A Romanian Daedalus’ Surrealist Labyrinth: On Mircea Cărtărescu’s “Solenoid”

November 27, 2022   •   By Ben Hooyman


Mircea Cărtărescu

IN THE INTRODUCTION to the 1941 publication of his The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges famously contends that “it is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.”

Romanian surrealist Mircea Cărtărescu is an avowed devotee of Borges, though his novel Solenoid — released in English in October by Deep Vellum Press (translated by Sean Cotter) — is a vast book, not just 500 pages, but significantly more. Borges’s maxim expresses a kind of anxiety every reader must contend with before committing to such a mammoth text: is reading this going to be worth the effort? And, especially in the domain of surrealist literature, the question seems especially apropos. For how can one deny the case for narrative concision made by Kafka’s best stories or Borges’s corpus? The stories of the classic 20th-century dream weavers knock readers out of balance with everyday reality, only to hustle them, still dazed, out of the textual and back into the real world. As anyone left stunned after an encounter with Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” will testify, well-executed high-concept short fiction can be a powerful force.

What, then, does Cărtărescu stand to gain with Solenoid’s flagrant violation of narrative compression, the hallmark of his most prominent surrealist influences? Instead of delivering a sharp, succinct punch, Solenoid goes the way of the oceanic — rejecting brevity because the author, a Romanian Daedalus, is laying the foundation for a narrative labyrinth. It’s one thing to gesture at the notion of the labyrinthian in a five-page story, and another thing entirely to place readers inside an immense construct of shifting, unstable walls, to actively strip them of their sense of directional (and temporal) linearity. The experiential quality of wandering within Cărtărescu’s maze is not only at the heart of Solenoid’s formal gambit, but it is also an integral part of the subject the novel is most interested in investigating — the self. In the words of Cărtărescu’s narrator, “The world is full of the millions of novels that elide the only sense that writing ever had: to understand yourself to the very end, up to the only chamber in the mind’s labyrinth you are not permitted to enter.” Solenoid is adamant that there is no subject worthier than one’s own mind — a warren of uncharted networks where the only secrets worth knowing might be found.

Unsurprisingly, then, Solenoid is autofiction: the manuscript of a failed writer who settles for a job as a teacher of Romanian in a Bucharest high school — a man whose experiences are based on, and sometimes an inversion of, Cărtărescu’s own. The narrator’s self-obsessed reflection puts readers in the role of the psychoanalyst, searching for repeating patterns that emerge from the memories he sees fit to relay. At first, his preoccupations appear to be almost random, but — as they return again and again, permutation after permutation — a unified web of interrelated motifs begins to take shape. Sifting through his formative memories, the narrator demonstrates a particular fixation on broken, dislodged teeth; lice, mites, and other parasites; cold, sterilized needles; the smell of penicillin; the unnerving, autonomous life of the living body; and the dull cognizance of that body’s slow, slow decay. The narrator’s obsessions are all united by their power to bring the horror of human being into relief. However, the sense that one’s life is hopelessly inadequate, constrained by the boredom of material subsistence and the limitations of the body, is presented as no profound revelation. Instead, in the spirit of Platonic anamnesis, the paucity and decay of reality have been secretly known all along, a feeling that haunts the narrator’s earliest childhood impressions, something that is recalled, then forgotten, but only in service of a future remembrance.

At the same time, for a text so suffused with hallucinations and dreams, the novel really doesn’t shy away from describing the banalities of the everyday. The narrator reveals a knack for relaying entertaining anecdotes on the drudgery of grading papers, on the machinations of workplace politics, or on the pleasures of a collegiate love affair. These periods of downtime are generally welcome, offering respite from some of the novel’s headier moments, and anchoring its abstract concerns in the familiar plane of physical reality.

Alongside the narrator, Cărtărescu’s novel is populated by characters who, taking a page from Albert Camus’s absurdist existentialism, share the desire to rebel against the inherent injustice of material life and their own gradual slide into meaningless nonbeing. Among the inhabitants of Cărtărescu’s Bucharest are the so-called “Picketists,” a pseudoreligious cult that marches in protest at morgues and cemeteries, carrying signs with unusual slogans: “Down with Suffering!” “Down with Illness!” “Protest Pain!” “Pro Eternal Life!” “NO to Passivity!” “NO to Resignation!” Though it is unclear who might be receptive to the discontent they express, Cărtărescu, unlike Camus, allows for the possibility that the absurd meaningless of existence might genuinely be overcome, that one’s rebellion against the dispassionate universe might not be hopeless after all.

In the narrator’s mind, the idea of finding an escape hatch out of this world finds its primordial origin in a boyhood encounter with Ethel Voynich’s 1897 novel The Gadfly. Through a foggy memory, he recalls one scene depicting a set of footprints through a snow-covered yard that suddenly, magically just end. The maker of these footprints is gone, and the trail’s abrupt termination defies any explanation. Cărtărescu’s narrator experiences this scene as something between a revelation and a trauma, and he remembers collapsing in tears without knowing exactly why.

