László Krasznahorkai's many literary awards include Hungary's prestigious Kossuth Prize.

George Szirtes' translation of Krasznahorkai's Satantango is forthcoming from New Directions.

Just the one deed of courage

It wasn't easy. Back then it had taken her two days to work out where she should plant her foot, what to grab for support and how to squeeze herself through what looked to be the impossibly narrow hole left by a few slats that opened under the eaves at the back of the building; now, of course, it took only half a minute and was only mildly risky, entailing one well-chosen movement to leap onto the black tarpaulin covering the woodpile, grabbing the gutter, slipping her left foot into the gap and sliding it to one side, then forcefully entering, head first, while kicking away with her free foot, and there she was inside the old pigeon loft, in that single domain whose secrets were known to her alone, where she had no need to fear her elder brother's sudden, inexplicable assaults, though she did have to be careful not to awaken the suspicions of her mother and elder sister on account of her long absence, because, should they discover her secret, they would immediately ban her from the loft, and then all further effort would be in vain.

But what did all that matter now! She pulled off her soaked jumper, adjusted her favourite pink outfit with its white collar and sat herself at the window where she closed her eyes and shivered, ready to jump, listening to the roar of rain on the tiles. Her mother was asleep in the house somewhere below, her sisters hadn't yet returned though it was time for dinner, so she was practically certain that no one would look for her that afternoon, with the possible exception of Sanyi, and nobody ever knew where to find him which made all his appearances sudden and unexpected, as if he were seeking the answer to some long-ignored secret of the estate, a secret that could only be discovered by means of a sudden surprise attack. The fact was she had no real reason to be frightened, because no one ever did look for her; on the contrary, she had been firmly told to stay away, particularly – and this was often the case – when there was a visitor at the house.

She had found herself in this no-man's-land because she was incapable of obeying orders; she wasn't allowed to be anywhere near the door nor to wander too far because she knew she could be summoned any time ("Go fetch me a bottle of wine. On the double!" or "Get me three packets of cigarettes, my girl, Kossuth brand, you won't forget, will you?"), and should she fail but once in her mission she'd never be let into the house again. Because there was nothing else left to her: her mother, when she was sent home from the special-needs school "by mutual agreement" put her to kitchen work, but her fear of disapproval – when plates broke on the floor, or enamel chipped off the pan, or when the cobweb remained in the corner, or when the soup turned out tasteless, or the paprika stew too salty – made her incapable of completing the simplest tasks at last, so there was nothing for it but to chase her from the kitchen too. From that time on, her days were filled with cramping anxiety and she hid herself behind the barn, or sometimes at the end of the house under the eaves because from there she could keep an eye on the kitchen door so that, though they couldn't see her from there, if they called she could appear immediately.

Having to be constantly on the alert soon played havoc with her emotions: her attention was almost exclusively restricted to the kitchen door, but she registered it with such keen sharpness that almost amounted to acute pain, every detail of it impinging on her at once, the two dirty panes of glass above it through which she glimpsed flashes of lace curtains fixed there with drawing pins, and below it splashes of dried mud and the line of the door handle as it bent towards the ground; in other words a terrifying network of shapes, colours, lines; not only that, but the precise condition of the door itself as it changed according to her curiously chopped-up sense of time, in which possible dangers presented themselves every moment. When any period of immobility came to a sudden end everything around her shifted with it: the walls of the house sped by her as did the crooked arc of the eaves, the window altered position, the pigsty and the neglected flowerbed drifted past her from left to right, the earth under her feet shifted, and she seemed to be standing in front of her mother or elder sister who suddenly appeared before her, without her being able to see the open door. The brief moment it took her to blink was enough for her to recognize them, since that was all she needed, because the shadowy forms of her mother and sister were constantly imprinted on the scene before her in the throbbing air: she could sense their presence without seeing them, she knew they were there, that she was facing them down there, just as she knew that they were rising above her to the point that if she once looked up and saw them, their image might crack right across, because their intolerable right to tower above her was so unarguable that the vision she had of them might well be enough to explode them.

The ringing silence extended only as far as the unmoving door, beyond that she struggled to distinguish her mother or sister's angry command from the pounding noise ("You're enough to give anyone a heart attack! Why are you rushing about like that? There's nothing for you here! Go on, get out and play somewhere!") that quickly faded as she ran away to hide behind the barn or under the eaves so that relief might overcome panic, of which she was never quite free because it could start again at any time. Of course there was no playing for her, not that she had a doll, or storybook, or a glass marble to hand with which – if any stranger should appear in the yard or if the people inside glanced out of the window into it to check on her – she might pretend to be engaged in a game but dared not, because her constant state of alert had prevented her for a long time now from being immersed in any kind of game.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by George Szirtes.



Issue 17 £5.20

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop