Mircea Cărtărescu takes us on a mystical trip into the protagonist’s childhood, his memories of hospitalization as a teenager, the prehistory of his family, a traveling circus, Secret police, zombie armies, American fighter pilots, the underground jazz scene of New Orleans, and the installation of the communist regime

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Mircea Cărtărescu, Blinding, Trans. by Sean Cotter, Archipelago, 2013.   
excerpt


Part visceral dream-memoir, part fictive journey through a hallucinatory Bucharest, Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding was one of the most widely heralded literary sensations in contemporary Romania, and a bestseller from the day of its release. Riddled with hidden passageways, mesmerizing tapestries, and whispering butterflies, Blinding takes us on a mystical trip into the protagonist’s childhood, his memories of hospitalization as a teenager, the prehistory of his family, a traveling circus, Secret police, zombie armies, American fighter pilots, the underground jazz scene of New Orleans, and the installation of the communist regime. This kaleidoscopic world is both eerily familiar and profoundly new. Readers of Blinding will emerge from this strange pilgrimage shaken, and entirely transformed.


"Romania's greatest living writer." -- Andrew Solomon, The New Yorker

“[Cărtărescu is] a writer who has always had a place reserved for him in a constellation that includes the Brothers Grimm, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Bruno Schulz, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, and Milorad Pavic, to mention just a few.”   —Andrei Codrescu

“His novel is nothing less than a cathedral of imagination and erudition … This masterwork of mannerism is guaranteed to catapult Mircea Cartarescu to the highest echelons of European literature.” —Neue Zürcher Zeitung

"Blinding asks much from readers as it shifts between tender family history, Ceaușescu-era satire and visionary fantasies that recalls William S Burroughs. Stay with him: epiphanies and beauties abound in this deliriously ambitious work." -- A Fiction in Translation Book of the Year, The Independent

"As Borges said when Joyce’s Ulysses was published, this text does not aspire to be a novel, but a cathedral...A novel with a strong original voice, a unique flavor, and well-crafted poetic language, Blinding is a delight and a surprise, a major discovery of this year. This literary experience will bring new attention to Romanian literature, a cultural destination that for decades eluded North American audiences." -- Los Angeles Review of Books

"...Cartarescu astounds without resorting to showiness, and the sheer energy and exuberance of his language is intoxicating. What’s more, his extra-sensory vision of Bucharest (and beyond) is mind-expanding." -- Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Fluidly translated by Sean Cotter… the book has a cinematic quality that we don’t so much read as drift through—as in an amusement park ride. What fantastic notion, or iteration of metamorphosing insect will pop out and regale us next? If you’re game for a mystical mind-bend, give Blinding a go." — The Los Angeles Review

"Nothing can prepare you for the scope and ambition of Blinding, the first volume of Romanian author Mircea Cărtărescu’s acclaimed trilogy. A phantasmagorical blend of fiction, memoir, surrealism, entomology, war, sex, death and destruction, the novel is, to use its own words, on a 'a continuum of reality-hallucination-dream." -- Bookforum

"It is testament to translator Sean Cotter’s skill that this English version fairly vibrates with immediacy, its jungle-cat vigor apparent even during the book’s melancholy moods. Reading Blinding, the tears we feel on our face are unmistakably Cartarescu’s, and it is Cartarescu’s hand we feel tugging us down the twisting lanes between apartment towers, out to the far fringes of his personal past, whether remembered, reconstructed, or marvelously and eloquently re-imagined." -- Brooklyn Paper

"For English readers, the arrival of Blinding: Volume 1 is a great gift from the gods of altered reality. . . . It is tempting, when encountering a new translation, to compare the foreign author with someone more familiar ... those who reach into nightmares to capture the monsters in our waking lives. Still, Cărtărescu’s scope and ambition, soaring to metafiction and beyond,  surpasses most of these comparisons." -- KGB Bar Lit Magazine

"Cartarescu’s first volume concludes with a spiritual call-to-arms, in which creativity and fertility are one and the same. This vision imparts beauty to this destiny, but there are also intimations throughout of power misused, of violence, of beings struggling for connection in the face of obstacles." — Kristine Rabberman (The Quarterly Conversation)

"Cartarescu's themes are immense.... They reveal to us a secret Bucharest, folded into underground passages far from the imperious summons of history, which never stops calling to us." --Le Monde

"Cartarescu's phantasmagorical world is similar to Dalí's dreamscapes." --Kirkus Reviews
 "Gripping, impassioned, unexpected--the qualities that the best in literature possesses." --Los Angeles Times Book Review
 "If George Lucas were a poet, this is how he would write." -- New York Sun"At once philosophical and historical, the novel is full of fresh insights and remarkable turns of phrase. Sean Cotter’s translation only adds to the book’s emotional tenor, since it reads like an English-language original, and it would not be too surprising to see this become an American bestseller as well." -- Hannah Thurman, The Coffin Factory

"The stakes of Cartarescu’s literary project are staggering. The novel seeks to answer the same question that all sacred texts seek to answer: what does it mean to be alive? What happens to us after we die? The book is as much a thought experiment as it is an aesthetic one... Sean Cotter has done a masterful, inspired job with the translation. The meditative, Baroque rhythms of Cărtărescu’s Romanian flow into graceful, vigorous English.... This fantastic, luminous work [...] has transformed Romanian literature into world and world-class literature." -- Carla Baricz, Words Without Borders


UNTIL RECENTLY we have not heard much about literature from Romania, but in the last few years there have been several interesting moments for Romanian letters. One instance is Sean Cotter’s rendition of Nichita Stănescu’s (1933-1983) poetry, Wheel with a Single Spoke: and Other Poems, published by Archipelago Books. A good translation of Stănescu’s poems was long overdue, and Cotter’s mastery of Romanian subtleties is perfect, equal to the craftsman’s skill. The volume was awarded the Three Percent Best Translated Book Award for Poetry.
Cotter has now also translated the first volume of Mircea Cărtărescu’s trilogy Blinding, bringing the same scholarly experience and literary sensibility to the task. Reading Cotter’s Blinding feels like reading a work originally conceived in English. Many passages of the book are written like a poem, with meter and rhythm, and Cotter matches the quality the Romanian original has. In one of his passages, Cărtărescu describes a neighborhood in Bucharest:
Behind this first row of buildings were others, and above them, stars. There was a massive house with red shutters, and a pink house that looked like a small castle, there were short apartment blocks braided with ivy, built between the wars, that had round windows with square panes, Jugendstil ornaments on the stairways, and grotesque towers. Everything was lost in the leaves, now black, of poplars and beech trees, which made the sky seem deeper and darker toward the stars. In the lit windows, a life unrolled that I glimpsed only in fragments: a woman ironing laundry, a man on the third floor in a white shirt doing summersaults, two women sitting in chairs and talking nonstop.
The atmospheric tone and poetic cadence are like rays of light and shadow captured on a photographic plate.
In Blinding, the narrator’s name is Mircea, the same as the author’s, and Cărtărescu brings to life not only Mircea’s childhood memories, but also memories from before his birth, memories that belong to his parents, memories and dreams of characters he met on various occasions, memories of ancestors, and visions inherited through secret sources. The trilogy is structured by the fundamental idea that every human being is the outcome of two heritages, two parents, and that their entwined outcome is an imaginary space decorated with stories. The novel-in-the-shape-of-a-butterfly (which is why this first volume is subtitled The Left Wing) has a “feminine” wing, a body, and a “masculine” wing, corresponding to mother and father. Cărtărescu has clearly followed recent research on the human genome, and the text includes several direct references, such as: “nuclei with chromosomes composed of chains of DNA and RNA composed of nucleic acids composed of molecules of hallucinatory stereosymmetry composed of atoms composed of nuclear particles composed of quarks” — fragments that should be viewed as an attempt to incorporate, in the space of literature, the terminology and imagery of science.
Blinding creates an entire world from dreams, memories, visions, and chimeras, where statues move and have memories and dreams (and the narrator can read their minds), a world where cities have extraordinary underground networks with the complexity of a maze, where everything is replicated with a “method” that the author describes as inspired by the shape of fractals. The reader experiences fragments of narratives that can be split into parts, repeated and amplified, with each fragment aiming to be a reduced-size copy of the whole, all delivered with the power of a materialized dream.
One of these stories seems to be a genuine piece of family history, and that is something we would expect in a novel coming from Southeastern Europe; it’s the tale of an extended Bulgarian family crossing the iced-over Danube in winter, traveling on sleds, to relocate from their village in Bulgaria’s Rodop Mountains to the Romanian plains. This is a literary elaboration of the real-life author’s family saga, his mother’s story, recalled in similar terms in some interviews. In the novel, we read:
A line of sleighs without bells, pulled by small, puffy-maned horses with hooves wrapped in strips of leather, led the entire Badislav Clan to salvation — their bold and hearty infants and women, their sacks of grain, hanks of lard-smothered pork, and the vestments, icons and stoles for the priest, who sat dressed like an ordinary peasant and lashed the mare’s shiny brown back while she plodded calmly between the reins in front of him. The mare whipped him on the cheek with her coarse, golden tail, flashing her pitch black birther between her haunches. There was no visible road ahead, only the field that led to the Danube and to escape, covered with a snow that reached the horses’ chests.
However, this novel is by no means a classical family saga; Blinding conflates several layers of memories. For example, one of the constant visions mentioned in the book is the purple-violet butterfly-shaped spot on the narrator’s mother’s hip (the character’s name is Maria). The narrator not only remembers it clearly, he claims to have seen the mark from inside of the womb, before his birth. (This fantastic motif Cărtărescu has used before, in his short-story collection Nostalgia, and it is one of his most powerful poetic images.)
Several fragments in Blinding bring to life Bucharest’s lost charm. We read about the old neighborhood Uranus, demolished by the communist regime after it was severely impacted by an earthquake in 1977, rather than restored; about Mircea’s first house on Silistra street, important for personal reasons; and about the University Square, with its landmark statues of local national figures. The Bucharest Cărtărescu’s imagination builds is an alternate parallel universe, and not the only one. In one of the most beautiful chapters we read the story of Cedric, a drummer from New Orleans, met by the narrator’s mother during World War II in Bucharest, and whose story brings to life the old French Quarter, described in all its charm and color. Cărtărescu’s description of the Quarter and some of the characters, including a certain Monsieur Monsu with magic powers, is vivid and full of fantastic developments and baroque descriptions that make New Orleans and Bucharest mirror-image exotic spaces. And in fact, rather than being called Little Paris, Bucharest should have been called the European New Orleans. The narrator inhabits Maria’s imagination, remembering the French actor Gérard Philipe and other forgotten singers and players from the World War II era. The detailed descriptions of clothing, furniture, and interiors of rooms have a certain feminine intention, pursued consistently throughout the first volume of the trilogy.
In 1968, when the troops of the Eastern Block (except Romania) invaded Czechoslovakia, a Romanian secret service officer finds a piece of paper with the word “blinding” on it, and he is convinced that he has discovered an anti-communist conspiracy. The word turns out to be the center of an obsession, one that is supposed to help the whole world come together in a unified image. This idea recalls Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, an author with significant influence on Cărtărescu. In one of many Pynchon-flavored fragments, an exotic character states:
Nothing, nothing exists [. . .]. We are simulacra of the unreal, itself in turn a simulacrum. This stage of the unreal becomes opaque and real only when seen as a whole, from the top end or the bottom, page after transparent page. But there is no top or bottom, and there are no eyes to see from that perspective. Page over page over page, our world is a book made of onion skin. And this skin has veins, and nerves, and glomeruli of stinking sweat.
A few moments later, the same character complements the previous image with an antipodal description:
This is the only way the hemispheres, schizophrenia, and paranoia will be left behind, and the sexes, man and woman, will annul each other, and the powers, master and slave, will become one, and wonder of wonders, good will be corrupted by evil so that it sparkles stronger, and evil will rise through good so that its darkness increases, and at their meeting, and above them, where they will arch out of themselves and come together, they will become identical, light and dark, in a single, ecstatic word: BLINDING.
This fragment echoes the Blinding trilogy’s ambitions: a vision of the whole world’s array of antagonistic forces converging in one ultimate larger-than-life image, accomplished through literary expression that reaches beyond anything that our senses can perceive; images that converge out of reach of our senses, using the real and the fantastic in equal measure. The reader is invited to embrace this feeling of overwhelming comprehension, this comprehensive vision exceeding life and imagination. As Borges said when Joyce’s Ulysses was published, this text does not aspire to be a novel, but a cathedral.
A novel with a strong original voice, a unique flavor, and well-crafted poetic language, Blinding is a delight and a surprise, a major discovery of this year. This literary experience will bring new attention to Romanian literature, a cultural destination that for decades eluded North American audiences. In recent years Romania has surprised audiences by delivering not only interesting movies, but a whole “new wave” in cinema, and now, at long last, we have some of the country’s most compelling literary gems in brilliant translation. - Bogdan Suceavă
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/this-years-discovery-mircea-cartarescus-blinding/


The media hysterics who depict Romania solely as the home of demon migrant hordes will not care that a novelist from that country became a hot tip for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.
But Mircea Cartarescu, born in 1956, would be deeply interested in their fearful fantasies. For conspiracy, paranoia and the search for a perfect foe to shore up our fragile sense of identity count among his abiding themes. That's hardly surprising, for a writer from working-class Bucharest who came of age in the heyday of Ceausescu's dictatorship and its baroque, all-pervasive intelligence agency – the Securitate.
That local history not only pervades his astonishing sequence of autobiographical fictions. It does much to explain the obsessive quest for patterns, plots and affinities among people who yearn to see "everything connected to everything else in a vast, crystalline conspiracy." Although the first volume of three "wings", Blinding: the Left Wing – in this superlative translation by Sean Cotter – stands up well alone. Cartarescu demands much as he scrambles memory, satire, fantasy and near-mystical speculation, but amply rewards your commitment.
The book functions, first and foremost, as a portrait of the artist as a boy and adolescent – an intensely subjective study of the "growth of a poet's mind". Those are Wordsworth's words. Indeed, anyone familiar with Wordsworth's "Immortality" ode may feel curiously at home as Blinding outlines a rapturous theory of one-ness with the universe in which our birth is a forgetting and art a means to recover this union. "You are not from here… You have to search for the exit," the priest Fra Armando proclaims in a closing soliloquy that showcases all Cartarescu's gift for phantasmagoric dream sequences.
Behind such delirious fantasias, long passages return to solid ground. Stitched into the multi-stranded fabric of Blinding is a tender, mesmerically precise account of a humble Bucharest upbringing and its formative effects: "The me of today englobes the me of yesterday". Prolonged illness and its solitude led little Mircea to dive within his broiling imagination for sustenance. Blinding captures these hospital episodes with devastating force. Meanwhile, the careers of relatives expose the morbid paranoia of the regime.
Above all, Blinding insists that memory can make a world. "The past is everything, the future nothing." From that past – which stretches back to encompass all of human history – Cartarescu has fashioned a novel of visionary intensity. Bring on the next instalment – soon. - Boyd Tonkin
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/blinding-the-left-wing-by-mircea-cartarescu-book-review-memory-and-satire-meld-magically-in-this-8970974.html

