Jimmy's Reviews > Satantango

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
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's review
Feb 23, 2012

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bookshelves: hungary, and-a-half-stars, male, novel, year-1980s
Read from February 23 to 26, 2012

Irimiás scrapes the mud off his lead-heavy shoes, clears his throat, cautiously opens the door, and the rain begins again, while to the east, swift as memory, the sky brightens, scarlet and pale-blue and leans against the undulating horizon, to be followed by the sun, like a beggar daily panting up to his spot on the temple steps, full of heartbreak and misery, ready to establish the world of shadows, to separate the trees one from the other, to raise, out of the freezing, confusing homogeneity of night in which they seem to have been trapped like flies in a web, a clearly defined earth and sky with distinct animals and men, the darkness still in flight at the edge of things, somewhere on the far side on the western horizon, where its countless terrors vanish one by one like a desperate, confused, defeated army. p. 47
Now when someone asks me that inevitable question: are there any movies that are better than the books they are based on? I will have a definitive answer. Because as good as this book was, it is overshadowed by Bela Tarr's amazing 7 and a half hour film (it takes longer to watch the film than to read the book in this case). The movie takes the best elements of the book: namely the oppressive mood, the rain, the real-time unfolding of events, and makes them so tangible. So visceral. It also does away with some elements of the book that weigh it down, like the clever ending and the narrator's slightly mocking tone. The film is also more mysterious, as the characters' thoughts must be implied and are not explicitly spelled out. Having seen the movie, though, it was nice to read the book and figure out all the intricate workings behind what was simply on screen; I finally get all the connections now.

Not to be too negative either, because maybe it's unfair to judge this book by the film. This particular way of telling this particular story was perhaps always meant to be filmed; perhaps there is no way to surpass that medium in this case. I was happy, however, to finally read a Krasznahorkai novel after hearing so much about him. His prose is not consistently great. But when it is, it sings with such omniscient authority and rhythm that there is no good place to stop. His writing operates on a principle of accumulation. It was dangerous for me to type out this excerpt, because, as you can see, I almost typed out the rest of the book! I finally just had to stop somewhere, randomly:
There she retreated into a wounded silence, clutching the Bible to her bosom, looking over the heads of the others into a kind of heavenly haze, her eyes misting over with a blissful sense of certainty derived from above. In her own mind she stood, straight as a post, high above a magnetic field of bent heads and backs, the proud unassailable place she occupied in the inn, a space she was unwilling to vacate, like a vent in the closed bar, a vent through which foul air could escape so that numbing, frozen, poisonous drafts from outside might rush in and take its place. In the tense silence the continual buzzing of the horseflies was the only audible sound, that and the constant rain beating down in the distance, and, uniting the two, the ever more frequent scritch-scratch of the bent acacia trees outside, and the strange nightshift work of the bugs in the table legs and in various parts of the counter whose irregular pulse measured out the small parcels of time, apportioning the narrow space into which a word, a sentence or a movement might perfectly fit. The entire end-of-October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision; a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metalled road; in the hair moving to a different beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, this confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the power of the eye they no longer hang together. p. 89-90
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Nathanimal Wow. You're a quick draw! I've been excited for this one to come out.

Jimmy New Directions sent me an advanced review copy! I feel like the luckiest person on earth!

Nathanimal Did you feel that? That wave of jealousy that just washed towards you from the west? That was me.

Jimmy Oh, was that what that was? I thought that was me peeing myself out of excitement

message 5: by Brandon (last edited Mar 02, 2012 06:43AM) (new) - added it

Brandon "It also does away with some elements of the book that weigh it down, like the clever ending and the narrator's slightly mocking tone."

I would say the filmmaker managed to preserve the slightly mocking tone. I didn't exactly feel like he held these characters in the highest esteem.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr's follow-up to Satantango, also based on a Krasznahorkai novel) and The Turin Horse (his latest) are also masterpieces. And they're playing theaters soon! In Nashville...

Jimmy Yeah, I actually agree. The film has a mocking tone too, but it comes across a little differently in the writing. Hard to put a finger on.

message 7: by Ema (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ema Huh, did you actually receive an advanced reading copy? Lucky you!
This novel was not an immediate favorite, but it slowly worked its way into my mind - plus, the narrative voice was compelling, drawing me effectively into that gloomy, decaying world. I agree with you that it was not always great, I also had my share of momentary complaints, but I totally forgot about them afterwards.

Jimmy It's always nice to be able to overlook the minor faults. I wish I could do it more. This one would've probably been a very good book if I wasn't reminded of the movie every time I started to read it. The movie was just very fresh in my mind at the time, and I wasn't sure if I was enjoying the book more or my recollection of the movie, or both or neither. :)

message 9: by Ema (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ema Well, there are times when I can't overlook the faults, but here they were minor ones - like not understanding the purpose of the story, or some inconsistencies in the auctorial voice. It is true that, knowing the story already and, maybe, in a much better form, can downgrade the other experience (book versus movie and vice versa).

message 10: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Glad found this review, Jimmy - via someone's link to the film clip of the mad dance in the pub scene - and super thanks for the long and luscious quotes. I want to read this!

Jimmy Yay! Thanks for the comment and the like. I hope you find and love this book (and the movie too if you have the chance).

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