Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango concerns itself with the destitute lives of the residents living in a decrepit, rain-drenched Hungarian estate. He writes the novel using winding, multi-part, sometimes page-long sentences that almost act as a dialogue when no one is speaking. Instead, the sentences speak to themselves, discussing the themes, correcting the earlier moments, or arguing with one another. Krasznahorkai expertly uses the plot to set the basis for the thematic material.
On the surface, he is writing a novel about the failed Totalitarian Communist leadership present in Hungary at the time. The story is about those irreverent citizens, living as drunks and cheaters, who live like this because the government is now unconcerned with them as they pose no use following the downfall of their industry. Often, I read about people who question the book’s purpose or writing style. They wonder what it’s about or if the sentences and paragraphs serve any importance other than the author being pretentious. I hope this article gives a little insight into why I believe this book is absolutely important and why it serves a much greater purpose than what may be apparent. This whole article will contain SPOILERS.
Before delving into the thematic material to help explain Satantango, it is important to have an understanding of the overarching plot within. The citizens of the estate are living in squalor and perpetual drunkenness. They cheat on wives and husbands, leave their children to prostitute themselves, and drink the mornings, days, and nights away to pass the time. The estate they live on was once some sort of agricultural industry. Now that it is useless, the government has given up on this community, leading to their current state of living. Their indifference leads to the suicide of a young girl, Esti.
Thus enters Irimias. Irimias is literally a government worker – an informer of sorts. But he represents other entities: the totalitarian state, the material form of Satan, or a foreshadowing of a fascist capitalist state. He leads them to believe he is bringing them to a literal Eden, and instead (without their knowledge) tears them from their homes and sets them to work as spies. They believe they are going to work for certain individuals while Irimias builds his Eden, but instead, they will report on those they are working for. It ends with the Doctor of the estate hearing the same ringing bell Futaki heard at the beginning and deciding to write their story.
Part 1: Nihilism
The theme of nihilism is present throughout the novel. Nihilism is the belief that life (or things you do in life) are meaningless – that there is no point in morality, love, or enjoyment. I will use nihilism to set a quick basis for what I believe the purpose of the novel was. Satantango opens and closes with the ringing of a bell. When Futaki hears it in the first few pages of the novel, to us it calls to mind some higher power. It makes us wonder, are heaven’s gates opening? is it signaling the coming of some angel or prophet? Well, a religious person (or someone who believes in signs) would believe it was a sign from God, but here is what comes to Futaki’s mind:
… 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…
Instead of thinking of something beautiful, what comes to his mind is thoughts of death and the meaninglessness of life. He is presented with God and thinks of the Devil. It is almost as if he is seeking this pain, or these “torturers and flayers of skin”.
But who else hears the bell? The Doctor, or the narrator of the entire work. The book ends with him writing down the first few pages of this novel, signifying his authorship of the work. Before getting into his experience with the bell, it is important to see his worldview as well. Far before his hearing of the bell, he sits and watches the people of the town. He thinks:
… he was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenseless, helpless victim of the earth’s crust, the brittle arc of his life between birth and death caught up in the dumb struggle between surging seas and rising hills, and it was as if he could already feel the gentle tremor beneath the chair supporting his bloated body, a tremor that might be the harbinger of seas about to break in on him, a pointless warning to flee before its all-encompassing power made escape impossible, and he could see himself running, part of a desperate, terrified stampede comprising stags, bears, rabbits, deer, rats, insects and reptiles, dogs and men, just so many futile, meaningless lives in the common, incomprehensible devastation, while above them flapped clouds of birds, dropping in exhaustion, offering the only possible hope.
Again, like Futaki, his world view holds on to some meaninglessness of life. He sees himself as a small part of a pointless world, as a speck of time that comes out to experience something insignificant while hills rise and sink before him. He views life as a simple waiting game for death, and that death is “the only possible hope”.
Finally, to drive this point of nihilism home, now I can get at what the Doctor experiences when he hears the bell. Again, it should come to mind that a bell would usually signify something grand and beautiful, but when he arrives at its source, there is some disfigured creature speaking in incomprehensible bursts, and we are uncertain if it is even human. It is not some god ringing the bell, and it is not even the devil. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as we know it is something grotesque, something that is suffering through life performing menial pointless tasks, just as the townspeople seem to be doing.
