Mircea Cărtărescu: Orbitor Vol 3, Aripa dreaptă [Blinding – The Right Wing]
This is the third book in Cărtărescu’s Orbitor (Blinding) Trilogy. Sadly, as you can see below, this book has been translated into other languages but not English. I read it in French, so the quotes are my literal translations from the French.
This novel has been called the novel of the Romanian Revolution and the 1969 Revolution plays a key role in the book. The book opens in 1969 when the Romanians are suffering. Nicolae Ceaușescu, President of Romania, had shown a seeming rapprochement with the west and had borrowed large sums of money from Western banks for development projects. However, the cost was high and Romania was saddled with huge debts. Ceaușescu was determined to pay back the debts and, to do so, sold off Romania’s agricultural produce abroad. This meant that there was not much left for the Romanians to eat.
Mircea tells the story of himself and his family, and his mother, who has been a key character in the previous book, spends a considerable time complaining about the good old days and how things were much better then. It was even better when we worked for the masters or during the war, she says.
We see and hear about long queues for small quantities of food, such as a tasteless slice of cheese or a loaf of bread. People spend hours queueing, often to no avail. The Securitate are also around in these queues and anyone criticising the regime or Ceaușescu can find themselves in serious trouble. We also hear about massive corruption, with the rich and influential being able to get hold of food and the poor (all too often women) having to queue long hours for paltry amounts.
It is in one of these queues that the rumour spread about Timișoara. The Romanian Revolution essentially started with the Timișoara Revolution, which was actually led by Hungarians (Timișoara had been Hungarian for many years). Naturally, the official Romanian broadcasts kept quiet abut it, though people managed to obtain news from Voice of America and the BBC. Soon the rumour spread that forty thousand people had been killed in Timișoara. This rumour will be repeated throughout the book though we now know that it is massively untrue, with barely a thousand people being killed.
We follow the course of the revolution throughout the book, with Mircea being highly critical not just of Ceaușescu but, in particular, of his wife, Elena, who is frequently mocked. There is also much criticism of the Securitate with, for example, an amusing story where some of them are invited to a dinner party. In between complimenting the hostess for her fine cooking and commenting on individual dishes, they discuss the pros and cons of the various forms of torture, often in great and rather unpleasant detail.
As in the other books we also follow Mircea as he grows up. Much of it involves his relationships with his parents, particularity his mother, who looks back on his childhood and recounts tale from it. As in the other books, we also see his relationship with Herman. Herman is older than Mircea and lives with his mother. Herman will later work in one of the hunger circuses. These are the communal eateries set up by the Romanian government when food is really short so people can at least eat something. They are domed concrete hangars and were nicknamed hunger circuses by the people.
Of his own personal life there is not much. I am thirty-three and do not have a friend. Lonely walks every day of my life, he says. Much of his time he spends writing and not really getting anywhere. He describes himself as an antisocial person who did nothing all day except to scribble a sort of imbecile and unreadable novel. He later adds I did not allow my manuscript to become a journal, as I did not allow it, from the very beginning to be literature.
However, what makes this novel, as with the other two, are his fantastic visions of Bucharest and the world, particularly his world. The French version of the novel has a beautiful picture of a butterfly (possibly a female monarch butterfly but I am no expert on the subject). Butterflies have been key to the trilogy, not least the three Romanian titles – left wing, body and right wing. They have appeared throughout the trilogy, with a clear symbolic role. In this book, we get a lot more butterflies and, indeed, some other insects.
There are many images in the book using butterflies and insects. In the first book we were told the butterfly was the message and part of that message was clearly that there was a strong link between the city of Bucharest and the image of the butterfly. Indeed, early in the book, Mircea sees Bucharest as a mass of butterfly wings. Herman is also associated with butterflies and it is he who explains their role.
The butterfly invented the human soul. It was given to us as a living and perfect symbol of our situation on this earth, where milk, honey, blood and urine flow. We would never have known that here, in this world of colours and smells, we are larvae, tubes breaking down matter, digestive tubes endowed with the sense of sight.
