Satantango – Laszlo Krasznahorkai

[I read this novel in five sections, each time writing about a section before moving on to read the next. This means that I never knew what was coming next.]

27 February 2017
Part 1, Chapter 1
I won’t stop after every chapter, but just this once I will – because after twenty pages full of incident, we still know almost nothing. Are we in Krasznahorkai’s native Hungary? Somewhere else, perhaps a rusting, post-industrial dystopia of his imagination? And what about those hints of the supernatural? ‘Satantango’ implies something other-worldly, and not in a good way. The novel opens with the threatening boom of impossibly close-up bells – no such bells exist – and two men whose deaths were reported eighteen months ago have now apparently been seen alive. I notice Chapter 2 is subtitled ‘We are resurrected,’ and whatever kind of news this is, it isn’t good.

The man who hears those bells is lame, and hobbles about with the aid of a stick. He is Futaki, in bed with the wife of his neighbour and associate. This man, Schmidt, is expected back in two hours’ time with another associate, bringing the money earned over eight months that they are to split three ways with Futaki. We don’t know what the work is, but it sounds dodgy. And we don’t know why Schmidt’s wife isn’t regarded as a partner in the deal, despite what later appears to be her close involvement. Whatever, this being planet Squalid, Schmidt and the other man had been planning to do the dirty on Futaki, moving on from the ‘estate’ where they’ve all been living for some time and taking his share with them. It’s a good job Futaki is there when Schmidt arrives home early and, hiding from him, hears Schmidt telling his wife. After some farcical business involving lucky interruptions and a quick departure and re-entry, Futaki arrives pretending to be looking for Schmidt and his share.

And so on. I doubt that the plot details matter, because this an archetypal folk-tale situation. (The story I remember of the treacherous thieves is in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale.) The money is counted and divided three ways – but another neighbour arrives, prompting Mrs Schmidt to hide it all ‘in her bosom.’ That’s where it still is at the end of the chapter, by which time she is leading the way in the darkness. The men who had been presumed dead are likely to be at the bar, and Schmidt for one is pessimistic about what his means for them. He realises that they only ever had the word of one boy for the information about the deaths, and he’s never been reliable. Ah. Suddenly the money doesn’t seem important to him, but Futaki, stumping along behind, tries to console him with fantasies of a better future on the estate. The mill will be reopened, the machine-shop will be reinstated, and the chapter ends on his repeated words: ‘It’ll be cushy for us. Pure gold. A real golden age!’

28 February
Part 1, Chapters 2 and 3
Half-way through Part 1 of this two-part novel… nothing is any clearer: Krasznahorkai, it seems, doesn’t want the reader to have any more idea of what is going on in this hellish universe than the characters themselves. So if we thought Chapter 2 would take us to the bar and a meeting with the long-lost neighbours, we were wrong. Instead, we’re in a town somewhere, in a threatening, militaristic bureaucracy with a couple of new characters identified only by the tallness of one of them and the jug-eared ugliness of the other. And if there was farce in Chapter 1, it’s here too, as this Laurel and Hardy pair do their best to steer a safe passage through a communist or fascist system that isn’t nearly as efficient as it would like to be. In fact, nothing goes any more right for the people in charge of the inquiry they are involved in, if that’s what it is, than it does for the hapless pair. We’re eight pages into Chapter 2 before anybody thinks to ask them their names – and they turn out to be Petrina and Irimias, the men who had been presumed dead. Not that this information helps us in any way… but we aren’t at all surprised a page or two later when they discover they’ve arrived on the wrong floor of the building. And the captain who now seems to be dealing with them doesn’t want to be there any more than they do.

It’s like a creaky version of Kafka. The apparatchiks speak and behave as though they were still the representatives of an unanswerable state power, but instead of quaking like victims, the two working men answer back and demand to be listened to. Or Irimias, the tall one wearing the tie and the houndstooth coat certainly does. Petrina, older, toothless and more downtrodden, will go along with his friend’s demands but seems to remember a time when such talk was dangerous. Nothing feels right either to them or the captain, and as for the reader…. We have no idea why they are there, whether they really have been as useful to the state in the past as Irimias says, or whether they should take any notice of the captain’s demand that they return in three days’ time.