His encounter with Voynich and her novel proves to be a serendipitous one, and Cărtărescu uses her as a historically rooted nexus with which to build a network of synchronicities that make “a way out” feel even more attainable, hidden just beyond the corner of any existence. For instance, the narrator discovers that Ethel’s (real life) husband Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish bookdealer, is the namesake of the Voynich manuscript, a 15th century codex written in a yet-unsolved cypher that has an understated role to play in Cărtărescu’s plot. More importantly, Ethel’s father, the famous mathematician George Boole, had another daughter, Alicia, who was a genius of four-dimensional geometry, coining the term polytope. Through her, notions of spatial multidimensionality become entwined with the narrator’s metaphysical escape project. Imagining a being stuck in a flat, two-dimensional maze who discovers the third dimension as his only means of escape, he convinces himself there must be such an analogue with the fourth-dimension in our three-dimensional experience of the world. However, it isn’t lost on him that, perhaps, there will always be another spatial dimension, which is to become nothing other than one more inescapable, labyrinthian trap. And yet, the narrator’s search never ceases — his refusal to believe in the finality of our reality’s limitation is the only thing keeping him, and the narrative, going:

We know we are in the maze, we know we have to escape, even in the absence of an angelic mind, even in our plodding reasoning, even as we improvise with what we have, even as we take the wrong turn thousands of times before we take the right turn once, and we believe that we will find the exit, if only by dumb luck, because without this belief, we could not breathe.

It is never made explicit what exactly the narrator expects to find on the other side. There are only vague hints, insinuations, and conceptual abstractions. Unmitigated freedom? Life eternal? A communion with the divine? Or, perhaps, nothing more than total oblivion and self-negation?

Cărtărescu does not appear content to let his schoolteacher’s existential longing exist solely as a literary game within Solenoid’s narrative. The autobiographical qualities of the text, along with its cleverly woven tapestry of real-life historical, cultural, and literary referents, speak of a desire to reach out and implicate something outside of itself in its central preoccupations — the minds of the readers. Solenoid’s most intrepid wanderers will allow themselves to be taken in by page after page of the narrator’s internal dialogue, letting his patterns of thought replace their own. Long, uninterrupted reading sessions come recommended. At its best, Solenoid imbues one with the feeling that a four-dimensional object — a harbinger of the beyond — might come piercing through space at any moment.

The writing itself is hypnotic and gorgeously captures the oneiric quality of Cărtărescu’s Bucharest. Moreover, as it’s a key component of the whole package, Cotter’s English rendering of the original Romanian warrants special mention. Cărtărescu’s intricately constructed image systems and conceptual play are sophisticated enough without being bogged down by knotty syntax and swampy sentence construction. Cotter’s translation is attentive to the efficiency of Cărtărescu’s ornate but surprisingly approachable prose, gliding from sentence to sentence and calling little attention to itself. The sheer immensity of Cotter’s undertaking combined with the unfailing evenness of the translation’s quality is nothing short of remarkable. A lesser translator might put the novel’s core affect — the gradual germination of the narrator’s thought patterns in the mind of the reader — in real jeopardy, so it is fortunate that English-speaking audiences are receiving this transmission through Cotter.

Whether or not Solenoid is to click with a reader likely depends on their willingness to surrender themselves, and a handful of open afternoons, to its spell. It is no short journey, and the novel’s missteps are not uncommon for works of its length: there are moments when Solenoid revisits a motif too many times, or when a lull drags on a little too long. Occasionally, for instance, readers may tire of reading an episode that seems to come from a much lesser novel examining the country’s checkered political past. Or, eager to dive back into the novel’s central plotline, they may decide to gloss over one of Cărtărescu’s many attempts to transform foot travel into an elaborate spectacle. But there is something deeply compelling here that cannot be captured with fewer pages; no five-minute summary can capture Solenoid’s essence. The sensation that lingers after the last page is difficult to articulate to an audience of the uninitiated and near impossible to imagine without having wandered through the labyrinth on one’s own. As it gradually teaches readers the cypher to crack its own symbolic codes, the best way to grasp the novel’s allure is to let it speak for itself. Consider, for instance, the following dream sequence that the narrator meticulously records late in his manuscript — as beautiful as it is beguiling:

I’m in a deep well or, better put, inside an enormous, hollow bell. Countless strings hang down toward me from above, some as thin as cobwebs, and some are ropes as thick as my palm. If I pull any of the hundreds of cords and threads, high above me a bell rings, a little copper bell or an enormous cathedral bell. But this isn’t what I’m thinking about. I have to escape this dirty, sinister well. There is no other way but up, toward the invisible sky above, full of invisible bells.

So I begin, like an unskilled spider, to climb up the threads, creating a terrible cacophony of clinking and clanging and sounds vibrating from the copper. With time, climbing higher, I notice that I can climb more efficiently if I take certain threads in order, instinctively moving from the thinnest to the thickest and back again. I start to play scales and arpeggios, then little melodies; I discover harmony and counterpoint and uncover the hidden forms of the first fugues. When I begin to compose more complicated pieces, I feel like I’m flying up through the tube of the bell, like I have wings.

After years of climbing the rope, cords, strings, and threads that cut my hands, I am able to create a supreme form of music. Now I rise upon it, at a fantastic speed, like a bullet of melted gold through a rifled barrel. The sounds solidify, they become material. High up, I make them into a plate of pure light and frozen photons, hard as a diamond, with which I collide, splattering my blood and brain, my urine and broken teeth, over the wonder.

And only in this way, freed of the husk of my organs, of my skin and senses, do I penetrate into the world above.

“Exactly,” I said to myself after I woke up, and I say it again now, nodding in agreement with each phrase.

If Cărtărescu has successfully cast his enchantment over you, the narrator’s visionary dream ceases to be the slightest bit puzzling. This is Solenoid speaking in its own language, the language it’s been whispering in your ear from the first page. Together with the narrator, you, too, shall be nodding along in agreement. “Exactly,” you’ll think. “Exactly.”


Ben Hooyman is a writer, translator, and PhD candidate in Slavic languages at Columbia University.