Part 2: The Estate
Now to tie this theme of nihilism into the bigger picture. Futaki and the Doctor open and close the novel – they present us with most of the book’s philosophy – but they rarely play a big part in the central moments. Esti, as young as she is, already seems to deny the importance or beauty of life, and instead seeks solace in death. She kills her cat and then herself, waiting for a guardian angel to come and take her up. But at one point, in the book’s very few paragraph breaks (and the only one that isn’t breaking for a song or list or prayer) Esti is thinking:
… she could sense their presence without seeing them, she knew they were there, that she was facing
Esti is literally viewing her family and village members from a higher place. She could be acting as the only source of good throughout the book, watching over them from a vantage point, some metaphorical sense of heaven maybe. It is no coincidence that Krasznahorkai chose to break this line up. He wanted us to think on this line as a metaphor or something more important. “Down there” calls to mind viewing Earth from above, like an angel or a god. She may be acting as a guardian angel over the entire estate, yet as she watches over it all, she remembers her mother’s words to her – “There’s nothing for you here!” It sets in motion her nihilistic beliefs; she comes to realize the lies the town and even her brother tell her; apathy sets in. Esti kills herself and the town loses its guardian angel.
The loss of this angel is what gives Irimias a way to enter, but first we see the outcome of this loss at the bar. There are no redeeming qualities expressed in this chapter, just drunkenness, cheating, anger. The rain pours down onto the bar as if foreshadowing some apocalypse. And most importantly, the spiders weave their webs on these still living, breathing inhabitants. The spiders give them a symbolic sense of the dead – yet even they refuse to stay with these “corpses” and their immorality – and then retreat back to their holes.
Part 3: The Journey
As I said, Esti’s death (or more accurately, the failings of the townspeople to protect her) opens a doorway or a purpose for the devil to come into their lives. It calls to mind a sort of Faustian bargain. Maybe an unwilling or an unspoken one for the townspeople, but still similar. They are promised an Eden and so set to destroying their former homes and leaving the decrepit estate. But this is all lies as the devil is wont to do. They are sent out to “work” for certain individuals, believing that one day Irimias will come back for them to present this Eden. But the devil (or maybe he is simply a minion of the devil) is just using them to learn – to spy for his master, which as presented in Part One Chapter 2, happens to be the Totalitarian bureaucracy of the Hungarian government.
Does this new work give their lives purpose? Will their conditions of living improve? Will they receive some sort of satisfaction with their work, or some hope that something better is coming – an Eden? It is all possible but hard to believe. They had a purpose before on their estate, but once their use had run out, they were forgotten and most likely will be again. Likely, they will revert back into alcohol or some other vice as a means of passing time and forgetting; they will bribe, steal, cheat, and fight. They may hope or set their sights on some other Christ figure, maybe this time one who is not in disguise. But as their story closes, it feels as if that thought is absurd.
Satantango is obviously highly nihilistic and provides a horribly pessimistic worldview, but it does give hope. Krasznahorkai gives us scenes that provide some solace or comfort that there is something that matters, whether from a religious, artistic, or social perspective. In the scene when Esti’s corpse (or soul?) is rising above the fog seeming to be taken to heaven, Irimias cowers. He is seeing the innocent saved and brought to what is a real Eden. There is light and beauty after death, and maybe that shows him it is possible before death as well. The Doctor finds comfort in writing, in art. He finishes his chapter having possibly found a true purpose in cataloguing the lives of these souls. Or maybe his comfort is in providing some form of social commentary in showing what his country has done to its citizens.
That is what I believe the purpose of Satantango is. It is pessimistic and depressing and bleak, but Krasznahorkai is not saying that life is meaningless or that death is the only exit. He does not think humanity is a pointless dot in eternity. What he is doing is showing what happens when people are forgotten. He is criticizing his government and country for allowing life to reach such low levels. It is social commentary but not heavy-handed, blatant allegory – rather it is art at its peak. It provides us with a tapestry of never-ending thoughts, paragraphs, and sentences, taking stream-of-conscious to a more philosophic and meaningful level. His descriptions of life, sunrises, and rain, are written in some of the most touching and unique prose I have ever read. In his sentences we see beauty in even the most desperate creatures, a light in the dingiest of bars and hovels, and all they need to flourish is a little help.
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