Thursday, May 2, 2013

Satantango is Difficult

Yep. The spiders. You'll see.
Satantango is difficult. Satantango is brilliant and weird and disturbing with moments of dark, dark humor and dynamic prose. But "difficult" was the first adjective that really stuck with me. I personally, really like difficult books. I think of them as the equivalent of climbing a mountain or competing in an Iron Man competition. There's the thrill of rising to a challenge, the fun of finding your intellectual limit, and the long term benefit of a better brain. I mean, if you got me in the right mood (Thursday night maybe, an extra beer or three, after reading the news, maybe) you could probably get me to argue that all of our society's problems stem from our reluctance to tackle difficult books. I don't always want to read difficult books and I don't like every difficult book I read, but I do think that, if you want a better brain there's no better way to get one than reading difficult books. Because the term “difficult” stuck so forcefully and completely on Satantango, even amongst all the other ways to describe it (if I said it was kinda of like your hallucination spent most of its time at the DMV and that was somehow still a good thing, would that make any sense at all to you?) I began to think more about what makes a book difficult.

In terms of reading, difficulty seems to be defined by comprehension or completion; by how much attention and energy you must spend understanding what is being expressed and by how much motivation you need to get yourself to finish the book. With some books, the sentences are basic and the plot is formulaic so you use almost no energy understanding what is being expressed and if its a story you're into you don't have to generate any extra motivation to finish it. That would be an easy book. Two things can make a book difficult; style and content; what the book is about and how the book is written. (Which is almost to say, “A book can be difficult,” but when you look hard enough pretty much every idea ends up as a tautology.) Both kinds of difficulty are present in Satantango (at least to me, as there is an element of relativity to difficulty) and I think exploring them will explore the idea of difficulty in general, and perhaps even something about the general nature of books and reading. (And maybe, a little bit about friendship. Nope. Nothing about friendship.)

Satantango has almost no paragraphs. Or rather, virtually every chapter is a single paragraph. And there are many long sentences with lots of clauses in those very long paragraphs. Oddly, the two pose different reading challenges. As we all learned in Comp 101, paragraphs are used to organize the ideas of whatever it is you're writing about; ideally, every paragraph should contain one idea. If it's a complicated idea, it'll be a long paragraph. If it's a simple idea, it'll be a short paragraph. In a way, that's how paragraphs are used in Satantango. But in the act of reading, paragraphs are also about giving you a convenient place to stop. I loves me some massive Proustian paragraphs as much as the next guy, but stopping in the middle of a paragraph requires real effort, both when you put the bookmark in and when you take it out. And there is something daunting (if not terrifying) of getting near the end of your reading day, flipping forward a few pages to find a good place stop and not finding a good place to stop. The absence of paragraphs has less to do with comprehension and more to do with endurance, with reaching a point where you're “reading exhausted,” rather than just “reading tired.”

Long sentences, however, are all about comprehension. The longer the sentence, the more information you have to keep in your head in order to understand the expressed idea. Who hasn't gotten to the end of a long (even beautiful) sentence only to have absolutely no idea how the sentence started. In some ways though, the long sentences in Satantango are easier to grapple with than, say, the long sentences in Proust or Henry James, because unlike those two, Krasznahorkai's (even this guy's name is difficult for us) sentences are more like lines of Whitman (dark, angry, dour, bitter, Hungarian Whitman) than the prose operas of those two master stylists. Details and clauses barge in, relevant only because they live in the same world as whatever else the sentence is about. Krasznahorkai's sentences have a core you need to keep in mind to comprehend them, surrounded by flagella of detail and statement. With the long paragraphs and long sentences, there were plenty of times when I looked up from the book with no idea what was going on.

Because of personal taste and mood, difficulty of content is a bit more, um, difficult to pin down than difficulty in style. There are some topics that people, for whatever reason, simply cannot read (Lolita is one I hear about rather frequently.) and  there are some topics that will always be painfully boring to some people. But I still think Satantango at least touches on general content difficulty.

What? Were you expecting rainbow unicorns? Don't be ridiculous.
First of all the plot is...vague. There are some peasants on an estate in central Hungary. There's some funny business with the money from a herd, horses I think, but maybe cows. (What happened to that money?) Also, there's a city and that's where the “protagonist” (if this book has one) starts out. Also, maybe he's a spy. All the peasants are miserable, they all go to a bar and are miserable there, talking about how miserable they are. Maybe the doctor who never washes and watches them all from his house isn't miserable himself, but he sure is miserable to read about. The “protagonist” Irimias shows up with his best bud Petrina. Oh, the peasants thought Irimias and Petrina were dead. Because some kid told them so. They all go to the town. Irimias scatters them all around the area in various jobs all so he can...collect information maybe, because he's spy, maybe. Or some other plan he doesn't bother to share with them or us. Rinse and repeat. There is no solid ground. You never know where (or if) you stand. The components of literature we learned about in high school; rising action, climax, conflict, etc, aren't present and so it is more difficult, not necessarily to remember what happened, but to organize the events in relationship to each other. What do the bells mean? Who is the antagonist? And the spiders, what's up with the magic spiders? (Oh yes, magic spiders, though, as a I write this, I think they might actually be a fundamental image/metaphor for the book. Yeah. Totally. When you read Satantango, pay attention to the spiders.)

And there are no likeable characters. I'm always annoyed by readers who put down books because they don't like any of the characters, but liking characters is one of the ways writers motivate readers through their books. (Though, Claire Messud might have finally killed the idea of “likeable characters.” Writers and readers, raise a glass to her next time you're drinking.) Essentially, you care about what happens to characters you like and so you read on to find out what happens to them. But with the exception of maybe, maybe Futaki, the lame character and the first character we meet, who is rewarded for his troubles with a concussion, it's awfully hard to care what happens to these dour, miserable characters.

Throw in a couple of truly brutal moments, brutal not from graphic violence, but brutal from a profound level of squalor (oh man, the cat), and you have a book a lot of people will struggle through. And in the end, you get no answers.

Just Like Life!
Just like life, you get no answers. (Can you mic drop in a blog? No. Well, I have more to say anyway.) Perhaps the distaste some readers feel for difficult books comes not from the difficulty I've outlined here, but from the books' reality; those who read to escape life dislike difficult books because they paid for a story but got a survival guide. And that is why I think difficult books are so important. As much as I love a good, entertaining, escapist story every now and again, reading is how I confront, cope, and understand the real world, and difficult books, in some ways because of their difficultly, capture and express the real world.

Satantango is difficult. It is frequently unpleasant. One passage made me feel a little sick to my stomach. (Oh man, the cat.) But the world is like that and when the world poses difficultly and unpleasantness, when the world makes you a little sick to your stomach, you don't often have the luxury of a highlighter and pencil to take notes, of the opportunity to study, to explore, to critique, to talk back to the text. You can't put life down on the nightstand for a moment while you recover. We can do all that and more with books, which means that, in the same way you don't run 26.2 miles every day to train for a marathon, the challenges of difficult books makes us better able to face the challenges of life.

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