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BOOK REVIEW: Satantango by László Krasznahorkai

SatantangoSatantango by László Krasznahorkai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This was the first novel by László Krasznahorkai, who’s considered perhaps the most important living Hungarian writer (a country with a literary tradition disproportionate to its small population.) “Satantango” was first published in 1985, and it’s been said to remain Krasznahorkai’s best known novel—though winning the 2015 Man Booker Prize may have pointed people toward his more recent works.

If there’s one thing one must know about the Hungarian mindset in order to feel where this novel will take one, it’s the national proclivity for gloominess. You may have heard of the song “Gloomy Sunday” by Rezső Seress, which is often called the “suicide song” because of the number of people who’ve quoted its lyrics in suicide notes, clutched its sheet music as they committed suicide in the Danube, or had it on the phonograph when their bodies were found. If “Gloomy Sunday” is the epitome of melancholy put to song, “Satantango” just might be its literary counterpart—the perfection of gloom in novel form. The book scores highly on emotional evocativeness.

The story is set in a small Hungarian village that is swamped in by perpetual rains. The village has been shrinking as many of the villagers have abandoned it, and the few remaining residents are often known to interact at the village’s only pub—you know how alcohol-fueled scenes can be cheerful or depressing, this is the latter. I won’t get into the details of the story, but suffice it to say that constant tension results from this situation in which everyone knows everyone else and all are more or less trapped together in the confines of the village. Some have wronged others. Some covet that which belongs to others. And everybody’s dirty laundry has been seen flapping in the wind by everyone else. For literary fiction, there’s an intriguing story told using this tense atmosphere.

So, it’s a good story that’s highly emotionally charged. What more could one want? Well, the warning I feel obliged to issue is that this novel’s readability is low. In other words, it’s challenging reading in almost every way that a novel can be challenging to read, except being bad—of course. There are changing points of view and a non-linear story line, but that’s not the worst of it. I read it in an e-format, and it has near zero white space. By that I mean there are no indented paragraphs and pages are just huge, solid blocks of text. I suspect the same is true of hard-copies, but I can’t recall picking one up. The author is stingy with information early in the story, and this leaves one little by way of mnemonic handholds to keep a grip on the story through to the heart of narrative arc. The book is presented and organized to be knocked out in a day or two of intense reading. The problem is, it’s not that type of novel–both because it would be an overdose of gloominess and because it would be mentally tiring to read this style of writing in that way.

I would recommend this book for readers of literary fiction unless: a.) you are prone to depression; or b.) you find it extremely frustrating when a writer / publisher make no efforts to make the reading experience a pleasure. This book is optimized for masochistic readers. If you love a difficult read, this is the book for you.

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