László Krasznahorkai's Satantango
(New Directions, 2012: 274 pages)
reviewed by Cooper Renner

Krasznahorkai's War & War keeps the reader locked primarily in the prison-house of the mind of the protagonist, a minor archivist employed by the Hungarian government, even as the events of his life lead him from Hungary to New York City, determined to preserve the contents of a manuscript he has discovered. Satantango, an earlier and much heralded novel only now made available in English translation, manages to feel equally claustrophobic and constricted, even as it moves among the viewpoints of about a dozen characters, almost all of them in some way attached to an abandoned "estate" at which work has ceased. If the physical center of their communal lives is the surviving tavern where most of their jealousies and angers go on display at one time or another, the psychological heart is twofold: the almost universal lust of the men for the voluptuous Mrs Schmidt and the rampant rumor that the once-thought-dead (and apparently almost messianic) Irimiás has returned, along with his colleague Petrina. These former co-workers' lives are as intertwined as those of the members of a large family, with resentments and grudges surging up and dying back, sudden kindnesses, noble stirrings. These lives are like the crumbling buildings in which the characters reside, damp, cobweb-ridden, unpleasant. But the potential import and impact of Irimiás's return makes hope resurface, even as they confront the suicide of one of the neighborhood children and their complete ignorance of what their hero might have in store for them. In the grand, sometimes blackly comic tradition of existential fiction and with post-modern touches which may to some readers recall Borges, Satantango answers none of the questions it raises and leaves determination of "meaning" to its audience: is it a metaphoric denunciation of Communist Hungary (it was first published in 1985), a hard-boiled examination of rootless modern lives, a mockery of the obtuseness of faith in the face of no evidence? Or an act of authorial sleight-of-hand? Only you can decide.