They leave the town, and head back to the estate we’re already aware of – and the reader realises that the time-line is catching up with the point we reached in Chapter 1. Once there, they meet the boy who had announced their deaths eighteen months earlier. He seems to be waiting for them – a former worker on the estate is a bus-driver and heard they were on the bus – and, for once, something is made clear. Irimias had promised the boy that if he said they were dead, he would fix it for him to sleep with Schmidt’s wife. The boy is still only twelve or thirteen years old, but is now demanding his reward. Ah.

Chapter 3 is another narrative re-boot. We’re with a character who has only been mentioned briefly, the doctor who no longer treats anyone. And we really are with him: if it isn’t stream of consciousness, it’s a highly specific third-person limited point of view. The chapter opens with the paragraph he is reading from a book about the geological history of Hungary, but soon we are off and away into – into what, exactly? Into the mindset of a man who has decided that in order to remain omniscient (his word), he needs to get rid of every extraneous aspect of his life. His sole purpose is to stay alive in order to observe, very precisely, every last thing that is going on within sight of his window.

He’s barking mad, obviously, and the woman who has just resigned as his helper remarks to her husband how unbearable the stench has become. But the characters in this novel inhabit a very particular universe and, within the parameters he has set himself, the doctor really does have a God-like view of everyone’s activities. Soon, the time-line has caught up again, this time with the sound of those bells we remember from the opening page. Then the doctor is seeing, from outside, the farcical comings and goings as Futaki hastily leave’s Schmidt’s house, only to re-enter moments later to confront Schmidt. But if the doctor is God, he is one who has forgotten what he was ever doing it for. And he is mystified by what he sees: his notebooks – one for each of his neighbours – are full of question marks. He’s no more omniscient than anybody else.

One thing he didn’t see coming was the resignation of his long-suffering helper. He’s slow to realise it, but this means the end of his carefully constructed life of near-stasis. His movements, for months now, have been pared down to almost none beyond the calls of nature rendered ever less frequent by his reliance mainly on demijohns of spirits. Deliveries of these, and the regular filling of his otherwise defunct lavatory cistern, will come to an end… and he is forced to get up off his fat arse. (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s put something like that.) He makes his way out into the incessant autumnal rain I’d neglected to mention because there’s so much other awful stuff going on, and things don’t go well. He breaks his journey to the bar by stopping off at the near-derelict mill, only to find his cigarettes are now too wet to smoke. He makes his way upstairs in the darkness to where he can hear the voices of two sisters he knows, both aged twenty or less, who use the mill as their makeshift brothel. They’ve made a fire in the middle of what must be a concrete floor, so at least the doctor can dry out a little. The girls are welcoming enough, and even give him some dry cigarettes to keep.

And then he’s off and out again. He finds the bar, but he’s more drunk and exhausted than he realised – he’d already been having blackouts before he even set off – and he finds the bar only, somehow, to lose it again. The younger sister of the pair in the mill is there, dressed only in thin clothes and soaked to the skin. The doctor, in trying to help her, only scares her off and he ends up in the mud as he tries to follow. He drifts in and out of consciousness, sees figures far away, recognises them as the ‘two rogues’ everybody thought were dead…. Finally, after almost dying in the attempt, he gets to where a carrier can get him to town. The driver tells him, and seems to mean it, that he really, really shouldn’t have.

So, what next? Will we finally start to move forward again? Or are we doomed to live through the same couple of days over and over?

2 March
Chapters 4-6 – to the end of Part 1
Both. For all but the last half-chapter or so, time has stagnated. As before, we get those same 24 or 48 hours from different points of view until, during the last chapter, we begin to make some progress through the night. Most of the main characters are in the bar, waiting for the resurrected pair… until the very last sentence of Part 1, when one of the them ‘only sensed, rather than knew, that Irimias and Patrina had arrived.’

Have I got it wrong about Irimias? In Chapter 2 I’d thought of him as part of a clownish double act, an Oliver Hardy who thinks he can make things go his way only to be proved wrong every time. But that isn’t how the people in the collective think of him. Futaki, at least, believes that all their woes began when Irimias left. In fact, through Futaki, Krasznahorkai gives us the recent history of the collective that a different kind of author might have offered at the beginning of the novel. ‘As Petrina said at the time, Irimias was “an angel of hope to hopeless people with hopeless difficulties.” But… the moment he vanished things ran straight downhill and the community plunged to ever-lower depths. First cold and ice, then foot-and-mouth disease with piles of dead sheep, then wages unpaid….’ Clearly – as if anything is ever clear in this novel – this is unreliable testimony. Had the bad weather and disease really been brought about by Irimias’s absence? Irimias had been the manager of the mill, but the reader might guess that he left because things were already looking hopeless. Futaki’s cheerful prediction that Irimias will be their saviour, bringing everything back to how it was before, sounds no more plausible than it did in Chapter 1.

