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Mircea Cărtărescu: Solenoid

Cărtărescu’s novels often have a similar approach. We follow a solitary writer, presumably based on Cărtărescu himself. He is an only child and therefore has no siblings (though he did have a twin who died very young) or, apart from his parents, only the occasional other relative. He has few if any friends. He has a love/hate relationship with Bucharest, though he wanders around it and knows it well. He will later say that the original architect of the city had the brilliant idea of building a city which was already in ruins, and that Bucharest is not a city but a state of mind, a deep sigh, a pathetic and useless scream and also the saddest city on the surface of the Earth but, at the same, the only true city.

He is not happy with the current situation in Romania though not, on the whole, very actively opposed to it, either. However, as in his other books he does, at one point, go off on a rant about poverty and corruption in Romania.

However, while this book certainly has some of those similarities, there are key differences.

Our hero grows up in Bucharest spending his time reading, when not at school, while his parents watch TV. Interestingly, the book that makes the most impression on him is Ethel Voynich‘s The Gadfly, published in English in 1897 and in Romanian in 1909. We will later get Voynich’s detailed story. The fact that she is the daughter of the mathematician George Boole, he of Boolean logic, is also key, as our narrator is keen on maths and we get a fairly detailed biography of Boole. The fact that her husband was Michał Habdank-Wojnicz, who anglicised his name to Michael Voynich and later acquired a mysterious manuscript which we now know as the Voynich manuscript are also key to this book. One other mathematician – Charles Howard Hinton – also later gets full coverage.

The Gadfly makes our narrator cry. Other books will also be added to his list of favourites, including Kafka’s Diaries.

He will later admit that he has an aversion to the novel form. I often wondered where my aversion to the novel came from, why I would have despised myself so much if I had written novels, books with interminable stories, because I hate Scheherazade and all her disciples who conscientiously produce narrations where we learn something or which allow us to spend may lazy hours and the world is full of millions of novels which take away the only raison d’être writing has ever had: to understand yourself as fully as possible. If we are think we are reading a novel, he wants to make it clear that we are not. We are merely reading his journal.

He suffers from paresis, which is clearly a hindrance, not least because he has to spend many hours in medical facilities and in hospitals. Indeed, it is this that causes him to first lose his trust in his mother. She had told him that she was taking him to visit an aunt but, in fact, she was taking him to the hospital. She will later deny this. We later follow his time in the sanatorium which is more Dickensian boarding school than Magic Mountain, though, as elsewhere in this book, he (with his friend Traian) find strange mysteries in the sanatorium and Traian even suggests that their stay in the sanatorium is part of an evil plot by their respective parents.

He goes to school, does his military service and he goes to university to study literature. He had always been keen on literature and plans to be a writer. At university, he finds that he may well be a better researcher than writer, doing detailed research on the literary topics he is studying. At university, he joins the literary society where would-be writers read their work and are then subjected to criticism by the others. He plans to read his thirty-page poem, The Fall. It is not a poem but THE poem. It is going to make his name, have him acclaimed as a great poet and lead on to a stunning literary career.

He is the second to read. He is fairly critical of the first reader but then spends nearly an hour reading his poem. Every single person who speaks about his poem condemns it. The first speaker says In the cabinet of horrors of our contemporary poetry, this is a new and valuable artefact. Others are equally critical. He is devastated, and even though it happened many years ago from when he is writing this text, he remembers all the details, which remain clear in his mind. He even regularly fantasises about his current self meeting his successful self seven year later, as if the poem had been acclaimed and he had gone on to a glittering career.

But he has to earn a living and he becomes a teacher of Romanian in a school, a job he does not particularly like but which he endures. He gives us a quasi-Dickensian, quasi-surrealistic description of the school (where he still often gets lost), of many of the teachers, of the headmaster (a serial sexual harasser of the women staff who eventually gets married and tells our hero that marriage is worse than being hanged (but only just), as he will tell other young male teachers) and of the unruly pupils

He starts an affair (almost by accident) with the physics teacher, Irina. (Irina was for me, at that time, not a woman but a person with strange behaviour that I did not understand). He will later marry another woman and will recall his headmaster’s admonition that marriage is worse than being hanged – but only just. For our narrator his marriage is much worse than being hanged.

We learn a lot about the school, the various problems and his relationships with the various teachers and the headmaster. We get detailed portraits of many of the teachers and the occasional pupil, all of whom have their peculiarities and/or problems.

He manages to buy a house, shaped like a ship, in a strange street which his mother describes as a street of whores and thugs. He buys the house from a man who was an electrician and who conducted a series of electrical experiments, one of which went too far. Irina discovers, also by chance, a switch on the bed that activates a solenoid and raises the bed.

In addition to Irina, there are two other key events related to the school. Goia is a young maths teacher. He and our hero are summoned to the office of Borescu, the headmaster, because some of the pupils seem to be hanging out in a factory next door to the school. Try as they might the two teachers cannot find out how to get in but then our narrator sees a rat seemingly get in and they find a secret entrance and are absolutely stunned by what they find – a palace of marvels.

The other key issue starts off with Caty, the physics teacher, who is well-off, as she is married to a Foreign Office official, and is always well dressed. The school had been visited by some official who had lectured the pupils about the danger of sects and cults, which seem to be proliferating. It turns out that Caty is a member of such a sect. At her fortieth birthday party, the worse day of her life, she gets drunk. Virgil, a friend of her husband, sits down beside her and tells her about The Pickets. This is a group which goes to cemeteries, mortuaries, etc carrying placards saying such things as Down with Death and Down with Suffering. Many have been arrested. Caty, who joined, has been beaten by the police more than once, but it has given her renewed hope. Our narrator joins, as well.

Later in the book he will go off to a Pickets event where he is surprised to find several of his teaching colleagues. He is even more surprised by what happens, with a strange machine, a strange statue and a solenoid. Solenoids will play further roles in this book.

The Pickets event and the incident in the factory by the school are just two of the several occasions in this book when our narrator discovers that, while, on the surface, Bucharest may seem to be dilapidated and dull, beneath it is hidden a fantastical – some might say surrealistic – world, waiting to be discovered by the right people. These right people are our narrator and his friends, the Pickets, children (one of his pupils points him to another entrance to one of these hidden worlds) and the excluded. The excluded include what are called the gypsies and we would probably now call the Roma. One example is Ispas, the school caretaker. He lives alone, sleeps in stairwell in a building and exhibits what we might describe as strange behaviour. One day, he simply disappears. It turns out that there is more than meets the eye with Ispas and he, too, is somehow connected to these strange sects and underground mysteries.

This idea is at least in part to show that there there is more to the real world than what we see before our eyes. It extends not only to cities like Bucharest and the seemingly dilapidated, abandoned buildings in the city but to people. We see it not only in Ispas and some of the other characters but also in our narrator, who recounts his strange and highly colourful, though often disturbing dreams.

This is a huge book so it is only possible to give a brief flavour of what it contains. Mircea Cărtărescu is one of the great contemporary writers and this is certainly the best of the six books of his I have read. It is highly imaginative, contains a rich cast of characters, shows us that the world we see is not necessarily the world that is, gives us a detailed psychology of a man who sees himself as a failure, shows us the city as a place of both mystery but also threat, of misery but also imagination, it dips into the political situation of Romania but, above all, is about the Romanians as individual people, with their dreams, their concerns, their lives.

First published in 2015 by Humanitas
First English translation in 2022 by Dalkey Press
Translated by Sean Cotter