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The local estate has been closed, its animals hocked, its mill shut down. Perhaps a dozen residents remain. Like the surrounding buildings, they are rife with rot. People speak ominously, if vaguely, about what lies ahead. They are waiting, belly to the ground, like cats at pig-killing time, hoping for scraps. Depending on your interpretation, that puppet master may be a man named Irimias, who, along with his sidekick Petrina, was reported killed 18 months prior.

But when the novel opens, both are spotted on the road leading to the hamlet — a miracle, some believe — and so the people wait for their arrival, thinking that these resurrected men will lead them out of their malaise. The setup is typical of Krasznahorkai.

On its surface, it appears allegorical and loaded with religious imagery, but his novels tend to construct allegories only to demolish them. And its real work happens on the level of language. Its story skips around in perspective and temporality, but the narrative is rarely unclear. For a writer whose characters often exhibit a claustrophobic interiority, Krasznahorkai also shows himself to be unexpectedly expansive and funny here.

Krasznahorkai delights in unorthodox description; no object is too insignificant for his worrying gaze. A Krasznahorkai novel might dilate rapidly from microscopically observed descriptions to great reveries on the shifting cosmos.

It reflects the essential push and pull his characters have between metaphysical realization and cultivated ignorance. There always seems to be a conspiracy afoot — at the very least, some essential bit of knowledge eludes them — but do they care to know?

Would it improve their lives? We never know quite where we are in a Krasznahorkai story. He sometimes places us in particular locations — New York or the Hungarian countryside — but his narratives are eerily decontextualized, with few familiar guideposts. The veil can never be torn away. What is their plan? Instead, he offers us stories that are relentlessly generative and defiantly irresolvable. They are haunting, pleasantly weird and, ultimately, bigger than the worlds they inhabit.

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Dance in Purgatory: László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango

Indeed, they are long: comma-spliced and unrelenting. They run on, at times, for pages, requiring diligence of even the patient reader. Post-war Europe has produced a cabal of writers responsible for similar feats of syntax: Thomas Bernhard , W. Sebald , B ohumil Hrabal , and Witold Gombrowicz , to name a few. Amid such company, Krasznahorkai feels a bit like the uncle whose throat-clearing at holiday dinners causes those at the table to shift uneasily in their seats. He is obsessed as much with the extremes of language as he is with the extremes of thought, with the very limits of people and systems in a world gone mad — and it is hard not to be compelled by the haunting clarity of his vision.



Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes. Their world is rough and ready, lost somewhere between the comic and tragic, in one small insignificant corner of the cosmos. Theirs is the dance of death. Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance are irresistible, unforgettable and required reading.


The Devil They Know

In the world of "Satantango," everything is caught up in an infernal dance. Published in Hungarian in and recently out from New Directions, Satantango opens with an epigram from The Castle and features characters on leave from Waiting for Godot. And it's funny, mordantly so. Krasznahorkai published the novel four years before the fall of Communism, and, indeed, the book targets the ravages of totalitarianism in Hungary and beyond. A large part of the action takes place on or around an unnamed estate that is largely abandoned.

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