I should rewind. Chapters 4 and 6 are subtitled ‘The Work of the Spider,’ I and II, and they both take place entirely in the bar. Krasznahorkai has given this circle of hell its own USP: even though the landlord has never actually seen the spiders that must infest it – and he has never stopped looking – anything left for even a short time is soon covered in cobwebs. Between these chapters comes an entirely separate one, covering a similar time-line to the doctor’s, but this time focused on the young girl the doctor encounters briefly outside the bar. She is Esti, and some way through her chapter we get that accidental meeting with him from her point of view…

…and like everything else in the world as she perceives it, it is full of inexplicable threat. She appears to have learning difficulties – a description that doesn’t begin to cover the weirdness of her world-view. Whatever, the school doesn’t want her, her alcoholic mother doesn’t want her – she can do nothing useful, in or out of the house – and her older brother routinely calls her ‘retard.’ He is the same boy who reported the deaths of Irimias and Patrina, and he is very nasty indeed. But, like so many others in the novel, his sister is awaiting some magical or religious event. This means that she hasn’t been made suspicious, but pleasantly astonished by her brother’s kindness a day or two back, when he showed her how to plant a money tree using the pennies she has accumulated over months. It’s a sign of the coming of a new moral order and, somehow, the tree will summon angels when it grows, who will be ready to ‘gather her up’ into heaven. Hold that thought, because that’s what she’s holding as she squirms and squeezes her way into her secret hideaway in the loft.

The loft scenes are something else again. It’s her sanctuary, an invented world, where the window-gap has pictures of lovely scenery covering it so she has something to look out at. Otherwise, it seems to be a metaphor of the inside of her head – most importantly, it is as closed off from the outside world as her mind itself. And it’s in the loft that things really become nightmarish. Esti has let her impatience get the better of her, and she’s been down to the money tree expecting green shoots and those rejoicing angels. What she actually finds is a muddy hole – and her brother smoking nearby. He blames her for her gullibility, and leaves her wondering how she will be gathered up to heaven now. She retreats to the loft…

…and hits on a plan. A long time ago she heard, I forget from where, that rat poison is a viable route to a speedy gathering-up into heaven. Now, she always has a lethal dose to hand – but she doesn’t want to go to heaven without the cat and her brother. We only realise this as her plan unfolds. She brings the cat to her loft, traumatises it when she tries first to strangle it then crush it with her own weight…. But, for some reason of her own, she decides this won’t do. Such a death is too easy: she could simply kill it because she is stronger; the end. So she adds an ingredient to the plan, using a hallucinatory logic of her own invention: poisoned milk. Following the step-by-step working out of her plan, and the elaborate ways she has to devise to keep the cat in the loft while she brings milk through the tortuous route into the loft, is like being trapped in another person’s fevered brain. But… she kills the cat, takes its body through the rain to the muddy hole, divides her remaining poison into two portions so that she can leave a share for her brother… and swallows enough, she believes, to bring about her own apotheosis.

Back to the bar, and the two chapters that frame the one featuring the mad girl. The only thing that is clear is that nobody in these chapters has any more idea of how to deal with the realities of life on this clapped-out collective than she does. None of the characters from Chapter 1 have arrived yet, so a lot of Chapter 4 is taken up with the everyday operation of the collective’s broken-down hierarchies. There’s a huge farmer, Kerekes, throwing his weight around and getting more and more aggressively drunk. There’s Halics, husband of the neighbour who interrupted the confederates in Chapter 1, and doing everything he can not to annoy Kerekes. Halics routinely ponders his own cowardice, sometimes accepting it as the only route for a loser like him, at other times pretending he is putting one over on Kerekes, or the landlord, or whoever. Kraner, Futaki and Schmidt’s confederate, is also there somewhere, as are the now redundant headmaster and the constant, anxious presence of the landlord himself. He seems to be the last gasp of entrepreneurship in this universe, and feels that the business is hanging by a thread. At one point, he goes into the stockroom and feverishly writes down rows of figures that seem to have no meaning beyond the comfort he derives from adding them together. At other times he goes there to roar out his rage behind the heavy door.