Contemporary literature from Eastern Europe often evokes borders and boundaries—between nations, ethnic groups, cultures, and political regimes. Perhaps it's to be expected: the region itself occupies a nebulous space between East and West—Orient and Occident—linking two worlds and their traditions.
In the sprawling trilogy Orbitor, by Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu, the text becomes a bridge between such worlds. The first volume of the trilogy, just out from Archipelago Press, under the title Blinding: The Left Wing, is the first installment of an ongoing effort to make available in English all three companion books: The Left Wing, The Body and The Right Wing. Together, these texts form an ecstatic and elegiac epic, in which the reader travels across the body of a butterfly (literally and figuratively), from the begining to the end of time.
The Left Wing focuses on the narrator Mircea’s childhood and adolescence, while the trilogy, as a whole, describes Mircea’s life, from his birth in the fifties to the 1989 December revolution that marked the fall of communism in Romania. In a sense, Mircea’s birth is also the birth of the world, and the fall of communism, in the third volume, is its apocalyptic end. In Orbitor, personal experience and historical time merge: in describing the life of his narrator, Cărtărescu describes the shape of all of human history. We are invited to see the ghostly shape of all human lives, within the arch of a single life.
In this 464-page dense and hallucinatory first volume, the narrator describes his first memories of Bucharest: the different neighborhoods in which he grew up; his time as a bed-guest in the Emil Izra Hospital; his adolescent travails in the neurology ward of the Colentina Hospital, where he received electro-shock therapy for facial neuralgia; his daily reading habits; his first apartment; his fascination with city statuary, and his relationship with his parents. The Left Wing also tells the story of his mother’s ancestors (as The Right Wing will tell the story of his father’s), the Badislavs who, in the tradition of Balkan folklore, take part in a terrifying struggle between demonic forces leading an army of the undead, and a host of Byzantine angels sent to defend them. The Badislavs subsequently flee their native Bulgaria for Wallachia. Central to the text is Mircea’s own mother—who hails from the small village of Tântava and careens between a life as a young seamstress in a jazz-soaked, haunted, brightly lit 1930s-Bucharest, courtship, marriage, and motherhood in the increasingly drab, perilous communist capital.
Mircea Cărtărescu, whose own life is reflected in the pages of Orbitor, was also born in Bucharest, in 1956. He studied at the University of Bucharest and later earned his PhD, in Romanian literature, in 1999, with a dissertation about Romanian literary postmodernism. His own fiction is exemplary of such Eastern European postmodernism, which reevaluates spatial and temporal dimensions in order to make up for the loss of historical and personal time and of local and national space, under communism. He has gone on to win many European prizes and distinctions. His trilogy, Orbitor, is perhaps his crowning achievement.
At its heart, this magnum opus is about what it means to be alive: to experience being consciously and unconsciously and to pass, eventually, into inexistence. The narrator likens death to another, greater birth and posits the idea that an individual’s past and future are symmetric, like the ghostly shapes of butterfly wings connected to our own bodies, like the two strands of DNA at the core of our genetic make-up. Our temporal existence, past and future, follows laws of symmetry, just as our bodies are governed by basic anatomical symmetries: two arms, two legs, two iliac crests, two hemispheres of the brain, two eyes that perceive this “blinding” text. The narrator goes on to claim that human beings experience “the past [as] all things, the future nothing, time has no other meaning”; that is to say, we can perceive only the past, but never the future. He then reasons that if one were to know everything about the past, one might, by extension, also glimpse the future. Knowing that past means understanding all of its incarnations: emotions, thoughts, dreams, the daily habits of our ancestors, the detailed anatomy of our parents, the stories we were told as children. To comprehend that is, just maybe, what it takes to grasp what awaits us:
We all have a memory of the past, but who of us can remember the future? And yet, we exist between the past and future like a vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings. We use one wing to fly, because we have sent our nerve filaments out to its edges, and the other is unknown, as though we were missing an eye on that side. But how can we fly with one wing? Prophets, illuminati, and heretics of symmetry foresaw what we could and must become. But what they saw per speculum in aenigmate we will all see clearly, at least as clearly as we see the past. Then even our torturous nostalgia will be whole, time will no longer exist, memory and love will be one, the brain and the sex will be one, and we will be like angels.
Attempting to recover his past in its entirety (in order to see the future), the narrator chronicles his own life as a simultaneous blur of memory, dream, and imagination. The fleshy locks on the doors of Mircea’s mind break open, permitting free access between the conscious mind and the subconscious. Pleasure and shame, desire and repulsion mix freely in the narrative, effacing the boundaries between the real and the imagined. Early on in The Left Wing, he reflects:
My memory is the metamorphosis of my life, the adult insect grown from the larva that is my life. And if I do not plunge bravely into the milky abyss that surrounds and hides it in the pupa of my mind, I will never know if I was, if I am a voracious nun, a spider dreaming on an endless pair of stilts, or a butterfly of supernatural beauty. I remember, that is, I invent. I transmute the ghost of moments into weighty, oily gold. […] That hyaline cartilage where the three heraldic flowers on a shield meet – dream, memory, and emotion – that is my domain, my world, the World.
The stakes of Cărtărescu’s literary project are staggering. The novel seeks to answer the same question that all sacred texts seek to answer: what does it mean to be alive? What happens to us after we die? The book is as much a thought experiment as it is an aesthetic one. If the reader can come to understand the shape of the narrator’s life, he or she will understand life itself, in an altogether more encompassing sense. This is what Cărtărescu promises. The “blinding” moment at the heart of Orbitor is the drive towards ecstatic revelation: an immense rush propelling one forward toward pure consciousness, toward the understanding that we are promised in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12. The verses serve as an epigraph to the first volume: “[ . . .] For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.”
Sean Cotter has done a masterful, inspired job with the translation. The meditative, Baroque rhythms of Cărtărescu’s Romanian flow into graceful, vigorous English thanks to Cotter. Though the linguistic pyrotechnics can feel overwhelming in such a complex, long, and deeply philosophical first volume, nothing seems gratuitous: language itself, in its long lists and flights of fancy, proves Cărtărescu’s ultimate point about birth. Every a human life is a Gospel, every birth an Annunciation, and “page after page after page, our world is a book made of onion skin. And this skin has veins, and nerves, and glomeruli of stinking sweat. The people of old knew, and said, that every world is a book containing a book, and inside every Gospel is a Gospel [ . . . ].” The attempt to write a book about the body and soul, about the human parchment-book in which one is written, can be terrifying, as well as wondrous:
I didn’t know whether the lines of my life (voices and caresses, clouds and cities, laughter and the earth full of worms) should be read vertically or horizontally, from the left or the right, or if I should go back and forth in the boustrophedon of my childhood. I didn’t know if the writing was pictographic phonetic, or if it was a writing, at all. Illustrations and illuminations, vignettes and friezes with labyrinths of stalks decoded the old book of hours with pages of skin. In the filigree of every page you saw a braid of blue and red veins, beating to a single pulse, irrigating the paragraphs. Arborescent nerves made every letter as sensitive as a tooth. Mistakes were attacked with antibodies of lymph. The parchment as alive, like skin just flayed from a martyr, and it smelled of ink and blood.
This fantastic, luminous work that risks so much in order to address the big questions deserves all the accolades it has received and will surely garner more well-earned praise in the coming months. It has done what few other works have managed to do: it has transformed Romanian literature into world and world-class literature. - Carla Baricz
http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/book-review/mircea-crtrescus-blinding


The past is everything, the future nothing, and time has no other meaning.
I won’t play games, there are no secret agendas here: Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by the incomparably amazing independent publisher Archipelago Books, should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award for two reasons, both of which fulfill whichever the criteria of what a “best translated book” should be: 1) it is the best book I read in the last year; and 2) it is the best work of translation, the work of a genius author translated by a genius translator, I read in the last year. Not only is it a damn good book, which I’ll get into below, but it’s the best damn translation by the best damn translator in the game: Dr. Sean Cotter.
What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .
I suppose I should write a disclaimer: Sean Cotter is a friend. He lives in the Dallas area, where I live. We frequently eat at Mediterranean buffets together. I’ve put together readings for him in town. I trumpet the cause of Sean Cotter. This may make you think I’m biased towards him, but that’s not entirely true. The reason I do all of these things and the reason why I am even writing this piece is not because I’m friends with Sean Cotter but rather that I’m Sean Cotter believer. I believe in this man’s talent as a translator that transcends your earthly opinions of human relationships and whatever notion of bias means in this instance. When I sit with him at lunch I basically just ask him how the hell he could actually manage to translate this beast of a novel, and even after he’s explained it to me over and over again I’m still in awe.
What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .
But back to the book itself—Blinding is a masterpiece. It was an instant bestseller when it appeared in Romania (God bless the Romanians). Blinding first book in a trilogy that takes the form of a butterfly tracing out the history of Cărtărescu’s family history: the full title of book one is Blinding: The Left Wing. The other two books, as yet untranslated, include book two, “The Body,” and book three, “The Right Wing.” The left wing of the butterfly-novel is the history, or rather, the legend, of Cărtărescu’s mother; the right wing tells the story of his father; the body is about the author himself. It’s an imaginative format, and is made apparent to the reader throughout the novel by the central figure/motif/metaphor/symbol/icon of the butterfly that links all of the stories taking place across time/space. Chapters alternate in narrative points of view and throughout the history of Cărtărescu’s mother and her ancestors, from the narrator philosophizing about the nature of our existence in this universe sitting in his room overlooking Bucharest’s skyline in the present day to magical stories of gypsies and resurrected zombies in rural 19th-century (or before?!) Romanian hinterlands, to WWII-era Bucharest and its bombed-out aftermath under the Soviet stooge government.
Space is Paradise and time is inferno. How strange it is that, like the emblem of bipolarity, in the center of a shadow is light, and that light creates shadows. After all, what else is memory, this poisoned fountain at the center of the mind, this center of paradise? Well-shaft walls of tooled marble shaking water green as bile, and its bat-winged dragon standing guard? And what is love? A limpid, cool water from the depths of sexual hell, an ashen pearl in an oyster of fire and rending screams? Memory, the time of the timeless kingdom. Love, the space of the spaceless domain. The seeds of our existence, opposed yet so alike, unite across the great symmetry, and annul it through a single great feeling: nostalgia.
The complex layout of the novel isn’t so complex when you read it, I swear, it is fun and breathtaking and will carry you away in the epic sweep of very sentence. I can’t tell you what happens in the novel, because there is no plot per se, unless you describe in the terms I attempted to above: the novel is Cărtărescu’s creation myth for his mother’s side of the family; the mythmaker, the storyteller, is the axis of the many stories that spoke out from his mind into a work of beautiful, complex genius.
I remember, that is, I invent. I transmute the ghosts of moments into weighty, oily gold.
In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book TwoBlinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.
You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. I write about the way my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membranes . . . the tension and discord between my present mind and my mind a moment ago, my mind ten years ago . . . their interactions as they mix with each other’s images and emotions. There’s so much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination for ruin and rot! It’s like being a forensic pathologist, peering at liquefied organs!
I read a lot of translations by a lot of translators but the fact of the matter is the Blinding is a perfect reminder of the importance of world literature being translated into English as the ability to expand not only our artistic consciousness and understanding of the world but blowing apart the very limits of our own reality. I volunteered to write this piece because I read Blinding and it blew my mind into a zillion pieces, it is wholly unlike any other novel I have ever read, so unique and refreshing that I now see the world in new ways, and that’s why I read books in the first place, and the fact is that it is so miraculously wrought a novel that I cannot help but write a piece extolling the translator’s talents in rendering the weirdest turns of phrases and run-on sentences that mark the genius Cărtărescu’s work into a breathtakingly original English that extends the limits of what we imagine our own native language—our own native minds—can fathom.
Under my skin, tensioned and fresh, run tendons that activate the levers of my fingers. And my fingers move, because we do not doubt ourselves. Because what flows within the borders of our skin is not only blood, lymph, hormones, and sugar: more importantly, our belief flows.
Sean’s translation is imaginative and creative, fearless and flawless. He has captured the manic, mad majesty of Cărtărescu’s mind as they trace the fantastical branches of Cărtărescu’s family tree and the labyrinthine shadows of Bucharest so lovingly described throughout centuries of history—which is the history of Cărtărescu himself, his ancestors, his family, his city, and his active, whirlwind imagination. There has never been anything written in the English language to prepare you for the originality of vision and language that you will find within the pages of Blinding.
What else would I be but a neuron, with a brain as my cellular body, spinal marrow as my axons, and nerves as my numberless dendrites? A spiderweb that feels only what touches it. Yes, each of us have a single neuron within us, and humanity is a dissipated brain that strives desperately to come together. And I wonder, quaking inside, whether the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the dead are nothing more than this: the extraction of this neuron from every person that ever lived, their evaluation, and the rejection of the unviable into the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and construction of an amazing brain—new, universal, blinding—from the perfect neurons, and with this brain we will climb, unconscious and happy, onto a higher level of the fractal of eternal Being.
Blinding should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award because it is the best book of the year, and Sean should win the first ever back-to-back BTBA award for a translator because he is a master of the English language and brought Cărtărescu into my mind. Into our minds. Into our collective consciousness. Into our collective memory. And for that he should be awarded eternal life. -  Bromance Will aka Will Evans  http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=10682


