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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Krasznahorkai László

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To purchase Satantango

Title: Satantango
Author: Krasznahorkai László
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 274 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Satantango - US
Sátántangó - UK
Satantango - Canada
Satantango - India
Tango de Satan - France
Satanstango - Deutschland
DVD: Satantango - US
Satantango - UK
  • Hungarian title:
  • Translated by George Szirtes
  • Sátántangó was made into a film in 1994, directed by Tarr Béla

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dark, heavy, heady

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 2-3/2012 J.Hoberman
FAZ A 17/1/2008 Judith Leister
The Guardian A 9/5/2012 Theo Tait
The Independent . 26/5/2012 James Hopkin
London Review of Books . 26/4/2012 Jennifer Szalai
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/3/2012 Jacob Silverman
The Telegraph A 17/5/2012 Beth Jones
TLS A 1/6/2012 Dan Gunn
Die Zeit . 21/9/1990 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "In dem als Teufelskreis angelegten Buch werden hoher (Prediger-)Ton und niedere Minne, biblische Metaphorik und drastischer Naturalismus, Endzeitvision und schwärzester Humor virtuos gekreuzt. So ist Satanstango nicht nur ein beißender Kommentar zu den letzten Tagen des Sozialismus in Ungarn, sondern eine Parabel über die Condition humaine." - Judith Leister, Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung

  • "(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. (...) If this summary of the first half of the novel sounds baffling, it's a hell of a lot clearer than the book itself. László Krasznahorkai's scenes are designed to disorient and defamiliarise. (...) (T)his is an obviously brilliant novel. Krasznahorkai is a visionary writer; even the strangest developments in the story convince, and are beautifully integrated within the novel's dance-like structure. It's a testament to Szirtes's translation, 10 years in the writing, that Krasznahorkai's vision leaps off the page. The grandeur is clearly palpable." - Theo Tait, The Guardian

  • "George Szirtes's fine translation finds a telling balance between Krasznahorkai's biblical luminosity and his satanic intensity. His inexhaustible yet claustrophobic prose, with its long, tight, weaving sentences, each like a tantalising tightrope between banality and apocalypse, places the author in a European tradition of Beckett, Bernhard, and Kafka. (...) We relish a gleeful pessimism -- just like Cioran's -- that can be so uplifting that it's surely no longer pessimism, but the magic of a melancholy resistance, and mercifully without all that mud." - James Hopkin, The Independent

  • "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. (...) Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first book, shares many of his later novels’ thematic concerns -- the abeyance of time, an apocalyptic sense of crisis and decay -- but it’s an altogether more digestible work. 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." - Jacob Silverman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Sátántangó melds together elements of carnival, religion, black comedy, Hungarian politics and folklore into an open-ended allegory about the nature of storytelling itself: it is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live and those we tell others in order to control them; about the narratives from which reality is constructed and the limits to which they can be pushed. Intoxicating and exhilarating, bleak yet beautiful, Sátántangó is a modern masterpiece that manages to speak both of its time and to transcend it altogether." - Beth Jones, The Telegraph

  • "To say that Krasznahorkai's fictional universe is grim, dark, or negative is such an understatement that it almost ceases to be accurate. It is so grim, dark and negative that it almost turns into its opposite, not least in the humour of its exaggerations, so wild as to make the diatribes of Thomas Bernhard -- one of the likely antecedents for what is startling and odd in Krasznahorkai's work -- look almost tame by comparison. (...) When Krasznahorkai reads his Hungarian original aloud, the words flow more like a limpid, lively stream than like the torrential rain or dull muddy rivulets of his descriptions; his translator George Szirtes gives a sense of this, all the while holding on to the strangeness, the vulgarity, the vatic pomposity, the satire and the savagery. Szirtes lets the English-language reader gather that this is a writer whose ambition is matched by the range of expressive capacities he is determined both to deploy and to shed." - Dan Gunn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Der erste Roman des 1954 geborenen Ungarn ist zwar auch ein Dokument gesellschaftlicher Rebellion, doch um politische Freiheit geht es nur bedingt. Letztlich geht es um Erlösung. Und die wird weder bei Laszlö Krasznahorkai noch sonst irgendwo gewährt. (...) Schon Krasznahorkais Sprache inszeniert die Ausweglosigkeit. Ein weitverzweigtes System von Nebensätzen behindert die Orientierung und erstickt jegliche Transparenz." - Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Satantango is a bleak vision of a decrepit community. While written while Hungary was still semi-firmly communist (the novel was first published in 1985), the book is not specifically anchored in the failures of that time and system; Krasznahorkai's dark picture is a more universal and timeless one.
       The novel is presented in two parts, a dance of six steps forward, and then six steps back, the chapters numbered in ascending order, one through six (well, I through VI), in the first part and then descending order in the second: a round of no escape that leads right back to the start.
       The setting is grim and grimmer; even a description of going down a road is filled with portent, obscurity, and mire:

Night descends. No stars, no moon. At the Elek crossroads, a hundred yards ahead of them, a shadow sways; only later do they discover it is a man in a trenchcoat; he enters a field and the darkness swallows him. One either side of the highway there are gloomy patches of woodland as far as the eye can see, mud covering everything and, since the fading light blurs all clear outlines, consuming all traces of color, stable forms begin to move while things that should move stand as if petrified, so the whole highway is like a strange vessel running aground, idling and rocking on a muddy ocean.
       Oh, yes, this a road to nowhere, whichever way you turn; a world that's not so much black and white but rather black and dark shades of gray.
Grumbling and ever more embittered, they roamed through the deserted halls of the moribund building, exploring in somber chaotic fashion the dismantled parts of rusted machinery and in the funereal silence the suspicion grew in them that they had been lured into a trap, that they were, all of them, naïve victims of a low plot to dump them there, homeless, deceived, robbed and humiliated.
       Krasznahorkai packs it in - -- here's a single (but hardly unusual) sentence which includes the words: grumbling, embittered, deserted, moribund, somber, chaotic, dismantled, rusted, funereal, suspicion, trap, dump, homeless, deceived, robbed, humiliated. Not many rays of hope or sunshine .....
       Still, it's not like they're completely without hope -- at least in brief flashes:
Maybe there'll be life on the estate yet ? They might bring new machines, new people might come, everything could start all over again.
       But no, the vicious circle they're lost in is inescapable -- and their own private hell. They can work themselves into a drunken frenzy, as when the dancing starts -- first csárdás, and then the tango ("simply repeating the same one over and over again", in yet another inescapable loop) -- but beyond that there's really nowhere to go.
       Satantango is a novel of a community in extremis, describing a few days in the life of a forgotten corner of the world that is the very embodiment of existential hell on earth. Things happen -- sex, death, betrayal, fighting about money, among other things -- and occasionally plans are formulated (though they have a tendency to fizzle), but Krasznahorkai's novel is meant to be a dark, evocative vision, more than anything else: the entire work is almost all atmosphere -- of the bleakest sort.
       Krasznahorkai revels in language (and translator Szirtes seems to do a quite good job keeping up), forcing the reader to get caught up in the words by presenting them in this way, with few breaks and the back and forth of entire conversations squeezed into single run-on paragraphs; at one point the words themselves dissolve into one another, as even language breaks apart:
itkeptcollapsing she tri tr triedagain butinvainandshecried asshewassittingattheengineroomwindow andhadnoideawhatwashappening itwasdawnandgettinglighter oreveningandgettinggrowingdarker andshedidn'twantitall evertocometoanend shejusthadnoideawhatwashappening
       There's not too much of this, but, yes, readers too occasionally may find they have noideawhatwashappening ..... Or, as one character admits: "I'm fucked if I understand any of this, if you'll pardon the expression" (though since they're all well and truly fucked, maybe they're onto something ...).
       Obviously, Satantango isn't a straightforward read -- not something one picks up for action-oriented plot. It's layered and textured -- worth rereading, in both parts and whole, in order to begin to get a sense of all its facets. It is tremendously -- if not always pleasantly -- evocative, a book one truly feels: soggy, dark, and near-unremittingly bleak.
       It is quite remarkable, if not necessarily agreeable. But definitely a fascinating piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 March 2012

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Satantango: Reviews: Sátántangó - the film: Krasznahorkai László: Other books by Krasznahorkai László under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Krasznahorkai László was born in 1954.

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© 2012-2015 the complete review

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