It’s all like this, as the narrative ranges freely from one dead-beat point of view to another. There’s a lot of cowering, a lot of complaints, a lot of routine boorishness. And there are a lot of men. When Mrs Schmidt arrives, I think she’s the first woman there. The only two other women to arrive are Mrs Halics, who turns up at around the same time as Futaki and Schmidt, and Kraner’s wife. All the men, without exception, lust after Mrs Schmidt. Mrs Halics, a notorious bible-thumper, is in her element as the company gets a second wind in Chapter 6 and Kerekes is persuaded to play some tango tunes. The men take it in turn to dance with Mrs Schmidt – the landlord has turned the stove up high to encourage her to take off as many layers of clothing as possible – and she seems happy for them to grope her as much as they want. (In this universe of Krasznahorkai’s creation, women are either would-be Madonnas or de facto whores. Maybe if Esti really has been gathered into the bosom of the angels, she’ll be better off.) For the holier-than-thou Mrs Halics it’s Sodom and Gomorrah all over again, as she points out passages from Revelations for the edification of her husband and anybody else listening. Nobody is, of course.

I can’t pretend I’m enjoying any of this. Krasznahorkai’s project seems to be to present a metaphor of a broken-down mid-1980s Hungary, and perhaps it was a daring, radical satire at the time. But now, all I’m noticing are its limitations, the interesting things Krasznahorkai isn’t achieving. He isn’t presenting us with anything so bourgeois as a conventional plot, instead dropping the reader into different episodes that might or might not be connected. Fine. But why? It’s hardly radical, writers like William Faulkner having tried it 50 years earlier. I wrote at the beginning that ‘after twenty pages full of incident, we still know almost nothing.’ Well, after 160-odd, it’s the same. Everything’s the same, and it becomes tedious after a while. Even the style is annoying. For instance, the worn-out language of the characters is often highlighted though heavy quotation marks. At random: ‘Irimias would soon be here “to shake things up good and proper.”’ Or ‘The spiders couldn’t “go around wrecking the place.”’ I have no idea why these tired old clichés aren’t simply incorporated into the narrative, as they would be by any other writer.

And what else? There’s the East European version of magic realism, as folktale or biblical elements are hinted at. Those thieves, surely searching out death. Those angels, eagerly awaited by both the mad girl and the mad bible-basher. And, hovering over all of it, Satan himself. Mrs Halics is happy to announce that he must already be here as one deadly sin after another gets ticked off in the bar. (She doesn’t actually say that, but only because she didn’t think of it.) And the subtitle of Chapter 6 is ‘The Devil’s Tit, Satantango’. The Devil’s Tit sounds like the kind of local place-name that gets cleaned up by mapmakers – or maybe it’s one of those in Mrs Schmidt’s possession, ogled by all the men and, as we know, the place where she hid the money. It isn’t all there now – she made sure Kraner got his share – but I don’t know what will happen to the rest of it.

But Krasznahorkai is no Bulgakov, whose own devil-story is a satire that echoes down the years. Krasznahorkai’s, written 40 years after The Master and Margarita, just feels tired by comparison.

4 March
Part 2, Chapters 6-4
The numbering of these chapters is in reverse, and I wondered at first whether Krasznahorkai might be trying something innovative: maybe Part 2 starts at the end, and makes its way back to where Part 1 ends? But no. I don’t know why he does it unless to confirm that things don’t really move forward in this universe. So in these first three chapters, time soon gets into its old bad habits of stopping, going back, and starting all over again somewhere else. But one thing has changed: after Chapter 6, i.e. the first chapter in this section, we’re off and away from the clapped-out collective, possibly forever. Let’s hope so – but wherever our hapless little community is heading, it doesn’t look as though anything is going to improve. Quite the reverse, I’d guess.

Part 2 opens about 24 hours after Part 1 ends – another reason why I thought the narrative might move backwards. Somebody is giving a speech, presented on the page in a new, indented format to show this is something special. In fact it’s Irimias haranguing the community for their inadequacies in general, and their collective responsibility for the death of Esti in particular. It’s soon clear that what Irimias does really well is gauge what the people expect from him, then offer it to them. He confirms their deepest misgivings about their own lives, using whatever pseudo-religious or pseudo-philosophical rhetoric comes to mind, but then offers a way forward. They are expecting a messiah to lead them out of darkness, so this is what they get from him – but not before he lets them know that they are lost without him. That’s what messiahs do.

