Tuskar Rock, £12.99

Satantango, By László Krasznahorkai, trans. George Szirtes

Hungarian oddballs and obsessives do battle against time in this novel by a European master.

EM Cioran, the brilliantly tenebrous Romanian thinker, wrote that melancholy is "that same fall into a languid mud, that same circling of the damned without a hell''. Replace that "circling of the damned" with a Hungarian csárdás, danced out in a rain-soaked village on the edge of extinction, then you will have the setting for Satantango, the first novel (1985) by one of the living greats of European literature, László Krasznahorkai.

In Satantango, "the mill's death-sentence had brought the whole estate to a condition of near collapse". Krasznahorkai is a poet of dilapidation, of everything that exists on the point of not-existence. He draws a community of oddballs and obsessives trying desperately to combat the passage of time as everything around them sinks into the mud of an endless rain.

Some choose vigilance to counteract the threat of vanishing: the local doctor, the author's surrogate, records everything he sees. Does surveillance mean survival? Others drink, dance, lust after the buxom Mrs Schmidt. Meanwhile, village-idiot Little Esti lives by "a terrifying network of shapes, colours, lines", until she is humiliated beyond redemption and, in one of the most powerful scenes, seeks revenge by torturing the family cat.

Each character has their own errant or absurd cosmology, which they repeat. And here another Romanian thinker springs to mind, Mircea Eliade, with his Myth of the Eternal Return. It's as if these acts repeated can somehow resist linear time and replace it with a cyclical, more magical, and ultimately more resistant mode of living.

Enter Irimias and his side-kick, Petrina. Like the fisher-king arriving to replenish the barren lands, Irimias, according to Petrina, is "an angel of hope to hopeless people". Is Irimias the saviour of the community or a gift-of-the-gab conman, robbing people of their hopes as well as their cash?

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.

Satantango is not just a dance, but a battle; a battle between constant vigilance – keeping an eye on each other, human kinness – and the urge to vice, to be stricken in time, to allow oneself to be ruled badly (see the contemporary situation in Hungary), to vanish. 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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea