Thursday, March 29, 2012

‘Searching through a dusty book for some vanished main clause...’: Reading László Krasznahorkai’s Sátántangó

Suddenly he sat up straight in his chair as a new thought dawned on him. He raised his head and stared at the ceiling, gasping for breath, then gripped his pencil . . . 'Now he is standing up," he wrote in a deepening reverie, pressing the pencil lightly in case he tore the paper. 'He scratches his groin and stretches. He walks around the room and sits down again. He goes out for a piss and returns. Sits down. Stands up.’ He scribbled feverishly and was practically seeing everything that was happening over there, and he knew, was deadly certain, that from then on this was how it would be. He realized all those years of arduous, painstaking work has finally borne fruit: he had finally become the master of a singular art that enabled him not only to describe a world whose eternal unremitting progress in one direction required such mastery but also—to a certain extent—he could even intervene in the mechanism behind an apparently chaotic swirl of events!
He adjusted the blanket across his shoulders and leaned over the journal again. ‘Either I have gone mad or, by God’s mercy, this morning I have discovered that I am the wielder of mesmerizing power. I find I can control the flow of events around me using nothing more than words…’
So runs the thoughts of the Doctor in the last chapter of the novel, titled ‘The Circle Closes’. We have seen this Doctor earlier, sitting forever at the window, watching everything that goes on outside and unremittingly, systematically writing down the events to the last detail. Now, Krasznahorkai’s name has always been associated with Apocalypse, but this then is the lifting of the seventh seal, this moment in which the act of writing turns reflexively on itself, when the Doctor shifts his normal mode of writing, of noting down every movement, every change in living and non-living things, from people getting out to pee to changes in weather, sketches of drainage varying with the rain to the dog standing in the rain outside, he changes this mode of journal keeping to a narrative, the very same narrative we have been reading. But earlier, he mentions what drives him to this superhuman task of observing and recording everything,

He decided to watch everything very carefully and to record it constantly, all with the aim of not missing the smallest detail, because he realized with a shock that to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order. However apparently insignificant the event, whether it be the ring of tobacco ash surrounding the table, the direction from which the wild geese first appeared, or a series of seemingly meaningless human movements, he couldn't afford to take his eyes off it and must note it all down, since only by doing so could he hope not to vanish one day and fall a silent captive to the infernal arrangement whereby the world decomposes but is at the same time constantly in the process of self-construction.

And who is this Doctor? Other characters in the novel are decrepit, filling their squalid existence with hopelessness – but there is a constant dream in them, dream of getting out from this hell-hole of village, if not in all characters but in most of them. But the doctor is lower still, except for the notes all that he does is to gulp pálinka and smoke. He steps outside just once, to replenish his stock of brandy, and ends up in the hospital. But then it simply cannot be anyone else to whom this role can be assigned. Can it?

There are other reversals still, events which in the first appearance present as events of great significance, only to turn out in the end as part of a dark insignificant hokum, nails in the coffin of this elegy of meaningless incidents, for this writing is not even an elegy over a lost, irreparable world but the pure derision at any attempt towards such an elegy. The novel opens with one of the characters waking from his sleep listening to bells tolling and breaking his head at figuring out the source of this sound, imagining this to be the harbinger of something grave, finding the origin of which the doctor considers as ‘compensation for the miseries of his entire life’. Guided by this dream Doctor carries his ailing body towards the source of this ‘mysterious bell’, only to discover a homunculus – a tiny, huddled, mad man – ringing it in a ruined chapel.

This methodical raising of tempo, throwing in a bite of something akin to hope, only to drop the reader and the miserable characters back to an even lower level, happens as a political drama running through the novel as well. The villagers sleeplessly wait for the Messiah, someone who in the beginning is thought to be dead, and so when at last they learn of his whereabouts, his arrival, it is resurrection. Irimias, who one character thinks of as someone ‘who has risen from his own ashes’, another as a man capable of ‘holding together things that just fall apart when we are in charge’. The poor villagers jubilantly gives him all their savings in return for wonderful future outside the village and follows him, like a herd of sheep, for he is the prophet – this Jeremiah who turns out in the end to be a criminal used by the authorities to spy on the villagers. He scatters the villagers, members of of a former collective, into various places enrolling all of them without their knowledge as ‘assets’ for spying.

These movements forward and backward is the general scheme of the book. Twelve chapters divided into two sections of six each represents the movement of tango; in the first section chapters are numbered forward, whereas in the second it runs backward.

So what is this whole thing about in an age about which the author once said, ‘an age which thinks no more of a dramatic ending than the Great Bulldozer thinks about a particular shell as it grinds up tens and tens of thousands of shells while driving along the sea shore speckled with herons drowned in oil’, besides the peripheral plots of betrayal, cheating, loss of hope? One thing is certain, in the same interview from which the previous quote is taken, he makes the following remark which almost sounds like a ‘manifesto’:
“My critical remarks do not mean that I think or have ever thought that literature could directly interfere with the workings of the society it criticises or rejects. The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.”
Doesn’t that amount to saying an attempt at finding logical, conceptual, systematic structure in his work is bound to go against the stated purpose – of not allowing the work to be assimilated, appropriated, and shall we say, commodified? I have seen attempts at finding logical structure in Melancholy fail. I just dropped the idea. But this work, even though it moves effortlessly between real and unreal,--think of the spider's work--lends itself better to a conceptual framework. One has to assume, looking at the chronological order of writing Melancholy and Sátántangó, that the author has perfected his art further.

But at the end, the glimmer of hope lies in what the Doctor suggests: 'the best he could do was to use his memory to fend off the sinister, underhanded process of decay.'