Soon, he has them. But their exodus into a new land of milk and honey – he doesn’t call it this, because the people (especially Futaki) are ready to supply the idea for themselves – will not be a simple matter of marching out through the collective’s broken-down gates. He pretends to be at a loss, because setting up a new community will not come cheaply…. And the ever ready Futaki is the first to empty his pockets on to the bar. No, says Irimias, using the oldest trick in the book, he couldn’t possibly think of it. And so on, until everybody in the bar has contributed all they have. He had found them in the bar, snoring in their own sweat, the day before, and that’s where they’ve returned after the search for a girl none of them ever cared for. Well. What’s a demagogue to do? He takes the money, promising to meet them at ‘Almassy Manor’ where they will be able to set up their new world. As ever, he doesn’t use such rhetoric but Futaki, or Mrs Halics or whoever fill in the gaps. What was Futaki saying about a golden age in Chapter 1?

I’m reading this a few weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump. It gives a particular resonance to Irimias the saviour of those left behind by the collapse of the industries that used to employ them. There are differences. Unlike Trump, Irimias never mentions the political establishment that has been ignoring them for years, and their collective is in a bubble – although there is a nearby town none of those in the bar in Part 1 ever goes there, or talks about anything beyond the gate. But Irimias offers, or seems to offer, the possibility of some unspecified better future, and the people are happy to buy this because there’s nothing else they can do.

This, taken alongside the chapter that follows, does nothing to allay my suspicion that Kraznahorkai holds this class of workers in contempt. All through Part 1, and especially in the bar, they are a troop of fools, each revealing his or her own special folly. The deadly sins really are all there – envy, lust, gluttony, anger and the rest – and the second chapter of Part 2 simply confirms that they have no redeeming qualities. They have put their faith in a false prophet because all they ever do is seek out the next quick fix, and now we see every one of them except Futaki smashing up everything they can’t take with them. Furniture, stoves, windows, doors…. I think it’s Kraner who triumphantly declares that he’s leaving nothing for those thieving gypsies, but it could almost be any of them. Futaki, always the one with the simplest faith – and, now I think of it, the one who was woken up by the sound of those unearthly bells – is simply bemused by all this. He simply packs two ancient suitcases, looks around his room for confirmation that it is a though he never existed, and joins the others.

With Kraner’s cart and somebody else’s wheelbarrow they appear to be waiting for some signal to set off. It doesn’t come, but they start off into the rain anyway. If they were at sea – the landscape is just as featureless and wet – they would be a ship of fools: everything about their rag-tag progress towards the manor-house bodes terribly ill. Nobody thinks about the doctor until hours into the journey – not one of them has thought about him since Mrs Kraner told him she wouldn’t be helping him any more – and they soon forget him. Meanwhile they hold in contempt the ones who chose to stay behind – the landlord, Esti’s mother and sisters, a blind character I’d forgotten all about – and hope to arrive at the manor before dusk. They have sentimental swigs from some bottles one of them has brought, they have rows that nearly come to blows… and Futaki struggles to keep up. There’s no room on the cart for his cases, so they are strapped to his back, and he falls behind. He is puzzled by some mysterious sounds, stops for a rest and falls asleep. Is it all up for Futaki?

No it isn’t. Unless it’s all up for the others as well, and this has become a journey into some mystic nether-world of Kraznahorkai’s invention. Futaki wakes up, and when he reaches the manor the others are waiting for him. It’s even more of a ruin than it was the last time any of them came, a makeshift storehouse for broken-down machine parts and providing nothing useful. It doesn’t even have farmland surrounding it. But they bed down for the night in the crumbling shell of the stately home, and look forward to when Irimias will arrive and sort everything out. Hah.

The next chapter backtracks to a different journey, undertaken by Irimias, Patrina and Esti’s brother. The chapter opens from the boy’s point of view, proud to have been chosen for special work by the man who has made him false promises before. They aren’t heading towards Almassy, but somewhere else. Patrina assumes that they are simply going to make off with the money, but Irimias tells him to shut his mouth – it comes to blows – and now Patrina has no more idea what’s going on than the boy or anybody else…

…which includes the reader. I mentioned my suspicion about some strange mystic region of Kraznahorkai’s invention, and these three characters seem to be in it as well. Petrina is the first one to see a mysterious veil that descends, only to disappear. It must be fog, says the boy, but it clearly isn’t, and seems to come and go at random. Ok. Then they arrive at what seems to be Irimias’s destination, Weinkheim, and it seems to be another relic from an aristocratic past. There are mysterious voices, and all three furtively make their way to an outbuilding. Petrina manages to get covered in mud as he crawls to it…. And that’s when they see the apparition – the subtitle of the chapter is ‘Heavenly Vision? Hallucination? – that none of them can explain away. It’s the body of the dead girl and, as they watch, it ascends to the height of the trees before descending to the same spot. It rises again and – and the mysterious voices sound like an excited party out for a picnic in this godforsaken, rain-sodden place. Ok, again.

