Notes on the first 3 chapters of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango”

by Nick

Chap. 1

“He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-oput remnants of a locust-plagued summer and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of Spring, Summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity…and he saw himself nailed tot he cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself-utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials – into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.” (4)
Like I said when we talked before, this strikes me as a kind of thesis for Futaki if not the rest of the novel. This excerpt embraces the metafictional critique of truth statements about the world (“as if the whole…out of chaos” and the following statement about humanity frames events as “necessity”) and given that this is a novel, a system from which we the reader expect something this is worth noting. At the very least this excerpt displaying the primacy of the mind while acknowledging the ever oncoming reality that just follows its natural orders.
“Death, he [Futaki] felt, was only a kind of warning rather than a desperate and permanent end.” (10)
“the unspoken feeling of completion he [Futaki] so dreaded” (11)
contextualized by that huge excerpt from page 4 I’d say Futaki’s section centers around the conflict between the mind and all its hopes and the reality of nature and its inevitable destruction as well as its general way of doing things. This conflict also appears in chapter 3 with the doctor where he’s trying so hard to construct something in his mind, but the natural order breaks him down and seemingly kills him by the end of the chapter.
“he [Futaki], being so absorbed in his visions of faraway places that he couldn’t get back to reality” (12)
This directly ties into what I was talking about in my last annotation. Also note how water is described. Futaki dreams of putting his feet in water to comfort or clean himself (I assume) in the south, but he’s being dripped on by the rain that “was doing to his face…exactly what time would do. It would wash it away” (13). That difference between Futaki’s dream and the book’s narration implies the kind of dissonance I talked about earlier.
Chapter 2
There’s something suspicious about “they would bow their heads in humble acknowledgement and with a degree of complicit satisfaction before this magnificently constructed system [the government? Time? Both?] if only it were not the two of them sitting on these benches polished to a dull glow by the rumps of the hundreds upon hundreds who have occupied them before” (21)
“The two clocks say different times, but it could be that neither of them is right. Our clock here, he continues, pointing to the one above them with his long, slender and refined index finger, ‘is very late, while that one there measures not so much time as, well, the eternal reality of the exploited, and we to it are as the bough of a tree to the rain that falls upon it: in other words we are helpless.” (23)
I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between the two guys and the two clocks. After all, part of the reason they don’t humbly acknowledge the system is because there are two of them. Also we get water imagery again as destructive, or at least something negative.
More water imagery linked with destruction: “It smells marshy here,’ Petrina declares. The sergent looks at them, beckons them closer and whispers: ‘Everything is rotting in this place” (31)
“You [Petrina and Irimias] talk of rights! The law for your type is simply something to be exploited!” (33)
So the second clock on page 23 refers to Petrina and Irimias.
I love how the captain keeps saying “I want us to understand each other” (35) but he speaks vaguely and counter intuitively. For example on page 32 when he says “You’ve [Petrina and Irimias] been summoned because you have endangered the project by your absence. No doubt you have noticed I’ve not given precise details. The nature of the project has nothing to do with you.” (32) Which sounds a hell of a lot like a lot of the conversations in Kafka’s The Castle.
Page 38-39’s humming reminded me of the bells in chapter 1 that only Futaki can hear. And if that’s the case then maybe they’re hearing the whistling of a bomb or some oncoming destruction as page 39 says “You hear! Then BLAAM! The end, gentlemen.” The fear of silence on page 39 might also be connected, “The girl behind the bar can’t stop giggling out of sheer nervousness so, to bring things to a head, she quickly turns on the tap in the sink and begins making a noise with the beer glasses.” Or maybe silence is more closely linked with the stopping of time? Perhaps it’s linked with the water washing everything away? After all the bells and the humming both cause things to move out of stagnation. Futaki et al decide to leave the village and Irimias and Petrina get pissed off enough to leave the bar. The novel’s epigram might also tie in here.
“Irimias on Futaki et al: “They are like servants that work at a castle where the mast has shot himself: they hand around at an utter loss as to what to do…wherever the shadow [of their master] falls they follow, like a flock of sheep, because they can’t do without a shadow, just as they can’t do without pomp and splendor either,…they’ll do anything not to be left alone with the remnants of pomp and splendor” (43)
      |-> Note page 45 where “The boy follows him like a shadow sometimes he catches up with him and squints up at his face then falls behind again” (45).
“Irimias 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 traces 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. (47)
Sounds a lot like Gaddis’ use of day and night in The Recognitions. If we’re looking for a messianic image that sun’s readiness to separate trees, land, sky, animals, and humans sounds pretty damn direct. At the very least here is a fecund hope for an illumination, a prophet or a direction. Note how the sun is also “ready to establish the world of shadows” and how those definitions or distinctions intrinsically create opposites. However this ideal state also ends with the slow destruction of all the confusion that darkness offers. I doubt that could happen.
Chap. 3
“So doing nothing, he [the doctor] simply remained on the alert, careful to preserve his failing memory against the decay that consumed everything around him” (53-4)
Day and night distinction made by the sun on page 47: “he understood, just in time, that the best he [the doctor] could do was to use his memory to fend off the sinister, underhanded process of decay, trusting in the face that since all that mason might build, carpenter might construct, woman might stitch, indeed all that men and women had brought forth with bitter tears was bound to turn to an undifferentiated, runny, underground, mysteriously ordained mush” (54).
This complete breakdown of order might equate logic or the mind’s understanding with metafiction and haphazard projections on the world. Maybe it’s not quite that far but it certainly appears that this is the educated man of science who can only fight against death via stupid recording and attention. I wonder if this is a parody of the modernist idea of creating your own reality out of memories in order to create hope. For example the hope at the end of Ulysses comes partially from reality but Joyce chooses for the end to showcase the happiness of the past. The same’s true of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” which may or may not qualify as a modernist quality.
“he [the doctor] 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.” (54-55)
That “rising and falling” sounds a lot like the “undulating horizon” on page 47 and that bridge between chaos and order sounds a lot like the “hastily improvised bridge” (22) Petrina and Irimias vainly use to try and communicate with the military officials which “collapses under them so that time and time again they find themselves back in the whirlpool they enteredlast night” (22).
OK. Things are coming together. The bridge passage on page 22 ties in the repetitive destruction of time in “time and time again they find themselves back in the whirlpool.” The whirlpool’s made of water which previously suggested destruction via time’s passage. Additionally a whirlpool’s a cycle, an infinite set of wave-like repetitions.
“The text, in Dr. Brenda’s local edition, did not sound at all convincing, the evidence insufficient, the crude logic of the argument not worth taking seriously, or so he felt without having any knowledge of the subject, uncertain even of the technical terms employed; nevertheless, as he read, the history of the earth that had seemed so solid, so fixed under and around him, came alive, though the unknown author’s awkward, unpolished style–the book being written now in the present and now in the past tense–confused him, so he couldn’t be sure whether he was reading a work of prophecy regarding the earth’s condition after the demise of humanity or a proper work of geological history based on the planet on which he actually lived. ” (58)
This might describe Satantango and its claims or it could just highlight the degree which the doctor lives in his own head, or both.
“The doctor watched the light’s ruthless progress across the field, his spirit broken but still nursing some vague hope. The light gave him hope but he was afraid of it too.” (74)
I can’t tell if that fear stems from the possibility of definitively being revealed as a fool or bad guy or if its something else I’ve missed entirely. But I think that’s it. No one wants to realize they might be deserving of their psychic or physical pain.