make the lanes impassable and the town beyond reach until the first frosts), Futaki awoke on hearing a bell.

That is the opening of Satan Tango (as in ‘doing the S. Tango’, rather than the genitive S.’s Tango)—an impressive work that has stood up well over the 20 plus years since it was first published. Indeed, doubly impressive in that it was a first novel, and many of its themes and motifs were to be reworked and developed by Krasznahorkai in subsequent works—most clearly in The Melancholy of Resistance. (That of course makes it all the more puzzling why the publisher did not start with Satan Tango in the first place.)

The story, spread over a couple of days, centres mainly on the dozen or so remaining inhabitants of an unnamed, isolated hamlet that the authorities have officially abandoned as a settlement. Most of the characters are introduced early on: elderly, lame Futaki, three married couples (the Schmidts, the Kráners and the Haliches), two retired professionals (the headmaster and the doctor), the innkeeper or publican, and the Horgos family (the mother; two elder daughters who work as prostitutes in the old mill-house; the young, mentally handicapped Esther, or Essie as she is called; and the teenage boy, Sándor or Sanyi). These are failures who, for one reason or another, seem to be stuck in the middle of nowhere. 

Futaki has spent the night with Mrs Schmidt while her husband is away with Kráner collecting and, as Futaki discovers, planning to decamp with the money owed a whole group of the inhabitants for their past year’s work of tending cattle. That morning, however, word spreads that a charismatic character named Irimiah, who lived in the hamlet for a while some years before, is on his way back (Part 1, Chapter 1: "The News that They’re Coming"). Most people pin great hopes on Irimiah being able to show them a way out of their seemingly hopeless situation. Irimiah, along with his sidekick Petrina, is introduced in Part 1, Chapter 2: "We Rise Again": having done time in prison, he is now being forced to work for the police as informer or agent provocateur.

The doctor is portrayed in Part 1, Chapter 3 ("To Know Something") as having reduced his life to a totally obsessive recording of everything that happens in the hamlet:

He decided that he was going to place everything under close observation and continuously ‘document’ it, striving not to miss even a single tiny thing, because it dawned on him that failing to give attention to seemingly unimportant things was tantamount to admitting that we stand defenceless, lost in the ‘undulating fibres’ of the bridge between disintegration and perceptible order; any tiny thing that happened, whether that was ‘the area carved out of the table’s surface’ by shreds of tobacco, the incoming direction of wild geese, or even a succession of apparently meaningless human gestures, had to be tracked and captured with constant attentiveness; only that way could we hope that we ourselves would not one day become untraceable and mute prisoners of this disintegrating and perpetually rising satanic order.

Essie, already rejected by her mother and older sisters now finds her affection for her brother and the doctor rudely rebuffed by them and so wanders off to kill herself by ingesting rat poison (Part 1, Chapter 5: "Coming Undone"). Part 1 ends with a danse macabre that is meanwhile going on in the local inn (Part 1, Chapter 6: "The Spider’s Business. II. (Devil’s Tit, Satan Tango)").

Part 2 (six chapters numbered in reverse order, from 6 to 1) starts on the next day, after Essie’s body has been found, with Irimiah delivering a quasi-sermon, berating the hamlet’s inhabitants for causing her death. He goes on to suggest that he has a scheme for turning a local estate into a profitable farm business, inducing them to hand over the little money they have to set this up. In anticipation, the very next day most of the inhabitants burn their bridges by trashing their existing homes and trekking off with their meagre belongings to the manor-house, which they find is in total ruins. Irimiah catches up with them there, explains that the plans have had to be shelved temporarily because they won’t wash with the authorities, then takes them into town, splitting them up to wait in various places for the next move… What is clear to the reader (but not to most of the characters concerned) is that Irimiah is nothing more than a con-man.

That sketch is perhaps enough to indicate, at the most general level, that Satan Tango is a novel about trust and its betrayal in many forms, from the individual betrayals of infidelity within marriage and in business dealings and the betrayal of an innocent child’s trust (with tragic consequences), through to the abuse of a whole community’s trust and even Biblical overtones of a loss of God’s trust. The message is bleak: anyone who invests trust and hope in anything or anyone is almost bound to be disappointed and can only blame themselves for giving that trust and hope in the first place. There is certainly no redemption or transcendence to be had in this world.