The butterfly is by no means the only image we get. Cărtărescu’s vision covers, in particular, the city of Bucharest, a town of the dead and night, of ruins and misery. Indeed, the novel starts with a stunning image. Lightning lights up the sky and not only in Bucharest but in other European cities. Then an object, which initially looked like an insect, appears in the sky (only in Bucharest). It has a dome on top of four columns that looked as though they were made of sapphire. As it descended over the Intercontinental Hotel, a throne on top of the dome could be seen and sitting on the throne was a human-like creature. We learn little more about this creature.
The book is full of other such visions, possibly because we are in 1969, (the last year of man on Earth but also the year of the Revolution). Mircea, as in the other books, walks through Bucharest but all too often it is not the real Bucharest (of which he is highly critical because of Ceaușescu’s massive construction projects) but a mythical, magical Bucharest.
Herman contributes to the visions. When he is found in one of the hunger circuses, he has a transparent head and inside the skull is a large and heavy foetus with its head pointing downwards, ready to be born. As with his other images, we get a detailed description of the image but no strong indication of what it might mean and nor do we see it again. In this case, I think it clearly indicates the birth of a new spirit represented by the Romanian Revolution. In some ways, it is similar to the new-born baby in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey as seen here.
We follow Mircea through the course of the Revolution. He seems to get involved to some degree and even witnesses a woman brutally shot at point-blank range by a provocateur in the crowd. Much of the time, however, he (and his parents) are passive observers.
There are, I think, five things going on in the novel. Firstly, there is reportage, an account of the Revolution, albeit a revolution as seen by a partial observer whose reporting is certainly not conventional.
There is also satire. We have seen that with the Securitate story but we also see it with his mockery of Romanian officialdom and, in particular Ceaușescu and (more particularly) his wife.
He is not afraid of taking a polemical approach. We see that with his views of Romanian politics and also such issues as Ceaușescu’s massive rebuilding projects in Bucharest, which Mircea hates. However,we also see it in other areas. For example, he is highly critical of other countries. Not surprisingly, for a Romanian, he damns the Russians and Hungarians.
However, he also damns the West. The French are cowards and the Germans still Nazis. We are a martyred people, surrounded by enemies, he says, and then proceeds to tell us how Romania and Romanians saved the West from the Turks in the Middle Ages, citing the Battle of Călugăreni and the Battle of Podul Înalt (no, I hadn’t heard of them either). While the West got fat, Romania suffered for the West. He goes back further, citing the Dacians, the precursors of he Romanians but also the precursors of various Western countries, claiming that the words Dutch and Deutsch come from the word Dacia. It is not clear whether these views are the views of Mircea Cărtărescu, the author of this book, or Mircea, the main character of this book, (who is, of course, Mircea Cărtărescu).
Fourthly, there is the story of Mircea and his family. We have followed this story in the first two books and it continues here. Mircea, as he said, has few friends, apart from Herman, though we do get Dan the Madman (who tries to seduce the young Mircea, to the latter’s horror) and Silvia and her brother, Marţagan. Silvia will play a role in one of his visions. More particularly, we get the story of Victor, his identical twin. It is not clear whether Victor really existed and died still-born or when very young or whether he is entirely imaginary, the search by an only child for a non-existent sibling. Whatever the case, we get Victor’s story, though eh does not come out of it very favourably.
Finally and most particularly, there is his visionary imagination. We see it in his dreams, in his wanderings around Bucharest, in part with the Revolution and throughout the book, where he can suddenly takes us on a visionary journey. It involves butterflies and other insects, as we have seen but it can also involve surrealistic fantasies, horrific visions and highly colourful and fanciful images. It is these visions that make this book (and the whole trilogy) so original. It is not always clear what is going on but there is no denying their power and imaginative force. Indeed, there are far more in this book than in the previous two books.
This is a fantastic trilogy and clearly a major work of the late 20th century/early 21st century. Mircea Cărtărescu clearly has been a solitary person, focussing his life on his writing and has thereby produced a major achievement in world literature. It is sad that the the second and third books of this trilogy are still not available in English.
First published in 2006 by Humanitas
No English translation
First French translation as L’aile tatouée by Denoël in 2009
Translated by Laure Hinckel
First German translation as Die Flüge by Zsolnay in 2014
Translated by Ferdinand Leopold
Also translated into Hungarian, Norwegian and Swedish