Increasingly, the truly audacious novels published in English are not originally written in this language, but are translated into it. Consider the projects that have appeared here in just the past five years: the My Struggle sextet by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, thousands of pages in length and regularly compared to classics of Modernist literature. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, an epic of language, geography, politics, and horror. Parallel Stories by Peter Nádas, over a decade in the making and an attempt to sum up all of postwar Eastern Europe. Mathias Énard’s single-sentence, 500-page novel Zone, telling the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean. The baroque disasters brought to us by Laszlo Krasznahorkai . . .
The list goes on. These books are not only lengthy and ambitious in their subject matter, but they are also formally challenging and take considerable risks with language: extremely long sentences (some as long as fifty pages or more), the incorporation of arcane terminology, the use of mathematical logic and symbols as a part of the prose. It is no exaggeration to call them the works that are driving the novel forward in the twenty-first century, and they are increasingly being studied by students of writing in the United States. To their ranks must be added Mircea Cărtărescu’s 1,500-page Blinding trilogy, originally published in Romanian across the decade from 1996 to 2007, and the first book of which has been published in English this year in Sean Cotter’s marvelous translation.
Insofar as I comprehend it—insofar as it can be comprehended—the aim of this octopus-like work, which seems to move in several different directions on each page, may be found in a line near the first volume’s end: “There is no other annunciation than a person’s birth. And every birth creates a religion.” If Cărtărescu is in earnest when he writes this, then the Blinding trilogy is nothing less than his attempt to explain the religion that he proposes began with his appearance on Earth. The first novel in the trilogy, called Blinding: The Left Wing, is broken into three sections, and the first and third largely deal with “Mircea’s” childhood in postwar Bucharest. The middle section is a mythical fantasia spanning continents, eras, and characters, charting the doings of a sort of eschatological secret society whose prophecy culminates in the insemination of Mircea’s mother. You might call it an act of exorbitant ego to write a book enshrining your consciousness as the signal event in history, or you might call it the only thing a novelist can honestly do. Let us leave the question for the moment.
What kind of religion is Cărtărescu developing? It is an utterly bizarre mixture of Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism (and possibly Islam), in which butterflies and triangles are the key artifacts, the arrival of Eastern Europe’s iron shroud in 1945 and its removal in 1989 are the essential historical signposts, and which is, above all, a viscerally biological realm full of pulsing organs, inner fluids, grotesque transformations, bodily aberrations, freaks, curiosities, and cerebral hypertrophy.
Cărtărescu is an unreconstructed postmodernist, and one, it would seem, with an extremely broad range of interests: in one paragraph he will use the I Ching to describe the intuition that guides him through the novel he is piecing together, and then in the next paragraph he will describe a tattoo of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary that is being placed on the shaven head of his young female protagonist. At another point he suddenly dives into Hinduism, informing us of the “seven chakras along the spinal cord and seven plexuses in the viscera,” then launching into a lengthy, detailed description of their position and purposes. All this seems to be evidence for his idea that the body consists of uncounted symmetries: he concludes, “we ought to remember with our testicles and love with our brains.” Cărtărescu’s sense of history is somewhat less whimsical: the historical trajectory of Eastern Europe after the Second World War provides a sort of backbone to Mircea’s extremely complex personal story, and the systems of control and paranoia practiced upon the Eastern Bloc by the ruling powers are strongly felt throughout the novel, much of which takes place in Communist Romania.
Then there is Cărtărescu’s application of nature to his narrative, his beloved butterflies—appearing virtually on every page—and his cabinets full of oddities. To give you an idea: one major occurrence in the chain of events leading to Mircea’s birth is the brain rape—via the proboscis of a giant butterfly—of a woman who exists jailed within an elevator held several stories up at the top of its cable, sans building, for a dozen years. Another major scene involves a circus infiltrated by a Romanian secret police agent, where said agent witnesses a woman who swallows whole, and then regurgitates alive, a deadly poisonous snake. But that is just the opener: the main act is a spider-woman with six “hairy legs capped with terrible claws, her round and fragile stomach, full of eggs and innards, and the spinneret grown at its end, through which transparent silk ran.” She screeches with the simultaneous voice of both a woman and a spider, and, in due time, consumes a “glassy” butterfly that emerges from an enormous tumor growing from the neck of an otherwise beautiful woman. Mircea’s own childhood involves lengthy stays in a hospital for children with mental and physical deformities, whose doings and patients are described in much detail. Characters throughout the book constantly travel far into subterranean depths—be they physical, mental, or cultural—and these travels almost always culminate with some sort of extravagant biological abomination, evoked by Cărtărescu in a language as disgusting as it is precise.
To put things more plainly: I first read Blinding months ago, and there are images that I can still recall with complete crispness, indeed that I believe I will be able to recall years from now. Without in the least diminishing the remarkable work regularly done by literary translators, it must be said that Cotter could only have put in an extraordinary effort to bring Cărtărescu’s Romanian into English. A list of the book’s medical and religious jargon alone would fill pages, but even more than that there are the idiomatic coinages, the language that functions like an in vitro literary laboratory and spawns monsters on each page. See, for instance, the combination of Proustian sentiment and biological appropriation Cărtărescu employs in describing how his consciousness evolves from instant to instant:
And the I of every moment is connected to the one before through a vigorous umbilical cable, with two arteries and one vein, moving the ineffable erythrocytes of causality. Beside it, a subtle and complicated vascularization, a braid of blue and violet capillaries inextricably connects the Russian dolls to each other in a wooly cocoon, so that the moment of now can branch out, over a period of five years, and another over seven, touching flexible synapses to the heavy eyelids and Buddha smile of one of the billions of children and adolescents that look like me, sucking on their minds, their neck glands or their suprarenal capsules to draw out emotions, chemicals scenes, ideas, or something else I cannot imagine and do not dare to write down.
“Erythrocytes of causality” is a beautiful expression, poetically injecting the free will of living matter into that billiard-ball term causality. I love how those two words sit in a state of tension, mated by the of and at once giving meaning to each other and tearing themselves apart. The “vascularization” of time into a living cocoon that surrounds our “I” is a sublime image, as is the following one, in which we nurture the embryo of our next self with the very stuff of what we once were.
The “cocoons” in this passage, as well as the butterflies mentioned earlier in conjunction with the elevator and the circus, give some idea of the range Cărtărescu garners from the book’s central object. By defamiliarizing the butterfly, long a symbol of lightness and beauty, by implicating it in so many disturbing ends, he puts his own personal stamp on a creature that has become clichéd. In Cărtărescu’s hands the butterfly becomes a complex representation of the freakish energy at work everywhere in his universe. Are these creatures benign? Malevolent? Do they have their own sense of purpose, or are they merely agents of the strange powers that govern Cărtărescu’s world? Cărtărescu draws on the butterfly’s traditional associations while also celebrating what is so grotesquely alien in its insectile nature. As such, it is emblematic of another grand strategy of Blinding, which is to normalize humanity’s freaks while relishing what is so deviant about them.
But to return to the question that I placed in limbo earlier: what to make of an author who considers his own birth the start of a religion? Cărtărescu has said in an interview that when he began the Blinding trilogy, “I felt the need to do something crazy.” My understanding of the trilogy’s project is that it forms a butterfly—one book is the right wing, another the left, and a third the body—representing the relationship between mother, father, and son. In this Cărtărescu is not abnormal—literature is not lacking for grand projects that attempt to put the author’s existence into some meaningful perspective. What distinguishes his ambition is how audaciously he places himself at the center of a sprawling narrative implicating the world’s major religions, as well as the major social events and political edifice governing his society in the twentieth century. Many authors attempt similarly to account for the systems that have shaped their life, but Cărtărescu is singularly grandiose when he represents himself as the culmination of a vast, millennial plot. Yet this is precisely what we all are—for if you attempt to track all the events that led to your conception, the sheer volume of coincidences immediately become staggering, and you begin to suspect that you in fact are the object of a vast plan. And then if you were to look at all the bits and pieces that have informed your sense of self—well, it would be a complete mishmash of religions and politics. Writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo have sometimes been classified as “systems novelists” for their efforts to make these systems function as characters in their novels and to reveal how they affect us in the most basic ways. Cărtărescu seems less interested in representing these systems as entities; instead he aims to include them all in an immense mosaic that accounts for everything shaping his remarkable consciousness.
Herein we see another facet of Cărtărescu’s butterflies: the so-called butterfly effect. We are all the result of chaos. A butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the continent, and suddenly on the other side that zygote destined to be us is sitting in our mother’s womb. If Cărtărescu wants to see this chaos as conspiracy, then I will grant him this liberty. He has gained his right to it by the many spectacular stretches of prose that left me dry-mouthed and eyes gaping. Blinding clearly endeavors to construct a world—one bizarre and audacious enough to measure up with reality. - Scott Esposito
https://www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/2014-spring/selections/blinding-by-mircea-cartarescu-738439/


Some novels are so avant-garde they resist easy synopsis. "Blinding," the latest novel by Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu to be translated into English, is one of those novels. Rather than steer the reader with the aid of something as quaintly prosaic as plot, Cartarescu propels us by plunging into a labyrinthine and phantasmagorical Bucharest and assailing us with a madcap cast and torrent of hallucinatory ideas and imagery. We regularly lose our bearings and our purchase on reality, but such disorientation and entanglement keep us rapt and at times transfixed over 400-plus pages.
The book's first section is the strongest. Our protagonist — who may be the author — is a poet with bad teeth who stares out the window of his attic apartment at night, reflecting on his past. Then, all of a sudden, "Bucharest exploded outside the lunar blue glass." Cartarescu's magical mystery tour has begun. Memories warp into fantasies and cityscape melts in and out of dreamscape. Segments of realism (the narrator's family's history, his country's Soviet occupation) serve as springboards to great swaths of surrealism, much of it nightmarish (marauding zombie armies, statues that come to life). We get gypsy folklore, bloody legends, close-up anatomical detail and grotesque erotic reveries.
The second section introduces Maria and her sexual awakening, cabarets, catacombs and — yes — evil sewing machines. When we return to our poet in Part Three we are apprised of his hospitalization as a teen and, in keeping with the book's antic and supernatural episodes, are given rich commentary on madness and illusion.
All of this won't be to every reader's taste, at least not those in search of straight storytelling and a semi-solid narrative. "Blinding" is, in places, a demanding read, the more fantastical passages a result of the narrator's feverish mind. Early on he tells us he enjoys his loft seclusion, living "in the halo of solitude, an unearthly life." Later, he decides "solitude is just another name for insanity," by which point his prose ("this illegible book") has spoken volumes about his mental health.
Some of that prose is too baroque for its own good ("We live on a piece of plaque in the multiple sclerosis of the universe") and whole paragraphs contain lines that send us scurrying for the dictionary ("the catoptromant of memory"). At these junctures we are less fond of Cartarescu's excesses and more in awe of Sean Cotter's magisterial translation. Elsewhere, however, Cartarescu astounds without resorting to showiness, and the sheer energy and exuberance of his language is intoxicating. What's more, his extra-sensory vision of Bucharest (and beyond) is mind-expanding.



Mircea Cărtărescu was, for almost two hours, David Blaine. Like a skilled magician, he managed to turn a sluggish audience consisting of high-school students into a room full of hypnotised people who couldn’t get enough of his words. He made them go through all the trials that the souls of a poet-gone-prose-writer go through and declared unequivocally that he had not come to the meeting to give advice to anyone. “This is me, one of the least formal people in the world.”
“I had trouble being admitted to high-school, I was almost the last on the list, because I was bad at maths. Really bad! I was forever getting F-s. To this day I dream at night about being quizzed in the maths class and not being able to answer, it’s one of my worst nightmares,” Mircea Cărtărescu tells the audience, and the room fills with applause. The writer thus set in motion the first cogs of the wicked plan he had come from Bucharest to fulfil: to conquer the hearts of the “Costache Negruzzi” High-school students, at the meeting organised on Saturday from 11.00h in the school’s auditorium. After Camelia Gavrilă, former director of the high-school, currently the chief inspector of the Iaşi County School Inspectorate, spoke about the demiurgic artist “one can find – sometimes overt, sometimes veiled, more subtle – in Cărtărescu’s pages,” the writer turned his eyes to the audience. A few hundred students, most of them seated, but many of them standing, had come to school on this Saturday morning to see him. Their reaction was predictable: apart from a few enthusiasts, with books by Cărtărescu resting in their laps, everyone else had bleary eyes and fought to stifle their yawns. Then Mircea Cărtărescu decided to leave the podium – “I don’t want to appear I am above anyone else,” he explained – and to stand close to the students, the way he does in his classes. “Rest assured, I didn’t put on a disguise for the meeting with you,” Cărtărescu fibs with a smile, switching the hat of the writer with the one he says he loves best, that of the “student”. “This is me, one of the least formal people in the world. I’ve always liked being a normal person, a man in the street, a natural man looking with interest at the opinions of others and at their beautiful faces, a man who has always lived his life as best as he could: with the greatest interior freedom, the way I imagine each of you lives.” Here the first eyebrows started to rise and the phones went into stand-by. All the cogs started whirring.

The hunger for literature started with a premonition

“At university, people tend to regress from the level they’ve achieved during high-school, why not admit this?” says Cărtărescu, taking a jab at the students’ quickly inflammable (and at the teachers’ well concealed) ego. “I hope I’ve stayed at the age of, maybe, not 17 or 18, like you, but at least as young as 20-something. If somebody came and woke me up at night and asked me «what are you, in fact?», I think that my first answer would be «a student». A man living among the young, living in the university. This is what I’ve always been like, how I define myself.” After finishing his introductory speech – “so that we’re not on some sort of double blind date here” –, the writer talked to the audience about the way he fell in love with literature. He was in the 6th form and, one drab day, he started rummaging through the bookshelves of his father, a simple man, a metalworker by trade. He found the second half of a book without a title and without an author. He started reading it, without knowing it was The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich, and the ending found him in tears. “It was a bewildering book, about some people called Carbonari, from the 19th century, who were making a sort of revolution in Italy. When I got to the end, I was bawling, I cried my eyes out. At the time I had no idea why. I was extraordinarily moved and touched! Maybe this was some premonition, I haven’t a clue. Without knowing why, it was for the first time I loved a book, I was crazy about it.”

“In communism, people were condemned to reading masterpieces”

Cărtărescu revealed to the students the fact that he writes without a plan, does not go back to his texts and does not edit them, and that later on he does not even re-read his novels, for fear he should find any mistakes. He told them that the best place to discover contemporary writers is not in the school curriculum but rather at the bookstalls and in bookshops. They are meant to be read under the desk, that would mean recognition for them, the author believes. If he were to rewrite Nostalgia, he’d change every phrase, he says, laughing, about the novel he believes is the one closest to his heart. But he explained to those in attendance that the appetite for reading literature, be it commercial or not, differs greatly today, because entertainment has changed. “In communism there was no such thing, people were condemned to reading; moreover, I’d add, they were condemned to reading masterpieces. Before ’89 you could not read commercial literature, such books weren’t really published in Romania. There were no detective stories, no thrillers, let alone erotic books! So people, instead of laughing with comic writers, laughed with Cervantes and with Dickens, and instead of crying when watching soap operas, they cried with Anna Karenina. This is one of the paradoxes of the totalitarian world: people were constrained , forced to read masterpieces,” Cărtărescu remarked.

“To Mircea Cărtărescu, to help him slice his wrists in envy”

The writer explained to the students that reading must grow as a building, as a pyramid. “It is only the moment you feel is part of a construction… – like a brick: by itself it has no meaning, it needs an architect to build with it, together with others –, it is only at that time that you can say you are genuinely reading,” Cărtărescu explained. When he was young, he went to the Faculty of Letters at the Bucharest University, believing he would be admitted without an admission exam, because he had come out first in the country in a literary contest. “The secretaries had a good laugh, they laughed in my face and they said «you may have the Nobel Prize, here you still have to sit the admission exam»,” Cărtărescu recounted. His student years were also the years of the famous “Monday literary circle”, where competition among poets was fierce. Cărtărescu mentioned Traian Coşovei, who died at the beginning of this year: when he published his first book, he sent a copy to Cărtărescu, with a razor blade attached to it, and with instructions written on the first page: “To Mircea Cărtărescu, to help him slice his wrists in envy”. “At the time I was convinced I wrote the best prose in the world. Maybe I did, come to think of it, I don’t know… But we lived and breathed poetry and we were so keen! Love and hate… We loved each other like brothers and we hated each other like enemies in poetry.”
Time was not enough for the students to ask as many questions as they would have liked, nor was it enough for the writer to answer them. At the end, after signing a few dozen autographs, Cărtărescu left the podium chair he had returned to sit on and was almost the last to leave the room. On his face was the smile of somebody who has applied his plan to the letter. A warm smile. Almost blinding.
- Cătălin Hopulele

