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Mircea Cărtărescu: Nostalgia (Nostalgia)

Cărtărescu is one of those writers whose works you have to read several times to have any idea what is going on and what he is saying, like, for example, Joyce or Pynchon, though more so. It seems to me that the sort of way Cărtărescu writes is clearly pointing towards at least one of the directions the novel is taking. This novel, for example, consists of five separate stories. According to Cărtărescu himself, quoted in the afterword, The stories connect subterraneously, caught in the web of the same magical and symbolist thought, of the same stylistic calligraphy. This is a fractalic and holographic novel, in which each part reflects all the others.. I have absolutely no idea what that means. Either it is badly translated from the Romanian (which may well be the case – there are other examples of poor translation, such as American slang, American solecisms (different than!) and the use of words such as crepitate and prevision which undoubtedly do not have the same resonance in English as in Romanian) or it is the case of an author being the worst interpreter of his own work. Nevertheless, there is a common theme – they are all set in Bucharest when Romania was under the communists and are generally set in dingy communist apartments or underground, in sewers or strange tunnels and all use various methods for their characters to escape the dim communist reality.

There are three main stories, framed by two unconnected stories. The first framing story is about a roulette player who, we soon learn, is, in fact, a Russian roulette player. There are groups of people who play Russian roulette, in front of an audience, to make money. This one player is always successful so he increases the odds, first playing with two bullets and then, finally, with six. You may be able to guess the rest. The other framing story, the last of the book, is about an architect who has a car whose horn gets stuck (at 6.30 a.m. in front of his apartment building) and has it ripped out by an irate neighbour. He replaces it (at great cost) with a horn than can play an aria from Verdi’s Aïda. He gradually upgrades the horn, till he has an organ as a horn (for which he has to rip out the steering wheel and therefore can no longer drive the car). His playing is, apparently, so mesmerising that a saxophonist passes his time listening to him. When the architect’s wife joins them, the saxophonist and the wife get together but the architect does not mind, playing on and on. Cărtărescu could have ended there or thereabouts but takes the story (and the architect) through the entire history of the universe.

But it is the other three stories that make this novel (if that is what it is) and I am not going to try and explain them. The first one is called Mentardy, a word made up by the translator from a made-up Romanian word, meant to combine mental and retard. It mainly involves the games of children in Bucharest. The boys (with one girl) play a variety of games, till Mentardy comes along. Somehow, his charm and his stories enchant them and they change their habits (no longer playing their game of witchbitch, for example) but generally behaving. But then Mentardy gets one of those pens which, if held a certain way, show a woman gradually losing her clothes. Mentardy seems to change and the boys turn on him and effectively drive him away. It is really a fairly straightforward story about the effect of an outsider on a group and how that role can change.

The next two stories are anything but straightforward. Twins starts with being a story about the gradual sexual awareness of the (male) narrator. He starts by shaving, morphs into a woman trying on clothes (twins are involved and he is a Gemini), hangs out with the twins (who may or may not be just his feminine side), then goes to school where he is fascinated but scared by Livia. The feeling is mutual but his embarrassment overrides his sexual desire. Later, he will fall for Gina, despite the fact that everyone warns him against her and that she is seemingly in love with Silviu. He has a long, intense, on-again and off-again relationship with her and then eventually turns into her, ending up in a women’s mental institution as Gina, seeing things, of course, from the woman’s point of view.

The final story is called REM. What is REM? It is not quite clear but it seems to be a special moment, a mystical experience, some kind of god and much more and much less. According to the narrator REM is an infinite machine, a colossal brain that regulates and coordinates, after a certain plan and for a certain purpose, all the dreams of all living beings… Others see in REM a kind of kaleidoscope in which you can read all at once the entire universe. but then comes up with other theories. The story is told by Svetlana, a twelve-year old and her girl gang, who find a mysterious tunnel, which contains a massive skeleton. Each girl is queen for a day and determines what they do in the tunnel. They meet a giant man, hang and then burn Svetlana’s doll and have what could best be described as psychedelic experiences but without using drugs. All the magic ends when Svetlana has her first period (see Nezval’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders for another novel about the oneiric effect of first menstruation). But do they find REM?

Frankly, I did not always fully grasp what was going on in this book but I did realise that it was thoroughly original and totally mesmerising, as far removed from the conventional novel as it is possible to be. It also made me wish that I could read Romanian, as there is no doubt much has been lost in translation. There is no doubt that this style – a bewitching, dream-like intensity, coupled with massive authorial comment – is going to be the way some novels are going to go in the future and, if I am right, it is going to make for very interesting though difficult reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1993 by Humanitas
First English translation in 2005 by New Directions
Translated by Julian Semilian