Translated by Sean Cotter. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2013. 380 pages. $22.00.
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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.