László Krasznahorkai, Satantango (New Directions, 1985)
Satantango, Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour masterpiece of slow film, is infamous for being obtuse, joyless, not to mention bloody hard to sit through (to my knowledge, it has never been shown theatrically without at least one dinner-length intermission; I watched it the first time over the course of a week). It’s also one of my top twenty all-time favorite movies, so when word came down that after a quarter-century we were finally getting an English translation of the László Krasznahorkai novel upon which it is based, I girded my loins for a thousand-plus-page monstrosity of some sort of outrageously avant-garde writing I’d need a dictionary, two tomes on the history of communism in Hungary, and an online reference library just so I could get through page one.
Imagine my surprise when the book that landed on my doorstep was just over three hundred pages in length. (Thank heaven the Weinstein Brothers didn’t finance the adaptation, they would have demanded it come in at eighty minutes….) My surprise grew when I breezed through the first page without needing a single external reference…and a few days later, I’d finished it altogether, without a dictionary in sight. But the biggest surprise of all: quite unlike Tarr’s film, Krasznahorkai’s text is… funny. Okay, not side-splitting, but grimly amusing nonetheless. This is not so much an examination of the fall of communism and the rise of capitalism in rural Hungary, as Tarr’s filmed version is; to be sure, that aspect is there, but for the most part it remains personified in two characters, and the rest of the book focuses on the misadventures of the villagers who buy into their nonsense. And “misadventures” is the perfect word for them; you’ll end up wondering “what the hell…?” at least half a dozen times during this narrative, and it is to Krasznahorkai’s eternal credit that at none of those points does it seem like anyone here is acting out of character.
Like the movie based upon it, Satantango is an outrageously great novel—though the book and the movie are outrageously great in entirely different ways. This is a character study par excellence. Read it at your earliest opportunity. Its only problem: it could have actually been the thousand-page doorstop I was expecting and it would be even better. **** ½