by Martin Riker
from the London Review of Books (20 March 2014)
Blinding: Volume I by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated by Sean Cotter
Archipelago, 464 pp, £15.99, October 2013, ISBN 978 1 935744 84 9
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 Ulyssesdoes with English), has been an influential political columnist in Romania and has had his work translated into many languages.
In ‘The Architect’, after trying out every sort of electronic car horn, Emil Popescu has a synthesiser installed where the dashboard would be, so that he’s no longer constrained by the available horn melodies or even by standard tones and pitches. Though Emil is an architect and knows almost nothing about music, he plays his way through the entire history of human-composed sound – instinctively, like an accidental Pierre Menard – from Orphic hymn to Gregorian chant to Bach, Ravel, Schoenberg and eventually rock music. He stops leaving the car, even to sleep, and grows physically enormous. As his improvisations evolve into an impossible music that has never been heard before, his body grows so large that it subsumes the planet, after which the sun explodes and Emil’s synthesiser-fused planet-body migrates towards the centre of the galaxy. Finally, ‘the matter of his 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.’ Nostalgia ends here, on this grandiose image of destruction and rebirth, a harbinger of what was to come in Cărtărescu’s trilogy, Blinding, the first volume of which was published in Romanian in 1996 and is translated here with prodigious skill by Sean Cotter.
The trilogy is modelled on the anatomy of a butterfly: the first volume is the left wing, the second the body and the third the right wing. Cărtărescu has described the first volume as ‘visionary and idealistic’, while the other two are more historical, satirical and angry, ‘as if Dante had wandered in reverse’. The entire trilogy was written by hand, Cărtărescu says, over many years, from start to finish without rewrites, cuts, additions or revisions; he describes the result as ‘a crisp and genuine image … scanning and mapping my mind’. While Nostalgia has its roots in modernism and postmodernism, Blinding is possessed by the spirit of Romanticism, by belief in the supremacy of the individual imagination, the sovereignty of dream and the inextricability of art from life. Cărtărescu’s Romanticism comes filtered through surrealism and other more recent avant-gardes, but there’s something antique, if not biblical, about it as well. Baroque, expansive, carefully crafted but only sparsely plotted, Blinding seems intent on creating an entire sprawling universe of its own. It has too much shape to resemble a ‘mind’, but it doesn’t much resemble a novel either. You might think of it as a vast, book-shaped performance of the imagination as it works through its subjects over time.
In the first volume, those subjects are Cărtărescu’s youth, his mother and the workings of memory, all three of which are introduced in an opening section of about forty unabashedly Proustian pages. From the first line – ‘Before they built the apartment blocks across the street, before everything was screened off and suffocating, I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room above Stefan cel Mare’ – we’re taken back to the world of what Cărtărescu calls the ‘adolescent’ imagination, before reality was delineated into categories and ‘everything was screened off and suffocating.’ In a small room above desolate Bucharest, the life of the narrator Mircea begins to unfold in a feverish mixture of memory, imagination and dream. In this earlier world things that are usually separate tend to merge:
Nocturnal Bucharest 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 vertebrae and concrete posts, animated by statues and obsessions, and digested through intestines and steam pipes, making the city and me a single being.
As Mircea travels further into the ‘catacombs of the imagination’, his small room over Bucharest fades into the background and the fertile world of the half-imagined past takes over. Proust becomes the Brothers Grimm: the first story, a horrific folk-tale filled with angels, demons, opium addicts and zombies, recounts Mircea’s maternal ancestors’ migration from Bulgaria to Romania:
The convoy stopped to rest and eat, plumb in the middle of the frozen Danube. They unpacked zacusca and cherry liquor, and sat on pallets of blankets, here and there, on the verdant glass. Shanks of pork stewed in pots of their own fat, along with the tripe that for so long had satisfied the convoy. They could see the back of a gigantic butterfly beneath them, only a few paces under the ice, like the neck of a dolphin under the waves of the sea. ‘I wonder what butterfly meat tastes like?’ said a teenager with luminous snot on his upper lip … In the end, in spite of the priest’s advice not to ponder the matter further, a few villagers lit up on hooch took out their shovels and heated stakes in the flames and began to break the ice. They lit more fires around, to lift out the entire winged midge. The crowd worked for a few hours, until they could touch the velvet fur on every side of the ringed stomach and palm the little goldfish scales on the wings. And when, suddenly, a tremor blew through the trim, budded horns of the butterfly and its thin feet began to twitch, the villagers took a scythe to the barrel-sized head and set it rolling away. Blue, thick blood splattered the executioner. Then they began to cut hunks out of the butterfly’s back. The meat was as shiny and wiggly as aspic, but a little firmer, and sweet-smelling. Not one bone ran through it, but the skin and ivory needles held it in place like in a glittering net. They boiled it in clay pots and hung it from an iron tripod. All of them ate the flesh, except the priest, who thought he spotted one of the Impure One’s ploys.
