Blinding Volume I: The Left Wing by Mircea Cărtărescu, (trans. by Sean Cotter). Archipelago. $22.00 380pp.
In the opening pages of Blinding: The Left Wing, Mircea Cărtărescu proffers his intent in writing the mammoth, trilogy of which The left Wing constitutes the first portion and which has been described by some as a dream-memoir or a poetic autobiography:
But today, at the midpoint of my life’s arc, when I have read every book, even those tattooed on the moon and on my skin, even those written with the tip of a needle on the corners of my eyes, when I have seen enough and had enough, when I have systematically dismantled my five senses, when I have loved and hated, when I have raised immortal monuments in copper, when my ears have grown long awaiting tiny God, without understanding for a long time that I am just a mite burrowing my sewer pipes through his skin of old light, when angels have populated my head like spiro bacteria, when all the sweetness of the world has been consumed and when April and May and June are gone—today, when my skin flakes beneath my ring like thousands of layers of onion paper, today, this vivacious and absurd today, I try to put my disorder into thought.
Cărtărescu’s first volume, built around childhood memories and family stories of his protagonist, Mircea, provides vivid descriptions of Bucharest, a beloved city that emerges from a surreal landscape, whose future is uncertain. Yet it also weaves in dreams and memories, obscuring the lines between hallucinations and reality throughout. His prose reflects his work as a poet—his eye for color and texture, his predilection for striking imagery.
At length, The Left Wingbecomes a wildly imaginative, detailed cosmology, a search for metaphysical truth, an attempt at a religious doctrine that privileges creation and connection among beings and planes of existence. Cărtărescu borrows liberally from a host of sources: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Romanian folk belief, Proustian reflections on memory, Hindu and Gnostic beliefs, Voodoo, chaos theory, physiology and the science of the body, among many others. This wide variety of influences contributes to the visionary sensibility of this volume, but it also weighs it down with lengthy digressions and esoteric descriptions. In some passages, the flood of words threatens to obscure Cărtărescu’s central themes.
As befits a work of poetic cosmology, The Left Wing has a tripartite structure. In Part One, the narrator, Mircea, introduces us to his Bucharest, a surreal landscape that combines beauty and squalor. In Part Two, Cărtărescu expands his narrative to see Bucharest through the eyes of Mircea’s mother Maria and his aunt Vasilica. They arrive in the city as innocent teens, fresh from their small village. Cărtărescu depicts a loud, bright, swirling jazz-age Bucharest, a party that is interrupted abruptly by World War II bombers. Part Two also contains several long, mythic passages, including one told by the jazz musician Cedric about his eerie ritualistic experiences in New Orleans. In Part Three, Mircea returns to center stage, as he relates two tales of his hospitalizations in Bucharest, one when he was five and one when he was in his teens. These stories contain some hints of the Iron Curtain, with shadowy authority figures haunting the corridors, feeding Mircea’s sense of paranoia. The story of the second hospitalization also resonates with earlier episodes, particularly with aspects of Cedric’s story, which continues in a long, complicated final story blending religious rites and metaphysics with convoluted theses about the relationship among the act of creation, the future, and God’s existence. Throughout, Mircea presents “my mole-like wanderings along the continuum of reality-hallucination-dream, an inextricable triple empire.”
The book has a complex structure, with multiple narrative threads and perspectives appearing (and disappearing) throughout the volume. Transitions are abrupt, narratives cut off, only to be continued 100 pages later. What holds it together is Cărtărescu’s imbrication of themes, symbols, recurring episodes, and signs. It demands careful reading and re-reading, especially given Cărtărescu’s predilection for esoteric, lengthy passages drawing on religious symbolism, or painstaking descriptions of the human circulatory system.
The central theme that emerges out of this madness is connection—connections between a dream Bucharest and a waking Bucharest, between Mircea and his mother, Maria, between his present and his family’s past in the rural landscape of Romania, even between himself and a universe of other souls. Mircea feels a deep connection to Bucharest, one which he characterizes as physiological as well as spiritual:
With its demented and chaotic traffic, its industrial platforms, where every piece of every machine was consumed long ago, both physically and morally, its universities and libraries where lichen blossomed in a thousand colors and species, its statues (ah, its statues!) that stop you cold, its Dâmboviţa and Colentina like capillaries knitted from cholesterol, its central cubist apartment blocks crystallized around melancholy-saturated residents, its women with tattooed hips wandering the streets at random, shaded by flowering lindens—the city would become my own artificial body.
Throughout, Mircea uses physiological imagery build up a holistic system joining his body to Bucharest. The city Cartarescu imagines here is surreal, one in which Mircea imagines a line of crucified Christs strung on the powerlines, where statues come to life, where buildings take on the appearance of the body (in one case requiring crews to construct a bra for one particularly voluptuous building). Mircea’s Bucharest is a system as described by chaos theory, in which borders are permeable and in flux. All elements are interconnected in an intricate web:
How strangely everything was starting to connect! I had always hoped my life would go differently than anyone else’s, that it would have a meaning, a meaning that perhaps I couldn’t grasp, but that was visible from somewhere high up, like a pattern in an immense field. Nothing ought to be accidental. Every person I ever met and every toothache and every grain of dust seen in a ray of light (or unseen, but there with its unsteady geometry to plug a corner of my life’s endless fractal) and even the vaguest feeling of hunger or anxiety were only colored dots in a carpet rolling and unrolling within itself, wrapping me like a silk cocoon or like the mottled strips that wrap mummies. And even I, a mummified butterfly, was just another figure, dotting the canvas with the wool of my blood.
