The Mind-Bending Fiction of Mircea Cărtărescu

The Mind-Bending Fiction of Mircea Cărtărescu

The Galaxies Within

The mind-bending fiction of Mircea Cărtărescu.


In his celebrated 1873 essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche argued that the problem with human understanding is that humanity can never truly understand itself. Even our very language is suspect to the highest degree, born as it is not out of some loftily universal capability, but rather deriving from the messy contingencies of our bodily reality. “What is a word?” Nietzsche hectors us. “The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds.” Reason and its compliant mistress, rhetoric, are also merely “nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor.”

In the years to come, these insights into the gulf between language and reality would become the foundations of a postmodernism expressed tragicomically (by means of all those spasmodic or gestural artistic “isms” that typified the 20th century) or pitilessly (by means of Saussure’s linguistics and Wittgenstein’s language games). For many novelists, this problem with human understanding also called into question the very purpose of their vocation: After all, if we realize the irredeemable dubiety of all human facts, what is left for the writer who wishes to articulate them as credible contrarieties of mind and body?

The answer is all around us, in contemporary fictions that either cloak themselves in a threadbare classicism or counter the impossibility of objectivity with the sheer accretional weight of the subjectivity they relentlessly portray. This latter approach is, to some extent, the one favored by last year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Annie Ernaux, and by the Norwegian anti-fabulist Karl Ove Knausgård. It is also the dictum realized and bodied forth in autofiction and all its associated genres and subgenres: You can only know… you, so write about that. And it is a dictum for a fiction born in our particular moment of social media: a response to a culture characterized by “content” rather than style and drowning in its own specular superfluity.

The Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu is superficially among these writers’ numbers. His novel Solenoid has a relentless preoccupation with subjectivity. But unlike his peers’ self-obsession, Cărtărescu’s is not concomitant with the mere piling up of perceptual factoids. If anything, he aims to do the opposite: While introducing us to a protagonist who is not unlike himself, Cărtărescu has written a novel about a self that is decidedly not synonymous with its author. For a start, his nameless antihero lacks a straightforwardly diachronic nature: For all that he persists in time as a unitary thinking “I,” he is also split in two not just once but thrice. Having had a twin brother who died in infancy, Cărtărescu’s alter ego then spends his own early life in the guise of a female, since until he was 4, his mother dressed him in girls’ clothes, “Mitosis” becomes one of the repeated terms that act as tocsins for Cărtărescu’s readers, awaking us to the fissiparous nature of everything, from dividing cells to our own divisive fates.

And then there’s the foundational split at the center of the novel, the cleft from which the fictional Cărtărescu is born: the evening in 1977 when, at a real poetry workshop, the real Mircea Cărtărescu read a real epic poem that really was rapturously received by its auditors, while the counter-Cărtărescu, who fails to receive this terrifying baptism of caresses becomes the protagonist of Solenoid and is condemned to subsist in the minatory, sublunary world it describes. With Solenoid, we get an extraordinary and baroque elaboration of a subjectivity less ordinary, a work of autofiction that rejects the constraints of autobiography. Like Knausgård, Cărtărescu is a meticulous lister and cataloger of life’s minutiae, but he is not remotely interested in the prosaic-as-profound.

Depending on the status you accord the separate parts of Cărtărescu’s trilogy Orbitor (or Blinding), Solenoid is either his fourth or sixth novel. Whether his first novel, Nostalgia, is in fact a novel is also disputed. Born in Bucharest in 1956, Cărtărescu worked as a secondary-school teacher and later as an academic, but he has earned his keep primarily as a writer: first as a poet, then as a practitioner of many different genres—critical, academic, or shorter-form prose, all marked by a signature self-reflexivity (he is a self-styled solipsist)—and then, with the bloody end of the Ceauşescu regime, as a novelist.

Nostalgia was published in 1989, and while it offered no explicit or direct condemnation of the fallen despot, its atmosphere of Kafkaesque indeterminacy and the subterranean did offer a window into the difficulties faced by writers under dictatorial regimes. The prose works that followed mined the same deep, autobiographical preoccupations, or they were story cycles—such as Why We Love Women, 20 stories written from a feminine perspective—demonstrating that while Cărtărescu may cleave to his own subjectivity, he’s also well able to swerve into other people’s lanes.

