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Mircea Cărtărescu: Travesti [Travesty]

I have translated the title literally as, though the book has been translated into at least ten other languages, it has not been translated into English. Most of the other languages have either directly used the Romanian term or a local variant thereof (for example, German has gone with Travestie, the German for travesty). French and Spanish have gone with Lulu, the name of a key character in the book. Travesti in Romanian can, indeed, mean travesty but it can also mean disguise and also drag (in the sense of dressing up in the clothes traditionally worn by the opposite sex). All three senses could be deemed to be applicable to this book.

Our hero is Victor, a successful author, who is thirty-four years old when he is writing this but seventeen years old when most of the events he is writing about take place. It is naturally tempting to compare Victor to Mircea, both the author of this book but, more particularly, to the Mircea of Solenoid and the Orbitor trilogy. Clearly, they have many similarities – an only child who lost a sibling when young, health problems, involving a sanatorium stay in childhood, a very solitary life, virtually no friends, an obsession with writing and literature, a conviction that he is going to write a great if not the great book, a love of wandering around Bucharest and, in particular, ruined buildings in that city, and a somewhat sceptical view of other people, the situation in Romania in general, and of life. They are both very intense people and continually see strange images. In other words, there is clearly evidence that Victor is based, at least in part, on the author.

The focus of the novel is a school trip to Budila, a remote village in Romania. The class, along with pupils from two other schools, are going to stay in the forest. Victor likes the idea, firstly because it reminds him of the sanatorium where he stayed as a child (he hated the sanatorium but loved the location) and secondly, getting away from the hustle, bustle and, presumably, pollution of Bucharest, eases his continual migraines.

However, we soon learn how solitary he is. While waiting for the bus, all the other pupils are happily chatting and being rowdy. He is standing alone, observing them. Indeed, he gives a run-down on several of the pupils and it is not a flattering view. He hates their vulgarity and stupidity and the fact that they will all end up as economists, engineers or tanker drivers. He will later give a vicious, damning and misogynistic indictment of what the girls will be like in twenty years time. He is a man of the mind, they men of flesh. He sees his life spent in a garret, writing the great endless novel. He would die at the age of forty and the manuscript would be discovered, containing all the truth about existence and non-existence .

On the way, the others sing rude songs, while he and two other serious pupils – Clara and Savin – sit quietly at the back, stoically bearing the noise. Even when they get there, he is sitting in the dormitory reading Kafka, while they are playing Suzi Quatro songs. Much of the time, particularly when they are not out and about, the others are rowdy – singing, playing tricks on other pupils, having sex or playing music.

When they go out, Victor is with Clara and Savin or on his own. It is on his own that he finds the mysterious places similar to those Mircea found in the other books. In this case, he finds a giant spider’s cave – the spider is as big as a hundred elephants – and a series of strange and colourful rooms. Are these dreams? Possibly but possibly not.

While out with Clara, they see a coloured landscape which turns out to be a plantation of young willow trees but, beyond that, they come across a beautiful meadow of wild flowers. None of the others see it. He will return to this meadow on his own.

With a bunch of teenagers, it is inevitable that sex plays a role. Victor has sex with a waitress from the canteen (of which he is subsequently ashamed) and he is happy to look at a porn magazine being passed round. One couple are caught in flagrante delicto, publicly reprimanded and sent home.

While most of the pupils misbehave badly to a certain degree, there are two that make it their business to misbehave all the time. They are Bazil and Lulu. Despite his name, Lulu is a boy. The are disruptive, continually playing tricks on others and generally making fools of themselves. We know that Lulu is going to play a key role, not just because of the title of the French and Spanish versions but because Victor has told us several times in his narration.

There is no doubt that what happened back then has had a huge influence on Victor and his life. He takes the Dantesque view that the seventeen year old Victor is at the mezzo camino della sua vita as, of course, seventeen is half way between birth and his current age. He also considers the seventeen year old Victor to be another person. In other words, there are two Victors. But it would seem that he continually thinks about Lulu, even though he has not seen him since school. In fact, the thoughts he is now having, as he is writing this book in a remote cabin in the woods, makes him decide to abandon his writing, including a planned trilogy of which he has already written the first two books.

The final day of the stay in Budila involves a fancy dress party. Victor is not really involved though he does see the others and comments on their choice of dress. Finally, he sees Lulu, who has decided to dress as a woman, with high heels, mini-skirt and false breasts. Victor is somewhat disgusted and walks outside but Lulu follows him, pretending to seduce him. It is the subsequent events that have such a profound effect on Victor and, as this is Cărtărescu, they go well beyond what you might expect.

Cărtărescu has led us up to this event, though it still remains a surprise. As with much of the rest of the book Victor lives this and his subsequent thoughts on it far more intensely than is perhaps normal, though, if you have read Cărtărescu’s other books, in a manner that is not unexpected. Also, as with the other books, the intensity of his visions help make his books so different and so original. Cărtărescu’s alter ego characters do not see the world as most of us see it but with an immense intensity of vision. Much of the book focusses on the week at Budila, though we do get something of his current life, but apart, from that, it is, in many respect similar to his later books already reviewed on this site. It is somewhat sad that the book is available in ten other languages but not English.

First published in 1994 by Humanitas
No English translation

First translated into French as Lulu by Austral in 1995
Translated by Hélène Lenz
First translated into German as Travestie by Suhrkamp in 2010
Translated by Ernest Wichner
First translated into Italian as Travesti by Voland in 2000
Translated by Bruno Mazzoni
First translated into Spanish as Lulu by Impedimenta in 2011
Translated by María Ángeles Ochoa de Eribe Urdinguio
Also translated into Dutch, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish and Turkish