Contemporary literature from Eastern Europe often evokes borders and boundaries—between nations, ethnic groups, cultures, and political regimes. Perhaps it's to be expected: the region itself occupies a nebulous space between East and West—Orient and Occident—linking two worlds and their traditions.
In the sprawling trilogy Orbitor, by Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu, the text becomes a bridge between such worlds. The first volume of the trilogy, just out from Archipelago Press, under the title Blinding: The Left Wing, is the first installment of an ongoing effort to make available in English all three companion books: The Left Wing, The Body and The Right Wing. Together, these texts form an ecstatic and elegiac epic, in which the reader travels across the body of a butterfly (literally and figuratively), from the begining to the end of time.
The Left Wing focuses on the narrator Mircea’s childhood and adolescence, while the trilogy, as a whole, describes Mircea’s life, from his birth in the fifties to the 1989 December revolution that marked the fall of communism in Romania. In a sense, Mircea’s birth is also the birth of the world, and the fall of communism, in the third volume, is its apocalyptic end. In Orbitor, personal experience and historical time merge: in describing the life of his narrator, Cărtărescu describes the shape of all of human history. We are invited to see the ghostly shape of all human lives, within the arch of a single life.
In this 464-page dense and hallucinatory first volume, the narrator describes his first memories of Bucharest: the different neighborhoods in which he grew up; his time as a bed-guest in the Emil Izra Hospital; his adolescent travails in the neurology ward of the Colentina Hospital, where he received electro-shock therapy for facial neuralgia; his daily reading habits; his first apartment; his fascination with city statuary, and his relationship with his parents. The Left Wing also tells the story of his mother’s ancestors (as The Right Wing will tell the story of his father’s), the Badislavs who, in the tradition of Balkan folklore, take part in a terrifying struggle between demonic forces leading an army of the undead, and a host of Byzantine angels sent to defend them. The Badislavs subsequently flee their native Bulgaria for Wallachia. Central to the text is Mircea’s own mother—who hails from the small village of Tântava and careens between a life as a young seamstress in a jazz-soaked, haunted, brightly lit 1930s-Bucharest, courtship, marriage, and motherhood in the increasingly drab, perilous communist capital.
Mircea Cărtărescu, whose own life is reflected in the pages of Orbitor, was also born in Bucharest, in 1956. He studied at the University of Bucharest and later earned his PhD, in Romanian literature, in 1999, with a dissertation about Romanian literary postmodernism. His own fiction is exemplary of such Eastern European postmodernism, which reevaluates spatial and temporal dimensions in order to make up for the loss of historical and personal time and of local and national space, under communism. He has gone on to win many European prizes and distinctions. His trilogy, Orbitor, is perhaps his crowning achievement.
At its heart, this magnum opus is about what it means to be alive: to experience being consciously and unconsciously and to pass, eventually, into inexistence. The narrator likens death to another, greater birth and posits the idea that an individual’s past and future are symmetric, like the ghostly shapes of butterfly wings connected to our own bodies, like the two strands of DNA at the core of our genetic make-up. Our temporal existence, past and future, follows laws of symmetry, just as our bodies are governed by basic anatomical symmetries: two arms, two legs, two iliac crests, two hemispheres of the brain, two eyes that perceive this “blinding” text. The narrator goes on to claim that human beings experience “the past [as] all things, the future nothing, time has no other meaning”; that is to say, we can perceive only the past, but never the future. He then reasons that if one were to know everything about the past, one might, by extension, also glimpse the future. Knowing that past means understanding all of its incarnations: emotions, thoughts, dreams, the daily habits of our ancestors, the detailed anatomy of our parents, the stories we were told as children. To comprehend that is, just maybe, what it takes to grasp what awaits us:
We all have a memory of the past, but who of us can remember the future? And yet, we exist between the past and future like a vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings. We use one wing to fly, because we have sent our nerve filaments out to its edges, and the other is unknown, as though we were missing an eye on that side. But how can we fly with one wing? Prophets, illuminati, and heretics of symmetry foresaw what we could and must become. But what they saw per speculum in aenigmate we will all see clearly, at least as clearly as we see the past. Then even our torturous nostalgia will be whole, time will no longer exist, memory and love will be one, the brain and the sex will be one, and we will be like angels.
Attempting to recover his past in its entirety (in order to see the future), the narrator chronicles his own life as a simultaneous blur of memory, dream, and imagination. The fleshy locks on the doors of Mircea’s mind break open, permitting free access between the conscious mind and the subconscious. Pleasure and shame, desire and repulsion mix freely in the narrative, effacing the boundaries between the real and the imagined. Early on in The Left Wing, he reflects:
My memory is the metamorphosis of my life, the adult insect grown from the larva that is my life. And if I do not plunge bravely into the milky abyss that surrounds and hides it in the pupa of my mind, I will never know if I was, if I am a voracious nun, a spider dreaming on an endless pair of stilts, or a butterfly of supernatural beauty. I remember, that is, I invent. I transmute the ghost of moments into weighty, oily gold. […] That hyaline cartilage where the three heraldic flowers on a shield meet – dream, memory, and emotion – that is my domain, my world, the World.
The stakes of Cărtărescu’s literary project are staggering. The novel seeks to answer the same question that all sacred texts seek to answer: what does it mean to be alive? What happens to us after we die? The book is as much a thought experiment as it is an aesthetic one. If the reader can come to understand the shape of the narrator’s life, he or she will understand life itself in an altogether more encompassing sense. This is what Cărtărescu promises. The “blinding” moment at the heart of Orbitor is the drive towards ecstatic revelation: an immense rush propelling one forward toward pure consciousness, toward the understanding that we are promised in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12. The verses serve as an epigraph to the first volume: “[ . . .] For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.”
Sean Cotter has done a masterful, inspired job with the translation. The meditative, Baroque rhythms of Cărtărescu’s Romanian flow into graceful, vigorous English thanks to Cotter. Though the linguistic pyrotechnics can feel overwhelming in such a complex, long, and deeply philosophical first volume, nothing seems gratuitous: language itself, in its long lists and flights of fancy, proves Cărtărescu’s ultimate point about birth. Every a human life is a Gospel, every birth an Annunciation, and “page after page after page, our world is a book made of onion skin. And this skin has veins, and nerves, and glomeruli of stinking sweat. The people of old knew, and said, that every world is a book containing a book, and inside every Gospel is a Gospel [ . . . ].” The attempt to write a book about the body and soul, about the human parchment-book in which one is written, can be terrifying, as well as wondrous:
I didn’t know whether the lines of my life (voices and caresses, clouds and cities, laughter and the earth full of worms) should be read vertically or horizontally, from the left or the right, or if I should go back and forth in the boustrophedon of my childhood. I didn’t know if the writing was pictographic phonetic, or if it was a writing, at all. Illustrations and illuminations, vignettes and friezes with labyrinths of stalks decoded the old book of hours with pages of skin. In the filigree of every page you saw a braid of blue and red veins, beating to a single pulse, irrigating the paragraphs. Arborescent nerves made every letter as sensitive as a tooth. Mistakes were attacked with antibodies of lymph. The parchment as alive, like skin just flayed from a martyr, and it smelled of ink and blood.
This fantastic, luminous work that risks so much in order to address the big questions deserves all the accolades it has received and will surely garner more well-earned praise in the coming months. It has done what few other works have managed to do: it has transformed Romanian literature into world and world-class literature.