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Magda Cârneci: FEM (FEM)

Magda Cârneci is a poet and this is her only novel. However, reading this novel, it is quite apparent that she remains a poet, This novel is not about plot or character, it is about impressions, images, the beauties of nature, the female body and strange visions.

Having said that, the narrator describes herself early on as a Scheherazade. She is not. She does tell what she calls stories, aimed not at Shahryar but, rather, at her about to be ex-boyfriend (also unnamed). (It is not entirely clear if she is dumping him or he is is dumping her or it is mutual though, on balance, it rather looks as though she is dumping him. Her specific reasons become clear throughout the book. He is a typical male – spends his time watching TV, browsing the internet, drinking (vodka) and chasing women. She sums him up:

You consume too much audiovisual garbage, on top of your problems at work and the vodka and beer and wine you pour down your throat, stubbornly, aggressively, even spitefully, sprawled across the couch for hours at a time, facing a screen that pours all the terrors and horrors of the world into you.

Despite this the format of the book is stories she tells him, addressing him invariably as darling. The stories, however, are not Aladdin or Sindbad the Sailor. Many of them tell of her life, focussing as much on the images and impressions as on the actual events. Others are speculation about life, love and so on. All of them are poetical. I will be a tamer Scheherazade, I’ll tell you stories about me, about us, about the small but odd things we pass over without noticing, amazing but normal stories, mysterious scenes we usually forget.

We briefly follow her love life, which started at camp with Radu, to whom she was attracted, but it did not seem that the attraction was mutual. However, she is standing next to him by the flagpole at some ceremony. The other children mildly mock them but she does nor care. She looks at the sun and the sun and Radu give her one of the many visions she will have in this book. We shaped something together, a luminous and illuminating whole. A gentle explosion of interior light filled me and expanded me. A kind of burning gold caressed me from within, and I felt limitless.

However, to bring us down to Earth somewhat, before this event with Radu, we get a detailed description of her menstrual cramps. The female body in its many forms is key to this book and she will describe hers and others on several occasions.

We are not finished with Radu as she will see him again at camp three years later. This time they walk together and talk but nothing else happens. She will see him again much later at university but he is with another woman and they do not talk. Her next boyfriend, however, is also called Radu and things progress much more with him.

Like, sadly, too many woman, she is somewhat self-conscious about her appearance. What didn’t I like about my young, supple body, what was wrong with me, what had I forgotten, what was my mistake? However, she is impressed by a woman she sees walking by – she was tall, haughty, a strangely beautiful woman. Her beauty shocked me, for a moment I couldn’t breathe. Her face showed an unbelievable harmony, unbearable to look at, impossible to withstand, so complete, such distinct nobility. She will think of this woman more than once – that tall woman, who seemed one of a god-chosen people, who had arrived to tell me something, something I did not understand.

We do, sort of follow her life, in these stories. One key event is an earthquake, presumably the 1977 Vrancea earthquake, which caused huge damage and over 1500 deaths. She tells us how she helped clear up and gives us a vivid description of the corpses.

Men do come into it – her boyfriends, for example, but she is not impressed by men. You men, you are born almost completely made, your packaging is more or less the same from start to finish, while we women, we keep changing, like insect pupae, like butterflies, like the seasons and planets; periodically something happens to us, our bodies will not leave us alone – and, to her about-to-be dumped boyfriend: Darling, try to provoke contact with this mysterious intelligence hidden in the depths and heights of your body. If I can, you can too, now that you know it is possible. Now that you know this is the way to Reality but in fact, it probably is not possible as you and your boys are probably debating your sexual rankings over a beer, a vodka. Which male is the wildest, the most potent, the toughest, who’s had the most women.

However, what does make this book is the vivid imagery she uses. From time to time, I am assaulted by strange images, powerful ones, charged with bizarre, excessive energy, visions that seem to climb out of unknown depths within me, or they come from above, from an interior heaven of the mind. She sees nature much more vividly than, well, men do and she has visions, ruminates on the female body in great detail, gets carried away on many occasions. If I look at them [things] now in a certain way, at a slant, unfocused, with a slightly wider gaze, the things become something else, something else, just the coagulated colours, the free colours in space, the dancing hues, floating like masterful brush marks left throughout space. They are luminous, living vibrations, undulating and interweaving in the air.

Boyfriend goes – he is beyond redemption though, even at the end, she tries to steer him on the true path. However, she and her visions, her images, her impressions remain and it is these rather than her useless boyfriend and her life events that will stick in our mind and which make this book.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by Cartea Românească
First published in English in 2021 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Sean Cotter