Sicilian Code (Codice siciliano) by Stefano D’Arrigo

Before becoming a novelist, Stefano D’Arrigo was an accomplished poet. His first and only poetry collection was more than the acorn from which the giant oak tree of Horcynus Orca eventually grew. Reading Sicilian Code, I wondered what could have happened, if D’Arrigo had continued with poetry instead of investing all his time and energy into his magnum opus. Perhaps, the resultant poetic corpus would have been even an more important contribution to Italian literature than his white whale of a novel? We’ll never know. His literary debut certainly requires more critical attention than it has received so far, and its English translation has been long overdue.

There are two different versions of Sicilian Code. The original one was published by Vanni Scheiwiller in 1957 with a modest print run of 350 copies. A year later it obtained the prestigious Crotone Prize. The jury was made up of such famous literary figures as Giuseppe Ungaretti, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Giacomo Debenedetti, and Umberto Bosco. The collection was dedicated to the poet’s mother and consisted of 18 poems. The opening poem was titled Five Motifs for Youth (Cinque motivi per la giovinezza). The new edition came out in Mondadori in 1978 with a dedication to D’Arrigo’s wife Jutta, which recognised the significance of Sicilian Code in the making of Horcynus Orca published three years before the second version of the collection: “to Jutta, from that distant beginning of the horcynian nostos”. The new Sicilian Code comprised twenty poems. Five Motifs for Youth had been replaced with a new poem titled Pre-Greek (Pregreca). Another two poems had been added: When with the Mild (Quando con mite) and For a Boy Performing as an Angel in a Sacred Play in Sicily (Per un fanciullo ingaggiato come angelo durante una Sacra rappresentazione in Sicilia). This review will look at the second version of the collection reissued in 2015 by the Messinese publisher Mesogea.

The twenty poems, in which D’Arrigo deciphers the code of his homeland, confront the reader with an entanglement of the familiar and the enigmatic. There are the expected themes and images related to sea voyages, marine life, war, Christianity, Homer’s epics and Greek mythology, the relationship between the son and the mother. Besides those, the reader encounters more cryptic motifs associated with metaphysical and even mystical experiences like communication with the world of the dead or the possibility of living an alternative life. To carry out an in-depth analysis of this dense and varied work is clearly beyond the scope of this review. I have limited myself to a brief outline of several significant poems, providing where necessary my subjective interpretation.


Enchytrismos burial of an adult at the necropolis of Agrigento. Image Source

The opening poem Pre-Greek is the longest one in the book, running for nine pages and consisting of fifteen stanzas of unequal length. Its major motif is emigration and the main recurring image is the burial amphora with the curled-up skeleton of an ancient dweller of pre-Greek Sicily (this type of interment came to be known as enchytrismos). The emigration of Sicilians, for D’Arrigo, has occurred in two ways. The first and the most familiar one is the mass exodus of the impoverished inhabitants of southern Italy at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. By 1915, around 1.4 million Sicilians had emigrated, mostly to the United States. In the poem, the sea voyages of the ships overcrowded with Sicilian emigrants are inextricably linked with the metaphysical travel of their bronze-age ancestors to the other world:

S’imbarcavano per quelle rive

in classe unica, ammucchiati

o clandestini nelle stive

di necropoli come navi olearie.

All’impiedi nelle giare, rannicchiati

sui talloni, masticando qualcosa

nella notte, forse tossico

(quali pensieri? quali memorie?)

nella tenace, paziente posa

dal cafone resa famosa

[On those shores they embarked

all in one class, huddled together

or as stowaways in the holds

of necropoli—oil-carrying ships.

Standing in the jars, crouched

on their heels, chewing something,

probably poisonous, in the night

(what thoughts? what memories?)

in the famed steadfast and patient

pose of a peasant]

The underground emigration of the ancient Sicilians that takes place in the clay, volcanic tuff, and deposits of pumice is contrasted with the migration of “the others”. The poem begins with the words “The others migrated” (Gli altri migravano). Migration here is an equally metaphorical notion, related to a more privileged and glamorous passage to other lands or other worlds. The more fortunate “others” migrate in solar ships across the sky into eternity, whereas the emigration of the Sicilians is limited to the land, the sea and the tomb. The drastic circumstances that have driven them away from their homeland are personified as sphinxes, pumas, and lions with human faces.

