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The City and the Writer: In Bucharest with Mircea Cărtărescu

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Bucharest as you feel/see it?

Bucharest is like the Basque language: you can learn it only from your mother. You have to be born here to understand and feel it. Even more, you have to be born by it and look like it. Otherwise, Bucharest might seem overwhelmingly intricate, like a spider web or a labyrinth, it might look unsettling and dangerous. A foreigner has to spend many years here to get the zest of the city and to get to love its inhabitants.

Like nineteenth-century Paris, Bucharest has a subterranean life, full of mysteries. But unlike Paris, it is half Oriental, looking as much like Istanbul or Cairo as like Paris, Brussels, or Vienna.

It is a layered city, like a wedding cake, from the margins to the center you can recognize the big village it used to be until the eighteenth century—the Greek, Jewish and Turkish districts built fifty years after, then the French, German, and Italian influences of the beginning of the twentieth century, the International Style of the period between the wars, and the pervasive Communist apartment blocks built during the previous regime.

I just love Bucharest. I see myself in it like in a huge, convex mirror.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

As I told you, I was born here and I lived here all my life. I can’t emphasize one heartbreaking memory because all my life in Bucharest is a long heartbreaking memory. Everything I write is about it. But most of the time, I see myself wandering through a huge and unknown city with my mother. I am a small child, half the height of the woman holding my hand. We walk down strange, crowded streets. The buildings are decorated with stucco heads of Gorgons, the balconies rest on the huge shoulders of stucco Atlases, the roofs have grotesque, fantastic tin cupolas. Everything is old and decolorized, like in a sepia photo. A very old tram is coming, the rails are roaring. We go on it but when the doors close, they catch my mother’s fingers. Drops of blood flow from them, tears flow from my mother’s eyes, she cries like a baby. Around us, Bucharest licks its lips, satisfied.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Its industrial architecture. The water towers, which we call ”water castles” because they are so beautifully built. Some very old brick factories, now abandoned, on desert spaces full of weeds and garbage. The old tram depots, the old steam locomotive cemeteries.

On evenings, when the dark comes and the pale skies of Bucharest are on fire, I used to go to one of those places where dozens of old locomotives rust together like huge pachyderms that came to a desolate place to die. I would climb in the cabin of one of them and stay there, in the dusk, full of nostalgia, for hours and hours. Actually the ruins, the deserted places, the old vestiges of the past are the most moving and attractive things in my city. Other towns get ruined in the winds of time and fate. But Bucharest was just built like that: its architects projected it in ruins, like a monument of human melancholy.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

You can read Mircea Eliade, whom you might know as a reputed historian of religions, but who was a great writer as well. He also wrote dreamlike, fantastic tales of Bucharest. But there are a lot of others who unfortunately are not translated.

The most brilliant fresco of the old Bucharest is the novel The Old Court Libertine Kings by Mateiu Caragiale, a passionate poem dedicated to the secret life of our city.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Yes, the house where I was born. It is in Colentina, one of the most picturesque districts of Bucharest, where the Romanians and the Roma people live together in the streets. The old house where my parents lived when I was born, and where I lived for a few years, has for me the dimensions of a myth. Anytime I go there, I lose myself in the maze of the narrow streets, and feel like I am voyaging in one of my dreams. It is like the sky over Colentina is my own cranium, and I walk within the circumvolutions of my brain. And then I see the house: it is always shining in the golden light of my earliest memories.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

A lot of them. For example Mantuleasa Street from one of Mircea Eliade’s novellas. The narrator of that fantastic story imagines that one day all the basements of the houses on Mantuleasa Street flooded mysteriously. A child explores them, searching for the basement that showed up in his dreams. When he finds it, he dives in the water and swims until he finds the land of the Meek—a legendary people from Romanian folklore. This street still exists in Bucharest.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Of course there are—about as many as inhabitants, that’s two million inner cities. For example, my mother came to Bucharest from the countryside in the 1950s, when the peasants were forced to come to the cities and become workers in factories. So my mother created her own village inside Bucharest. It was a (Bermuda) triangle delimitated by three cinemas: the Volga, the Floreasca, and the Melodia. My mother loved to go to cinemas and see glamorous movies. My family never went beyond those cinemas. It was our territory there, surrounded by threatening, dangerous places. But we knew each and every street, building, and person inside our small world.

Where does passion live here?

The passion lives, like everywhere, within the people. The rest is dross.

What is the title of one of your works about Bucharest and what inspired it exactly?

Everything I write has a Bucharest background, and sometimes a foreground too. I have always been jealous of certain writers who made their city their city, who identified themselves with a fabulous inner place: Dostoyevsky had Saint Petersburg, Durrell had Alexandria, Borges had Buenos Aires. My secret ambition has always been to make Bucharest my own literary property, to identify it with my work.

The book which reflects Bucharest in a polyhedric mirror with a million faces is my trilogy Orbitor (Blinding), a 1,500-pages triptych where reality and dreams, past and future, memories and desire, butterflies and spiders, mix together in a continuous discourse and flows through the landscapes of my brain.  

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Bucharest does an outside exist?”

If Rome perishes, the whole world will perish, wrote an ancient historian. I could say the same: If Bucharest disappears, my (inner) world will be gone too. My city and I are like two Siamese brothers who share only one heart. If one of them dies, the other cannot survive.

Mircea Cărtărescu was born in 1956 in Bucharest. He is a poet, novelist, literary critic, and journalist, a member of  the Romanian Writers’ Union and the European Cultural Parliament. He has published over twenty-five books including Faruri, vitrine, fotografii (Headlights, Shop Windows, Photographs), Poeme de amor (Love Poems), Totul (Everything), Dragostea (Love), Nostalgia, Levantul (The Levant),  Travesti, Orbitor vol. I, II, and III (Blinding), Postmodernismul românesc (The Romanian Postmodernism), Enciclopedia zmeilor (The Encyclopaedia of the Dragons). He has won all of the most important Romanian literary prizes, and some international ones namely: the Tormenta en un Vaso Prize for the best foreign book published in Spain in 2013, the Berlin Prize for Literature 2012, the Spycher-Leuk Prize in Switzerland 2012, the Great Prize for Poetry in Novi Sad 2012, the Vilenica Great Prize in Slovenia 2011, and the Giuseppe Acerbi prize in Italy 2005, and was nominated for the Médicis Étrangère Prize in France in 1992. He is currently a Professor in the Romanian Literature Department of the University of Bucharest and his work has been translated into over twenty languages, most recently English, with his book Blinding translated by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago in 2013.

Published Feb 27, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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