“Reading Cărtărescu’s prose is like opening a door into an incredibly messy room that at the same time manifests an almost meticulous kind of order. Cărtărescu’s great strength lies in describing life’s chaos with uncanny precision.” With these words, Stig Sæterbakken, then artistic director of the Norwegian Festival of Literature, introduced an author he had long worked to host at the celebration, Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu. He finally visited Lillehammer in 2008 to launch the Norwegian translation of the first volume of his Blinding trilogy, The Left Wing, and the essay collection Europe Has the Shape of My Brain.
Blinding (titled Orbitor in the original Romanian) might be described as a confident response to the great novels of Proust and Joyce. It exhaustively details what it was like to grow up under the Romanian communist regime and is the product of a writer who makes no secret of his literary, folkloric, or religious influences. In his essay, “A Non-Laodicean Shower,” Cărtărescu asserts the importance of remaining sensitive to the historical depth of language; the simplest of allusions may resonate with unforeseen power and depth. If historical layering represents one of the axes of Cărtărescu’s linguistic frame of reference, the novels’ use of “simultaneous horizontal linguistic extensions”—terminology which relates to neurophysiology and chaos theory—represents a second axis. Cărtărescu’s language plays a crucial role in Blinding’s pursuit of a broader, endlessly multifaceted consciousness.
But such observations only begin to touch upon the workings of Cărtărescu’s literary style. What strikes the reader at once is the tremendous forward momentum of a work that gives the impression of having been created in a series of energy bursts by a writer whose powers of observation and associative reach are unrivaled.
My conversation with Cărtărescu took place in three stages: first in public at the Café Banken near Lillehammer in May 2008; then during a walk we took the following day at Maihaugen (the folk museum in Sigrid Undset’s hometown); and three years later at the House of Literature in Oslo, in connection with the publication of Blinding’s final volume, The Right Wing.
Audun Lindholm: “Joyce had Dublin, Borges had Buenos Aires, Durrel had Alexandria,” you wrote in an essay about your discovery that Bucharest too could serve as a literary source, a city worthy of novels. Blinding: The Left Wing begins with a depiction of young Mircea in the bedroom of his apartment building and “my fifteen years spent sitting on the bedstead with my feet on the radiator, pulling the curtain back and watching the vast skies of the city.” Could the Blinding trilogy be seen as an exploration of Bucharest as a literary location?
Mircea Cărtărescu: To the contrary, I would say that I have not actually explored Bucharest during the past fifteen years; I have invented the city. The Bucharest of Blinding is a complete construct. As the title of the essay implies, it is “My Bucharest.” Today, it is not a particularly good place to live, a crowded metropolis with three million people, too many cars, and heavy pollution—not least of all noise pollution. It has become a symbol of ruthless capitalism, a place where industrial magnates and oil tycoons arrogantly outbid each other in defiance of the rest of the population. It is also a dangerous city to live in.
The Bucharest I write about is quite different. It is the Bucharest of my childhood and youth. Objectively speaking, the city was far more beautiful then, but for me it was something more, a miracle, a marvel to the young child wherever he looked. The child is a bricoleur, one who assembles his world using whatever he can get his hands on. So you see, I have a complicated love/hate relationship with Bucharest: When I started writing Blinding, love was the driving force. In recent years I have begun to dislike the city more and more. Today, Bucharest is a construction site for ruins.
AL: You call the child a bricoleur—could the same be said of the novel’s author?
MC: Yes. Generally, I begin with something ordinary and realistic, something I know well, and then, step by step, the logic of the text takes over. I never know what I’m about to write on the next page, I have no plan, I don’t know where I’m headed. I take advantage of the fact that I write quite slowly: because I write by hand, I have plenty of time to think at the same time. The most important thing is the texture of the individual page—it takes precedence over the story or the characters or the larger structure. Writing by hand creates an intimate relationship with the white sheet of paper, almost functioning like a mirror. When the writing turns out really well, it is as if I saw the final text in front of me, I simply erased the white of the paper that hides it.
I have the impression that most prose writers start with a strong impression or a clear image in mind, gradually expanding on it and constructing a whole. I, on the other hand, aim at a writing process that consists of a series of such impressions. And I must admit that when I read other novels, even the most realistic among them, my attention is drawn to these very moments, to certain pages and specific formulations.
AL: “You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past,” we read early on in Blinding: The Left Wing. And later: “I was always afraid to go to sleep. Where would my being go to during all those hours?”
MC: Yes, I think that the best pages of Blinding are not those that are realistic but those that are phantasmal, oneiric. The earliest memories we have, from the age of two, three, or four, mainly resemble dreams. We may recall buildings, landscapes, and people, and we have the feeling that they must have been real—otherwise we could not have seen them in such vivid detail. The same is true of some of our dreams. I have strong memories of particular dreams I’ve had, outrageous and disturbing dreams. I envision dreams, memories, and reality like a Möbius strip whose sides are indistinguishable from one another. I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies. When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.