The sweeping vision of Pre-Greek is counterbalanced by the focus on an individual fate in the fourth poem of the collection titled You Who Still Have Speech in This World (Tu che nel mondo hai parola ancora). This tripartite piece can seem hermetic in its imagery and use of language. The hero of the poem is addressed in the second person. It appears that he has led an ordinary, if not insignificant, existence, slowly dissolving in its boredom, which has been trickling down along with the frozen grains of sand in “the sudden hourglasses” (le improvvise clessidre) of his pain. The man is described in a mock heroic manner as a “domestic paladin” who has to confront the dragon “among us” (fra di noi) armed with the spear of his voice. The dragon here can stand for the numerous pressures in society one has to overcome in order to realise his potential. There is a glimpse of somebody else, (un altro), who may be the more adventurous version of our hero. That other man, rather than getting embroiled in a futile fight with the dragon, proceeds beyond its “drum skin” (la pelle a tamburo) and wanders into the untrodden regions of infinite discovery, his voice no longer a weapon, but “the outline of the spire of screams” (profilo d’urli a guglia).


Paolo Uccello. Saint George and the Dragon. c. 1470.

Another poem that deserves a closer examination is For a Boy Performing as an Angel in a Sacred Play in Sicily. The play in question is the Sacra rappresentazione, a religious drama reenacting scenes from the Bible which originated in the fourteenth-century Tuscany and is analogous to the mystery play. The language of the performance is Latin. This powerful poem consists of thirteen stanzas, each of which has it least one instance of the recurring phrase “who asks” (chi chiede). “Who asks” is the rhetorical question running through the poem, which focuses on the ambivalent situation of the seven-year-old boy who is obviously forced to play the angel Gabriel in the Annunciation scene. His role as a Biblical character is juxtaposed with his real, material self—someone with a body and with a lived experience who is supposed to be an ethereal creature against his will. The boy has to stand with one leg up and recite his lines in Latin without understanding a word of what he is saying. In order to inhabit this angelic identity, the boy is expected to “feed on the Rose of Winds” (cibarsi delle Rose dei Venti), to act as “the shuttle between the sky and earth” (la spola fra cielo e terra) and to turn into ash his budding sexuality. The boy is destined to live all his life and die in Sicily but is asked to pretend to be a traveller from the empyrean regions. The face of the woman playing the Virgin Mary is pockmarked, but the boy is expected to have it “inscribed in the adorable idea of the lily” (iscritto nell’idea adorabile del giglio). Ultimately, the meaning of the term “sacra rappresentazione” gets recontextualised, and this series of contrasts creates the sacred representation of the poor Sicilian boy the way he is: a child of seven with his own desires and mundane needs incompatible with the idealised image superimposed on him by the character he is playing.

The poem On Homer’s Meadows, Now Turned to Ashes (Sui prati, ora in cenere, d’Omero) is a lyrical precursor of Horcynus Orca. In this relatively short piece of seven stanzas D’Arrigo pays tribute to Homer’s Odyssey and the mythological aura surrounding Sicily and the waters around it. The poem starts and ends with the evocation of the speaker’s sea-faring friends who are conflated with the Homeric heroes, and thus travel not only in the high seas, but also in the immortal poetry of the ancient Greek author. But those who do not leave the island are travellers too, and every memorable event in their life is a milestone of their voyage through life, which crackles “like a gemstone in the mother’s eye” (comme gemma nell’occhio della madre). The island (isola) is compared to the consonant Elysium (Eliso), a fabulous place where a rooster brings light in its beak, the sun is the armour and sword of its dwellers and the dialect they speak is honey for their wounds. A woman who might be a siren or a mirage keeps weaving and unweaving her fabric while the old dog is waiting on the threshold for the return of its master to die at his feet. Like Odysseus and ‘Ndria Cambrìa in the yet-to-be-written Horcynus Orca, the speaker comes home from war. His homeland and the meadows are also alliteratively paired (patria and prati). Homer’s meadows turning into ashes could be a metaphorical reference to the depredations caused by the Second World War in Sicily or, perhaps, to the oblivion into which the mythical past of the island is inexorably sinking. Despite all that, the voyage of the speaker’s sailor friends, both alive and dead, continues. It will never end as long as there is poetry and the sea.