From here, almost anything can happen. Mircea the narrator reappears and disappears again and again. Bits of realist memoir grow into gnostic, Hindu or hoodoo theology. There’s a nightmarish scene with a carnival spider-woman. A black musician in a Romanian nightclub – a character uncomfortably close to a stereotype – tells a story about the meeting of holy and satanic forces in the swamps of New Orleans. Part One takes Mircea through a hallucinatory Bucharest in search of a childhood home. Part Two focuses on his mother, Maria, though her reality is equally infused by imagination and dream, and her story has all the strangeness and sensuality of the book’s other sections. Part Three centres on the time young Mircea spent in various hospitals and brings Blinding to a dramatic climax. A few scenes drag, a few philosophical glosses run long, but the individual pieces matter less than the way they’re absorbed into the book’s fabric. Different realities (imagined, remembered, dreamed) are brought together, as are types of discourse (political, religious, anatomical) and genres (folk-tale, science fiction, sermon). The imagery frequently combines the grotesque and the beautiful: ‘It stank of swamp, violets, permanent marker, uterus.’ There’s also much philosophising about the concept of combination, though Blinding’s philosophical passages resemble conventional philosophy in the same way its historical stories resemble the history we know – at once highly stylised, strangely archaic and contemporary:
The bilateral symmetry of our organism – our two arms, two legs, two cerebral hemispheres, two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys and two gonads – often overshadows the subtler symmetry of top-bottom, the higher and truer symmetry. Our diaphragms, like walls between two kingdoms, divide our bodies into two zones with opposing polarities … The head corresponds to the genitals, and all our mystical, animal faculties are concentrated there … And both, in different planes of existence, live and bathe in immortality. The sublime universe appears to us in the orgasm of the mind and the syllogisms of fecundity, in the sperm of the brain and the memory of the ovaries. Under two different faces – angelic and demonic, masculine and feminine – the sublime universe appears to us, touches the blood-filled jewel in which we live.
As passages of philosophy these are not particularly enlightening, but they don’t stand alone. They belong to the ‘visionary’ world of Blinding, a world built from Mircea’s ‘adolescent imagination’ and his specifically imagined past, where a character might at any moment descend into a vast cavern below Bucharest (it happens twice), or simply go to the movies.
In Part Three, Mircea delivers a realist account, almost too meticulous, of his hospitalisation and shock treatments:
The final component of my treatment was massage. Long after I left the hospital, I continued to do it myself, in the mirror, like a woman worried she’s getting old. I’d put a little talcum powder on my fingers, and start with my forehead, pushing my skin towards my temples and noting, day by day, how, if I raised my eyebrows in mock surprise, the folds in the left part of my brow took a clearer shape (in the hospital they’d been non-existent). I turned next to my eyebrows and the tops of my cheekbones, with special movements I’d learned from the blind masseur, then massaged under the cheekbones to the cheeks.
Mircea remembers the old blind masseur who provided his physical therapy in hospital. He describes their sessions, dwelling on what they felt like, until the masseur begins telling him ‘bizarre stories, neither flesh nor fowl, whispered, insinuating stories as if he were telling them to himself’. The tone shifts and suddenly we’re in a surreal thriller: a man is abducted and brought to an enormous hall, with ceilings thousands of metres high and a floor that stretches to the horizon. He’s tied to a crystal chair and surrounded by robed men who speak an unknown language, until ‘an enormous eyelid began to slowly unstick from half the horizon and let a crescent of blinding light into the hall,’ and he finds himself inside the giant eyeball of an undefined higher being. Then the blind masseur says:
I had been stolen from the cerebral structures generating the dream of this being that kneaded our world in its sleep … passed through the polychrome carpet of its retina and forced to look, from the middle of the crystalline ball, at a world that was blinding, blinding … The eyelid rose higher. The light from beyond light struck me like a monstrous column descending through the pupil, the hall filled with the unbearable colour of blindness, and in the height of those pains, compared to which a simple pierced eyeball would have been a heavenly balm, a kind of voice, or a kind of calligraphic design on my seeing flesh told me the strange myth of Those Who Know, their global conspiracy, which spread as much in space as time.
The secret sect of Those Who Know shows up elsewhere in Blinding, in other storylines and different guises. Cărtărescu is perhaps alluding to Pynchon, but the existence of his sect has none of the material consequences that conspiracies and underground organisations have in Pynchon’s work. Pynchon’s Trystero points to the instability and anxiety underlying arrangements in the real world; Cărtărescu’s Those Who Know is a purely fantastical device that might be the work of Raymond Roussel. As with Cărtărescu’s use of philosophy, history and memory, even his conspiracy theories are folded into the generative messiness of the novel, which is both ‘messy’ and coherent, since the style of performance is at the heart of the aesthetic: the perforation of boundaries, the association of dissimilar things to produce a single new thing or sometimes to return each to its original state.
Blinding is full of emblems of change and transformation, butterflies most obviously. They’ve appeared in his writing before, notably in a line from Thomas Mann that serves as an epigraph to ‘The Architect’: ‘There is only one problem in the world: How does one break through the chrysalis and become a butterfly?’ The line glosses the story’s subject matter – Emil’s musical metamorphosis from architect to galactic entity – but would be a better epigraph for Blinding, if only for the number of butterflies it contains. In addition to the butterfly of the trilogy’s structure, butterflies or butterfly shapes appear on practically every page. They’re there in the outline of a spinal cord cross-section, or a Rorschach test, or a butterfly tattoo. People change into butterflies in their dreams, and there are fantastical, grotesque butterflies like the giant meaty one eaten by those villagers. Perhaps the most exotic example comes when a woman who has been asleep for hundreds of years in an elevator car, suspended at the top of an elevator shaft in the ruins of an old building, is finally woken up and impregnated by a giant butterfly man from Baton Rouge. If that sounds comical, it isn’t. For all the carnivalesque extravagance, Blinding is a relentlessly serious book. Fantasy and dream are never sources of levity, absurdity is never a joke, and butterflies are never, or never only, lovely.
Blinding can seem like a surprising next step after Nostalgia, whatever stylistic qualities the two books may share. Nostalgia describes a multiple, uncertain, open-ended world while Blinding expands inward, plumbing the infinite depths of an individual imagination. It’s as though Cărtărescu has chosen to withdraw from any topical literary or cultural conversation, and that rather than attempting to stitch together a fragmented contemporary reality, he is returning to a time that never actually existed, an imaginary time when all genres were one genre and all discourses one discourse, before everything broke into parts.