AL: This includes not only your own childhood memories but also the history of your family?
MC: My ancestors on both sides of the family were farmers, and the genealogy of my great-grandparents and beyond is buried in obscurity. At one point I began to imagine how they might have lived. The Left Wing is mostly about my mother’s Bulgarian ancestors. I pictured the adventures of an entire village population in Bulgaria, forced to cross the frozen Danube and taking refuge in Romania—all thanks to some strange incidents involving angels and demons that clashed in an eschatological battle at the village cemetery. The third volume focuses on the ancestry of my father. Here I concocted a Polish prince who never existed and his . . . let’s call it aristocratic relationship with a Jewish woman who eventually settled in Romania. In this way I was able to imagine that I, too, could have descended from Polish aristocrats—at least in my own head.
AL: The chapter following the escape from the village suddenly introduces descriptions of the Big Bang. Here we are far away from the conventional family chronicle: all of a sudden the text veers into the realm of cosmology . . .
MC: That probably stems from my reading habits. As a reader, I devour everything I come across. I place myself far higher as a reader than as a writer. Often I surprise myself: the other day I caught myself reading a logarithmic table I had found at a friend’s apartment. And I read philosophy and science and poetry with the same enthusiasm.
AL: Blinding includes, among other things, a number of evolutionary fantasies?
MC: I have always been fascinated by the extraordinary idea that the embryo traverses all the evolutionary stages of our species in the womb. Quite early on it resembles a fish, then it develops limbs like a primitive mammal, and so on. Embryologists say that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. That in itself is poetry: first we were fishes, then we were frogs, and then we were I don’t know what . . .
But the leitmotif of The Left Wing is that the future is nothing to human beings, while the past is everything. I see humanity as partly blind. We can see the past but not the future. Symmetry suggests that we see the future just as we see the past, but of course that’s not the case. We are like butterflies with only one wing—we can only fly with our memory. Had we been able to remember the future, we would have been prophets. In a way, only prophets are complete human beings. And as we know, the Gospels promise that there will come a time when we all will be prophets, when we all will speak the language of angels.
AL: Proust described men as “giants immersed in Time,” “at the risk of making them resemble monsters.”
MC: The Left Wing is a book about the past, and typologically, if not in terms of its value, it can be compared with Proust. At the same time, the Blinding trilogy as a whole attempts to glimpse the future. The first volume is submerged in the past, the second volume represents an equilibrium between past and future, while the third volume focuses on the future.
AL: Symmetry seems to be an important aspect of your books altogether. This is particularly apparent in the three titles of your trilogy?
MC: The titles describe the novel like a butterfly. I chose this form because the butterfly is a poignant emblem of the human condition. The ancient Greeks described Psyche as a woman with butterfly wings. They called human beings “butterflies.” Why? Because the butterfly is subject to metamorphosis. It starts as a larva, locks itself inside a cocoon, and is finally resurrected as a winged creature. The same is true of us: at first we are larvae crawling around the planet under starry skies, then we are locked inside—in hope of emerging and conquering real life.
Perhaps many of you don’t realize it, but our bodies incorporate at least three organs with a butterfly shape. When you slice open the spine, you will notice a number of small, gray, beautiful butterflies. Just below the skull we have a bone that resembles a butterfly, and so on. So this symbol of symmetry and immortality can be found everywhere. The butterfly is the very emblem of Blinding, it is entirely fundamental, and not only in a structural sense—you will find small butterfly-shaped objects on every single page.
AL: You mention Greek mythology, which, like the Bible, plays an active part in Blinding?
MC: The Bible is a key element, yes, the very foundation of the novel. I was raised as an atheist and my parents were die-hard communists—while growing up, my sister and I never once entered a church. I first began reading the Bible at age 30. I had this idea that the Bible was all about genealogical tables, family feuds and mystical experiences. In short: I knew nothing about what the Bible really was. I started reading it like a novel. Eventually I found out that it actually was nothing like a novel . . . For seven years I read the Bible every day, and have never have gotten so much out of a book before or since. The fact that we have had great writers such as Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky among us is due to the Bible, I think. And the Greeks. Without Jesus and Socrates we wouldn’t have been anything. We owe it to the Greeks, Judaism, and Christianity.
AL: Kabbalah seems to be a strong influence on how you extract meaning from the environment?
MC: Kabbalah has been one of my interests. But in a way, the kabbalists do the same thing we all do when we read and try to make sense of the world—basically, it is a hermeneutic process, but Kabbalism stretches it exceptionally far.
AL: Certain parts of Blinding remind me of some lines often attributed to Francis Quarles: “The World’s a Book in Folio, printed all / With God’s great Works in Letters Capital . . .”
