Saturday, September 7, 2019

Mircea Cartarescu's Blinding: The Left Wing

"Bucharest, my city, my alter ego"

Blinding: The Left Wing is the first novel of a trilogy by Mircea Cărtărescu. He seems to be an important Romanian poet and novelist, but one ill-served in English, probably unsurprisingly. This came out in Romanian in 1996, and was translated into English by Sean Cotter for Archipelago Books in 2013. The trilogy was completed in Romanian in 2007, the rest hasn't yet appeared in English.

The narrator of the novel is named Mircea and lives in Bucharest; the parents of the novel-Mircea met in 1955; the actual-life-Mircea was born in 1956, in Bucharest. But the novel isn't all that grounded in time; and while it's definitely centred in Bucharest, it isn't entirely grounded in place, either. It flashes back to the narrator's mother's family, the Badislavs, a Romanized family of Bulgarians who relocate to Romania in the 1850s. There are also sections that follow Cedric, a black jazz drummer from New Orleans, who ends up playing a club in Bucharest in the early 40s, and becomes the lover of Mircea's aunt.

It's a novel with surreal/magical/folkloric elements: The migration of the Badislavs involve the ritual sacrificing of the shadow of a young boy, to safely cross a frozen river; we're told earlier generations would have sacrificed the boy. Scenes involving Cedric take place in Louisiana, and involve the ritual exploration of an arch that opens like a vagina. I admit to finding the use of Cedric as symbol dangerously close to offensive, though I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant that way.

I found the jumping back and forth in time and place a bit difficult, though I do think an actual Romanian reader would pick up on the clues faster than I did, and it may not be so difficult for a Romanian.

There's quite a lot of symbolism involving butterflies. The other two volumes of the trilogy are Blinding: Body and Blinding: The Right Wing, so make of that what you will.

Also the narrator's mother's name is Maria/Mary. A revelation occurs at the end, after that trip into the Louisiana vagina/arch:
It heralds the Gospel for all. There is no other annunciation than a person's birth. And every birth creates a religion, it is an annunciation. And religion itself has no other meaning than birth. It shows us the Way, it reveals the Steps to us. It preaches Happiness. Already our eyes, fallen out of their sockets from such blinding blinding, will see the embryo, the child, wonder, ransom. Black and white, Asian, women, men, and children, we wait, on the edge of the abyss, rejoicing. We take light from light and never die again...
I think this means well, but I'm not entirely sure. What got us here, to this revelation, was impressive, but for me at least, not entirely lucid or convincing. I'm no longer entirely certain what got me interested in this book, and while it's not really my thing, I have the suspicion it's pretty well done. Interesting, at any rate, in the Bucharest sections. A blurb on the back page compares it to Borges, García Marquez, the Brothers Grimm, some others. I'd say no. The best cite from the back of the book is Bruno Schulz. But if I was picking a comparison title, I'd say Witold Gombrowicz.

Covering Romania for the European Reading Challenge, hosted by Rose City Reader.


  1. Your review is reinforcing my idea the magic realism works best when the reader is familiar with the history/culture of the underlying story.

    I loved your comment, "I'm no longer entirely certain what got me interested in this book" made me smile. I have those kinds of books too. I wish I had made a note at the time as to why I acquired it. But once a book physically comes into my house (unless it is a library book - weird logic) I have a hard time letting it leave unless I've read it.

    1. I have started taking notes about why I became interested in a book! But there are already so very many books around here that, I dunno, just showed up somehow...and the Toronto library recently added a save feature so I can add a note to my library TBR book list.

      Me, too, I have a hard time letting a book leave if I hadn't read it. I have a hard enough time even letting the book leave...

      That's a good thought (one I wasn't quite thinking yet..) that inasmuch as the magical element comes out of cultural elements, it helps if you understand the culture. But I liked the magical element in this even less than A Hundred Years of Solitude. There's a sort of surrealist tone to some magical things that draws its energy from the sexual/scatological--Duchamp and his readymade urinal--that I find gets boring quick. That wasn't all that was going on in this, but there was more of it than suited my taste.

      Garcia Marquez, at least, doesn't really do that.

      Thanks for checking in! Though getting me to ramble on so very much more may not have been the thanks you were looking for... ;-)

  2. Well, good for you for giving it a try. I must be honest, I don't have the time or patience to try these type of books, which means I probably miss some gems. But it's fun to read about when others do! Best of luck with your next European Reading Challenge book!

    1. Thanks! I've still got the UK to cover so I'm sure there will be a great one (that I already know about!) for that.