What happens when the Devil is worshiped as a prophet?
For me, the Devil is one of the coolest and most interesting religious characters ever. If his appearance in most texts is intended to cause fear in the readers and to leave a moral lesson on why we should keep ourselves away from evil, then why turn the Devil into such an interesting character? Throughout the history of literature, this character has taken many forms and has acquired different features. Although he is an archetype of evil, his appealing personality only makes him more complex and dangerous. However, there are some examples where this character is portrayed in a rather humorous way, like the novel we’re going to talk about today.
First published in its original Hungarian language in 1985 by László Krasznahorkai, Satantango presents us with a question: what would happen if the Devil were to rule over people’s actions and desires?
The story is set in a rural and forgotten hamlet in Communist Hungary. The author blends folkloric and religious elements, he makes political and social commentaries on the situation of the country at a time where it seemed that this political system would last forever. But what’s the novel about? Through a poignant and often satirical tone, Krasznahorkai’s novel tells how these really bizarre and damned characters anxiously wait for the arrival of a man they regard as a prophet but is actually none other than the devil.
This remote “estate” is presented as a failed society or collective in which people live relatively as equals, but the truth is that they’re equally miserable. As a result, these flawed and wretched characters have lost all hope and don't care about anything but the little diversions they find in their equally rotten small pub. That’s the moment when a devilish character called Irimias announces his arrival, and they get a small spark of hope once again in their lives. But is he the real Devil, or just a figure they praise? We can’t tell right away. At first, what we know is that this character and his faithful companion, who was supposedly dead, are seen as miraculous beings, since the prophet is said to have amazing powers that had helped them in the past.
Krasznahorkai makes use of different styles and motifs from folkloric tales and culture to show us the ingrained magical thought of his characters and, thus, of the people. Even when they know that the current political and social ideology they’re living in is flawed, they still go back to an imaginary and naïve past, instead of really looking for a viable social order that could mean a real change. That’s one of the reasons why this novel gives you an eerie and scary vibe, since it highlights that impossibility of change and pessimism that still permeates in our world. Krasznahorkai weaves a very unique and interesting narrative that equally disorients us and places us basically in the same decaying hamlet as his characters by making us unable to see the big picture or understand beyond this secluded space. All chapters start with ambiguous situations and characters you don’t really understand until the narrative flows, but that ambiguity is what places you as one of these characters who don’t really know anything that happens outside their small state.
The greatness of the novel lies precisely in how Krasznahorkai drags you through a unique narrative to actually experience that vagueness and obscurity of the town, showing you how easy it is to develop a subjective way of thinking when you don’t have access to the full image. When your life is so restricted and filled with magical thoughts, you can actually buy anything you’re told or even resort to older patterns to understand your life. So, the question comes back: are we really dealing with the Devil, or is he so charming and captivating we think we're seeing him in different forms?
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Stills from Béla Tarr's 1994 film adaptation of the novel.