Yes I’m leaning towards the “language as an art form” for my top reads of 2014. I could have done a listing of the “most readable books” or even the ones I didn’t like (I may still do that before the year is out), but I’ve gone with the books that were the most memorable for me, the ones which challenged my thinking, the ones that still haunt me, the ones where I occasionally bring them up in random conversations, the ones that touched me.
Cartarescu’s “Blinding” did most of those things, but I can tell you one striking thing it did, it gave me a serious appreciation for butterflies.
“Blinding (The Left Wing)” is the first part of a Cartarescu triptych (let’s call it that and not a trilogy as it forms part of a greater picture, the left wing being his mother, the body himself and the right wing his father from what I understand) and this triptych is a massive, intricate butterfly. The references to butterflies are too frequent to mention them all, from the birthmark on Maria’s (his mother’s) hip, an ivory engraved ring made from a mammoth’s tusk, a monstrous frozen butterfly under the surface of the Danube (which is consumed and the wings used for clothing), butterflies that attach themselves to Russian soldiers in a mausoleum and then lay an egg in his brain or even one that mates with a stranded elevator operator after the building is bombed. The metamorphosis is a constant thread along with triangles (structurally, physically, spiritually) and the colour yellow.
To say this is a complex work is an understatement, delving into a tortured mind would always be so, are we talking dreams here, or the everyday machinations of our narrator’s mind?
I felt in my sleep how, in this geyser of light, my own cranium became transparent, how the wrinkled hemispheres of my brain, wrapped in their skin, looked like the meat of walnuts yet unformed. The neurons under the pia mater, like spores bedded under asphalt, swelled here and there, growing hundreds of church spires under the sky of my skull, each one with a bell tolling for a funeral, until the pearly skin broke in hundreds of places and the neuron bells opened like wonders, like sea urchins on the peduncles, rocking and undulating in the solar wind of my Tataie’s halo. I then descended into a delirious Scythia.
How to describe this work? There are chilling stories of people who lose thier shadows, eight pages of the divine simply exploring the magic of how we can move a single finger and heavy rhetoric:
Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, yellow, blinding, apocalyptic howling…
Underneath all of this madness in Cartaresu’s hemispheres is the city of Bucharest meticulously recreated, familiar statues explored in detail and their meanings, allegories for Science, Art, Agriculture and Trade simply part of the narrative. As you wallow inside Cartarescu’s brain you uncover a city, a country, that is part of, is actually passed, a great war. Our writer imagines he can control the city, just like the control he uses to move his finger.
When you are living inside the narrator’s “pia mater” you come across some seriously surreal stuff:
Cripples, dwarfs, cachexics, coxalgics, myelomeningoceliacs, the monstrously obese, cyclopedes, those with cleft lips, eleven fingers and eleven toes, bruised skin from a cardiac deformity, lepers, those scarred by anthrax, by scrofula, by vitiligo…the curved line of giant statues embraced the room with a ring of mutilations, and the funeral train advanced across its endless surface, like a parade of mites.
Special mention here has to go to translator Sean Cotter, who is either a genius by bringing to the English language such deeply obscure words, or he’s just as offbeat as Cartarescu in his thinking. This would not have been an easy work to translate, as you can probably gather by the few simple quotes I have included here, the novel runs to 464 pages!!!
I’m yet to touch on the broader subject of this amazing work, Cartarescu’s mother, because even though we are passengers hitching a ride through our writer’s dark mental caverns this is actually the story of his mother, how she moved to Bucharest, how she met his father, her experiences of war, of meeting a jazz drummer from New Orleans who has a penchant for masochism, her sexual awakening and her darkest dreams. A twisted homage to a parent?
I sat on the balcony in my pajamas for half an hour, watching the clouds, whiter than the very white sky, outlined in light, and when I went back into the kitchen, I felt I was entering a sinister cave. In the deep shadow, Mamma seemed like a gypsy woman forgotten on a chair beside the stove, all dark and sweaty, except for the globes of her eyes, which caught the blinding folds of the summer sky. Wasps in yellow plating crawled everywhere. They’d made a nest in the vent and had come through its metal grill. There were wasps as big as my fingers on my mother’s body, as though she were some kind of odd animal trainer. They pulled themselves along with their powerful buccal mechanisms, through her fine, thin, chestnut hair that was untouched by gray, spinning their wings like fans. I told her I was going for a walk. I got dressed and went into the blinding heat outside.
This is not a novel for those who would like to lay poolside and discover whodunit, it is a slow contemplative piece, an amazingly complex construction and a true example of how language can be art. Another classic example of how writers in translation are pushing the boundaries of the written word, pushing their reader’s boundaries to a higher plane:
It was a place to attempt (as I’ve done continuously for the last three months) to go back to where no one has, to remember what no one remembers, to understand what no person can understand: who I am, what I am.
Just as I’m looking forward to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle Part Four, Jon Kalman Stefansson ‘s final part of his trilogy and Elena Ferrante’s final instalment of the Neapolitan Series, I can’t wait for the second part of Cartarescu’s triptych (the body). Busy 2015???