(My review on goodreads)
First, if you ever have the urge to watch the movie Sátantangó, read the novel first: it will make the seven hour film a lot less confusing.
This is a really odd novel. The review blurbs go on a bit about the long finely-crafted sentences, and the many acute observations, and the novel´s hyper-realism. We can take all that as given, except that at least twice the novel veers suddenly from penetrating realism to magic: the first time in the resurrection scene, and the second at the very end (or was it the very beginning?) of the novel.
The major themes of the book are decay, despair, and deception. The characters live in a falling-down village in the middle of a vast muddy plain, with rain that will last for months. There is no earthly motive other than inertia that would keep anyone in such a place. And in that small setting there are quarrels, betrayal, infidelities, prostitution, child abuse, alcohol abuse, madness, obsession, and a common thread of self-delusion that infects everyone. Every house leaks and is sprouting mold; the local tavern is covered floor to ceiling with cobwebs every morning, yet the landlord has never been able to find a single spider; mud is ankle-deep everywhere; and the rain is relentless. The villagers somehow scrape together a living from their meager livestock, and spend it all at the tavern.
We are shown the terrible cruelty of ignorant and venal people: the woman who pimps out her two teenage daughters, and whose contempt and indifference to her youngest pre-teen daughter, together with a cruel trick played by her teenage son, drives the girl to two horrible acts of violence. This entire sequence was one that was a bit confusing in the movie, because we could not quite tell what was in the little girl´s mind. It was also a sequence that was very hard to watch; and nearly as hard to read.
In the midst of this hopelessness the villagers get word that Irimiás is coming: Irimiás who has been thought to be dead for 18 months and who, when he was in the village was the brains and motive force, and now he is returning and the village once again has hope for the future.
But we know differently. He is a con-man somehow connected with the police or perhaps with internal state security (we are never quite sure). We are pretty sure he is returning with larcenous intent. The news of his impending return throws the villagers into a drunken frenzy, the ¨Satan´s tango¨ of the title, an all-night orgy of fights, threats, drinking, dancing, passing out.
All of the above is presented to us in a more-or-less linear way, with frequent insights into the psychology and motivations of each of the characters. For the most part it could be a documentary as presented by an insightful observer.
But then comes the resurrection. The three characters, including Irimiás, who witness the resurrection can´t believe what they are seeing, but they agree that it is impossible that they could all be having a hallucination. And what they have witnessed is unmistabable. Yet almost immediately afterwards Irimiás dismisses the event as unworthy of attention, and convinces his companions to put it out of their minds. So - what is the author getting at? Was it just a nice jolt to give to his readers? If he has something in mind, is it the resurrection or is it Irimiás´ ability to discount what he has seen with his own eyes?And why was the resurrection revealed to those three, and not to the villagers? I really have no idea.
At the end of the novel there seems to be a reference to ¨in my end is my beginning¨, an idea usually understood as one of hope, but here, in this novel, hope is impossible. Instead we are left with a riddle and an invitation to start over, only to see the same mistakes repeated again and again, perhaps for all time.