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Mircea Cărtărescu: Orbitor Vol 2, Corpul [Body]

This is the second book in Cărtărescu’s Orbitor (Blinding) Trilogy. Sadly, as you can see below, this book has been translated into several languages but not English. I read it in French, so the quotes are my literal translations from the French.

According to the blurb on the back of the French edition, Cărtărescu has been compared to Borges. I don’t see it myself. Borges, in his stories, presents an alternative reality. Once you buy into that reality, there is an inherent logic which is not too difficult to follow. Cărtărescu, however, plays around with actual reality, looking at it with very different eyes (at least part of the time). His poet’s imagination (his early work was primarily poetry) makes at least part of this book look like Rimbaud, with access to drugs which only became readily available in the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, this book is a difficult book, in the sense that Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow are difficult. Like these books, it probably needs to be read several times before you can fully grasp what is going on and clearly illuminates the society about which it is writing in a unique way and one that has implications far beyond its immediate narrow locale, in this case the city of Bucharest.

Behind it all are two stories or, rather, one main story and several closely linked stories. The first story is the story of Vasili Badislav, a firefighter in the nineteenth century, and his family. We see Vasili with his mistress and learn of his tragic death. In part, this is the author hearkening back to a golden age in Romania, before exposing us to some of the less pleasant aspects of communist life, particularly under Ceausescu. Indeed, the main story concerns a relatively conventional story (with major reservations as regards conventional) about the presumably (semi-)autobiographical life of Mircea from young childhood to well into his adult years. Mircea is an only child. He lives with his parents in a flat in Bucharest. His father becomes a journalist, a key promotion in terms of both money and status. As young Mircea is afraid of being left at a crèche, his mother has to stay at home and look after him. She makes rugs for a living, aided by the young Mircea. Her rugs, however, are not ordinary rugs but the patterns seem to take on a life of their own, one of the several instances where Cărtărescu uses magic realism, culminating in the fantastic final rug, which is too big to be taken from the apartment. Unfortunately, the secret police seem to think that her rugs are maps of Soviet missile installations and she is arrested and sent to prison. She only gets out with the help of an influential relative.

Criticism of the Romanian communist authorities are many. They include the unpleasantnesses, such as the requirement for all young women to be routinely and humiliatingly inspected to see if they are pregnant. If they are, this is noted so that they cannot have an abortion. If they are not, they are further humiliated for not producing good little communists. Other criticisms range from Ceausescu’s destruction of whole swathes of Bucharest to build his palace to the satirical mockery of the secret police and what they wear. Mircea himself has problems. His parents are fined several times for his parasitism, i.e. because he does not have a job. Both young and old Mircea explore Bucharest, the real one and the imaginary one and this is a key theme, particularly delving into the more imaginary aspects of the city. This ranges from Mircea’s somewhat strange friend Herman, and his relationship with the mysterious Soile and her mother whom he meets in one of his explorations of Bucharest to the Indian mystic Vânaprashta Sannyâsa who leads him on paths not generally seen in the city.

Cărtărescu’s Bucharest could be compared to Joyce’s Dublin, in that both wander round the city, with each book providing a sort of map of the city. Both books look at the city as it is now and as it was and both books mythologise the city. Where they differ is the intensity of vision. Joyce does not, of course hold back in the intensity of his vision but Cărtărescu is far ahead. For example, the opening pages – a long section – describe his wanderings through Bucharest when he is an adult and it is a hellish vision. He describes it as the saddest town in the world. Part of it is because Ceaușescu has had huge swathes of old Bucharest knocked down for his gigantic palace – including the flat where Mircea and his parents lived.

This has an interesting side story. The block of flats where Mircea and his parents lived apparently looked like a giant phallus. When it was knocked down, the local men could not get an erection for several days later. As this is Cărtărescu, we get a detailed description of the men’s failure when they are with their wives.

But this book is written by a poet and Cărtărescu loves going off on tangents. These include not only the trips through Bucharest but also what might be called dreams or hallucinations, often linked, as the title suggests, to body parts. Whether this is a response to the grim everyday reality or just a poet’s view of life is not always clear. The young Mircea generally seems to have a relatively happy childhood, apart from occasional strictness from his father and not always fitting in with his schoolfriends, though the adult, focusing on his manuscript and being a parasite, is clearly far less happy.

I have only read this book once and will undoubtedly have to read it again at least one more time to grasp it fully. There is no question, however, that it is an original work and very different. That Cărtărescu is more of poet than a novelist is clear. Though, as indicated, there is a plot, Cărtărescu is more interested in what he can see than in what his characters do. It is hoped that it will be translated into English, though I wouldn’t count on it.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Humanitas
No English translation
First Dutch translation as De trofee by De Bezige Bij in 2012
Translated by Jan Willem Bos
First French translation as L’oeil en feu by Denoël in 2005
Translated by Alain Paruit
First German translation as Der Körper by Zsolnay in 2011
Translated by Gerhardt Csejka and Ferdinand Leopold
First Italian translation as Abbacinante : il corpo by Voland in 2013
Translated by Bruno Mazzoni
Also translated into Hungarian, Norwegian and Swedish