By Mircea Cărtărescu (trans. Julian Semilian; New Directions, 2005)
Despite living in a part of the world in which the future is necessarily the most fertile ground, Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu has encamped himself in the past. And not the official past of dull, stultifying life under communism, but the idealized, oneiric past that is childhood. Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia suffers less from its titular malady than from its perversion: “Ostalgie,” a word coined in the former GDR, combining Ost (East) and Nostalgie into a singular longing, for better or worse, for the way things used to be but never were.
If Moscow was the Third Rome, then Bucharest here is the “Paris of the East” — though glitteringly tawdry in skyline, its streets still mired in mud. Into this metropolis, where livestock shrieks and pecks in the courtyards of concrete apartment towers, Cărtărescu (born 1956, pronounced “Curterescue”) ventures in masterful style. Less a novel-in-stories and more a collection, less a collection than an Easterly dictionary of illegal dreams, Nostalgia begins with an assault on the spokesperson for this zeitgeist, Franz Kafka of Prague. “The Roulette Player” marks the endgame of Kafka’s art, its world a purgatory wherein the Hunger Artist fasts on the grubs of the man-ape; the Odradek waits on the breadline with K. According to Cărtărescu, Bucharest’s homeless were often conscripted into games of Russian Roulette (the “Russian” epithet is hardly mentioned). Six men would pass a revolver loaded with a single bullet; spectators, Bucharest’s wealthy demimonde, would place bets on who would survive. Our hero is doubtlessly the greatest: He goes solo rounds with two bullets enchambered, with three, with four, even — with inexorable logic, obligatory to the art of speculation, and speculative fiction — with five. Ladies and gentlemen, fully loaded with six should be next. Each time, as he squeezes the trigger, he faints. As his feats promote him from basement sideshows to sinister dinner-theater (the lights dim, a chink of light appears from behind the Iron Curtain), no bullet is ever fired. As his life falls apart, the roulette player’s head remains on his neck.
After going these rounds with Kafka, the ludic author, like his rouletteist, transcends, as if he had proven his credentials (received his own “European education”), and is only now certified to try his hand at lives closer to home. Updating Poland’s Bruno Schulz, Cărtărescu begins to write about youth not as formative, but as everything. In this world, all experience signifies just as it did at initial encounter: To a boy of the fallen bourgeoisie, mundanity can be nothing but magical. Here, for example, is a first ride in an elevator, as if up to the seat of the Godhead:
Underneath, hundreds of meters below our feet, we saw Bucharest stretching out before us, tortuous as a labyrinth drowning in a vortex of dust. The tallest buildings […] were all wrapped in a variety of fogs, mother-of-pearl, yellowish, pale pink. Bucharest like a spider web, on the strands of which crawled streetcars with their ringing bells and the trucks with their trailers. Bucharest full of scaffoldings and cranes, hospitals and post offices and tiny newspaper stands. With gray lakes shaped like stomachs, opening out into each other. […] Bucharest with its men in white shirts and slicked-back hair. With soccer stadiums invaded by young workers with emaciated faces under their gray workers caps, shouting and standing when a soccer player, slicked-back hair as well and shorts down to his knees in the Moscow Dynamo team style, kicks the leather ball into the torn net. Bucharest resounding with songs whose purpose is to mobilize the people: ‘Dear laggard Comrade Marin, / with you in charge we’ll never win’ […]
Entire pages pass like this — fantastic winged elevators or soccer balls, flitting toward the light of the real, only to be immolated for getting too close. These stylistic fantasies, which change content and fantasist throughout Nostalgia’s five sections, are mated to plots equally strange. In “Mentardy” (Mendebilul in Romanian, a concatenation of “mental” and “debility”), a pure, puny, Christlike child falls victim to friends in the yard of his housing project; in “The Twins,” an account of transvestitism degenerates into the alchemical merging of sexes, in the persons of a young man and woman whose flirtations cause them to lose their identities to love. In “REM,” the longest section of the book’s middle, also titled “Nostalgia” (composed of three sections set between “The Roulette Player” prologue — said to be written by the grown protagonist of “The Twins” — and “The Architect” epilogue), a girl is sent to the outskirts of town, where she is taught to dream under the tutelage of a giant, who might also be the tale’s author except for the fact that all he can write is the word “no” (and “no, no, no, no, no, no […]”). Ignore the preciousness, and such exuberances of language — Cărtărescu’s fluid formalism translates all into some of the most imaginative literature since that of the masters mentioned by name in the text (Borges, García Márquez, and Cortázar, among others).
Nostalgia’s final section is set in the midst of the 1980s, decade of the Blue Jeans Generation. An architect, renowned for his factories that produce sunflower oil, has decided to purchase a Dacia — a wonderful Romanian automobile that often stalled, when it didn’t explode. Amazingly, it has a horn, the siren sound of which obsesses our hero, who, like many architects, feels a kinship with music (Goethe once remarked that architecture was “frozen music”). Soon, he’s had the car stripped of its tires, and a primitive keyboard installed in the dash. All day and night, living in the immobilized Dacia, “The Architect” plays music through the speaker of that horn. Thanks to the support of a young, ambitious musicologist, he becomes famous. His improvisations resound throughout Bucharest; in time, they’re heard in the West. Then, reality ends on a dissonance. Man resolves into machine. Like the universe, the Architect’s talent expands: “The great synthesizer was now an internal element of the immense body.” It’s amid this coda that Cărtărescu’s own transformation is aired: The childlike, he says, instead of growing up, must dissent and do the opposite, becoming always younger, as if returning to a state of terminal youth, which is art. Advocating yet another Revolution, Cărtărescu fictionalizes his manifesto: Art must not merely entertain life, or even affect it; instead, art must dream life itself. “The matter of [the architect’s] body and his arms, having reached in the course of the migration an extreme state of rarefaction, condensed itself during a period of incommensurable time, lost its consistency, and became star crumbs, which ignited suddenly in the darkened and empty universe. A young galaxy revolved now, throbbing, pulsating in place of the old one.”
Joshua Cohen’s review of a Mahler biography appears in the July issue of Harper’s.