Solenoid shares the atmosphere—or, more properly, atmospheres—of Nostalgia and Cărtărescu’s earlier novels. It is aggressively structured as a counterfactual: The nameless protagonist that we meet in its pages cannot be Cărtărescu, because unlike the writer he doesn’t even want to be one. “I loved literature like a vice,” he tells us, “but I never truly believed it was the way…. [I]t was not my life’s dream to add a few more false doors to the walls of literature.” Posing a thought experiment in which a person must choose between saving a child and a unique masterpiece, the anti-Cărtărescu explains that it is the professional artist who, “every time, will save the masterpiece. The very one he wrote, painted, composed.” But it is the dilettante, like himself, who “will save the child and let his own writing burn, along with his body and his mind.”

This attempt to imbue his texts with greater realism by rejecting the reality of his own literary vocation has been part of Cărtărescu’s methodology since the dark days of Ceauşescu’s pseudo-communist regime. In earlier works, this denial had taken the form of the verbatim publishing of his own journals and the attendant claim that he doesn’t live his life but rather “constructed” it. But Cărtărescu also gives his novel a gritty sense of realism through its setting as well as its bitter views of its protagonist. The Bucharest of Solenoid has the curious air of a building constructed according to Hitler and Albert Speer’s Theorie vom Ruinwert: namely with the aim of having it look better as it ages than when new-made. For decay is everywhere in the Bucharest of the counter-Cărtărescu. His city is an urban environment seemingly purpose-built to express impermanence and decay, one in which moldering old mercantile houses and newly built yet already decaying apartment buildings are rendered phantasmagorical by the nameless narrator’s wanderings through their chipped and spalling chambers. Repeatedly and elegiacally, the counter-Cărtărescu hymns the city of his birth as “the saddest city,” and just as the precision of his writing imbues a dream with great realism, so too does the crumbling nature of his hometown offer us fragments of material beauty—perhaps the very ones necessary to shore us up against our current ruination.

Nietzsche characterized the human predicament thus: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge.” Cărtărescu’s alter ego—as befits a clever animal—passes through this city inventing all sorts of things. If it is not always knowledge, it is a set of anxieties. For one, he is terrified by the sidereal: Images of the limitlessness of the universe permeate the text, peppering its sometimes lurid, sometimes limpid pages as if they were impacted by miniature meteor showers. The stars oppress him, while the effort required to fix them in some sort of apprehensible empyrean becomes just one of the interfaces between the contingently human and the cosmically determined that typify this novel.

Cărtărescu marks his protagonist’s apprehension morphologically. The dome form, suggestive at once of the Ptolemaic crystal spheres seen from Earth as well as those structures that contain either planetariums or observatories, appears everywhere in the novel—from the counter-Cărtărescu’s boat-shaped house, to the dome-shaped lunules of human fingernails, to a building that originally housed the medico-legal institute founded by the pioneering thanatologist Mina Minovici, which plays a central role in the novel’s many subplots. Mangled as much as constructed by Cărtărescu’s imagination, the institute eventually becomes the location for a terrifying twilight of the idols, as a giant statue personifying damnation terrorizes the puny mortals who would deny death and who call themselves the “Picketists.”

To add to all the domes and sidereal anxieties, Cărtărescu also fills his novel with all sorts of ideas: There is much here as well on mathematical topology, on theories of the dream state and dreaming, on speculative biology. Even the protagonist’s own life, recounted in the form of nonsequential episodes, has the feeling of a digression.

In the best of novels, that would be a lot to put up with, and while I’m not for a moment disputing the greatness of Solenoid, it’s an edifice built with obduracies. Taking us into the minutiae of his protagonist’s physicality, Cărtărescu commences with an episode in which, lying in the bath, he teases out the long-encysted string used, at birth, to tie off his umbilicus. The return of this repressed ceinture is only the beginning of an obsessive cataloging of the body and its effluvia—a corporeal corkscrewing that moves counterclockwise to the dizzying metaphysical ascent of the text into the speculative realms of alternative worlds and an ultimate denial of death. And yes, “asymptotic” is another of those tocsin terms like “mitosis,” and it bodies forth from the text no fewer than 10 times. Others include “heteroclite” (six instances), “ganglion” (17), and “mites” (a whopping 59).

The preoccupation with the messiness of human embodiment—there are seven instances of metaphor or simile for which scab is the tenor—put me in mind of the childish thought experiment in which one imagined a sort of hecatomb of one’s own excretions: rooms full of toenail clippings, cisterns slopping with urine, silos piled high with sleepy dust—and so, nauseously, on. But much as I admired this determination to cleave to the nerve impulse rather than the figuration, where, I wondered, was the shit? The word itself is only ever employed metaphorically, while the counter-Cărtărescu refers but once to his own excreta. This lack of the courage of his cloacal convictions is, arguably, the trompe l’oeil door through which the real Cărtărescu smuggles at least some conventional literary attitudes back into a prima facie postmodern and taboo-busting novel that spends so much time with the counterfactual Cărtărescu. It was said of Joyce that he took his readers into the bathroom (or the “jakes,” more properly) along with Leopold Bloom; so, to divagate at such length on the bodily but neglect the bathroom seems perversely… perverse.