One aspect that really distinguishes Satan Tango are the many ‘leitmotifs’ that are casually dropped into the text. The most obvious is the rain motif already encountered at the very start: it rains almost incessantly—clearly a metaphor for what has proved to be a recurrent Krasznahorkai preoccupation with sorrow. The bells are presumably another metaphor, while the hamlet’s public-house is literally overrun with spiders’ webs (Part 1, Chapter 4: "The Spider’s Business. I. (Postponed Figure of Eight)"):

He [the publican] noted with misgiving that everything around him had changed: the tables and chairs had shifted, the light patches left by their legs were there on the oily floor; the wine racks by the wall had another order, and on the counter a conspicuous tidiness prevailed. At other times, ‘the ashtrays had a good time stacked up in a heap,’ since everyone flicked their cigarette ash onto the floor, but now—could you credit it!—every table sported one! The door was now stopped with a wedge, the stubs had been swept into a careful heap in the corner! Why all the upheaval? To say nothing of the damned spiders; a person hardly had time to sit down in a place before he had to brush the cobwebs off…

This finds a later echo in a different context (Part 2, Chapter 4: "Going to Heaven? Hallucinating?"):

‘Irimiah’s big, nation-wide spider’s web… Any lights coming on in that dim head of yours yet? Anywhere… something… twitching…’ Petrina started to recover signs of life; to start with, just the trace of a smile flitted over his face, then a conspiratorial light gleamed in his eyes…

Networks in various forms, including networks of informers set up by the police, are a major part of the work’s fabric.

At another level, the text repeatedly verges on near-Biblical language, though not actually quoting it. Perhaps the most obvious example is Irimiah (the name clearly a play on Jeremiah) and the address he makes to the hamlet’s inhabitants, which  is almost a parody of the speeches in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah) or the Lamentations of Jeremiah: One is reminded in part by the book’s motto—“Then I would rather go wrong by waiting” attributed to a certain ‘FK’—of Kafka’s use of parables (e.g. in The Trial and A Country Doctor).

It is perhaps appropriate to note that Satan Tango first appeared at a time when the Communist régime was still in power in Hungary. Though it was by then increasingly openly “liberalizing” in many areas of life, including cultural, and therefore the days of slavish socialist realism had gone by then, Satan Tango nevertheless still strikes one as somewhat ground-breaking in the dourness of the world-view it seems to be espousing. Although references in the novel clearly locate the action as taking place in Hungary, that does not really matter: this could be just about any run-down, no-hope community anywhere. The subject of the dangers of self-delusion is, of course, always relevant, particularly when told with the discreet irony (indeed, self-irony) that is part of Krasznahorkai’s style.

And a helluva kick is saved for the final pages of the book (Part 2, Chapter 1: "The Circle Closes"). The doctor discovers the source of the mysterious bell-ringing. He then settles down to another day of note-taking:

He gazed thoughtfully before him until, his eyes sudden lighting up, he took out a new notebook. ‘It was raining when…,’ he wrote but then shook his head and scratched it out.  ‘When Futaki woke up the rain was pouring down outside, and…,’ he tried again, but he found this too to be ‘positively atrocious’. He massaged the bridge of his nose, set his spectacles back in place then rested his elbows on the table and cupped his head in his hands. He could see before him, like a magically sharp picture, the whole path that was awaiting him, the way the fog slowly stole onto it from both sides, in the middle, in a thin band, shone a face disintegrating in all its futures, the diabolical story of drowning in its features. He reached for a pencil again, but now he sensed that he was on the right track; he had enough notebooks, his schnapps, his stocks of medicine would last out until the spring, if need be, and the nails would have to rot in the door before anyone was going to disturb him. Cautiously, so as not to scuff the paper, he started to write: ‘One late October morning, not long before the first drops of the relentlessly protracted autumnal rains had fallen…’

One can see why Hungarian critics were so enthusiastic: this is a marvellous piece of philosophical storytelling.
Krasznahorkai László: Sátántangó
Budapest: Magvető, 2005 (first published in 1985)

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: László Krasznahorkai