MC: Yes, Nietzsche famously argued that the world can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. Instinctively I feel that he’s right, an experience I believe I share with many other writers. But it is not enough just to read this book written by God. If you as an author are a letter in the great book of life, should you not then try to turn your face towards your creator, instead of simply reading off the remaining letters? The book is a horizontal surface, but an author doesn’t need to confine himself to reading it horizontally. He may also consider the vertical aspect and thus turn to face the other author, the one that stands behind it all. I believe that this is the greatest challenge.
AL: In connection with Blinding, the Swedish author and critic Malte Persson wrote that he knows of no other contemporary writer who embraces religious metaphysics to the same extent that you do. Had these metaphysical ideas been presented by means of anything other than a work of art, he would hardly have taken notice, says Persson. But since they are presented in the form of a novel, he feels drawn to them, wondering whether they should be understood as something more than mere novelistic speculation. To what extent is the novel’s metaphysics part of your belief system?
MC: Practically not at all. When I touch on metaphysical topics, it is not because I am an authority on or follower of a certain philosopher or religion. But the novel allows me the freedom to stretch my train of thought as far as I can. I think that I basically do two things as a writer: I describe a prison, and I try to break out of this prison. I have frequently said that the Blinding trilogy is a map of my brain, but it is also an attempt to escape from it.
Kafka has written a parable in which he describes a long and arduous journey. At one point he stops because he sees a high wall in front of him. Realizing that the wall is his own forehead, he has moved to the limits of his own thought. My own artistic and intellectual ambition is to blast my way through this wall, the front of my skull. I feel humiliated by the limitations imposed by my own cranium.
AL: Do religious motifs represent only one of the ways in which such an escape can take place?
MC: Yes, and they are no more important than any of the others. They are no more important than the most minute and concrete descriptions or attempts at remembering further back than the earliest of my memories. Above all, I would like to explore the ways in which history has made it possible for us to think. There is no hierarchy involved.
AL: A similar point of view is revealed by the way in which you draw on various literary sources and mix them together. In the course of reading The Left Wing, one gradually discovers a separate underworld—first in Bucharest, then in New Orleans—that eventually turns out to be global. My own associations while reading these descriptions went to H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories.
MC: Yes, there are hundreds of stories in the novel, the book has a vibrant and bustling surface, it is not just a meditation on philosophy and religion. In Germany, the title was changed from Blinding: The Left Wing to Die Wissenden—“Those Who Know.” The publisher felt that the title would appeal to the readers of Dan Brown, Illuminati, books about conspiracies and cults that rule the world, that sort of thing. The main inspiration for this underground network was Ernesto Sabato’s novel Abaddón el Exterminador. Another brilliant book about underground networks is Thomas Pynchon’s V., one of the most important novels of our time, and one that has greatly influenced me. But underground worlds can be found throughout the literature. Dante’s Inferno is one of them, of course.
AL: Your descriptions of geometrically unfeasible architecture made me think of Lovecraft as well, and the similarities with The Dreamlands, the parallel world of the Cthulhu Mythos.
MC: I felt an immediate affinity with Lovecraft’s world when I started reading his books, which I originally got hold of in French. “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is one of my favorite stories, a story about a very sad, very lonely person who wakes up deep inside some enormous caves, not knowing why he is there. He sets out on his journey back to the earth’s surface, and finally finds a secret entrance to our world. Here he comes upon a manor in which a celebration is under way. He tries to make contact with the guests, but they flee. Passing by a mirror, he realizes why: He is a horrible monster. The narrator is the monster! The story made a deep impression on me.
AL: Another similarity with Lovecraft is the fact that you don’t shy away from long strings of adjectives and profusely colorful descriptions that also bring to mind Edgar Allan Poe. Such extravagant use of language has often been used against both authors?
MC: Yes, that’s true—Maupassant must be mentioned in this context as well. I myself love to use baroque language. The climax of this saturated style occurs in the third part ofBlinding, where I describe a scene that takes place in northern Italy. It was extremely satisfying to work out the scene in the most Mannerist, flamboyant way possible—I would probably place this part of the book above anything else I’ve done. It is almost impossibly Baroque, and defies all the rules.
AL: Apropos literary rules: You mentioned that you were not allowed to read the Bible at home. Could it be said that similar taboos arose in connection with the literature of the previous century? That some topics and literary devices were relegated to popular culture?
MC: My books have frequently been described as postmodern because they don’t distinguish between art and popular culture. They blend together so-called highbrow and lowbrow sources, and I derive the same pleasure from folklore, street culture, and works of fine art. In my lectures at the university, I enjoy teaching folk traditions just as much as European literature. I have written a 600-page book about Romanian postmodernism. But I do not see myself as a postmodern writer; the despair in my books is not particularly well–suited to the postmodern game. The postmodern insistence on immanence also stands in contrast to the urgency with which I write to find a truth that does not exist in this world, that lies beyond this world. This sense of urgency has probably become clearer in my more recent books.