All of this body humor, excreta included or not, sets the tone for Solenoid: Cărtărescu’s fictional realm often takes on the quality of an endless museum dedicated to biological creation. And indeed, in an abandoned factory near the high school where the counter-Cărtărescu teaches, his creator provides just this. But something more metaphysical is taking place as well. Along with its illimitable discussions of the body, Solenoid can also be read as a text dedicated to the illimitable nature of human delusion. As in Kafka’s “Before the Law,” where the (also nameless) protagonist waits for justice for a lifetime sitting outside an open gate and only asks as he is dying why it is that no one else has requested admission, so Cărtărescu’s alter ego inhabits a world in which what is truly and incontrovertibly objective is the relentless subjectivity of the human predicament: “There is infinite hope,” Kafka once remarked, “except for us.”

But while Kafka supplies Cărtărescu with his morphology of morals, the metaphysics that accompany it comes from Borges, whose “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—the elliptical tale of how a group of secretive philosophes mysteriously evolved a real alternative world from the confected encyclopedia of an imaginary one—is so in line with Cărtărescu’s world-building ambitions that I waited… and waited… and waited some more, until, yes: The tale was name-checked in Solenoid. Cărtărescu wants us to believe that fabulation and fact are causally related, such that a text can give rise to a reality.

For this reason, Cărtărescu makes his real-world counterpart to the encyclopedists’ fakery a key text within his own: the celebrated Voynich Manuscript, an illustrated codex dated to the Renaissance and written in an unidentified language that has yet to be deciphered. The counter-Cărtărescu who narrates Solenoid discovers the codex through his obsession with the Irish novelist Ethel Lilian Voynich, who’s husband owned the Voynich Manuscript. Indeed, he considers stumbling upon Voynich’s short biography to be the “metaphysical motor” of his writing. It’s his captivation with one of Voynich’s novels, The Gadfly, that draws him, as a boy, to the library, where he discovers a mysterious librarian whose custodianship of the Voynich Manuscript is of a piece with his other hierophantic abilities, including, at one rather unexpected point, effecting the narrator’s transmogrification from man into… mite.

Despite its pitilessly precise postmodern devices, Solenoid does present an orthodox enough narrative line. For all the fantastical attributes of the parallel Bucharest he inhabits, Cărtărescu’s alter ego grows up, endures painful dental and medical treatments, is sent to a sanatorium for consumptives, suffers his great literary humiliation—which rives him from any possibility of recognition and hence, one imagines, from even being nameable—becomes a lowly high school teacher, acquires his bizarre house, marries unhappily, and undergoes all manner of fantastical adventures as he asymptotically inclines toward the infinite, the ineffable, and ultimately (gulp) the spiritual. Whether he’s finding the incarnation of his own yet-to-be-born daughter in the abandoned factory’s mega-museum, or meeting his own youthful mother in yet another bardo (the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology is everywhere in Solenoid), or being visited by his own counterfactual selves, there remains a propulsive narrative humming away in the background.

Also humming away is the solenoid of the title, a wire coil that, when electrified, generates magnetic fields. There are actually five of them revealed in the novel—four in a loose circle around Bucharest, and the fifth one located beneath the Romanian medical scientist Mina Minovici’s massive dome, which explains the precipitate ascent of Damnation. In the queered realm of the senses that Cărtărescu’s doppelgänger inhabits, these solenoids are far more than electrified coils of wire that radiate magnetic fields. Rather, they become fully capable of producing the mysterious telekinetic effects that children may believe magnets possess when they first press two positive poles together and feel the invisible cushion of force that resists their touching. One such child is the counter-Cărtărescu, which explains—perhaps—why it is that when he grows up, he buys a house with one of the solenoids beneath it. Once activated by an ordinary button in the bedroom, it allows him and his fellow teacher and inamorata, Irina, to make levitated love and eventually conceive their child.

The solenoids are among the many fantastical devices in Cărtărescu’s novel that lift subjective experience into a fabulous objective reality. Their discovery also allows the plot’s parabola to be completed and Cărtărescu’s narrative to find its resolution in what seems a saccharine as much as a shapely ending to this wild and widdershins ride: “an immortal smile arched like a rainbow over the world, turning it transparent, giving it cause and being, across time, substance, life, suffering, and other illusions.”

