What lies behind me …

afternoon light (01 September 2011)

afternoon light (01 September 2011)

What lies behind me still remains ahead of me. (László Krasznahorkai, in Satantango

From time to time, unexpected things pop up on the “new titles” shelves at the Wellington Central Library. Satantango (written by László Krasznahorkai) was first published in 1985, but the translation by George Szirtes from the Hungarian did not appear until 2012; even so, I would not have expected it to be accorded “new title” status – but one day, there it was. At first glance, the matte black cover looked as if it had been stitched with long white tacking stitches (such as a tailor might use), but then I wondered if perhaps, given its title, it had been inscribed with magical glyphs. (There’s a cover image with the Amazon listing.)

Intrigued, I took the book home, but somehow didn’t manage to get through more than a few pages before it was due to be returned. When I went back to borrow it again the following day, someone else had beaten me to it. (And, at that time, all the library’s copies of this author’s other titles were also out on loan.)

Satantango … now regarded as a classic, is a monster of a novel: compact, cleverly constructed, often exhilarating, and possessed of a distinctive, compelling vision – but a monster nevertheless. It is brutal, relentless and so amazingly bleak that it’s often quite funny.” (Theo Tait in a review for The Guardian, Wednesday 9 May 2012)

Krasznahorkai’s translator George Szirtes calls his work a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type”, and says his sentences take you down “loops and dark alleyways – like wandering in and out of cellars”. At one point the wind moves through the trees like a “helpless hand searching through a dusty book for some vanished main clause”; the reader feels something comparable. (Theo Tait)

In 1994, Hungarian director Béla Tarr released Sátántangóa film based on the novel. Shot in black-and-white, it runs for over seven hours. The critic Susan Sontag described Sátántangó as “Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.” (Wikipedia article, Sátántangó)

Both the book and the film are structured in twelve sections – although these are not necessarily in chronological order. (The structure of the tango, I am told, is six forward moves followed by six back.)

And now I’ve been reading it again … but I still haven’t finished it. (It has been returned, and I’ll need to go back for it … again.)

“The imagination never stops working but we’re not one jot nearer the truth,” remarks Irimiás at one point.

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Krasznahorkai, László. 1985. Satantango. Translated from the Hungarian [translation copyright © 2012 George Szirtes]. New York: New Directions. [p133]