What to do? They go to the town, and what seems like a kind of normality. There are bars, people who seem to live in ways that any reader might recognise – as though, for a time, Kraznahorkai wants us to believe that the world hasn’t collapsed in its entirety. But why are the streets almost deserted? And why does everybody recognise Irimias, why is he ‘the prankster’ to one of them? Why are so many people willing to buy him and his confederates a drink? We don’t know, but Irimias sends the boy out to find the man who will be able to do something for him. Irimias wants ‘certain raw materials’ and a truck, and for a moment we wonder whether he is going to do something after all for the people waiting for him at Almassy. Or maybe not. The materials the man specialises in – the translation has Irimias coining the nickname ‘Mister Bang-Bang’ for him – are guns. And as the three bed down for the night at the bar where the television is blank despite the landlord’s best efforts – no comment – Patrina asks for a bible. None is available, so he cobbles together his own half-remembered version of the Lord’s Prayer. Kraznahorkai seems to be letting us know that these people need all the prayers they can find – but, like those favoured by Mrs Halics, Petrina’s quick fix isn’t going to be of any use at all.

6 March
Part 2, Chapters 3-1 – to the end
So who is Irimias? As if I care. What Kraznahorkai goes for in ‘Chapter 3’ is a kind of back-and-forth tease: at first our suspicions seem to be confirmed, then events seem to show that we have been over-hasty… then the jury is sent out to make its decision, not to return in this chapter. ‘Chapter 2’ confirms him to have been plotting against the inhabitants of the collective from the beginning: his ‘report,’ apparently written for the same creaking bureaucracy he encountered in Chapter 2 of Part 1, reveals his contempt for every last one of them. Kraznahorkai plays a game with the narrative in this chapter, which I’ll come back to, one that is continued in a different form in ‘Chapter 1’. This final chapter reveals – and I’m not making this up – that none of it is true, seeming to suggest that somebody with too much time on his hands has made up everything we’ve been reading. Well, I could have told you that a long time ago. But the point of the last two chapters seems to be that you should always be careful about whose story you believe. Thanks, Laszlo, nobody’s ever thought of that before.

That back-and-forth tease I mentioned begins when our ship of fools wakes up to the reality of a cold dawn in Almassy Manor. Irimias hasn’t arrived before daybreak, as he had promised, and very soon everyone except the ever-faithful Futaki decides that they have been sold down the river. Kraner goads Schmidt into a confrontation with Futaki, ending when Schmidt knocks out his former associate with a kick in the face. The headmaster, who has given up on his half-hearted attempt to calm the situation, looks on appalled. It’s like a post-communist Lord of the Flies all over again: look what happens when you leave humanity to fend for itself with no guidance. (I had been wondering for some time by now whether Kraznahorkai, like William Golding, might be a Christian. He satirises Mrs Halics’s self-serving religiosity, but his story of a rudderless ship of fools often feels like a mediaeval morality tale. If it isn’t a Christian perspective – and I don’t believe for a minute that this is what Kraznahorkai is really offering – what point is he making about the inherent viciousness of every single person in the world he has created? Humanity is shit, so get over it? Nothing so glib, surely? Surely?)

By the time Futaki has regained consciousness, Irimias has arrived in his truck. Change of plan, he says, and describes how certain mysterious powers in the land have made it impossible for them to start up a new community at Almassy. Immediately, as if by magic, everybody returns to the blind trust and optimism of the previous day. Except… Futaki. Only he smells a rat, and Irimias eyes him suspiciously. He’s been roundly criticising everybody for their lack of faith in him, and for the fight that has obviously taken place – but he tells Futaki he’ll let him off if he shows himself to be strong. They must all be strong. Futaki doesn’t raise any objections to the injustice of being blamed, even deciding that he’ll help Schmidt get over his feelings of guilt by showing him he forgives him. Schmidt feels guilty enough to have thought about offering Futaki a cigarette, but they are all so tightly packed in the truck that he can’t actually do it. Working people in the Kraznahorkai universe really are this pathetic.