AL: A number of your Scandinavian readers have commented this change. The hallucinations and surrender to the imagination found in Travesty have a rational or psychoanalytic explanation—in Blinding it is more difficult to distinguish between dream and reality, fantasy and faith. What is your relationship to your early novels today?
MC: The third part of Blinding joins together everything I’ve written—underground tunnels lead to the most important stories in Nostalgia and Travesty, and I write of an event that represents the unstated center of Travesty: a childhood experience of homosexual aggression. Travesty is my only psychoanalytic novel, about a child born as a hermaphrodite, so the parents have to choose gender. A girl conceals herself inside the boy, and she must beg permission to talk. Several critics felt that the novel was a step back from Nostalgia, and I became quite depressed after its release. But gradually it gained recognition and became a cult novel. Quite unexpectedly, fiasco was turned into triumph. What’s more, certain pages of this novel got me started on Blinding, functioning as a kind of portal for the later novel. Without them I probably wouldn’t have dared plunge myself into Blinding.
AL: Travesty also has a far more modest format, in terms of sheer volume. Somewhere, in connection with a book by Mircea Eliade, you write that the basic impetus is convincing, but that he throws away a good idea on a book that is all too short. Here you propound the opposite view of Borges, who thought that instead of writing interminably long novels, one should imagine that they had already been written, and then write a commentary?
MC: Yes, in the preface to one of his books, Borges wrote that it is a complete waste of time and talent to write long books. Why write 500 pages when you can write a résumé on four pages? My answer is that some books can be summarized, while others require as many pages as the original—in fact, that you copy them, in order to do them justice. It is, for example, impossible to paraphrase Lolita: every word of the novel matters.
AL: Borges’ assertion is very platonic. But reading Blinding is almost like reading Claude Simon: the novel demands a sensual way of reading, a sense of abandoning oneself to the stream of words?
MC: Simon is a good comparison. His books can’t be summed up and retold. The only thing that matters in his case is the concrete, the sensual, what you can feel and touch in his descriptions and on the page.
AL: At the same time, your own book includes numerous summaries and shorter paraphrases of other parts of the novel. A fractal structure, as it were, in which the details mirror the whole?
MC: Yes, the book is full of fractals. And maybe I could have cut it down to half its size. But it would have been a shame to do so. There isn’t a single line in the book that can stand by itself, everything is a reflection of a reflection of parts of my novels and other literature.
AL: You have also written a long poem, Levantul, published in 1990—7,000 lines of verse consisting of these kinds of literary mirror images?
MC: Yes, my intention was to explore the repertoire of older Romanian literature. The idea came from the chapter of Ulysses in which a conversation between doctors and students at the maternity ward is presented in the form of pastiches of British literature from different historical stages. At first, their language evokes the earliest chronicles, while the whole thing ends with the Manhattan slang of the time, with Chaucer, Defoe and others along the way. I tried to do something similar with the literary history of Romania. The basic style dates back to the 1800s, with the peculiar, grandiloquent language of Romanian national romanticism. The Romanian language had not become firmly established yet, and writers had plenty of opportunity to shape their own style. Within this framework, I reconstructed all the different periods of Romanian poetry: from the oldest church songs to contemporary modernism.
AL: Romania’s literary history is quite young?
MC: We have some older historical chronicles written by aristocrats during the 1400s. But proper literature first originated in the 1800s with the romantic poets, who were actually of Greek descent. At the time, Romania consisted of three states: Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, divided between Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The language, however, was more or less the same. The first two states formed a customs union in 1846 and were consolidated into the Principality of Romania in 1859, while Transylvania became part of the country after the First World War. I tried to incorporate this entire history into Levantul.
AL: Based on your description, the poem appears to be a tour de force?
MC: That may well be, but at the same time it is a story, an adventure, with pirates and dramatic events, a historical novel in verse, a love story, a series of philosophical reflections—I wanted to include it all. It really is a baroque piece. In Romania, Levantul is probably the best known of my books and the only one that didn’t get any negative reviews when it was released. All the critics were positive, even my worst enemies. And today there are those who say, well, Cărtărescu, he once wrote Levantul, he was good then, but now he has lost it completely …
AL: What would you call this technique, if one is to avoid generic labels such as “postmodern eclecticism”?
MC: That can be discussed, of course, although I have, among other things, referred to it as stylistic synchrony. You can reuse historic styles and make them your own. This is heresy, of course, when pitted against the prevailing modernist idea that a literary style can become obsolete. Many modernists considered the romantic style to be a steam engine belonging in a museum. The postmodernists realized that this meant to confine literature: why not use all the available styles?
AL: This idea has impacted your prose as well?