In the summer of 2011, I spent every afternoon Google-mapping the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. I pulled the shades down, turned the air conditioner up, and typed the intersections that define Back of the Yards—named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards—into the search box. I was in the early stage of a nervous breakdown, obsessively attempting to revivify the past, the only place where, I believed, continuity existed. Fifty-First and Loomis was my embarkation point: the intersection where our family doctor’s office was located. An unfilled prescription, from 1965, that I’d found in my deceased mother’s jewelry box provided the office’s address. My mother and I had had a contentious relationship, but that summer I fantasized about opening her grave and throwing her skeletal arms around me—“I thought even the bones would do,” to quote Plath. I used the objects from the jewelry box (grocery lists, a Revlon “Moondrops” powder compact, old Sears charge cards, blue crystal rosaries, a Coty lipstick) to reconstruct her existence, and finding that prescription was like finding the key to a long-locked door.
Going to the doctor had been a kind of family outing—every three months, to get my grandmother’s diabetes checked—and I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed those odd excursions to that tiny office. My mother would go downstairs to get my grandmother dressed: clean hairnet; heavy girdle and thick support pantyhose; rhinestone brooch; nice dress instead of a stained shift; black orthopedic shoes instead of house slippers; and dentures, from the glass on the bathroom sink. Then she’d run upstairs to get my sister and me ready, dabbing Chantilly perfume on our wrists.
Uncle Stas would drive us there, my sister and I in the backseat with our grandmother between us, our mother in the front, arguing in Polish with Stas during the five-minute (yes, five-minute) drive. Now, as I looked at the office on Google Maps, I saw that the front door and windows were boarded up and noticed a bright, transparent smudge in the doorway. I knew that the smudge was the result of the camera having been in motion when the photo was taken, but I felt that that smudge was my soul: intense remembering had projected it back there, and it had been captured between the boards over the waiting-room windows, behind which my sister still sat next to my mother, pointing at ads for Catalina swimwear in the big Look magazine open on their laps, next to my grandmother with her legs crossed primly at the ankles, clutching her purse, next to my uncle grinding his cigarette out in a tall, metal ashtray stand.
I’d felt slightly ashamed of my retrieval attempts. Wasn’t I just wasting time and beating myself up over the bad relationship I’d had with my mother? And how would this indulgence in nostalgia benefit me as a writer? With forty years’ experience as a poet, I was pretty adept at translating difficult experiences into language, but where would I go with this one? It seemed that the only way to go was toward memoir, though I’ve never really been a fan. (Yet another grandmother story?) Still, I felt compelled to follow the trail of images (into darkness, it seemed), and my intuition—still functioning despite the roadblock of anxiety—kept calling to me to pay attention.
Had Blinding, Mircea Cărtărescu’s apotheosis of remembering, been available in English back then (as it is now, newly translated by Sean Cotter), I would have found in it a guidebook—a grimoire, really—for the journey. The book begins as a multilayered memory-mapping of the narrator’s Bucharest childhood but becomes something much larger and more complex. For starters, Blinding is the first volume, subtitled “The Left Wing,” of a 1,352-page trilogy. Together, the three books form an image of a butterfly: two wings and the abdomen, the left wing having a feminine nature corresponding to one’s mother, the right wing a masculine one corresponding to the father. In discursive sections interposed between the forward-moving (though dreamlike) plot, the narrator, also named Mircea, soliloquizes on the idea that all of us bear, in our bodily frames, the indelible stamp of our dual origin, existing “between past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings”; and, he writes, “one gesture in childhood takes up more time and space than ten years of adulthood.”
How revelatory it felt to read that. I’d recoiled from describing in both my poetry and my fiction the two-flat on Racine Avenue that my great-grandfather had built after he’d arrived from Poland in 1908 and where my grandmother, my mother, and I had all grown up, even though moments lived there years and years ago were still clear and present, even magical. I had steadfast memories, for instance, of my dad prying open a heavy sewer cover, oddly located next to the steps on our side of the house, and the two of us gazing into the moving waters as a dead lady in a wedding gown floated by. Or rifling through my grandmother’s dresser in her dark, musty bedroom and finding a small box containing an object so strange I risked revealing my illicit activities to find out what it was (according to her, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns: “I was so sick, Polish priest give me”). Or watching (did I dream this?) as she made a rainbow appear over an old wooden bowl full of rainwater collected for three weeks from between a trio of evergreens in the front yard. How could I flow those images into form, and keep their odd resonances?
Mircea, the narrator, provides just such a model for mapping the remembered/dreamed geography of childhood:
I had moved to the block on Stefan cel Mare when I was five, and the immensity of its stairways, hallways and floors had given me, for some years, a vast and strange terrain to explore. I went back there many times, in reality and dreams, or better put, within a continuum of reality-hallucination-dream, without ever knowing why the vision of that long block, with eight stairways, with the mosaic of its panoramic window façade, with magical stores on the ground floor: furniture, appliances, TV repair—always filled me with such emotion. I could never look at that part of the street with a quiet eye.
Reading that, you might think Blinding is a memoir. It does partake of some features of memoir, but its method of remembrance is chimeric. Its many linked stories, for example, are the imagined memoirs of characters other than the narrator, in particular Mircea’s mother, Maria. She is an artus figure in this feminine “wing” of the trilogy: her story narrates, contains, and launches the stories of other characters; she is both a ghostly and wholly palpable presence. When I saw Cărtărescu at a release event for the English translation, he mentioned that wherever he lacked information about his mother, he envisioned it. In an early section, the narrator Mircea “en-visions” his mother, via her dentures, on a twilit Bucharest street:
“Ah, Mamma,” I whispered in the crazed silence. I stared at the dentures for a few more minutes in the darkening light, until the dusk turned as scarlet as blood in veins, and the dental appliance began to glow with an interior light, as though a gentle fluorescent gas had filled the curved rubber gums. And then my mother formed, like a phantom, around her dentures.
Scenes like this make it easy to believe that words working in the service of imagination can make the dead live again.
I prefer Blinding’s Romanian title, Orbitor, because it contains the word orb, which suggests what both the narrator Mircea and I are doing: lingering, in our memories, around an earthly place (Mircea in Bucharest, me in Back of the Yards), just as an orb—a term used by ghost hunters to indicate a spirit—might be observed doing. The Romanian title is also suggestive of the way the mind’s eye instinctively gravitates toward certain places, like a planet around the sun:
Everything is strange, because everything is from long ago, and because everything is in that place where you can’t tell dreams from memory, and because these large zones of the world were not, at the time, pulled apart from each other. And to experience the strangeness, to feel an emotion, to be petrified before a fantastical image always means one and the same thing: to regress, to turn around, to descend back into the archaic quick of your mind, to look with the eyes of a human larva, to think something that is not a thought with a brain that is not yet a brain, and which melts into a quick of rending pleasure which we, in growing, leave behind.
If the invention of writing changed storytelling forever (rendering memory unnecessary), then a written work in which poetry gives rhythm to action (to paraphrase Rimbaud) can return readers—and writers—to a place where memory’s instructive and restorative functions can be learned and utilized. For me, that bright smudge in the doorway might have been my soul yearning for a look into the past, but it also might have been me trying to scry a way into a kind of writing that begins in memory but opens out into something much larger and more sophisticated, something both ordinary and extraordinary—like childhood itself.
I remember one hot, bright day from the summer of 1969: the wind had shifted direction and a breeze bearing the hideous stink from the stockyards blew toward our house. My mother, her hair in pin curls under a polyester babushka, flew down the porch stairs, screaming for my sister and I to help her pull the sheets off the line and hang them in the basement (she preferred they’d smell like the damp basement rather than dead flesh). We protested because we were busy playing “moon landing”: our red wagon was the lunar exploration module and the yard was the moon’s surface. But I noticed that if we stood between the sheets and looked up, squinting, as Ma whipped them off the line, the sun, directly above us, would flash in colored lightning streaks. And if we closed our eyes tight, we’d see negative images of the sheets and the trees behind our eyelids. We were no help that day, but that night, in our beds, we talked endlessly about our discovery: that ordinary things like bedsheets and sunlight and eyes (and as I later learned, unfilled prescriptions) can be keys to extraordinary places.
- Sharon Mesmer  https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/02/26/elliptical-orbit-on-mircea-cartarescu/

It starts in adolescence. The questions come to you while lying in bed (certainly now with a growing awareness of your sexuality), the walls of your room expanding into endless grainy darkness, as if the room itself could encompass the entire world: why am I here, why is there anything at all?
The questions may haunt you at age 13 or 15 or 17, but by adulthood they tend to feel banal. Unanswerable, impossible, if taken seriously debilitating, they are in a word blinding, and so you tend to avert your gaze. But suppose you can’t, suppose the inviolable white light only draws you closer, to madness possibly, to paint or write or drink or pray (to what God, tell me?) almost certainly. And so perhaps you scribble, the pages of your notebooks filling with furious script, like eons of sediment piling into sad mute mountains no one else will ever excavate or carve or climb.
Unless, perhaps, you are a writer of the caliber of Mircea Cărtărescu, the celebrated Romanian author of the 1996 book Blinding: The West Wing. Cărtărescu is a poet, essayist, and novelist of unsurpassing imaginative vision and startling bravery. He has won several Romanian literary prizes, but beyond Romania and France, where a few of his novels have been translated, and Holland, where he has taught, Cărtărescu, a child of the post-War communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, is rather unknown. His only other novel to be out in an English edition is the 1993 Nostalgia, published here in 2005 by New Directions.
Blinding, which was brilliantly translated into the English by Sean Cotter for Archipelago Books, is a strange, beseeching, glimmering book that’s part meditation, part meta-fiction, part exploration of the relationship between a man and his deeply flawed city. The Bucharest in Blinding, says the book’s narrator Mircea, “filled my window, pouring inside and reaching into my body and my mind so deeply that even as a young man I imagined that I was a mélange of flesh, stone, cephalo-spinal fluid, I-beams and urine, supported by vertebra and concrete posts, animated by statues and obsessions, and digested through intestines and steam pipes, which made me and the city a single being.”
And like the Prague of Michal Ajvaz and the Buenos Aires of Borges, in Cărtărescu’s hand the rooms, gazes, corners, lamps, current events, political officials, ruins, hallways, and basements of Bucharest become portals to hidden, dreamlike, distorted, and yet visceral worlds. Reader, beware: one might veer into them at any second.
The point of these journeys, be they to underground vaults or high into elevator shafts left standing after wartime bombing or even to the time sequence of another city—New Orleans—is to challenge the veracity of our individual senses. We are, in other words, he says, blinded by the incessant propaganda of our own prosaic lives. But there is hope: even “in this opaque world, dense, murderous as pillow that someone holds over your face, kneeling mercilessly on your chest to stop your writhing,” says Cărtărescu, “revelation is possible.”
He goes on: “What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us.”  In that world, we—every being and kind of being, every feces and every sperm, larvae, neuron, and whisper—are all part of single throbbing unit of life.
The heart of the book is this search for enlightenment, with hints of the Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard’s discovery of angels in A Time for Everything and shades of Hinduism and barbarity. Is this a true spiritual journey or, as Mircea wonders, “nothing other than howling, yellow, blinding, apocalyptic howling?” This meta-conversation about the purpose and intent of the work—alive throughout—is like a strap handle on a streetcar, to steady the reader as the story sways.
And what of the story? Having gone through electric shock therapy for facial paralysis at 16 and hospitalization for another, unspecified, illness as a young boy, Mircea is about thirty in the mid-1980s, when the book takes place. Seemingly alone but for a drunk named Herman he’s taken into his small apartment, Mircea seeks the meaning of his existence, most profoundly, in the empathetic narrative of his mother Maria’s coming of age, from peasant village to encounters with Bucharest nightlife to the night of the bombing, by Allied forces, of her neighborhood in the last year of World War II. Maria is adventuresome, self-possessed, and in love with cinema. Post-War Bucharest, the “Romanian miracle” of early communism, feeds the life of her quickly transforming city. But progressivism turns into the despotism, doubletalk, and political strangulation of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s bloody regime: a different kind of blinding.
Through all of it—the quick paced, straightforward, sexually charged narrative of Maria’s passage to womanhood, her marrying Mircea’s father Costel, Mircea’s boyhood from one house to the next with visits to Maria’s father in the country, the detours to other worlds rife as they are with insect imagery and madness, the strap handles of meta-fiction—Cărtărescu’s prose, so magically transformed into English by Cotter, speaks to the reader with a lush and fruitful honesty. Time and again, he produces imagery you, the reader, are sure you’ve held in the quiet of your own subconscious, mirrored in Maria and Mircea’s own search for memories and images of their pasts. Here is a crowded subway station filled with “a subterranean humanity rising like a menacing water,” a blind man walking “as though he was resisting someone who pushed him from behind,” a tram approaching, “red, rocking on its rails, like a tired beetle,” Mircea walking the night city, “the mysterious and beloved city spread under the Persian carpet of the constellations.”
In all, Blinding wants to prove that being is both less and more than we take it to be. It’s less, because of course, none of us is really separate from the massive opera of life, more because reality is also unreality, reality is memory, human existence is cumulative, iterative, self-creating. “The me of today,” writes Cărtărescu, “englobes the me of yesterday who encompasses the one from the day before yesterday and so on and so on, until I am only an immense line of Russian dolls buried one in the next, each one pregnant with its predecessor, but still being born from it, emanating from it like a halo until the middle is darker and the surfaces more diaphanous, and the glassy surface of my body in this exact moment already reflects the tame light of the one that I will be in an hour, since my astral body is nothing else but the clairvoyant light from the future.”
Again and again, Blinding seeks this greater, more profound, more meditative path, which in this imaginative realm is never banal and always lush, even amidst the gray streets of the ugly city. That doesn’t mean the book is easy to read. The other worlds are harsh and strange and sometimes ridiculous. A giant, blue winged butterfly appears and reappears, a harbinger or a monster or a god. You might tire of Mircea’s endless melancholy or, if you’re like me, part flesh and stone of my city, but also weary of its utter, blinding hegemony, Cărtărescu will speak to you, an astonishing voice from another world. - Nathaniel Popkin  https://www.cleavermagazine.com/blinding-the-left-wing-by-mircea-cartarescu-reviewed-by-nathaniel-popkin/


