BLINDING, VOL. 1: The Left Wing by Mircea Cărtărescu
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.
Sean Cotter's translations from the Romanian include Nichita Stănescu's Wheel with a Single Spoke and Other Poems (recipient of the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry), Liliana Ursu's Lightwall and Nichita Danilov's Secondhand Souls. His essays, articles, and translations have appeared in Conjunctions, Two Lines, and Translation Review. He is Associate Professor of Literature and Literary Translation at the University of Texas at Dallas, Center for Translation Studies.