MC: A few times I use this recycling technique in Blinding, for example in The Right Wing, a long chapter of which is influenced by Romanian folktales. I have also written a children’s book about dragons, based on myths from Romania and the Balkans. Here I used older literary forms, and everything is parody and humor.
AL: Your Norwegian translator, Steinar Lone, has described this children’s book as untranslatable. It is difficult to recognize a pastiche when you don’t know the original, yes?
MC: Maybe, but at the same time: Who can say they know the originals Rabelais based his pastiches on? He wrote pastiches all the time, and yet we accept what he writes. Not only that, but we laugh and enjoy the text.
AL: Your interest in authors who have been called postmodern goes back a long way: when you went to university, you were part of a circle of young writers who studied American poets of the New York School such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery?
MC: That’s right, and later I attended seminars with novelists such as John Barth and William H. Gass. I specialized in postmodern American literature early on, and have spent much time teaching this tradition at universities. To read these authors as a young writer trying to discover my style was enormously stimulating. In addition, there was the French nouveau roman and Italians like Calvino. Also in Romania, we had some very interesting and well-informed writers.
AL: How difficult was it to get hold of translations of international writers in Romania at the time?
MC: It wasn’t a problem, not at all. Cultural policy varied enormously between the different phases of Romanian communism. There were three main phases. When I studied, in the ’70s and early ’80s, the system had opened up. A great amount of important international contemporary literature was translated. Romanian communism was undoubtedly a totalitarian system, but the most severe censorship took place mainly in the ’50s. In the ’60s and ’70s, the system eased up, and not only for honorable reasons: Cultural freedom was used for propaganda purposes in the West. They wanted to show that they were open-minded and willing to tolerate genuine art and literature.
AL: Meanwhile, your first novel was censored?
MC: Censorship has existed in many societies. There is religious censorship: for 20 years, Joyce was banned in his own country because of the Catholic Church. Then there are different forms and degrees of political censorship. Today there is only one body that censors, and it is economic. Market mechanisms are a severe censor. For long periods, Romanian censorship was relatively mild. In 1982, it existed as an institution, and a great number of people earned their living by means of it. But many of them were writers themselves who took part in cultural life, so it was possible to negotiate with them. You could discuss a script over a cup of coffee. It was not uncommon to hear things like: I understand that you want your book to be published in its entirety. Okay, but remember that I have to be able to show that I’ve done my job. So what if you added ten pages that you don’t want to include in your book, and which I can remove? Then the book can be published in full, and my boss will say I’ve done a good job.
Many books opposing the system were published in the ’60s and ’70s. Later, from ‘82 to ‘89, things changed. This is because Ceauşescu got the idea that he would abolish censorship. He said: From now on there will be no more censorship, but freedom for culture in Romania. That’s when censorship really began. The professional censorship bodies disappeared, and the editors of publishing houses took over. They turned out to be stricter than the state, out of pure fear. And not only the editor—the chief editor also felt that he had to read the book to assess whether it could pass. At the same time, Ceauşescu introduced a kind of Ministry of Truth, as Orwell would have called it: the National Council for Socialist Culture and Education, which in reality consisted of a Kafkaesque castle with four advisory bodies and an almighty Comrade at the top, a Big Brother with complete control over all cultural life. So when my first novel was published, it had nine stamp marks on its title page—it had been inspected by nine different agencies.
AL: It took four years before your novel was published in its complete version. But only a year after the censored version had came out, Ceauşescu’s regime fell. The way in which this happened is described in the third volume of Blinding.
MC: I was very angry when I wrote the third volume. I was furious at those who had stolen my youth. I was 33 years old when the revolution broke out; I had spent the first part of my life in a prison. In the third volume I have written with all my anger, all my rage about what happened during the communist regime. But my greatest anger was directed at the lies that surrounded the Romanian revolution. It was the first revolution to be broadcast on TV, and in many ways it was orchestrated for the Western world. We saw an entirely different revolution on the screen than the one we met in the streets. Under the guise of popular revolt, a coup d’état was staged and the next echelon of the party took power. It was a big lie, a very big lie, the biggest lie I’ve ever experienced. There are those who say that the moon landing was a scam, that the Americans staged the whole thing in a TV studio. If I had found out that this was the case, and that Neil Armstrong’s feet never touched the moon, I wouldn’t have felt as betrayed as I did when the revolution was hijacked the way it was.
AL: Your regular readers will recognize much of this in The Right Wing, but probably also notice that you have a slightly different tone than in the first two Blinding books. We continue to meet Mircea sporadically, at different ages and with digressions into dreams, cosmological fantasies and family history. Here, too, Bucharest is portrayed in a distinctive light, but already on the first few pages of the third volume, the city emerges grayer and more oppressive than before. We soon realize that, in contrast to the other volumes, a single historical event, the Romanian revolution, is central to the book—not just in terms of the storyline, but as a backdrop. Was that your plan when you wrote the first volume?