There is an extinct volcanic cinder cone a few blocks from my house, named Mount Tabor after the mountain in Israel where Christ, according to tradition, experienced transfiguration. At 636 feet, less than one third the elevation of its Holy Land namesake – dwarfed in the daylight by Mount Hood, which looms white-peaked in the distance like an imprisoned moon – the average hiker can hardly expect to undergo a divine metamorphosis on Tabor’s summit, crowned as it is by westward-pointing statue of newspaperman Harvey W. Scott. But the view sure is fine. Fine enough that some nights ago a friend and I stole up to the summit to sit on a bench and observe.
Through a deltoid clearing in the pines we watched a slice of Portland: the flickering boulevards, the nigrescent scar of the Willamette, the glowing city, the softly lit clusters in the hills beyond. Suddenly the focus broke, the wind died, and we were overtaken for that moment by some otherworldly turbulence. If I were a believer I might have called it a communion with God. But, mind tempered by a book I’d been reading, I supposed instead that it might have been an intimation of Something Else, a fleeting whiff of a world beyond human perception.
That book is Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing. Originally published in Romanian in 1996 as Orbitor: Aripa StângăBlinding takes place – nominally, anyway – in Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city. This is where narrator-protagonist Mircea (Cărtărescu) lives in a dark apartment and writes; this is where most of Mircea’s characters hail from or eventually find themselves.
But the novel’s true setting is hardly a physical one: Blinding occupies a liminal space between lucid “reality” and the imagined. It is a subjective empire built of memory, nostalgia, and absurdity; as well as the crushing anxiety that results from imagining all that may exist beyond the grasp of human sensory organs. Though where Blinding really exists, as Cărtărescu is keen to remind us, is simply in words on a page, words bled from the mind of one lonely man. In a passage that haunts the rest of the novel, Mircea – for it is the fictional stand-in who allegedly writes the book – concludes an early chapter chronicling the fabulous origin story of his grandfather’s rural village thus:
The bar was a place to toast the Devil, the Lord’s little brother… to kill each other with tomato stakes over a woman, to hold vigils over old men in agony, so that they wouldn’t have to die without a candle on their chests, and to look for rainclouds in the sky, all without ever imagining that, in fact, they weren’t building houses, plowing land, or planting seeds on anything more than a grey speck in a great-grandson’s right parietal lobe, and that all their existence and striving in the world was just as fleeting and illusory as that fragment of anatomy in the mind that dreamed them.
Cărtărescu’s prolific and continuing career as a poet, novelist, and essayist began in the late 1970s. He carries the torch of Onirism, a Romanian surrealist literary movement that flourished in the 1960s but was soon quelled by government censorship. “Oneiric,” a charismatic little word signifying something dream-like, is a frequent guest throughout Blinding’s multitudinous pages.
For simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to refer to the novel as Blinding, although The Left Wing is actually the first book in the Orbitor trilogy, followed in 2002 by Corpul, (“The Body”) and concluded in 2007 by Aripa Dreaptă, or “The Right Wing.” I find myself wishing the title had not been translated; Orbitor is a gorgeous word, stately and majestic. In an interview with Bookforum, Cărtărescu explains, “Orbitor is a special word in Romanian, it signifies both a dazzling light and a mystical light, and I wanted to do something mystical, something without any similarity to any other book in the world.”
“You do not describe the past by writing about old things,” Mircea muses in the novel’s introductory sequence, “but by writing about the haze that exists between you and the past.” If this is true, then Mircea’s haze is unlike any I’ve yet to encounter. It is a concealing mist, at once luminous and opaque, out of which nearly anything might emerge. Cărtărescu’s vast imaginative potential is essentially unhindered by the fact that Blinding is loosely framed as memoir. “I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies,” says Cărtărescu in an interview for The Quarterly Conversation, adding, “When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.”
So it should hardly surprise that Blinding struggles like a proud and cautious beast against traditional summary. We learn of Mircea’s mother Maria and her life as a young woman brought from the countryside to work with her sister in a Bucharest factory before and after the Allied bombings during the Second World War. We learn of Ion Stănilă, the state-employed statue-cleaner and onetime admirer of Maria who soon finds himself an agent of the Romanian secret police. And of course we learn, in dizzying, anxiety-ridden bursts, about Mircea: his multiple hospitalizations, his dreams and writings, his struggles to make sense of his own life as it relates to all human life and to all incomprehensible existence. These storylines, along with dozens of others, drift into and rise out of one another freely and without warning.
The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. This symmetry would offer us a heightened consciousness and make us all prophets, or angels, or gods. “Yes, we are neural embryos, tadpoles caught in atavistic organs… How strange we will be when, like cetaceans, we complete our departure from the firm earth of inert flesh and adapt to the new kingdom, where we will bathe in the mental fluid of enormous knowing…” Blinding is a psychedelic dream of transfiguration.
So keen is Cărtărescu to remind his reader of the butterfly’s symbolic power that the insects appear in almost every scene, not as saccharine representations of sunny summertime innocence but as winged behemoths trapped under vaults of ice, as loyal children fed on human milk, as subterranean monstrosities whose piercing proboscises bore into brains and deposit eggs straight into the victim’s mind. But Blinding is a gallery full of recurring images. Nipples and vulvae are frequent visitors (“All around the walls of the granite vagina where we traveled”), alongside machines wrought of bone and blood, and organic bodies composed of concrete, rebar, marble, steel. Towering statues of disfigured humans stand as reminders of our imperfections, monuments to the blindness we don’t even realize we suffer from.
Mircea’s revelries, though they hinge on familiar images, know few limits. “There were ghost towns there,” he says of his mental space, “villas with crystal columns, and torture chambers with instruments of gold. There were crematoria with violet smoke coming from their chimneys. There were Flemish houses lining canals where cephalorachidian fluid flowed lazily.” Cărtărescu has a vocabulary that seems to press against the very limits of human knowledge. “Three quarters of the books I read are scientific books,” he admits in the Bookforum interview. “I’m very fond of the poetry you find in science. I read a lot about subatomic physics, biology, entomology, the physiology of the brain, and so on.
And it shows. Human knowledge drips from the pages, it seasons every sentence, one’s hands get sticky with it. Exploring the wreckage of a bombed-out factory elevator, Mircea’s mother “held out her hand with such grace that it seemed to cascade from her body, like a pseudopodium full of florescent corpuscles.” This is a rather concentrated sampling, but it is hardly a misleading one. Cărtărescu weaves together a massive interdisciplinary lexicon and uses it to build marvelous structures of text. While reading I often felt that were I to earn a degree in biology, or medicine, or pure mathematics, I might gain something new from the novel each time I returned to it with fuller understanding.
Yet just as Cărtărescu masters the protean majesty of the dream world, he also faithfully recreates its almost claustrophobic sense of unknowability. Blinding is a difficult text, one I predict some readers – those partial to conventional storytelling and a more cohesive narrative – might find alienating. No one is more aware of this fact than Cărtărescu himself, whose narrator-persona “Mircea (which Mircea?)” sees himself “writing a demented, endless book, in his little room,” and elsewhere ponders “my senseless and endless manuscript, this illegible book, this book…” Is this a genuinely apologetic aside, and does the author truly find his work to be unworthy, or is it part of the game Blinding is playing with identity and self-reflection? I suspect these options might not be mutually exclusive.
The novel’s finale takes place in an unspeakably large hall with a mirrored floor, billions of doors leading to everywhere on Earth, and a central light source that is “a column of pure, liquid flame.” It is, on one hand, an exposition of technical brilliance. With unapologetic prose, Cărtărescu crafts a hellscape that – in terms of utter visual insanity – rivals Bosch’s depiction of the underworld in The Garden of Earthly Delights. And yet, after all the hallucinatory voyages of the first few hundred pages, the novel’s culmination left me oddly underwhelmed. The horrific butterflies, the rhetorical inclination toward duality, and the constant transmutation of organic bodies; after so many encounters these images begin to lose some of their wonder.
In an early scene, Mircea visits a woman whose scalp is adorned with arcane tattoos. He loses himself in the tattoos. In a segment that mirrors the way one might approach this very novel, Cărtărescu writes, “exploring any detail meant you had to choose one branch, ignore the rest of the design, and concentrate on just one detail of the original detail, and then a detail of the detail of the detail. This plunge into the heart of the design could be deadly for one’s mind to even attempt.” Mircea, scouring the scalp for hours, massaging it and entreating it, eventually sees “Everything, and everything had my face. Looking directly at the middle of the fontanel, I saw my face in a convex reflection.” Spend some time with Blinding. Search its pages, approach it from new angles, get lost in it. Then please, tell me what you see. —Adam Segal   http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/03/08/empires-drenched-in-concupiscent-sweat-a-review-of-mircea-cartarescus-blinding-adam-segal/


My daughter woke me at 2 a.m. the other night, babbling about strange and frightening dreams. As soon as I touched her forehead, I realized that a fever was talking for her. After some soothing and a tiny dose of acetaminophen, she went back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Instead I returned to my own fever dream, which was still sitting on my nightstand where I’d left it.
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu is, on one level, about not very much. A young man (also named Mircea) studies the skyline of his native Romanian metropolis and narrates his thoughts: “I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room … I, a thin, sickly adolescent in torn pajamas and a stretched-out vest, would spend the long afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the eyes of my reflection in the transparent glass.” He can’t make sense of his surroundings without understanding himself, so those thoughts turn inward, the nutshell of his room giving way to the infinite kingdom of his mind. Through memory and speculation he relives his childhood under Communist rule, his parents’ separate lives before they met, and the history of the city itself. Blinding turns out to be about a great many things indeed.
What it’s mostly about is the sheer power of the human imagination. The events and situations the narrator describes have a basis in the external world, but as he continually reminds the reader, they don’t really exist except on the page. Humdrum scenes of domesticity spin off into hallucinatory fantasies of almost unbelievable richness. Thanks to details that remain vivid and concrete, however bizarre they become, there’s something solid and functional underneath it all, and what the story loses in logic it makes up in metaphorical resonance.
To give one example, Mircea recalls a visit to the village of his peasant grandparents, during which he sleepily ponders how his ancestors first made their way into Romania. He envisions an older village in the snowy wilds of Bulgaria, where tradition is disturbed when Romani travelers (called gypsies in those less enlightened times) introduce the residents to the opium poppy. The besotted villagers abandon their chores and descend into orgiastic debauchery, neglecting to make their ritual food offerings to the dead. The starving corpses and their devilish henchmen (“[d]ragons and werewolves, locusts with human heads and humans with fly heads …”) rise from the cemetery in the night, laying waste to the community and forcing a handful of survivors to take refuge in the church, defended by the priest who was the only one to resist the poppy’s charms. He calls down a host of angelic warriors to drive the demons back, and the small party makes its way to salvation across the frozen Danube (the waters of which are stocked with giant aquatic butterflies) into a new country. They create a new life, says the narrator, “all without ever imagining that, in fact, they weren’t building houses, plowing land, or planting seeds on anything more than a gray speck in a great-grandson’s right parietal lobe, and that all their existence and striving in the world was just as fleeting and illusory as that fragment of anatomy in the mind that dreamed them.”
That summary doesn’t come near doing justice to Cărtărescu’s baroque creativity. This set piece, like dozens of others in the novel, is an insane, profane, spectacular performance, like a jazz solo in words. When I finished reading that chapter, I had a strong urge to commission a stand-alone, hand-printed letterpress edition of it, and if Gustav Doré were still alive to illustrate it, I might really have done it.
I can hear my boss now–“Great, an obscure European postmodernist. Why don’t you write about something regular people enjoy?”–but I’m going ahead with this self-indulgence anyway. It’s a really busy time of year and he might not even notice. I know that Blinding won’t be to every taste, as even its author acknowledges: “Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, blinding, apocalyptic howling …” But I also know that there’s an audience that will devour it whole, licking up every verbal crumb on its 460-plus pages. Fans of Gabriel Garcia Márquez who aren’t afraid to walk down the the shadier paths of the magical realist garden, perhaps? Or obnoxious literary grad students for whom Pynchon is too, too jejune? Anyone who appreciates that all works of fiction are ultimately nothing more than dream palaces projected in print? Maybe you?
James http://mercerislandbooks.tumblr.com/post/69813146292/blinding-by-mircea-c%C4%83rt%C4%83rescu


Introduced to this “part dream-memoir, part semi-fictive journey through a hallucinatory Bucharest,” in the jacket copy, one cracks open the 464-page Blinding (Archipelago Books) anticipating some confusion. Which is exactly what follows, and (it seems) precisely the intended effect. The surprise comes, however, when the challenge, bewilderment, and occasional revulsion in reading translate to pleasure.
Blinding: Volume 1 is the first third of a landmark trilogy from Mircea Cărtărescu, published in Romania in 1996 and now out in its first English translation. It is subtitled “The Left Wing,” a reference to the trilogy’s central metaphor of a person as a butterfly with two wings and a central corpus—two parents that create one human being between them. It is shot through with butterfly images and language that immerses the reader like a plague of colorful insects. The subsequent two volumes, “The Body” and “The Right Wing” were published in Romanian in 2002 and 2007, respectively. Volume 1 has editions in French, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, and Spanish.
Cărtărescu’s blurbs compare him to everyone from the Brothers Grimm to Bruno Shulz to David Lynch, all accurately. He is an imposing figure, a longtime member of the University of Bucharest Faculty of Letters and recipient of numerous Romanian and European literary prizes, yet much of his work has yet to be translated into English. It is tempting, when encountering a new translation, to compare the foreign author with someone more familiar. All of the signposts we receive to guide us on assessing Cărtărescu are other international authors. Kafka pops up, as does Borges, Garcia Marquez, and other Latin American masters of the fantastic real. To try to make a faithful comparison to an English or American novel, we could include a heap of Pynchon (whom the author cites as an influence in interviews), a little Burroughs, or breach the edges of genre ghettos to China Miéville and other brainy fantasists; those who reach into nightmares to capture the monsters in our waking lives. Still, Cărtărescu’s scope and ambition, soaring to metafiction and beyond, surpasses most of these comparisons.
Blinding takes place in the dream-space of the familiar: it has the mood of wandering through one’s childhood home and discovering secret rooms, hidden worlds within the places we know by heart. It starts out with a brooding first person memory of a childhood in Communist-era Bucharest from a narrator, also named Mircea, writing about his early life and his mother with a heavy dose of neurological references. The city is indistinguishable from the narrator, he anthropomorphizes the very architecture until is all appears a meaty, seething organism, and there is our launch pad. Through three sections and at least five points of view, the narrative telescopes in and out of fantasy histories of Mircea’s family: his grandfather’s childhood village fleeing an attack of the undead, his mother’s mysterious encounters with a seamy Bucharest underworld as a peasant girl in the big city. All episodes are craftily tied to a global cult, steeped in viscera and macabre ritual, rising like a mountain of skulls to an over-the-top finale that poses an unexpected puzzle for the reader about the relationship between author and characters—a metafictional chicken-or-egg enigma. The entire volume sets the character Mircea up as a kind of Messiah, which is possibly appropriate if we are buying into the novel as a world unto itself with its author as supreme being. It is this Nabokovian turn that lets us know we are not only in the big leagues, literarily speaking, but probably out of our own depth.
In between, we are treated to the narrator’s philosophical meanderings immersed in decadent language that never strays for more than a sentence or two from a viscera or genital reference. It is hypersexual and grotesque and grandiose in its claims. This is a difficult book, made for people who enjoy difficult books, tinted blue.
Though Cărtărescu seems bent on changing the way we experience novels, he still hits a number of mainstream literary techniques right on. His fantasy history of a village destroyed by opium addiction, and the tale of his parents’ courtship, show that good linear storytelling is accessible whenever the author feels like using it. Likewise, the memory pictures of the toddler Mircea’s exploration of his apartment bloc and an early stay in a children’s hospital are as psychologically specific and emotionally poignant as any great modern short story writer. The author is telling us: I can do all these forms, no problem. We can’t help but agree. But then, his narrator starts expounding, at length, on the body’s symmetry between brain and testicles, or the individual’s place as a single neuron in the brain of God, and we are unmoored, once again.
Even though this is the “left” or feminine wing of the trilogy butterfly, centered on the narrator’s mother and her contribution to this Messianic character, it is well steeped in testosterone, regardless of pervasive vulvar imagery. Even the grotesque, elderly, or inconsequential characters are sexualized. Everyone is a target of desire or disgust, things marked for seduction or destruction. A universal human stance, some might claim, but in fact a narrowly masculine one.
Any personal misgivings aside, this translation is an accomplishment, and the English language is fortunate to have it. It succeeds as an apocalyptic rebuttal of the Socialist Realist stories the character Mircea’s mother soaked up at the cinema. For English readers, the arrival of Blinding: Volume 1 is a great gift from the gods of altered reality. Which might be, according to the book, Cărtărescu himself. We can hope for translations of the subsequent volumes to enlighten us.
Mircea Cărtărescu, poet, novelist, and essayist, was born in 1956 in Bucharest. As a young member of the “Blue-jeans Generation” in the 1970s, his work was strongly influenced by American writing in opposition to the official Communist ideology and by Romanian Onirism. The appearance of his book Nostalgia (New Directions) made him a young literary star in Romania. Cărtărescu is the winner of the 2000 Romanian Writers’ Association Prize, the 2011 Vilenica Prize, the 2012 Haus der Kulteren der Welt International Literature Prize, the 2012 Berlin International Prize for Literature, the 2013 Swiss Leuk Spycher Preis and the Serbian Grand Prize for International Poetry in Novi Sad. He currently lives in Bucharest. - Hope Heath Ewing  kgbbar.com/lit/journal/blinding_vol_1_the_left_wing_by_mircea_crtrescu_translated_by_sean_cotter/


Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding is a wonderful, confusing, mind-stretching work, a book which draws the reader in right from its initial childhood dream sequence.  We meet a writer who spends hours gazing at Bucharest from his bedroom window, perhaps in an attempt to work through some traumatic moments in his life:
“It was a place to attempt (as I’ve done continuously for the last three months) to go back where no one has, to remember what no one remembers, to understand what no person can understand: who I am, what I am.” p.122 (Archipelago Books, 2013)
Later, we revisit Mircea’s childhood and spend some time in his gigantic, scary apartment building – so far, so Knausgaardian.
That is until the scope widens, and we realise that this is a book which will be taking a slightly wider look at what constitutes reality – and beyond.  There’s a trip back to the nineteenth century, where frightened, drug-addled villagers witness a battle between angels and demons; a section set in Bucharest during and after the Second World War, with bombs and butterflies all around; several strange tales of people entering a vast underground cavern, returning much later to the surface, scarred by their experience; oh, and a terrifying tale of quasi-voodoo magic to round off the book, fifty pages of pure madness…
The word that comes to mind when reading Blindness is ‘ambitious’, and in its scope and its desire to pull the reader in several directions at once, it reminds me a little of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (there’s even a birthmark).  However, where Cloud Atlas is neatly arranged with its Russian-Doll structure, Blinding is a twisted, tangled maze of echoed ideas, parallels, possible red herrings and (of course) butterflies.  The strands of the novel intertwine, disappearing and reemerging later unexpectedly.  It’s also written using quite complex vocabulary – and when I say complex, I mean complex (Sean Cotter must have some really good dictionaries…).
Like Cloud Atlas, Blinding is full of parallels, most of which, no doubt, I failed to pick up.  The most obvious ones are the subterranean experiences several of the characters have, wandering through the vast underground caverns which are connected with the idea of birth and life.  There are also the two priests that appear, the brave man who summons the angels in Bulgaria, and a polyreligious, voodoo-wielding counterpart in New Orleans.  When this mysterious figure starts intoning in the final pages of the book, we are surprised to hear that the magic words he chants are very familiar to us from our travels through Bucharest…
There’s also the frequent mention of asymmetry, a topic the writer obviously wants to develop further:
“And yet, we exist between the past and the future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.  We use one wing to fly, because we have sent our nerve filaments out to its edges, and the other is unknown, as if we were missing an eye on that side.  But how can we fly with one wing?  Prophets, Illuminati, and heretics of symmetry foresaw what we could and must become.” (p.80)
This image of the asymmetrical butterfly is mirrored several times, most prominently on the ring one of the characters wears – and in Mircea’s face after his illness.  Despite the deliberate construction of some of his settings, the writer frequently returns to this idea of lop-sidedness.
There’s plenty of scope for this when he shows us the people in his novel.  Cărtărescu, along with the narrator, is fascinated by anatomy, of people, machines and cities.  In Blinding, everything is a living entity, and the narrator sees the way life seethes under the surface of inanimate objects.  Bucharest is an organic city, with statues having sex in the park, trams rushing down the streets like red-blood cells through veins, while the roofs of building become transparent, showing us the pulsing brains of the city.
The narrator is obviously trying to work through something with these images, and as the novel progresses, we learn more about his personal issues, health problems which influence his view of the world.  However, it’s never quite as simple as all that – even something as mundane as the massage sessions he has at the hospital suddenly turn into a new link to the shadowy, universal conspiracy which permeates the book.  And when I say universal, at times it appears as if the narrator is simply trying to understand the universe and the very nature of existence:
“A purulent night wrapped every corpuscle into being, in a dark and hopeless schizophrenia.  The universe, which was once so simple and complete, obtained organs, systems and apparatuses.  Today, it’s as grotesque and fascinating as a steam engine displayed on an unused track at a museum.” (p.76) 
The universe as a machine, and the city as a body – at times, Cărtărescu’s ideas take some following…
While the writer’s mind may at times be out in the universe, another of the themes of the book is much closer to home – his mother.  There’s an obsession with Maria pervading the novel, and she enters it as a protagonist in her own right in the second part, a young country girl newly arrived in the big city.  The relationship between the two, distant, but regretfully so, is a complex one, and you suspect that the female references in the writer’s musings about the universe (replete with wombs and vulvae…) are somehow linked to this obsession.
In truth, though, there’s a temptation to read the book as the product of someone with a touch of a God complex.  There are many hints as to Mircea’s being a second coming, such as the tattoos he finds with his face prominently displayed – and his being the son of Maria/Mary, of course.  The narrator himself states early in the book that he sees people as existing only to play minor roles in his life, creations of his mind more than real people.  Then again, perhaps that’s reading too much into things; in the narrator’s own words:
“Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, yellow, blinding, apocalyptic howling…” (p.338)
The book finishes with a compelling, enthralling final section, a piece I had to read in one sitting despite its length and difficulty.  This last scene is breathtaking in its ambition, but it leaves everything up in the air, with the reader left stranded:
“There was nothing to understand, yet everything cried out to be understood…” (p.109)
Yes, Mircea, that pretty much sums it up
Luckily, there’s a fact I’ve been keeping from you, namely the real title of the book.  You see, today’s review was of Blinding: The Left Wing, the first part of a trilogy of novels, and I’m sure the other two books (the body and the right wing…) will reveal a lot more about Cărtărescu’s bizarre inner world.  Hopefully Archipelago (and Cotter) will continue with the series – I, for one, am very keen to see how the story continues.  This year, I’ve read around 125 books, including many classics of translated literature: Blinding is definitely up there as one of my books of the year.  Do read it. - tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/blinding-by-mircea-cartarescu-review/

At the end of Mircea Cărtărescu’s collection Nostalgia (1993, translated into English in 2005) is a fantastical tale called ‘The Architect’, about a man who buys a car and becomes obsessed with its horn, then with car horns in general, then with the music of car horns and music in general, but never actually learns how to drive. It comes after a series of stories written in progressively more complicated styles – from the Kafka-like ‘Roulette Player’ to the shifting subjects and conflated genders and genres of ‘The Twins’ and ‘REM’ – that demonstrate the breadth of Cărtărescu’s aesthetics. Born in 1956, he’s a member of the Romanian ‘Blue Jeans Generation’, so called for their interest in Western culture, and seems at home in both American and European traditions, and in all historical periods. He cut his teeth on Pynchon and is versed in Gass and Barth. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Romanian postmodernist and oneiric literature, and has taught literary history at the University of Bucharest. His own fiction weaves realism with dream, memory, myth and parable; he has been compared to Borges, Cortázar and Garcia Márquez. He is also renowned as a poet (his 1990 epic poem ‘Levantul’ tracks the history of the Romanian language just as the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter in Ulysses does with English), has been an influential political columnist in Romania and has had his work translated into many languages. - Martin Riker https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/martin-riker/inside-the-giant-eyeball-of-an-undefined-higher-being

In Orbitor (Blinding), Cărtărescu constructs and deconstructs the role of memory exploring memory’s relationship to immortality - mostly in the third book or father’s book, and memory in relation to creation - in the first two books, the mother’s book irrespectively the book of the self (the middle one). There is always an unescapable nostalgia from one metamorphosis to another. If Cartarescu, as a postmodernist writer, deconstructs some myths, he never does that to the all-encompassing myth of the book. Nostalgia regenerates this myth. Exoticism embodies the need for another dimension. It is also interwoven in the maternal and paternal genealogies of Mircea, the alter-ego of Cartarescu himself. Exoticism appears in Cartarescu’s dreamland as the provocation, as the challenge of the Double. Through exoticism and symmetry, Mircea wants to grasp his dream being, his inner dreamer. The underlying paradigm superior/inferior attributed to exoticism is totally out of question in Blinding, because here all exotic representations are based in oneiric landscapes. A realm where exoticism is preserved in its elements without having anything to do with commodities (see Huggan)is the dreamland of Mircea Cărtărescu’s writings. Butterfly symmetry is the preservation of halves, simultaneity is androgyny. Victor, the mirror-twin of Mircea, bound to him in a Narcissus-like story of love and abhorrence, is the embodiment of symmetry at its highest potential. REM is simultaneity, not symmetry. REM is the Entrance to Blinding’s manuscript labyrinth centre and the portal to a higher "blinding” reality. For Cartarescu, eternity is simultaneity. Bizarre and familiar, exotized Bucharest and exotized faraway lands have the consistency of dreams. Cartarescu's exoticism is a chrysalis of our chimeric alter-egos. - Dana Sala
                               
Bookforum Talks with Mircea Cărtărescu
The Mircea Cărtărescu Interview
Sean Cotter on Translating Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding



Mircea Cărtărescu, Nostalgia, Trans. by Julian Semilian, New Directions, 2005.
read it at Google Books

A stunning translation of one of Romania's foremost authors.
Mircea Cartarescu, born in 1956, is one of Romania's leading novelists and poets. This translation of his 1989 novel Nostalgia, writes Andrei Codrescu, "introduces to English a writer who has always had a place reserved for him in a constellation that includes the Brothers Grimm, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Bruno Schulz, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, and Milorad Pavic, to mention just a few." Like most of his literary contemporaries of the avant-garde Eighties Generation, his major work has been translated into several European languages, with the notable exception, until now, of English.
Readers opening the pages of Nostalgia should brace themselves for a verbal tidal wave of the imagination that will wash away previous ideas of what a novel is or ought to be. Although each of its five chapters is separate and stands alone, a thematic, even mesmeric harmony finds itself in children's games, the music of the spheres, humankind's primordial myth-making, the origins of the universe, and in the dilapidated tenement blocks of an apocalyptic Bucharest during the years of communist dictatorship.


Romania's leading poet plays with ideas of authorship and authority in this collection of five unconnected stories—his English debut—which he contrarily subtitled "a novel," asserting that "each part reflects all the others." Given the author's pedigree, it's disappointing that the book, extracted from its cultural context, loses much of its power. Cartarescu employs postmodern effects—shifting points of view, blurring of dreams and reality, episodes of magical realism—without enlarging in a meaningful way on the experiments of Kafka, Borges or García Márquez (all invoked by the book's narrators). The first story involves a roulette player who survives against astonishing odds and a narrator who admits the roulette player could not have existed, but did, because "there is a place in the world where the impossible is possible, namely in fiction, that is, literature." "The Twins" consists of a fairly banal adolescent romance sandwiched between long descriptions of a man dressing in drag. Occasionally Cartarescu's prose shines, as with the description of a suicide on the pavement in "Mentardy": "his noble profile displaying its contour against a cheery stain, light purple and widening leisurely." But the self-conscious postmodernism of this collection may prove off-putting for American readers accustomed to conventions of realist fiction. - Publishers Weekly


A surrealist landscape stands revealed in this 1989 work by one of Romania’s leading novelists and poets; this is the author’s U.S. debut.
There are three stories and two novellas here. Cartarescu believes they form a novel because they “connect subterraneously.” Well, maybe, but there are clear differences between the taut bookend stories and the maze of the long middle section. The first story, “The Roulette Player,” focuses on a poor wretch who draws huge crowds as he tries to commit suicide by playing Russian Roulette. Here, as elsewhere, in a playful post-modern gesture, there is a peek-a-boo narrator who mostly stays hidden. The last story, “The Architect,” concerns a man who cannot stop his car horn and becomes obsessed with sound; his obsession will have cosmic and even galactic consequences. The remaining stories, collectively titled “Nostalgia,” feature as protagonists children or adolescents from a lost past. “Mentardy” is a short tale about a gang of Bucharest street kids whose lives are disrupted by the appearance of a “wise child.” The first novella, “The Twins,” features high-school seniors Andrei and Gina, who “felt like twins…inside a hallucinatory uterus without exit.” In this inaccessible exploration of gender boundaries, the two make love and somehow exchange bodies. “REM,” the other novella, concerns Nana, a middle-aged woman having an affair with a university student. When she was 12, Nana met two skeletal giants, mother and son, who lived in a watchtower. The son Egor’s role was to facilitate Nana’s dreams, in which she discovered REM, which just might be the key to the universe.
Cartarescu’s phantasmagorical world is similar to Dalí’s dreamscapes, but long blocks of prose with minimal breaks make it hard to enter. - Kirkus Reviews

The canon of contemporary literature that may be perused by English readers has been favored by an addition from an author whose major work has, hitherto, gone untranslated in this country. If "Nostalgia" is indicative of the quality to be found in Romanian novelist, poet and critic Mircea Cartarescu's other 20-plus books, there is much to anticipate. Though indebted to the masters of magical realism and to the forerunners of that school, to which the author vociferously alludes, there is more than enough space in the republic of letters for another cartographer of dreams who crowds one's space and invades one's perspective with voluptuous mystification.
To be born with the capacity for reflection is to await nostalgia's sting. If there's one profession that's typically beset by a surfeit of contemplation, it's artists. But it may appear somewhat routine to make writers the dominating characters of a novel or, as in the case of the book's epilogue, a musician. But as with Cartarescu's plowing of a readily recognizable genre -- the investigation into the dream-life of a city (in this case, Bucharest during its communist dictatorship) -- "Nostalgia," which was originally published in 1989, is glowingly insouciant with regard to art and the uselessness of such an endeavor.
Indeed, in "The Roulette Player," the book opens with a literary writer who has toiled away for 60 years, and whose work has brought him little satisfaction, "I have written a few thousand pages of literature -- powder and dust. ... You would like to turn the reader's heart inside out, but what does he do? At three he's done with your book, at four he takes up another, no matter how great the book you placed in his hands."
In its theme and manner, this prologue brilliantly channels a Dostoyevskian spirit teeming with calculation, self-loathing and an eagerness to cavort before an audience -- in this instance, death. Sounding many of the novel's recurrent symbols -- the spider, the degenerate, the chrysalis, and God -- as well as its major motifs -- the porousness of reality with regard to fiction, the artist's thirst for sustainable transcendence, and the inflexible failure to reach that end -- the story describes the narrator's odyssey into an underground world of gambling centered on the game of Russian roulette. As the narrator depicts the erosion of the milieu, owing to the exploits of an unearthly, lucky player, who invests the game with a "theological grandeur" through frequent play and a steady increase of bullets in the chamber, "The Roulette Player" skates into a metaphysical register, markedly drawing sustenance from Borges. To repeat, while a lesser, more anxious writer might try to camouflage his literary inheritance, Cartarescu is thoroughly at ease exhibiting his literary genes. The details that braid "Nostalgia's" stories together -- affirming the notice on its cover that it's a novel, which is to say that it's cohesive -- are so deftly executed that charges of derivation may be discarded as easily as used cellophane.
The cruelty of children, which the narrator of "The Roulette Player" touches upon when describing the malefic childhood behavior of the avatar of said game, forms another of the runnels that course through the novel's stories. In "Mentardy," a group of rowdy boys, who harbor a taste for animal cruelty, have their tendencies briefly checked when they encounter a child seer. Originally the nickname of a boy named Dan, who "would step on the balustrade surrounding the [apartment] building's terrace and shout at [his friends] from the height of eight floors, gesticulating and pretending to fall," "Mentardy" is passed on to the new neighborhood kid, who wins the boys over with his own vertiginous display and, by dint of his storytelling skill, briefly assumes the mantle of top dog. But when a flirtation with a girl -- a matter of consternation for the boys -- erupts into the childhood equivalent of a sex scandal via a stumbled upon game of doctor, Mentardy's status plummets like a debunked forgery. The subtexts of "Mentardy" -- the transference of identity, the power of narrative, the gulf between the sexes, misogyny and dangers of the amorous relationship for an artist -- are amplified further in the subsequent stories "The Twins" and "REM."
This thumbnail overview of some of "Nostalgia's" contours would be inadequate if it neglected to mention its multitude of flowering sentences. Consider a few such examples:
"We pushed our fur hats against each other, tried to embrace while fighting our heavy coats, stared in each other's eyes in that frozen gloom that latched icy stars to our eyelashes."
"We spent a moment in suspension and then, like lizards in the morning, shook off the stupor and returned to our limited life."
"I don't like the substances from which poetry is made: smells too much like ether, like nail polish. You have to consume your own self too much ... The true prose writer consumes others."
"Underneath, hundreds of meters below our feet, we saw Bucharest stretching out before us, torturous as a labyrinth drowning in a vortex of dust ... With workers' districts like cakes you are averse to eating."
For anyone with a fondness for narrative convolutions who isn't averse to that peculiar, salutary, literary form of blackout -- where one has the impression of time well spent, even if one isn't sure exactly of all that transpired -- this book is for you. And if blackouts aren't your thing but mind-warping literature is, read this book, then read it again. - Christopher Byrd http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Cruelty-and-chance-rule-Bucharest-s-streets-2544843.php

One of the early books, and for now, the first translated into English, of a wonderful Romanian writer, which was first published under the name “The Dream”- such a title as “Nostalgia” being unacceptable during Communism. The first edition also lacks an important short story, ”The Roulette Player”, for the same reasons of censorship. It also contains what is probably one of Cartarescu’s best writings: REM.
His “Nostalgia” character, Mentardy, creates a new world where the fantastic meets the real, still looking incredibly veridical, and all childhood moments that are evoked, “the little universe behind the block” overwhelm us with nostalgia, which is probably how the name of the whole ensemble of stories was born. As for “The Twins”, it is a beautiful love story, but the real work of art and the best of the book is “REM”. It has the value of an absolute truth, it gives the quintessence of all universal truths. The novella presents an initiation process and the one chosen to go down this road is Svetlana, who is also the main character. Not only does the text find the game as main theme, but it can be thought of as written in the spirit of the game, binding together narrative categories. The writer proves himself as a postmodernist by ”the game of literature”, by unveiling literary processes and techniques.
A book you can simply not put down once you started reading it. A writer who presents himself in the form of a spider, first the narrator, but becoming the symbol of the Creator, of the dreamer, image of the writing space, the characters’ dream. His presence suggests the demiurge’s gift to “weave” with images, situations of an apparently real world and to decide, to his heart’s content, the fate of his characters. - Romania Insider  https://www.romania-insider.com/book-insider-nostalgia-by-mircea-cartarescu/


