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Mircea Cărtărescu: Orbitor Vol 1, Aripa stângă (Blinding – The Left Wing)

This is the first book in Cărtărescu’s Orbitor (Blinding) trilogy and, to date, the only one translated into English. The sub-title – The Left Wing – refers to a butterfly, a key image in the trilogy (the next two books are subtitled Body and The Right Wing). For Cărtărescu, the image of the butterfly symbolises, among other things, the unification of the male and the female, his mother and father but also: And yet, we exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.

This book, and the next two, follow linked themes. We follow the story of a child and then an adult, a would-be writer, called Mircea, obviously Cărtărescu himself. We learn about his family, including some of his ancestors. We also follow Bucharest, as both the family and Mircea as an adult move frequently within the city and Mircea the adult wanders round the city, including returning to his childhood haunts, so that we get a picture of the city, not dissimilar to the way we get a picture of Dublin in James Joyce’s work. In particular, we follow the visions and dreams of Mircea and it is these that make this work so imaginative.

We see his views of the city but also his visionary approach early on. The city was a nocturnal triptych, shining like glass, endless, inexhaustible.. But he does not stop there and has a religious vision: I imagined a crucified body with a crown of thorns on every pole in that endless line. The bodies were bony and long-haired, with wet towels tied around their hips. Their tearful eyes followed the wash of cars over stony streets.

These types of vision appear throughout the trilogy. They are often gruesome, though certainly not always. They also include erotic visions and visions about Bucharest, which, during Mircea’s lifetime had major changes made to it by Romanian Head of State Ceaușescu, changes which Cărtărescu is highly critical of, not least because they forced his family to move but also because they destroyed old Bucharest.

Mircea is an only child, therefore his mother plays a key role but both here and also in the next book in the trilogy, he has an ambiguous relationship with her: Nothing had ever made me feel close to her, nothing in her interested me. She was the woman who washed my clothes, fried potatoes for me, and made me go to my university classes even when I wanted to skip. She was Mamma, a neutral being who looked neutral, who lived a modest life full of chores, and who lived in our house, where I was always a stranger.

Despite these comments, in the next book he will be an adoring son, close to her, and, as an adult, she is virtually the only person who visits him regularly. Yet, even here, he imagines her, includes her in his visions. For example, she wore dentures and when he finds them later on, he builds am image of her: And then my mother formed, like a phantom, around her dentures. First there was her skeleton, as transparent as bloodworms or a green x-ray, velvet and delicate. Then her skull with the wide, dark stains of her eyes and the small stains of her sinuses, her thoracic cavity, the translucent butterfly of the iliac crest, the gelatinous tubes of her hands, feet, toes, and fingers… and on it goes.

On another occasion he was standing just beside the sad face of a stone woman, a winged woman five times my height. A quarter of Bucharest was filled with her stone feathers. The statue becomes his mother. There are other images that show, despite the fact he claims to take his mother for granted, she is very much part of him.

His mother was called Maria, and we follow her story and the story of her sister, Vasilica. We see them arriving in Bucharest, young and carefree, but we also see them during the war when Bucharest is bombed and they are caught up in the air-raid and have to spend the night in a shelter. When they return to their streets, they see ruins all around them: Hands, jaws and smashed bones came out of the rubble and the cracks in buildings. A human brain, intact, moist, with carefully drawn circumvolutions, with tiny blue veins beating under the membrane, bloomed on the pavement, beside a wide-open skull. They even find a severed hand, which they recognise as that of a neighbour.

However bad the Germans were, the Russians were worse: The Germans, you know, they was what they was, but they was good people. But God save you from an angry Russian …

Mircea’s family descended from immigrant Bulgarians and, specifically, Vasili Badislav, who founded the village of Tântava, about which we learn more in this book and the next one. It is with these Bulgarians that we first get the butterfly image, when they see images of masses of butterflies in a frozen lake. The butterfly image will crop up again and again, e.g. a birth mark of Mircea’s mother looks like a butterfly, while the elevator woman, mentioned below, has a mass of butterflies of different kinds around her. The final, long episode when Mircea is ill and the hospital becomes something of a Dante-on-steroids vision gives us more butterflies.

Mircea has a thing about lifts (elevators). In the next book, he is scared of them and here his feelings are somewhat ambiguous. The elevator woman mentioned above, is someone his mother meets in her younger days. She lives in the elevator shaft, which has remained, though the building around it has been destroyed. Her mystical experience is described in some detail as is Maria’s when she presses the button.

Mircea has his own experience with the lift in the building where he lives as a child. The lift was permanently dark because people kept stealing the bulb so they stopped replacing it. Mircea and his family lived on the fifth floor but occasionally, the mother pressed the wrong button and they would arrive at another floor. One day, when he was six, he dared go to the eighth floor (with two other children), accessible only by stairs as the lift went only to the seventh floor. The eighth floor was a zone of abstraction, unsuitable for life.. They meet Herman, initially scary but they become friendly and, by the next book, Herman is the only person apart from his mother he sees regularly.

His major dream (his term) is, as mentioned above, his say in the hospital in the last long episode of the book. His admission to hospital is caused by facial palsy, exacerbated by being out in very cold weather. In good East European style, the hospital is a particularly strange place – the building, the other patients and the staff. We follow their stories as well as Mircea’s and the stories are amazingly imaginative but also often gruesome. Linked in to these is the increased paranoia of the government and the resultant increased role of the Securitate, the secret police. Conspiracy theories run rife. We also learn the meaning of the title, Blinding and that the butterfly was the message.

I do not think you will find many books with as an intense and vivid vision as Cărtărescu gives us in this book. It far outdoes the likes of Pynchon, Aira, Dante and other visionary writers. The only book I can compare it in the intensity of vision is Alberto Chimal‘s La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden], sadly not yet available in English. Cărtărescu himself sums it up by saying Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, yellow, blinding, apocalyptic howling. There is, of course, a lot more to this book but also there is no doubt that it is one of the major works of the later twentieth century. The next book in the trilogy has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian and Swedish but not English. Why not?

First published in 1996 by Humanitas
First English translation by Archipelago in 2013
Translated by Sean Cotter