MC: It’s true that the narrator’s voice has changed, and there is a logical connection with the other volumes: The Left Wing is visionary and idealistic, the book contains little historic material. Volume two picks up where the first book left off, but also alludes to a number of realistic themes, such as the relationship to Securitate, the secret police. The Right Wing, on the other hand,is a raw, essentially caustic, Swift-like satire. It is as if Dante had wandered in reverse, starting with Paradiso, continuing with Purgatorio, and finishing with Inferno. Volume three of Blinding is my personal Inferno.
AL: The final book revolves around the year 1989, a new era in the history of Romania. When the revolution breaks out, it brings to light new sides of the 33-year-old Mircea. Until then, he has been a reclusive writer, a dreamer, one who ponders. Now he suddenly takes part in some very dramatic events. There is a strong sense of culmination, climax, finale. I must ask you once again: was this part of your plan when you started writing volume one?
MC: In a certain sense, there has been no plan behind the books. Instead, I have done like the termite, that tiny insect that builds giant buildings, six feet tall. The termite is no architect, it doesn’t know what it’s doing. But I succeeded—well, the extent to which I have succeeded may certainly be debatable—at finishing the book and rounding it off, because it has the same shape as my brain. I have tried to write without being too aware of my own intentions. The book reflects the way in which I feel and think.
AL: On one of the first pages you write that if there had been war, bombers would have flown over Bucharest without noticing the city. Unlike the rest of Europe, which you compare to a flashing bright pinball game, the Romanian capital lay in the dark, since the only available light was provided by candles and gas lamps. Your description stands in contrast to the sumptuously colorful portrayal of the city in volume one. This leads to the expectation that something will burst, which in fact it does: around page 100, Mircea walks along the streets, alone and despondent as usual, when he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a major demonstration. Was this something you actually experienced yourself?
MC: Yes, I was in the streets and took part in what happened. The day the regime fell, December 21, 1989, was the happiest day of my life. Who could possibly have refused to take part in such a great and special event? A million people were out in the streets of Bucharest, over half the population. Even perfect strangers embraced one another. Everyone cried, beside themselves with happiness. Perhaps those who are fanatically preoccupied with soccer and have been in the stands when their team has won an important game, let’s say the World Cup final, may have a faint idea of something similar—but they’ve only felt one hundredth of what we felt when the dictatorship fell.
AL: The way in which you describe the demonstrations, their gradual escalation, followed by an explosion—the march toward the “Palace of the People”—they’re the complete opposite of realism. You invent a towering female character who leads the decisive demonstration down Bulevardul 1848. Did you have any qualms about incorporating a 33-foot tall character, voluptuous and mythical, in describing an event that is so important to so many?
MC: Well, there is a painting titled Revolutionary Romania. It was painted in the 1800s by a Hungarian, not a Romanian, and the beautiful woman personifying Romania was English, or Irish, and married to a Romanian. So there is nothing particularly Romanian about the painting, but for all Romanians it is the epitome of a national romantic Romania. This is the image I had in mind while writing. I wanted to introduce an ironic and extravagant layer to the story, letting a large woman, obviously with bare breasts, as in all romantic paintings, lead the people to victory. So this is a kind of scherzo, a joke, a satiric carnival.
AL: A fairly poisonous satire, as it turns out?
MC: Volume three is my revenge on those who stole my youth. That is what the novel is about: the huge prison I was born into. As Hamlet says: “Denmark’s a prison,” and my country was really that. I was born in 1956, three years after Stalin, the great tyrant, had died. And I was 34 years old when Ceauşescu, who also was a tyrant—albeit a minor one—died. I have spent more than half of my life in prison, and this is my revenge. I wanted to take back everything that was stolen from me, and therefore refused to be a realist, refused to create something beautiful. On the contrary, I wanted to create something similar to what Honoré Daumier did in the field of caricature art, something in the same tradition as artists who have shown the diabolical side of human beings. Therefore, there is a certain justification in saying that the book stands out from the previous volumes. But to my mind it is no different, it is Les Fleurs du Mal, evil flowers that grow out of the other two books.
AL: Throughout the trilogy, Mircea’s father remains a rather remote figure. In the third volume, he becomes more distinct, and, surprisingly, his story is intertwined with the story of Ceauşescu’s rise and fall.
MC: As you have already mentioned, Blinding is also the story of a family. It is about my ancestors, both on the maternal and the paternal side. The first volume was almost entirely devoted to my mother, much like the way in which she still is the sun I revolve around. The second volume centers on myself, and the third is more about my father. At home he was like a kind of guest, working hard as an agricultural journalist, and often out of town.
