- Melancholy Nation
Poet, critic, creative writing professor at University of Bucharest, journalist, and public intellectual, Mircea Cărtărescu, Romania’s most important contemporary writer, is to international audiences primarily the author of novels such as Nostalgia (which made its way into English in 2005), and Blinding (2013), a three-part narrative tour de force. Available in several languages and pivotal to an extensive oeuvre accumulated over more than thirty years, Blinding (Orbitor) is one of the reasons Cărtărescu has garnered coveted literary awards and most flattering accolades all over Europe and his name keeps coming up, year after year, among those with a real shot at the Nobel Prize in literature. The 1400-page meganovel took him more than a decade to complete. The first installment, The Left Wing (Aripa stîngă), was published in 1996 and was followed by a second volume, The Body (Corpul), in 2002, with the final one, The Right Wing (Aripa dreaptă), coming out in 2007.
The recently released English translation of The Left Wing by Archipelago Books has all the makings of a world literary event. Spectacularly if not surprisingly resurgent in the twenty-first-century’s global context, Goethe’s Weltliteratur model sets great store, as is well known, by the original’s broad dissemination and, subsequently, translation, for they test and eventually establish the work as they attempt to legitimate it elsewhere, for others, in the world arena and in the exigent embrace of remote idioms and cultural codes. In that, “great literature” involves and in certain cases ultimately boils down to an away kind of cultural game, played out in tongues not just foreign but, ideally, of planetary circulation. It goes without saying; this hardly means that Blinding does not amount to much in French, let alone in Romanian. Cărtărescu’s strikes me, however, as the type of literature Sean Cotter’s admirably competent rendition can further and perhaps decisively energize insofar as it affords Blinding not only a bigger stage but also a vehicle, an overall form subtly apposite to the novel’s foundational fascination: the world. Put differently—but in a way that essentially rehearses Walter Benjamin’s mystic-creative view of translation—English, our time’s main lingua franca and most “worlded” language, is what this world-hungry Romanian book has been calling for, as it were, so as to fully become the world-text, the total, Borgesian script its narrating protagonist and authorial alter-ego, Mircea, sets out to write.
The dedicated American reader is well positioned, I think, to appreciate this deeply constitutive, fundamentally worldly appetite of the book, Blinding’s intrinsic and insatiable yearning for the greater world, its insistently affirmed desire to take this world’s measure no matter what and bear witness to it, painful as it may be, from a place half a century of brutally isolationist politics purported to cut off from other geographies and their vaster repertoire of topography, affect, and material culture. This larger, geopolitical and cosmic-metaphysical world—designated as “(the) All” (Totul) in the book and elsewhere in Cărtărescu’s fiction and poetry—is the novel’s ontological provocation, challenging Blinding into existence by simultaneously fueling and frustrating its writing. While the Cold War allows Mircea to experience in situ the All only “in part” (hence the Saint Paul epigraph to The Left Wing), this totality becomes accessible through the imagination, more precisely, through a feverish, hyperconnective, (w)holistic imaginary that, over and over again, plugs the forlorn, the isolated, the ostracized, the incarcerated, and the trivial into the ecumenical and cosmic. Thus, the subversively metonymical poetics of a whole cultural-aesthetic movement—Romania’s programmatically post-modern “Generation of the 1980s”—reaches a climactic moment in Cărtărescu’s prose as it successively juxtaposes and telescopes the domestic microcosm and the world’s macrocosm, laying them side by side and inside each other, showing how they intersect, dovetail, and communicate. Poetics, the “art of making,” and what gets this making going—the “provocation” mentioned earlier...