OCTOBER 13, 2013
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.