But this also makes him interesting to me in working on the final volume, because he really was a communist, a consummate, hard-nosed communist. He believed in communism, he promoted it, served it, and was finally destroyed by it. So this is a tragic story about a man who truly believed in something. He was very young when he was taken from his village, got a crash course in Marxism-Leninism and began to believe in a communist utopia. For example, he didn’t allow my mother to give us religious instruction of any kind, something that eventually made me feel quite frustrated. If you don’t pray from an early age on, if you don’t experience religious feelings, feelings that are so beautiful and so important for one’s moral resources, it becomes that much more difficult to acquire them later.
I, too, believed in communism as a child, since my father always talked about it. But we were living in an illusion. As Ceauşescu gradually destroyed everything that was the least bit reputable about utopian communism, my father became terribly disillusioned and utterly confused. Bit by bit he realized that everything he had believed in was one big lie. So perhaps the most important scene in the entire trilogy is the one in which my father sets fire to his party membership book in the third volume and begins to cry; at this point he was destroyed as a human being, and he never adjusted after the revolution.
AL: After setting fire to the book that night in the kitchen, Mircea has to open the door to the balcony because of all the smoke. That’s when he sees that everyone else has done the same—smoke pours out from every apartment.
MC: Among all the 4.5 million communists in Romania, there was not one left who believed in communism any longer. You had to be a member of the party to get somewhere in your work, otherwise all options would be closed—it was the only reason they had so much support on paper. I imagined that all the communists in Bucharest set fire to their red membership books at the same time, more than a million books. That’s as much smoke as there was in Hiroshima, or when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
AL: Throughout the trilogy we find detailed descriptions of dreams. It is as if Blinding proffered the belief that dreams allow us to glimpse a truth that is otherwise hidden—at the same time they are often quite terrifying?
MC: This aspect of the book stems partially from surrealism and dark romanticism. But also from my mother. My ability to dream—I have many dreams, abnormally many—I have inherited from her. When I was little, I remember she always said in the morning: I dreamt something last night, and then she began, a simple woman from the country with four years of schooling, to tell us the most astounding dreams. We were overwhelmed. She always ended by asking: What could it mean? She was looking for … a kind of foretelling.
But I have begun to realize that my use of disturbing dreams may be equally inspired by Thomas Pynchon. It was probably while reading Gravity’s Rainbow that I was pushed in the direction of visionary literature. You may recall that one of the novel’s characters is clairvoyant. Everything that occurs in his subconscious instantly becomes a reality. A fantastic ability that I have tried to incorporate into my own novel: all the thoughts and dreams of Mircea—who is not myself, just as Marcel in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is not Proust himself—become reality, in a grotesque way. If volume one of the trilogy is sublime, the third volume is grotesque. That was my intention, at least.
AL: Another feature you share with Pynchon is the use of puns. There is a passage in The Crying of Lot 49: “. . . there was that high magic to low puns.”
MC: Yes, and I must admit that this magic proved increasingly difficult to achieve. I worked far more with volume three than the previous two. I had no plan when I started writing—I just started to tell a story. Altogether, the books include about 40 different stories, and they cross and overlap each other constantly. To round off the work, I had to fold together the fan of stories in the final volume and let them aim at one particular point. I was no longer free to create, and had to be far more rational than in the first two volumes. I was forced to stop everything I had started and painstakingly evoke the sound of 40 small clicks, of 40 stories being brought to their conclusion. Click-click-click-click, I was about to go crazy! And following these 40 small clicks, there was one big click, like when you close the vault in a bank.
AL: Your work in completing the book is also commented on in your diaries, which have been published continuously since 1990. So far, three volumes have been released in Romania, the latest one titled Zen.
MC: Many people feel that letters, diaries, and so forth do not qualify as proper literature, but for me the diary is of crucial importance—if I were to put a label on myself, I would call myself a diarist. I began to keep a diary when I was 17. If my diaries represent the trunk of a tree, my other books are its branches: everything is connected to these diaries. I began publishing them because I felt they held a certain literary interest, and now I regard them to be among the most important things I have written.
AL: The first published volume begins on January 1, 1990. The opening sentence reads: “I have not tried to write any kind of summary of 1989, a difficult year for me, and just as difficult to summarize.” That sounds like it may be the seed to the final volume of Blinding?
MC: Perhaps you’re right about that. My diary is a complex entity that fulfills many functions. It acts as a kind of laboratory where I write down everything that occurs to me, everything I notice on an everyday basis. It is here I write down my thoughts about the books I read; sometimes I try to capture the author’s style with a single, synthesizing sentence. But above all, the diary is my alter ego—I talk to it as if I were talking to myself. I never know what I really think about something until I write about it. For example, only once I’ve written about the conversation we are having now in my diary will I know whether it was a pleasant conversation, whether people laughed now and then or whether they were angry, things like that.
AL: Do you ever do what Kafka did, working out portions of the text in your diary in order to transfer them directly to your stories?