Despite living in a part of the world in which the future is necessarily the most fertile ground, Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu has encamped himself in the past. And not the official past of dull, stultifying life under communism, but the idealized, oneiric past that is childhood. Cărtărescu’s suffers less from its titular malady than from its perversion: “Ostalgie,” a word coined in the former GDR, combining Ost (East) and Nostalgie into a singular longing, for better or worse, for the way things used to be but never were.
If Moscow was the Third Rome, then Bucharest here is the “Paris of the East” — though glitteringly tawdry in skyline, its streets still mired in mud. Into this metropolis, where livestock shrieks and pecks in the courtyards of concrete apartment towers, Cărtărescu (born 1956, pronounced “Curterescue”) ventures in masterful style. Less a novel-in-stories and more a collection, less a collection than an Easterly dictionary of illegal dreams, Nostalgia begins with an assault on the spokesperson for this zeitgeist, Franz Kafka of Prague. “The Roulette Player” marks the endgame of Kafka’s art, its world a purgatory wherein the Hunger Artist fasts on the grubs of the man-ape; the Odradek waits on the breadline with K. According to Cărtărescu, Bucharest’s homeless were often conscripted into games of Russian Roulette (the “Russian” epithet is hardly mentioned). Six men would pass a revolver loaded with a single bullet; spectators, Bucharest’s wealthy demimonde, would place bets on who would survive. Our hero is doubtlessly the greatest: He goes solo rounds with two bullets enchambered, with three, with four, even — with inexorable logic, obligatory to the art of speculation, and speculative fiction — with five. Ladies and gentlemen, fully loaded with six should be next. Each time, as he squeezes the trigger, he faints. As his feats promote him from basement sideshows to sinister dinner-theater (the lights dim, a chink of light appears from behind the Iron Curtain), no bullet is ever fired. As his life falls apart, the roulette player’s head remains on his neck.
After going these rounds with Kafka, the ludic author, like his rouletteist, transcends, as if he had proven his credentials (received his own “European education”), and is only now certified to try his hand at lives closer to home. Updating Poland’s Bruno Schulz, Cărtărescu begins to write about youth not as formative, but as everything. In this world, all experience signifies just as it did at initial encounter: To a boy of the fallen bourgeoisie, mundanity can be nothing but magical. Here, for example, is a first ride in an elevator, as if up to the seat of the Godhead:
Underneath, hundreds of meters below our feet, we saw Bucharest stretching out before us, tortuous as a labyrinth drowning in a vortex of dust. The tallest buildings […] were all wrapped in a variety of fogs, mother-of-pearl, yellowish, pale pink. Bucharest like a spider web, on the strands of which crawled streetcars with their ringing bells and the trucks with their trailers. Bucharest full of scaffoldings and cranes, hospitals and post offices and tiny newspaper stands. With gray lakes shaped like stomachs, opening out into each other. […] Bucharest with its men in white shirts and slicked-back hair. With soccer stadiums invaded by young workers with emaciated faces under their gray workers caps, shouting and standing when a soccer player, slicked-back hair as well and shorts down to his knees in the Moscow Dynamo team style, kicks the leather ball into the torn net. Bucharest resounding with songs whose purpose is to mobilize the people: ‘Dear laggard Comrade Marin, / with you in charge we’ll never win’ […]
Entire pages pass like this — fantastic winged elevators or soccer balls, flitting toward the light of the real, only to be immolated for getting too close. These stylistic fantasies, which change content and fantasist throughout Nostalgia’s five sections, are mated to plots equally strange. In “Mentardy” (Mendebilul in , a concatenation of “mental” and “debility”), a pure, puny, Christlike child falls victim to friends in the yard of his housing project; in “The Twins,” an account of transvestitism degenerates into the alchemical merging of sexes, in the persons of a young man and woman whose flirtations cause them to lose their identities to love. In “REM,” the longest section of the book’s middle, also titled “Nostalgia” (composed of three sections set between “The Roulette Player” prologue — said to be written by the grown protagonist of “The Twins” — and “The Architect” epilogue), a girl is sent to the outskirts of town, where she is taught to dream under the tutelage of a giant, who might also be the tale’s author except for the fact that all he can write is the word “no” (and “no, no, no, no, no, no […]”). Ignore the preciousness, and such exuberances of language — Cărtărescu’s fluid formalism translates all into some of the most imaginative literature since that of the masters mentioned by name in the text (Borges, García Márquez, and Cortázar, among others).
Nostalgia’s final section is set in the midst of the 1980s, decade of the Blue Jeans Generation. An architect, renowned for his factories that produce sunflower oil, has decided to purchase a Dacia — a wonderful Romanian automobile that often stalled, when it didn’t explode. Amazingly, it has a horn, the siren sound of which obsesses our hero, who, like many architects, feels a kinship with music (Goethe once remarked that architecture was “frozen music”). Soon, he’s had the car stripped of its tires, and a primitive keyboard installed in the dash. All day and night, living in the immobilized Dacia, “The Architect” plays music through the speaker of that horn. Thanks to the support of a young, ambitious musicologist, he becomes famous. His improvisations resound throughout Bucharest; in time, they’re heard in the West. Then, reality ends on a dissonance. Man resolves into machine. Like the universe, the Architect’s talent expands: “The great synthesizer was now an internal element of the immense body.” It’s amid this coda that Cărtărescu’s own transformation is aired: The childlike, he says, instead of growing up, must dissent and do the opposite, becoming always younger, as if returning to a state of terminal youth, which is art. Advocating yet another Revolution, Cărtărescu fictionalizes his manifesto: Art must not merely entertain life, or even affect it; instead, art must dream life itself. “The matter of [the architect’s] body and his arms, having reached in the course of the migration an extreme state of rarefaction, condensed itself during a period of incommensurable time, lost its consistency, and became star crumbs, which ignited suddenly in the darkened and empty universe. A young galaxy revolved now, throbbing, pulsating in place of the old one.”   http://www.newhavenreview.com/blog/index.php/2008/06/nostalgia

Nostalgia, billed as a novel, is only very loosely structured as one, its five stories essentially self-contained and separate, with their presentation in three sections -- 'Prologue' (one story), "Nostalgia' (three, taking up the bulk of the book), and 'Epilogue' -- imposing what is little more than a tenuous (and largely artificial) connection on them. There is some unity here -- most notably (variations on) a sense of nostalgia -- and in his Afterword translator Julian Semilian quotes the author's own explanation, in which he suggests, among other things, that: "This is a fractalic and holographic novel, in which each part reflects all others", but the pieces certainly do not add up to anything resembling a conventional novel-whole.
       The pieces, too, range in a spectrum from conventional to hard-to-pin-down. Authorial voices -- writers and would-be writers -- dominate among the narrators, and already in the very strong opening piece, 'The Roulette Player', the story-teller -- who impressively heightens the tension of how the central figure of his tale, the Roulette Player, pushes himself to the most extreme limits -- admits as to his own undertaking:
I concealed my game, my stake, my bet from your gaze. Because, finally, I staked my life on literature.
       If not as immediately or obviously death-defying as the games of Russian roulette his protagonist plays, clearly too literature is a place for such extremes, a be-all and end-all. And, indeed, in the longest piece, 'REM', the belief in what writing can aspire to is expressed most straightforwardly, as one character explains:
No, I don't wish to reach the point of being a great writer, I want to reach The All. I dream incessantly of a creator who, through his art, can actually influence the life of all beings, and then the life of the entire universe, to the most distant stars, to the end of space and time. And then to substitute himself for the universe, to become the World itself. Only in such a way can a man, an artist fulfill, his purpose. The rest is literature, a collection of tricks, well or not so well mastered, tar-scrawled pieces of paper that no one gives a damn about, no matter how filled with genius those lines of engraved signs may be, those lines that sooner or later will no longer be understood. 
       Much of Nostalgia revisits the uncertainty of childhood and youth. Literature and story-telling play roles here as well: in 'Mentardy' a newcomer wins over the local kids (for a while) with his story-telling, while in 'The Twins' the narrator recalls losing himself (and his connection to his fellow students) in literature as, for example:
With each new reading, I acquired a new life. I was, by turns, with my entire being, Camus, Sartre, Céline, Bacovia, Voronca, Rimbaud, and Valéry. I barely noticed those around me.
       Yet even though 'REM' for example actually opens with a list of books (Cortázar, García Márquez, The Saragossa Manuscript, etc.) it does not get caught up entirely in the purely literary. Cărtărescu's descriptions of his characters' lives -- which, in the case of the young children, is literally down and very dirty -- is vivid and visceral. His descriptive range -- from the physical to the metaphysical -- is very impressive -- and yet this is also part of what can make the novel hard going. A poet, too, there's a poetic drift to many of these pieces, even those with the strongest narrative arc, and even if it is all very ably done it can prove disengaging. Nostalgia impresses on so many levels, and yet it can also be a book that's hard to really like, its incessant challenges -- to every sort of convention, even as it plays with conventional story-telling -- easy to admire and yet on some level annoying, too.
       The translation is solid, but doesn't always feel entirely successful; some of the bigger leaps Semilian takes -- as he describes in his Afterword -- also must be taken into account in appreciating the stories, as in 'The Twins', where he notes the first and last episodes were originally written in the third-person singular, past tense (and in a way allowing for ambiguity regarding the sex of the character), and the solution to rendering it in English he opted for was to use the second-person singular, present tense (which seems rather a major change).
        This edition of Nostalgia also comes with an Introduction by Andrei Codrescu that can only be described as so glowing that it leaves the reader nearly blinded -- suggesting the counter-productive dangers of too much rhapsodizing in trying to introduce a new author to a new audience (this was the first of Cărtărescu's works to be translated into English).
       Codrescu begins:
     This translation introduces to English a writer who has always had a place reserved for him in a constellation that includes the Brothers Grimm, E.T.A.Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Bruno Schultz [sic], Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, and Milorad Pavić, to mention just a few of the authors who no longer seem translated, but belong to our essential library. 
       By hoisting Cărtărescu -- a writer who, more than most, requires a far more delicate introduction -- into this pantheon Codrescu raises expectations far beyond what the work (in what otherwise is still tremendous isolation, with no companion volumes and little other context) can deliver to most readers. (Mis-spelling/printing Schulz's name doesn't help the argument, either .....)
       Nostalgia -- prize-winning in its French-translation, critically very well received in German and Spanish -- was a notorious flop in this translation. Instead of being a starting-point for Cărtărescu-in-English, its failure seems to have stalled his career for nearly a decade, with only Why We Love Women (brought out by the University of Plymouth Press) published to almost no notice whatsoever (in 2011) before finally Archipelago committed itself to publishing his magnum opus, the Orbitor-trilogy (starting in 2013 with Blinding). Wisely, they allow the work to speak for itself and stand on its own, not propping it up with any sort of Introduction ..... - M.A.Orthofer

DUBLIN did not really exist until the publication of James Joyce's "Ulysses," Norway was a dim country assigned to the Vikings until Knut Hamsun published "Hunger," and Portugal was finally revealed to readers with Fernando Pessoa's "Book of Disquietude." Literary cities owe something of their existence to the writers who walk their streets and remember them for those of us who will never go there.
Though it is unlikely that one could rebuild the physical reality of Bucharest based on Mircea Cartarescu's "Nostalgia" -- the first novel by this premier Romanian writer to be published in English -- Cartarescu has provided us with the clearest approximation of the interior lives of those living in that city through the darkest days of the Ceausescu regime. Composed during that time and finally published in 1989, the novel is a timeless invitation to dream and embrace the comforting power of personal memory, the only sure bulwark against the effects of totalitarian control.
"Nostalgia" opens with "The Roulette Player," a hypnotic, suspenseful prologue in which a man rises to an unimaginable level of success playing Russian roulette and, when no longer facing any challenger, decides to challenge himself by adding bullets to the revolver.
Vast sums of money are wagered by frenzied audiences on the outcome of these solitary performances. One gives nothing away by saying that toward the end of the story he uses a fully loaded revolver and somehow beats these impossible odds: This setup is incredible, and so is the narrator's voice, asking us to ponder many things, including the nature of reading. "The Roulette Player is a character," the narrator explains. "But then I, too, am a character, and so I can't stop myself from bursting with joy. Because characters never die, they live each time their world is 'read.' "
Though billed as a novel, "Nostalgia" is really a collection of stories and novellas dense with reverberating nuance and self-consciousness. "Even though this volume is comprised of five separate stories, each with its own world," the narrator explains at one point, "it could be said that what we're dealing with here is a Book, in the old and precious sense of the word. The stories connect subterraneously, caught in the web of the same magical and symbolist thought, of the same stylistic calligraphy."
In the novel's middle section the reader fully enters into the world of memory as the narrator remembers his childhood and later years. Titled "Nostalgia," the section is divided into three parts -- "Mentardy," "The Twins" and "REM" -- and we find ourselves following young children along as they play in the ditches and among ruined tenement houses. Mentardy is the new, awkward boy in the group; he tempts the children away from their scavenging in tunnels and ditches by charming them with the stories he learned from books:
"He told us, I recall now, the legends of the Round Table; Charlemagne and Arthur, the horrific pagans, and a sword that had a name.... He paused in the middle of the story and said the place was not right for telling stories. The dirty ditches, he said, the dirt mounds, the pipes mended with putty did not allow him to concentrate. 'I know a better place,' he said, smiling."
Just as Mentardy interrupts his own story, so does Cartarescu, who speaks out to the reader: "You would like to turn the reader's heart inside out, but what does he do? At three he's done with your book, at four he takes up another, no matter how great the book you placed in his hands."
Cartarescu's vision of childhood is not exclusive to Eastern Europeans of a certain time and history, however, for the reflections of his narrators touch on something familiar to all those who have realized that their childhood is gone. Entering the world of childhood is like entering another civilization, into which adults wander seeing now only the remains of an abandoned school: "We also found strewn across the classrooms torn pages from a spelling primer and from a music book and tests corrected with red ink. The children who had studied there were now adults; they had passed into another species, into another world. They would never return." - Thomas McGonigle http://articles.latimes.com/2005/dec/25/books/bk-mcgonigle25

