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Mircea Cărtărescu: Levantul [The Levant]

Mircea Cărtărescu, as well as being a superb novelist, is also an accomplished poet. Romania does not really have a national epic along the lines of, for example, the Edda, the Kalevala or the Nibelungenlied. It does have a wide variety of folkloric tales, of which the best-known is probably the Miorița. It is a short, simple tale but not comparable to the epics mentioned above. You can read it in English here.

Cărtărescu set out to fill this gap. This work can best be described as a mock epic or anti-epic. It is set in the nineteenth century and tells the tale of heroes fighting against the oppressors of the Romanians, the Ottoman Empire. At that time (first half of the nineteenth century), part of of what is now Romania was under Ottoman control and part was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this book it is the Turks who are the enemy.

If you look at the original Romanian text, which I do not advise unless you read Romanian, you will see that much of the text (but not all) is in verse form. Cărtărescu has adopted the traditional form for writing an epic. However, he has not only adopted the traditional epic form but has, also, parodied a host of Romanian writers, old and new, well-known and less well-known, from Neacșu’s letter of the sixteenth century (the oldest surviving document available in Romanian that can be reliably dated) to Nichita Stănescu, a twentieth century writer, and many in-between. I have heard of relatively few of them and clearly most people from outside Romania and, quite possibly, many in Romania, will also have heard of very few of them.

The fact that it is not available in English translation (though is available in French, Italian, Spanish and Swedish – see below. I read it in French) complicates matters for English speakers though clearly French, Italian, Spanish and Swedish readers will struggle with the references as well.

As mentioned, it was written in Romanian in verse form. The Untranslated, in his excellent review of the book, points out that the translations are not straightforward translations of the original verse form but, rather, translations of an adapted version, making it more suitable for foreign readers. Much, but certainly not all of the book is therefore in prose, albeit a flowery, mock epic prose style, though there are chunks of verse.

Ignoring the parodies of the Romanian writers most of us have never heard of, the book certainly reads like a mock epic. It has been compared to Oxen of the Sun episode from Joyce’s Ulysses but, in many ways, to me it read more like Don Quixote, the mock epic par excellence, combined, perhaps, with an updated version of Homer’s The Iliad.

The poem is divided into twelve cantos. Our hero is Manoil, a young Romanian. (Note that I have used the names Cărtărescu used in the original Romanian, not the gallicised ones used in the French translation). We first meet him sailing from Corfu to Zante where he is to meet his sister, Zenaida. She petrifies anyone who sees her…It is to be wondered whether Hero had not been reincarnated to once again await her Leander.

There are seven on their boat so when they are set upon by forty pirates, they do not stand a chance. Iaurta, the chief pirate, is surprised to find that Manoil speaks English and we are surprised to find that Manoil studied at Cambridge and even more surprised to know that at Cambridge he made he acquaintance of Zotalis, who turns out to be Iaurta’s son. (Iaurt, incidentally, is the Romanian for yoghurt which may or may not be relevant.)

Iaurta is Greek (or thinks he is, till Manoil shows that he is, in fact, Aromanian) and he is soon persuaded to join the fight against the Turks. We are now getting into what a post-modernist would describe as magic realism but could simply be considered the normal magic and fantasy of an epic, with strange creatures appearing, disappearing and headless monks on the island where Iaurta and his men live and many other fanciful apparitions.

We now follow the strange adventures of Manoil, Iaurta and Co, as they meet Homeric creatures and people. They are joined by various characters, including Leonidas, the Maneater and his Romanian wife, Zoe, the aforementioned Zotalis, Languedoc Brillant, the French zouave spy and Nasreddin Hodja, who has already appeared on this site in a post-modern novel and who is ubiquitous in Western and Central Asian literature,

Their adventures involve fantastical creatures and places, treachery, battles, heroic deeds and so on, all that you would expect from such an epic.

However, as this is a post-modernist work, there is one other key character I have not mentioned, namely the author himself. Cărtărescu throws himself into the novel, appearing, for example, as a God-like figure in the sky to frighten his characters, but also readily chatting to them as well as chatting to the reader, whom he supposes to be a somewhat romantic woman. He even throws in an announcement about himself, proclaiming (all in upper case) that he wrote this book when he was thirty-one at a difficult moment in his life, when he no longer believed in poetry, which till that time, had been everything for him, nor in the reality of the world nor in his own fate.

Indeed, he ends up by inviting all of his character to coffee at his flat in modern-day Bucharest. Where Manoil finds this book in his bookcase and proceeds to read the ending, which, of course, keeps changing as Manoil reads the book…

I would add a mention of the many anachronisms he incudes as well – from the existence of Bangladesh to Remington typewriters (a giant one in the sky), from Zeppelins to Che Guevara.

I must say that I did enjoy this book though clearly, as I did not read it in the original Romanian, I could neither appreciate the verse form nor was I able to spot any of the literary references, which undoubtedly detracted from the overall enjoyment to some degree. However, if you take it for what it is – a post-modern mock epic – it is well worth reading if you can read French, Italian, Spanish or Swedish. There is still relatively little of his work in English, which is most unfortunate.

Publishing history

First published in 1990 by Cartea Românească
No English translation
First published in French as Le Levant in 2014 by P.O.L.
Translated by Nicolas Cavaillès
First published in Italian as Il Levante in 2019 by Voland
Translated by Bruno Mazzoni
First published in Spanish as El levante in 2015 by Impedimenta
Translated by Marian Ochoa de Eribe
First published in Swedish as Levanten – Österlandet in 2015 by Bonniers
Translated by Inger Johansson