Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

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Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An awkward and dense piece from Hungary, in which the intriguing premise fails to deliver.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Atlantic Books
ISBN: 9781848877641

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A small community in rural Hungary is unsettled. One man has too much control over the place, with too much influence on the work done there, and over all the lives lived there. His effect is still felt, even though he has been dead for over a year. So whether you are the man itching to finish a swindle and leave with the proceedings, or the doctor, confined by will to a chair at his window, making the most personal, immaculate notes about the whole existence of the community, or the housewife whose loins still mourn the influence of said man, you are unsettled - especially when the dead man is said to be returning...

That is a delicious premise, and something from which the author could have gone anywhere. For some reason, where it led me to was to be a bit more scientific than usual in saying why it left me feeling it deserved only a moderate rating. Let's start with the style - I didn't mind the long, complex sentences and the fact that each twenty- or thirty-page chapter was made of just one paragraph. I am used to convoluted modernism.

What was a problem was that the characters seemed completely interchangeable - to the extent that at the sort-of titular dance, the author seems to make a mistake and pair the wrong people together. This harms the book when it's partly about the flawed nature of everyone, and whether this is down to the mysterious man or not. The doctor notifies us of all the bed-hopping, and so on, but one leaves the pages with little in the way of a clear eye to the occupants or the community - so much is made of the metalled road and the track, and a couple of locations, but one can't define it mentally.

It's only to the end, when one reads the blurb, that one finds it was a Communist, collective farm. Not knowing this, I must have misread it, and found the man's apportioning of labour to be pre-Communism - he was Lenin, Stalin and/or A N Other baddy, if you put it bluntly. Either way, the book reads as something detached from everything, and not successfully a representation or metaphor for any given time or place. Dating from 1985, and only translated this year (2012), it seems to bear no urgency, no currency, and little relevancy in anyone's minds.

I did like some vivid pictures that emerged from the dense, matter-of-fact style. The local pub is infested with spiders that spin their webs over everything that settles immobile for even a short time - even the drinks of those sleeping off an all-nighter. I certainly didn't enjoy the midpoint scene where character development is had through animal abuse.

It seems stupid to dismiss one whole country's literature with one fell statement, but perhaps modern Hungarian literary fiction just isn't my bag. I've tried Sandor Marai and found him equally ultra-lanquid, low on plot and high on a sort of pomposity I could do without. The narrator here feels the necessity to give us too much information, in a dense way, and I can see how and why the intimate, close-up style gives everything relevance, and enriches the writing. But for it to be much more friendly, and successful, the bigger picture, giving the location and characters more depth, honesty and the chance to be pinned down in their world (and therefore ours) was needed.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For more important points in the Hungarian 20th century in fiction, we recommend Detective Story by Imre Kertesz.

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