Mircea’s quest for connection holds together the myriad strands of The Left Wing. Some forms of connection center on him, particularly the connections between Mircea and his family’s past, as seen in his carrying on his mother, grandmother, and grandfather’s uncanny talent for dreaming. This ability to connect with the future through dreams is just as much a family trait as is Mircea’s face, which resembles his mother’s “thin and kind face”, inherited in turn from her mother. Characters appear and reappear throughout The Left Wing, providing the reader with opportunities to trace connections among people, which may seem like chance, or may be ruled by fate. The underground caverns of Bucharest, crowded with statues and tombs, do not simply connect parts of the city, but instead act as conduits connecting those who hold their secrets with access to a mysterious, spiritual dimension. Some of The Left Wing’s characters seek to understand the connections between the physical and spiritual worlds, as seen in the figure of Cedric, the jazz musician who relates to Maria, Mircea’s mother, tales of his own spiritual journey under the streets of New Orleans, where he was introduced to scores of people from all over the world, meeting in underground vaults to share their quest to connect, to understand the relationship of the spiritual with the physical. Mircea’s desperate cry to discover meaning in the connections in his life is one echoed by Cedric and many others throughout The Left Wing.
The surreal nature of The Left Wing comes in part from the porous walls between dreams and reality. Hallucinations resonate with memories, which in turn reflect the future. Mircea observes these dreams, but he also feels them. They are visceral. These connections are central to Mircea’s worldview. Drawing on chaos theory, he describes a complex world in which all elements are connected, no single being is isolated. The smallest event in one part of the world can have extraordinary consequences on the other side of the world. “The entire world was a mesh of gears,” he writes, “where the rotation of the most miniscule grains of sand in the bottom of the ocean produced, at the other end, a devastating earthquake; the wing of a butterfly in the Antilles caused a tornado in Kansas.”
In this classic description of the butterfly effect, Mircea provides his justification for exploring Bucharest and New Orleans, past and present, in one volume. He also presents a paranoid vision of the world, one that supports conspiracy theories as well as more positive forms of interconnection.
The butterfly itself is a multivalent symbol, one that suits Cărtărescu’s purposes admirably. In ancient Greek and Gnostic thought, it symbolizes a soul, the metamorphosis from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly representing transformation. In Christian thought, the cocoon signifies death, and the rebirth as a butterfly resurrection. In European folk belief, the butterfly was often related to fertility. And in more recent scientific and philosophical thought, the so-called butterfly effect signifies the interconnections among phenomena and the striking impact of seemingly insignificant changes on physical phenomena like weather systems.
Cărtărescu incorporates all these meanings into his trilogy, which itself is structured as a butterfly, with a left wing, a body, and a right wing. Cocoons appear in dream-sequences, extraordinary multicolored butterflies are caught behind ice in the Danube River, Mircea’s mother Maria comes across a naked woman and a huge butterfly in an elevator in Bucharest. Butterflies also appear as rings, birthmarks, and even as patterns seen in Mircea’s spinal marrow.
In the final passages of The Left Wing, Cărtărescu concludes with a lengthy call for a new religion, one that puts humans in the position of giving birth to God, bound in a determinist circle of creation:
God has not died, rather he has yet to be born. All of us, already illuminated by his foreknowledge (because our flesh is the herald, our flesh is the good news), being only the supposition of our future being, we will one day be him, he will one day be born in us, so that he can someday give us birth. And just as the poet is preceded and formed by the form without words of his poems, God himself is born from the center of his creation so that he may create it. All worlds exist to be existed. All are pregnant with their own gods, the monads are women heavy with statues of light, starry, blossoming trees, and in the ovaries of flowers, are void and happiness. All creators are the creatures of their creatures and are born to create them, in unfissurable duality.
Visionary, surreal, convoluted, far-reaching (perhaps overreaching), Cărtărescu’s first volume concludes with a spiritual call-to-arms, in which creativity and fertility are one and the same. This vision imparts beauty to this destiny, but there are also intimations throughout of power misused, of violence, of beings struggling for connection in the face of obstacles. One wonders where this metaphysical journey will lead in the two subsequent volumes.
(Editor’s note: Throughout the first volume of the Blinding trilogy has been referred to at The Left Wing to differentiate it from the title of the trilogy as a whole)
Kristine Rabberman is the Director of Academic Affairs for the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Professional and Liberal Education. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from Penn, and teaches gender studies, history of sexuality, and academic writing and research design in addition to her full-time work for the university. She has reviewed works of literary fiction for 3:AM Magazine and California Literary Review. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.
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