This is a profoundly troublesome book to review in short order because, for me personally (if you’ll excuse the intuitive knee-jerk redundancy), Laurent Binet’s HHhH assumes the status, or perhaps the infrequent and baffling honour, of being a work of literature I appreciate and recommend, with some qualification, despite a host of initial (and not insubstantial) misgivings I harboured during the reading process. In fact, I would say — without express inhibition — I love this book, but this reaction might be characterised as contradicting my initial evaluation of Binet’s material. In some ways (and for a more explicit context), this is a critical reaction I can only attribute to a few previous instances: I recall enjoying David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but felt that its entire second/middle act should have been excised entirely or revised thoroughly, and I grappled with my increasingly diminishing enthusiasms over Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, if only because I would have designated Murakami’s novel structurally and narratively unsalvageable, if not for the final/third book which somewhat redeemed the systematically flawed entity for me as a whole. What I can express, in framing Binet’s HHhH in this tendentious context, is that it is certainly the best of the three works, and that the authorial issues I encountered upon reading Binet’s book nonetheless retain a verisimilitude with those I reconciled myself to when reading both the Mitchell and the Murakami: in sum, Binet’s work improves itself unequivocally from about the final third on.
As I’m certain it was for many others — not least because, the conventional lagtime in publishing a comprehensive English-language translation of a work of formidable world literature notwithstanding, this constitutes his début novel — this is the first of Krasznahorkai‘s fiction I’ve devoured. In that spirit, I’m compelled to verify that (as with all those who’ve heretofore asserted their uninhibited appreciation for Krasznahorkai’s fiction) Satantango is an unqualified masterpiece of narrative art.
It is a big, black subterranean artefact of eschatology, human ruination and synchresis, some visionary text charting the systematic spiritual and physical entropy of the few corruptible members of some neo-feudal Hungarian agricultural co-op before the nationwide dissolution of communism in 1985. But like any apocalyptical allegory, this one’s also a conduit into the befoulment of man when confronted by the inexplicable figure of a prophet come to collude and succour those who seek easy resolution or look to spurious acts of sublimation to reconcile themselves to their personal and professional failures.
For most of my reading, it reminded me of a novel-length contemporary explication of Chekhov’s short-story, “Peasants”, but the style recurrently evoked the labyrinthine and incantatory prosody of Knut Hamsun, Melville, Bulgakov and Gogol — but there’s something, too, of Flannery O’Connor’s gothic evocations and Bolaño’s oeniric mythmaking and even Mervyn Peake’s high weirdness, so that it’s always eminently clear that Satantango is its own thing, a witchy dirge to the death of community, a book about the dystopic consequences that arise from money reasserting its Talmudic status of influence over our lives.
Perhaps the best thing about Krasznahorkai that is so rarely articulated is that his writing is always drolly hilarious. This is a book where the Messianic manifestation materialises before you expressing little but shopworn promises, but we’re all too preoccupied in pissing ourselves, skulking on our stomachs and writhing in our neighbours’ filth to notice.