As they speed over the pot-holed road to the town, they pass the gates of their old collective – no comment – and, once at the station, Irimias sends each one of them, or each married couple, to a different destination. They will all be given jobs but they must all be vigilant in assessing whether the situation is improving. Or something like that – Irimias offers only high-sounding words of advice that the others seems glad to accept. Only Futaki objects, saying he’ll be glad to just carry on as he is. A night-watchman’s job will be fine for him – and Irimias sends him to where exactly such a job will be found. Kraznahorkai keeps it ambiguous for now, but this seems like a systematic breaking-up of the community and we might speculate that they will be arrested or worse. But why? What on earth would be his motive, or that of the faceless state that has charged him with the secret mission we heard about all those chapters ago? These people are harmless idiots.

And then we get the final two chapters, with their narrative games. In ‘Chapter 2’, a pair of clerks have been given the task of putting Irimias’s report into language that is deemed acceptable for the bureaucracy – specifically, for the captain we met in Part 1, Chapter 2. It’s a darkly comic chapter, and as I read it I wished the whole novel had been more like this. The clerks have only a single day to edit the scrawled manuscript, and Kraznahorkai has fun with their efforts to turn Irimias’s frankly abusive descriptions of everybody – he is most contemptuous of all about Mrs Schmidt, who firmly believes he will one day return to be with her forever – into something that would read like a properly drafted assessment of their personal and political failings. I’m not sure what point is being made here, unless it’s to do with a Kafkaesque state apparatus seeking blame for its own failings, but it’s more engaging than most of the rest of the novel so I’m ok with it. Except there’s something a little disappointing about a chapter that suddenly offers an explicit explanation of so much that had seemed engagingly enigmatic about Irimias, while other phenomena – the descending veils, the corpse ascending through the trees – simply have to be accepted. Kraznahorkai, if I remember rightly, has left that corpse hanging in the air, literally.

The final chapter returns us to the doctor’s bizarre lookout post. He is back from hospital, and has got the staff to help him stock up on tins of food and demijohns of alcoholic spirits to keep him through the winter. He is gratified that there are so few people about – he has only seen the blind man, although he later hears the sisters when he passes by the mill – and he prepares to write his reports. But, hearing the bells again – he had heard them on that first day – he decides to investigate. In the first chapter, we had heard that a possible source for the sound could only be an old chapel on a nearby estate. It was then described as being much too far away for the sound to carry, and its bell-tower had been bombed in the war… so that couldn’t be the explanation. Except, now, it is. The doctor finds a wizened old man in a corner of the derelict chapel, who shows him that he has fixed the bells so he can ring them.

And if we’re not happy with an explanation that is no explanation at all, well, tough. The doctor returns home, and suddenly realises that he knows what’s happening on the estate without seeing it. Mrs Kraner is in her kitchen doing this, Schmidt is in his cottage doing this…. And so on. Soon, he is creating an elaborate fiction about what is going on and – can you guess? Two pages from the end, he writes the opening lines of the novel. How we laughed – especially when he carries on, right to the end, so that the first two pages of the novel are repeated verbatim.

If I had been Kraznahorkai’s editor, I don’t know what I would have said about that. But it might have been along the lines of, Don’t even think of it. Just don’t.

When this translation was first published in 2012 it was admired for its innovativeness – critics seemed to relish its dense, unparagraphed style, its relentless bleakness (or do I mean its bleak relentlessness?), its defiantly Modernist refusal to offer the reader any easy solutions. And at least two critics paid it the one of the highest compliments in literature: it questions the very nature of storytelling. Well, maybe, although other novels have done it in more interesting ways. Kraznahorkai’s revelation near the end of the state-sponsored project that Irimias is involved in strikes me as clunky, and I’m unimpressed by what appears to be his main message: ordinary working men are lazy, vicious and gullible – and as for the women… don’t even get me started. The default setting for all humanity – and this seems to go for the faceless state apparatus as well – is to blame others for anything that goes wrong, and seek out a quick fix for an easy life, live for the pleasures of the moment. And if the world seems meaningless, it’s because that’s what it is. It’s a tale told by an idiot.

None of this seems innovative to me. It seems reactionary, right down to the Modernist style that seems to be stuck in a time-warp somewhere in the 1930s. I won’t be rushing to read any other novels by this author.


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