MC: It is more a question of osmosis—that a state of mind, a feeling, something immaterial from time to time crosses the border between my diary and the short stories, essays or novels. It’s like the lining of a jacket: the jacket can be beautiful to look at, while the lining serves to warm the body. In my case, the lining is just as important as the surface; at times it shines just as bright, I think.
AL: Blinding incorporates many layers of different literary styles, not least when you follow Joyce’s example of mixing vulgarity and high literary style.
MC: I’m not afraid to use vulgar language when there are aesthetic reasons to do so. Children don’t distinguish between what’s good and dirty, what’s repulsive and pleasurable—they are “polymorphously perverse,” as Freud put it. Artists are perverse in the same way: what’s important to them are aesthetics, not ethics. If you’re going to write satire like Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub, you have to be able to use rough and vulgar language. Otherwise, the satire won’t be as biting.
AL: Beside your work as an author, you now write political comments for newspapers. But you were not politically active in the ’70s and ’80s?
MC: In the ’70s and ’80s, I was still a child. Unfortunately, my political childhood lasted for a very long time. I only thought of writing poetry and was never interested in anything else. Since I couldn’t travel, I didn’t dream of traveling either. I thought that the reality of Romania was the only reality there was. A child born in a dungeon can be led to believe that all children live in dungeons. Neither did I know anything about the atrocities taking place around me. For me, Rilke and Rimbaud were much more real than Ceauşescu’s regime. My literary friends felt the same way: we didn’t live in Romania, we lived in Hesse’s Castalia, in the republic of literature. We had an underground existence, we lived together and visited each other, we read each other’s texts and lent each other books.
AL: Was any of this ever released?
MC: One of the most important books of my generation was actually an anthology of poems by myself and three of my friends, published when we were in our early twenties. There were four of us, and we used to compare ourselves with The Beatles.
AL: Who were you?
MC: That was the big question … everyone wanted to be Lennon or McCartney, and no one wanted to be Ringo Starr.
AL: George Harrison would have been my guess.
MC: I was often told that I resembled Harrison: I had the same mustache he had. But my favorite was Lennon, I know all his songs by heart.
AL: Was literature also influenced by rock music? In Nostalgia you describe what it was like to listen to imported vinyl records.
MC: Yes, in the ’70s, rock culture influenced all young people and all of the arts. Phoenix was the biggest band: they are still the biggest in Romania. This was the hippie era, everyone wanted to have long hair and walk around in pants that were way too tight. The police used to stop people in the street and cut their hair. They were carrying scissors! In fact, from time to time they even cut up the girls’ miniskirts.
AL: Do your friends from that time continue to write books?
MC: Most of them stopped writing after the revolution. They had adapted to the world they knew, and when everything suddenly changed, they went into business instead. There are very few active writers left in my generation. There were perhaps around a hundred promising writers from the ’80s-generation that I followed with interest, but those who continue to publish can be counted on one hand. They couldn’t make a living by writing, and those who didn’t move over into the world of business became journalists, programmers or advertising agents.
AL: Your books are published by Humanitas, as one of the few fiction writers in their catalogue.
MC: Humanitas mainly publishes books on the humanities: sociology, psychology, philosophy, and so on. I am actually their only Romanian author of fiction. My publisher until 1989 was the publisher for 99% of all authors, and it disappeared during the revolution. Suddenly everyone had to find another publisher. I looked and I looked. Then I received a letter from Gabriel Liiceanu, the philosopher who owns Humanitas. He was very polite and cordial, saying that he would be proud if he could refer to me as a Humanitas author. I was surprised and flattered, since Liiceanu is one of the most important people in the cultural life of Romania. I accepted his proposal, and have published my books with this publisher since 1992.
AL: Your poem “The West” describes your first visit abroad.
MC: I was 34 then, the year was 1990. I had never traveled outside of the country before. And suddenly I was catapulted out into the sky. You can imagine Romania, a black hole, poverty and hardship all around you, people suffering and starving, and from one day to the next I was able to go on my first trip abroad—to New York. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. You couldn’t buy anything in Romanian stores. It was like North Korea today. People were practically surviving on bark and roots. And then I landed in this city that I thought I knew because I had read the literature that came from there. I felt ashamed. I was angry. I was confused. I wanted to commit suicide. Suddenly I felt that what I had lived for until now was nothing, that I had wasted my life. I found myself between two worlds, like a body floating in a river between the land of the living and the land of the dead. And this poem, written in a state of confusion, would be the last poem I wrote. When I visited New York and other American cities with the help of The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, I felt as miserable as a Kafka character. And like this I have felt for a long time—just about until now.
Translated by Thilo Rheinhard
This interview was originally published in two parts: in the literary quarterly Vinduet (February 2008) and in the cultural weekly Morgenbladet (October 2011). This English translation was first published in The Quarterly Conversation Issue 34.