It seems a little trite to complete such an earnestly surrealistic inquiry with this appeal to transcendence. Even more so that the entire scumbled city of Bucharest lifts into the air as Cărtărescu’s alter ego, together with his lover and their child, retreat to a ruined church beyond the city limits, making it hard not to conclude that God was in—or, at least, under—the house, together with the solenoid, all along. There’s nothing wrong with that, yet there does seem something problematic about reaching for the stars—or metamorphosing into a dust mite and experiencing animal consciousness—without troubling to examine the interior of those persons right at hand.

I suppose Cărtărescu’s objection would be that in an important sense, this is not what Solenoid is centrally about. But along with his compulsion to tie up all of the novel’s loose ends (including that encysted umbilical twine), it still feels like a subpar way to conclude what is otherwise a bravura performance: extravagantly brilliant ideas pinwheeling out from the dark center of a scrupulously imagined and death-driven self. Indeed, there’s more than enough raw thought in a single page of Solenoid to provide the intellectual furniture for most lesser novels.

For years now, I’ve declined to write on literature in translation from languages I cannot read myself—as a novelist as much as a critic, it seems grossly unfair to judge another writer on the basis of content rather than style. (And you don’t have to be Susan Sontag or Joseph Conrad to regard the latter as constitutive to the former, rather than a gloss on it—although it helps.) I made an exception for Solenoid and didn’t regret it; this is a deeply absorbing work—but at times the English rendering of the book reads, at best, as workmanlike. I couldn’t quite believe that Cărtărescu could actually be responsible for the tumpty-tumpty-tum rhythms or even for those ever-accreting metaphors, the kind that make so much literary fiction written in English sound the same. So, upon completing Solenoid, I wrote to an acquaintance, the Romanian writer, translator, and critic Marius Chivu, to ask him about what Cărtărescu reads like in Romanian. Chivu replied:

Cărtărescu is somehow classical in his novels, but not that much. In Romanian [his style] is spectacular and extravagant—nobody writes in such rich and colorful language, both poetic and scientific—but in English, unlike Spanish or Italian, his books lose big time (Nostalgia, published by Penguin, is simply ruined).

I realize this empirical sample of, um, one may not be sufficient to convince readers of the power of Cărtărescu’s prose in its original language—but bearing in mind the significance of the counter-Cărtărescu’s epic poem, The Fall, for the entire genesis of his alternate world, it seems worthwhile adding that Chivu confirms that the real Cărtărescu’s success as a writer not only rested on one epic poem but was also further enhanced by a second:

In 1990, just before the collapse of Communism, [Cărtărescu wrote] a very long epic poem (thousands of verses) called “The Levant,” where the subject is the language itself; the poem has a poet as a main character and is about the history of Romanian literature and the changes of Romanian language through that history: It begins with the 18th-century Latin and Slavonic religious idiom, and it ends with the slang of the ’80s and the wooden language of the Communist regime. The Levant is widely regarded as his literary masterpiece, and Cărtărescu rewrote it a couple years ago as a prose piece (with inner rhymes) in order to be easily translated, and now there are French, Swedish, Italian, and Spanish versions of it.

Whatever the vagaries of translation from one language to another, there remains the Nietzschean problem of the incommensurability of language and experience, for us and for Cărtărescu’s alter ego. For while he madly maintains the fragments of his bodily existence—his umbilical twine, his baby teeth, the plaits his mother tied his hair in when she was raising him as a girl—so he writes obsessively, but not for publication. In this, he exactly parallels his creator—for just as the counter-Cărtărescu is split from the real one by the negative reception of his epic poem (whereas the real Cărtărescu was lauded for The Fall), so the obsessive journals he keeps mirror the real ones his creator has kept throughout his adult writing life. At the end of Solenoid, these alternative journals are burned by the narrator—becoming as one with the counter-life they have described. The only conclusion possible is that they are the real lived substratum to the novel that Cărtărescu’s readers hold in their hands.

Cărtărescu has always maintained that he composes his novels, stories, and poems in a single draft—never revising so much as a line, as if these finely wrought literary works were merely the incontinent lucubrations of some bloviating midnight blogger. It is hard to believe this is true, considering the bravura performance that is Solenoid, but if this is his genuine praxis, it explains why so much of the fantastical in the novel somehow resembles objective life: Cărtărescu’s constructed selves are as messy as the real thing. Unlike the preening of Knausgård and those practitioners of autofiction who carefully create unitary selves that persist through space and time (albeit with modification), Cărtărescu offers us a radically different sense of the ontological possibilities of fiction and life, thereby expressing the dilemmas of a little creature living on an anonymous ball of dirt, revolving around an insignificant star on the outer edge of a galaxy that is, itself, pinwheeling away from an ever-expanding universe.

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