Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A series of increasingly brutal events unfold

How is it that some blurb writers can get a book so wrong? Whoever was asked to describe László Kransznahorkai's Satantango for the Tuskar Rock Book edition, with its green hazed version of the relentlessly self-duplicating, entirely empty-looking European forest that's on the front of several of my editions of Thomas Bernhards, must have just looked at the proposed cover and, after flicking through the manuscript for a bit and then googling around, decided, in a way that the novel itself makes impossible, that for the folk in this 'desolate Hungarian village', 'The Devil has arrived in their midst' and 'soon takes on a messianic aspect, as he plays on the fears of the townsfolk and a series of increasingly brutal events unfold'. The character Irimiás may or may not be the Devil; he may or may not be 'swindling [the villagers] out of a fortune', as the blurb tells us, but the only brutal event that occurs after Irimiás's stirring speech is that the character Futaki is kicked in the face and seems to have 'lost a part of his incisor, the skin on his lower lip was broken', as the novel tells us in dance III of the second part.

It is actually important to note that dance III is not the third chapter in the second part: it is the fourth. As K. Thomas Khan writes in his review of Satantango, the novel is constructed as a Möbius strip, with the change in direction occurring somewhere in the sixth dance, and the dances or chapters numbering backwards after this. A Möbius strip is a figure of infinity: somehow, so very gradually, the inside of the strip becomes the outside. You get to the end of a piece only to realise that you need to keep reading because the work hasn't stopped.

This is the first Kransznahorkai I have read. As it turns out, Satantango was the first written, but the third to be translated into English by the poet and translator, George Szirtes. I have read, somewhere, that it is Kransznahorkai's most accessible book; that it reads like the first novel it is.

No matter. Satantango is one of those reading experiences that holds you under water, as the little girl Esti does the cat (so: does the cat die from ingesting poison or from drowning? Is it important to know for sure?). You could read the book for its inexorable realism, despite the rapid enwebbing of everything in the bar by spiders that are never seen -- for the mud, the interminable rain, the bitter depravities of the villagers, their stink, their gulping throats --  but when you come to dance IV of the second part, which is called, appropriately, 'Heavenly vision? Hallucination?', suffice it to stop and stare. In fact all through the novel there are fine loose threads: where there is free indirect discourse, it is strewn with short quotations which might refer to something that a character might have said in retrospect or even on an entirely other occasion, the intimacy of narrative voice rendered even more intimate by these whispering fragments, and yet also unsettled, even suspect -- after all, the tone of the fragments is often formal, stiff, stuffy -- at the very same time.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A chair threatened, bougainvillea clawed

How is it that great, wide books like this one exhaust me? I spend all day, all night, running just ahead of the converging tides. The adage, I couldn't put it down, should always be a compliment except that when uttered by some, like me, it will also be an admission of a failure of nerve: that I only read Questions of Travel thus because it was too difficult to savour it in any other way.

De Kretser's novel is as beautifully written as it is also vivid, encroaching. It swells along with one of its protagonists, Laura, and, by the end of it, the sea -- the very girth of the world. The hallucinatory, the rotting real, the worthless but moving detritus of cheap bead bracelets, red crystal tea light holders, socks with stilettos and paintings of teary cherubs, find their digital doublings and treblings in the growth -- and death -- of brightly made web pages. The book's other protagonist, Ravi, as if only in proportion to this monstrous excess, shrinks, his expertise hollowing out as his grief for his murdered wife and son in Sri Lanka scours each day that he lives.

Questions of Travel is also a book placed carefully in its Sydney undulations. It is at once suggestive of the resonant land, sky and seascapes of early Christina Stead as well as a myriad of Patrick White, set here and elsewhere, whose anarchic, rhetorical splendour is recognisable immediately in such lines as:

A shuttered villa flanked by cypress candles might have been only hostile if it hadn't called up the brittle modern heroines, bravely rouged, of doomed Katherine Mansfield.

It was one of those days when her soft yellow moustache was in evidence.

Paul Hinkel was navigating past dangers. A chair threatened, bougainvillea clawed.

The Whitely loomed: one of his bulging female landscapes, all rusty buttocks and rock. Laura could have vanished into it.

There are many questions of travel, all of them opening one into the other -- from the perspective of the Ravis, Varunikas and Nimals as much as from the Lauras -- and yet the dark unanswerable sound that E. M. Forster made central to the 1924 edition of his novel is there, too, in the vast material press of a world that exceeds understanding: the world as it is becoming for Laura's age-addled father, and as it became for her friend Theo, whose child Laura didn't want to have, and whose taste for kitschy clutter and drink and the recounted trauma of his mother rose up to choke him.

I will have to sleep off this one.