Review by Lenka Pánková





I have read  Mircea Cărtărescu’s latest novel in Marian Ochoa de Eribe’s Spanish translation, which was kindly provided for this review by the publishing house Impedimenta. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be an English translation any time soon – indirect evidence of that is the fact that the English translation of Cărtărescu’s acclaimed trilogy Orbitor ground to a halt after only the first volume came out in English as The Blinding back in 2013 So, if you can read Spanish or Catalan, or any other European language in which the book will appear within the next few years, I recommend getting this novel and plunging right into it: it is one of those awe-inspiring literary juggernauts which grace exacting readership only once in a decade.
Moreover, I will allow myself to be outrageously opinionated and blunt: Solenoid is the greatest surrealist novel ever written. I can imagine it firmly sitting at the top of a gigantic totem pole sculpture built out of the debris representing  the evolutionary chain kick-started by the publication of Breton and Soupault’s The Magnetic Fields in 1920. Among the myriad elements of the construction  you can make out the manuscripts of The Surrealist Manifesto and Nadja, a screen showing a repeating loop of Un Chien Andalou,  paintings featuring the milestones of visual surrealism: the anthropomorphic chests of drawers and insect-legged elephants of Salvador Dalí, the sentient blobs of Ives Tanguy, the paradoxical tableaux of Remedios Varo, as well as more books: Julien Gracq’s The Castle of Argol, Max Ernst’s Une semaine de bonté, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Tristan Tzara’s Approximate Man, and so on until this enormous column of artifacts terminates with the hefty volume written by  Cărtărescu. Here is the most advanced stage of this century-long development: a surrealist novel, which is also a maximalist novel whose encyclopedic penchant for exploring various realms of human knowledge is only matched by its savage commitment to bending, exploding and metamorphosing the “reality” it depicts.
Now, if that were not enough, Solenoid is also one of the four great novels of the 21st century exploring the theme of the fourth dimension, the other three being Miquel de Palol’s El Troiacord, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, and Alan Moore’s Jerusalem
That being said, Solenoid is far from perfect. It hasn’t avoided the usual pitfalls of  ambitious long novels: the book may feel repetitive, turgid and navel-gazing at times. Nevertheless, going through it relatively quickly took my breath away, and my main reaction after closing the book was: “What an achievement! They don’t write like this any more!” Reviewing it will not be an easy task, but I will try my best.
So, where do I even start with this? In a nutshell, the novel is presented as a manuscript of a failed writer who teaches Romanian at an elementary school in Bucharest, hates his job and wishes to find an escape route from the confinement of his body and the three-dimensional world around it. As in his epic poem The Levant, Cărtărescu includes plenty of biographical details in Solenoid. The nameless narrator, in fact, lives a life very similar to that of the Romanian writer until the crucial bifurcation point at which their paths begin to diverge. The moment in question is a literary soirée at the Faculty of Letters at which the aspiring author reads his long poem The Fall, hoping it would launch his literary career. Instead, he suffers  a complete fiasco as the audience ruthlessly tear his work apart , making the young man forsake his literary ambitions forever. He will go on to have a mediocre life of a schoolteacher, whereas his other version  will become a successful writer in an alternative world created by the positive reception of his poem. 
The manuscript of the failed writer is not meant for publication – it is there to document his quest for the escape. This metaphysical journey is narrated through childhood recollections, the accounts of the everyday life at the school he teaches in, which exemplifies the sordidness and absurdity of the existence under the communist regime in Romania, the excerpts from his personal diaries, descriptions of his dreams and hallucinations, fragments of his “unsuccessful” literary experiments. On more than one occasion, the narrator emphasises that what we are reading is not a novel. He believes now, after his failure, that writers, just like artists and other creative people in general, are mere charlatans: they create trompe-l’oeils, doors so realistically painted on walls that for a moment we might even think that they lead somewhere, only to realise upon closer inspection that they don’t. His manuscript, however, presents ample evidence of the existence of  doors into other dimensions, which are as difficult for us to conceive as is our 3D world for a Flatland inhabitant.
The preconditions making the nameless narrator an eligible candidate for the escape attempt are to be found, naturally, in his childhood. The lonely kid reads voraciously and has the first glimpses of the possible existence of other dimensions in sci-fi and mystery stories. His favourite is the one about a prisoner who manages to flee captivity thanks to the inmate in the neighbouring cell who transmits the getaway plan encoded in a system of knocks. The protagonist of the story translates the knocks into his own symbolic notation and breaks free. Some years later he returns to the prison to find his saviour and express his gratitude only to find out that the adjacent cell doesn’t exist and the wall that the mysterious neighbour used for his message faces outside. Another important source of arcane knowledge is the narrator’s dreams, hallucinations and the nightmares brought about by what appears to be sleep paralysis, i. e. a state of numbness one experiences between wakefulness and falling asleep, during which the person has an illusion of being in the presence of strange things or people, often of threatening nature. In case of Solenoid‘s main character, during the episodes reminiscent of sleep paralysis he sees strange individuals sitting on his bed. The “visitors”, as he prefers to call them, might as well be messengers from another world trying to get across some important clue he’s yet unable to understand. The narrator also keeps diaries in which he writes down detailed descriptions  of his dreams, some of which  are reproduced in the manuscript. There is no sharp distinction between actual events, memories, dreams and hallucinations when it comes to the narration in Solenoid. As the protagonist himself confesses  “I live in my own skull”; so, everything he sets down here is the subjective product of this limitation. Not that he’s very content with this state of things either, which is evident in his other statement: “All I’ve been doing my entire life is looking for cracks in the seemingly smooth, solid, logical surface of the mock-up of my skull”.
Besides the constraints imposed by our five senses, there is a more sinister limitation: that of  human life expectancy. The inevitability of death and various ways of coming to terms with it inform the strong  thanatological element of the novel. The narrator, whose first significant encounter with death happens when he loses his twin brother when still a child, dedicates considerable part of his enquiry to the nature of last things. The perfect environment for such ruminations is the tuberculosis sanatorium Voila to which he is sent after testing positive for TB in school. The narrative about the sanatorium  is a morbid and fascinating set piece that can be read as a children’s version of The Magic Mountain. There the young narrator gets to know another boy called Traian who becomes his companion and even mentor in his search for the cracks in reality. Traian has arrived at his own eschatological model which he readily shares with his friend. According to it, after death people are doomed to a millennia-long journey in a dark otherworldly realm along a branching and crisscrossing  path, occasionally meeting monstrous beings who ask them questions. If the answer is wrong, the monsters lock the traveller up in their own hell; if not, the journey continues for millions of years interrupted by scarce encounters with other monsters. When this seemingly infinite trek comes to an end, the dead soul enters a cave where he meets his mother who can take up any shape: a lioness, a moth, a lizard or even a translucent larva. The wanderer crawls into the womb of his mother to be born again in our world. For the mother is the final monster. It is also Traian who first shows to the other boy a secret sign that is going to be widely used by various sects prophesying death-defiance in Romania at the time when the grown-up narrator works at school: an insect sitting on the open palm. 
One such sect is called “picketers”. What they actually do is gather around places associated with death and dying (for example, morgues, cemeteries or hospitals) and picket them, holding up protest signs with slogans against death, mortality and disease. The narrator attends one of their most significant pickets which takes place near the Mina Minovici National Institute of Forensic Medicine, a veritable palace of death that comprises a morgue, an amphitheater, a library, forensic laboratories and a pathological anatomy museum. Cărtărescu takes the real historical building and embellishes it to the state of grandeur worthy of St. Peter’s Basilica. In his version the cupola of the institute is surrounded at the base by twelve allegorical statues representing twelve gloomy states of mind, whereas the thirteenth statue, four times bigger than the others, is hovering half a metre above the top of the building. It represents Condemnation. Led by the preacher with the telling name Virgil, the picketers intend to implore the statue of Condemnation to interrupt the never-ending series of death and suffering the countless generations of humans are condemned to go through. In return, Virgil offers as a sacrifice his body and all his memories, invoking the total sum of human knowledge, the scientific and cultural achievements which will be saved along with humankind if the brutal cycle of destruction is broken. However, this offering does not appear as valuable for the forces in charge of the grim determinism of human life as the preacher believes. Eventually, it will be up to our narrator to come with a better offer, but in order to reach that status he still needs to learn and experience a lot. 
The statue of Condemnation is suspended in the air on account of a huge solenoid (a coil of wire producing magnetic field when electricity runs through it) embedded in the wall beneath the imposing cupola of the forensic institute. The discovery of huge solenoids hidden in certain “energy nodes” of Bucharest marks an important development in the teacher’s search for the access to other dimensions. One such coil is immured in the foundation of the house he buys from the crackpot scientist and inventor Nicolae Borina. Perhaps due to the influence of the solenoid or some other mysterious forces, the newly-bought house turns out to be a receptacle of ambiguous and paradoxical spaces bringing to mind the architectural puzzles of M. C. Escher. Not only it is impossible to say how many rooms there are, not only the owner himself has to be cautious not to get lost in his own home, there is also a mysterious place concealing a rip in the fabric of reality behind a window designed as a porthole. The place in question is a turret that can be accessed only by a staircase. Inside the turret the teacher finds a chamber occupied by a dental chair with the relevant armamentarium, a reified metaphor for human pain and suffering easily identifiable by those who had to visit the dentist before the 1990s. The round window in the turret offers a glimpse of an alien world, a different dimension which might grant the coveted escape route for the narrator, but it is unlikely that he would be delighted to take it. What he sees is a bleak and crepuscular landscape populated by nightmarish beasts: 
With a melancholy impossible to express in words, processions of entities roamed this landscape: herds of creatures that sometimes resembled elephants — but on spider legs, like the ones in Saint Anthony’s vision by Dalí — at other times, cows with bestial masks on their heads, and, on occasion, insects of a long-gone kingdom. On their articulated legs, similar to the fingers of a human hand, they were laboriously dragging a shapeless body covered by soft carapace through which sprouted sparse hair. Each protuberance, each rough spot, each bulge and each bristle looked limpid as if under oblique light. Their faces, dominated by beaks and hooks, were blind. They were making way through intertwined fibre by virtue of the sensitive filaments with which they were palpating the backs of those walking in front. 
There will be more inter-dimensional rifts like these, and each time the narrator comes across a similar portal into the unknown, he will feel being closer to the solution of his main problem, all the time aware of the giants who came before him, and on whose shoulders he is carrying out his research.
Nicolae Borina, the inventor of the paranormal solenoid, is a fictitious character, but besides him there are quite a few real historical figures in the book. We get to learn about Mina Minovici, the founder of the above-mentioned institute, who was one of the greatest forensic scientists of his time. Even more curious is his brother Nicolae, a keen researcher of the effects of hanging upon the human body, who conducted hanging experiments on himself. In Solenoid, Nicolae Minovici is portrayed as a thanatological visionary who produces a number of gruesome engravings that depict his hallucinations experienced while hanging himself. Another important contributor to the narrator’s growing database of recondite knowledge is the psychiatrist and psychologist Nicolae Vaschide. He is also a real historical personage who devoted a lot of effort to the exploration of dreams, which resulted in the publication of his treatise Somnul și visele (Sleep and Dreams) in 1911. In the novel Vaschide  proves to be a member of a secret fraternity of oneiromants  with the uncanny ability to see other people’s dreams. His goal is to experience the crystal-clear dream he calls “orama”, the highest manifestation among all types of dreams. We follow his search through a series of lavish oneiric adventures, such as entering a giant skull excavated in a hill in the Ferentari neighbourhood of Bucharest  and finding inside a little girl resting on the butterfly of the sfenoid bone. 
George Boole, his wife Mary Everest and their children deserve a special mention. Their incredible story feeds the narrator’s insatiable curiosity about the four-dimensional world.  It all starts also in childhood, with his reading of Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly, a cult book in the Soviet Bloc countries due to its romantic portrayal of the revolutionary struggle in the 19th century Italy. Ethel was one of the daughters of the two mathematicians, George Boole, the founder of the logic of algebra (later known as Boolean algebra) and Mary Everest, an author of progressive education materials on mathematics. His other daughter married Charles Howard Hinton, also a mathematician and an intrepid investigator of the fourth dimension who introduced the term “tesseract” for the 4D hypercube and who developed a complex system for visualising it using a collection of colour-coded cubes. And then, there is yet another daughter: Alicia Boole Stott, who elaborated on her brother-in-law’s research and made an important contribution to the study of  four-dimensional polytopes by calculating their three-dimensional central sections and making their models. So much effort invested in the attempt to approach the hidden world in which tesseracts and hyperdodecahedra are as mundane as the Platonic solids are in our 3D reality! So, will the penetration into the fourth dimension grant true freedom? Our protagonist thinks about this issue a lot, marvelling at the extraordinary possibilities of those existing outside the prison of length, width and height. The inhabitants of the four-dimensional world would be able to cure patients without opening up their bodies and even to resurrect the dead; they would be able to appear and disappear in the 3D world whenever they pleased. When the contact with the dwellers of the higher dimension does occur, it happens within the context of the now happily forgotten communist-regime enforced practice of collecting waste paper and empty bottles.  It takes the writer of Cărtărescu’s peculiar wit and inventiveness to come up with the idea of a schoolgirl bringing a genuine 4D Klein bottle to school along with regular empties. Having stumbled upon the impossible object, the author of the manuscript seeks out the girl who shows him her impressive stash of  polytopes which she picked up in some kind of zone visited from to time by a mysterious bubble. At the same spot, the invaders from another world  abduct the heavily-drinking school doorman, perhaps in exchange for their gifts. The man eventually comes back, not as an enlightened mouthpiece of the salvation message, however, but as a  victim of a cruel medical experiment. What kind of freedom is that?
There is one more lead offered by the history of the Boole family: as we know, Ethel got married to Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who came into possession of perhaps the most mysterious manuscript of all time, which has carried his name ever since. The narrator’s enquiry into the history and possible meaning of the Voynich manuscript brings him to a man who has interest not only in enigmatic books, but also in the subclass Acaridae, all representatives of which can be found in his personal library of glass slides. Having examined the possibilities of extra-body experience provided by dreams, hallucinations, death and the fourth dimension, the narrator is ready to take a dive into yet another mysterious realm, that which we can normally see only through a microscope. In a hilarious episode, weird even in comparison with the other surreal vignettes, the protagonist travels to the subcutaneous city of itch mites with the good news of salvation entrusted to him by the scientist who cultivated the scabies on his own hand. Maybe, before trying to decipher messages from higher dimensions, before attempting to puzzle out the motivation of  entities beyond our reach, we can make our presence known to the creatures to which we, in our turn, may appear as inconceivable godlike inhabitants from another world? With this episode, Cărtărescu accomplishes something extraordinary: a bio-punk rewriting of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which an itch mite possessed by the human mind encounters aggression and incomprehension among the fellow acarids and is ultimately doomed to martyrdom. The inconvenient truth is that humans might also be just parasites on a super-colossal body without any prospects of getting their voices heard.  Not only here, but throughout the whole novel Franz Kafka is a salient presence. He is the most important writer for the author of the manuscript, but not because of his fiction. The teacher believes that his greatest work is the diaries, and that the most stunning thing Kafka has ever written is this baffling short text: “The Dream Lord, great Isachar, sat  in front of the mirror, his back close to the surface, his head bent far back and sunk deep in the mirror. Hermana, the Lord of Dusk entered and dived into Isachar’s chest until he disappeared.” Here, according to the protagonist, the great writer managed to distill the pure essence of his self, leaving out all unnecessary artificial elaborations employed millions of times in millions of useless literary works.
The protagonist’s girlfriend Irina, with whom he habitually makes love levitating above his bed thanks to the energy emitted by the solenoid, at one point presents him with a dilemma that proves to be the cornerstone of the whole novel: if you had to choose between saving a baby and a great work of art, what would you choose? The answer isn’t so obvious as it may seem, since there are always additional factors: e.g. the baby is incurably sick or it is going to become Hitler when it grows up. The narrator firmly replies that the baby is more important to him than any piece of art, even more than Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (which has considerably influenced Solenoid itself, by the way), not even if it is an artwork created by himself and opening thus a different kind of escape route: the one of cultural immortality. This is the question  which the narrator will have to answer again at the end of the novel in the murky hall of the Mina Minovici Institute, in front of the monstrous statue of Condemnation sitting in a giant dental chair. A monster demanding a reply – just like in the eschatological scenario  revealed to him by Traian in the Voila sanatorium. Perhaps the true portal of escape is to be found in his manuscript. After all, it was never meant to be a trompe-l’oeil, but the distillation of the narrator’s self in all its baroque complexity. Is he ready to sacrifice the child he’s had with Irina and turn his personal notes into a work of art, a novel? No, even if what is going on is just a hallucination, an allegorical masque performed inside his skull, he is not. The narrator will forever remain a man without a name. He is ready to give up his dreams of artistic transcendence in exchange for the cessation of pain and suffering, albeit temporary, and even if that means letting go of Bucharest, the saddest city on the face of earth, which gets torn away from the ground and, like Laputa – both Swift’s and Miyazaki’s – soars up powered by the vibrating solenoids and disappears in the sky. But can we be sure that Mircea Cărtărescu,  the successful double of the author of the manuscript in an alternative world, would have made the same choice?  What sacrifice has he offered to write such an extraordinary novel? I pray to God we’ll never learn. - https://theuntranslated.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/solenoid-solenoide-solenoid-by-mircea-cartarescu/

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