The souls of the dead that come haunting the world of the living are the subject of the poem Oh Dear, Oh Black Souls (Oh care, oh nere anime). D’Arrigo here depicts reality as an interregnum in which the mythical Purgatory and the ordinary world interpenetrate each other. The souls of the dead appear to the living as barking dogs with burning eyes. Their laments are heard throughout the night while “the new moon makes itself a nest in the tree, and broods misfortune” (mentre sull’albero la luna nuova/ si fa il nido, cova la malanova). Although coming from the dark otherworldly region, these dogs are carriers of light: they dispel the night shadows to reveal for the living the hiding quail. The significance of this bird is explored at length in another poem—Verses for the Mother and for the Quail (Versi per la madre e per la quaglia). The little migratory bird, which has been providing the Sicilians with meat for centuries, is the central image here. Quails usually fly back to Europe from North Africa in spring, invariably making a rest stop in Italy where they are hunted in great quantities. During the hardships of World War II, thanks to the quail meat many Sicilians had access to the nutrients which were difficult to obtain otherwise. Hence the equation of the birds with the biblical manna in the poem. For D’Arrigo, however, the quail is of more than a food source. It is a complex symbol that dominates the poet’s reminiscences about his childhood and is closely connected with the image of his mother; as the poem progresses, “quail” becomes synonymous with “son” for the poet begins associating himself with the bird:

Spatriato di là oltre lo Scilla – e il Nord

è nella tua pupilla dove un lupo

vagola in neve e sangue per le guerre –

ora son io la quaglia che pigola,

[…] ora son io la quaglia più ritrosa

che vola sotto le tue ciglia e muove

nel tuo sonno lisce le sue ali verso

la tua voce venata delle azzurre

rughe di gioventù […]

[I have migrated to the other side of Scylla –

the North is in your pupil, where a wolf

in snow and blood is roaming through wars –

now I am the quail that chirps,

[…] now I am the bashful quail

flying below your eye-lashes and moving

in your dream on my smooth wings towards

your voice striated with blue

wrinkles of youth […] ]

In his collection, D’Arrigo encapsulates the richness of Sicilian life and culture without resorting to the dialect. Although it is described as honey for the wounds of the Sicilians, it is hardly used in the poems themselves. It’s as if the author has decided to save the dialect for another occasion, for the next time when he will write about the homecoming from war, about the sea, the sun, the island and the dolphins that will no longer be called dolphins.

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Attila (Atila) by Aliocha Coll

Aliocha Coll was only forty-two when he took his own life in Paris, on November 15, 1990. Shortly before his death, he sent to his literary agent Carmen Balcells the manuscript of his last novel Attila, the book after whose completion, as Coll himself used to remark, his life was meaningless. Almost forgotten, with all his published works out of print and with a substantial legacy of manuscripts that are unlikely to be published any time soon, Aliocha Coll represents that ideal of an uncompromising artist to which many authors aspire in their romantic fantasies, but very few dare to achieve. Javier Marías recollects in his obituary that, being certain of Coll’s talent, he “tried to convince him to write more ‘traditional’ things”. Obviously, this advice was never heeded. Up until death, Coll had been firm and consistent in his determination to create the “impossible” literature, which never interested Marías, as he himself admits, and which he describes in the same article as “avant-gardism, experimentalism, Joycism cubed”. One man’s poison may well be another man’s meat. The fact that Coll, whose real first name was Javier, was inspired by a Dostoevsky character when choosing his pseudonym (Aliocha is the Spanish spelling of Alyosha, the diminutive of the name of the youngest Karamazov brother) further piqued my interest. Now, having read the book, I can confirm that Attila is one of those novels that will keep generations of critics busy, of course, if there are enough of them ready to brave its impenetrability. I certainly was not unscathed by my reading experience; I was lost on many occasions, and the meaning of whole passages eluded me, yet I believe I have enough impressions and assumptions to attempt a modest review.

When poring over the especially intricate and cryptic passages of Attila, I kept thinking of two things: the artesonado ceiling in Mudéjar architecture and the dimension of the Sierpinski triangle. The former seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the verbal ornaments created by Coll, who intertwined alliterations and assonances as ingeniously as the medieval artisans interlaced decorative laths between the rafter beams. The latter is related to the meaning of the said passages. The ever-decreasing fractal structure is neither one- nor two-dimensional—it is in between. The Sierpinski triangle exists in the 1.585th dimension. In many instances, Coll’s text appears to be suspended between the two “dimensions” of sense and nonsense. It is not meaningful enough to make perfect sense, yet it is not too nonsensical not to give at least a vague idea of what is being said. I hope mathematicians will forgive me for this far-fetched parallel, but that was the recurring idea I could not easily discard.


Artesonado ceiling in the Sala de los Caballeros XXIV in the Madrasa of Granada. Photo Credit: José Luis Filpo Cabana.


Sierpinski triangle transformations for five iterations

Trying to unravel the complexity of the language used in the stylistically exuberant descriptions of nature, urban spaces, and dreamscapes would be too formidable a task for just a review, so I will limit myself to a couple of examples. The following sentence appears in a passage describing the steppe shrouded in the clouds of dust raised by the horses of the Huns: “El polvo no pudo esconderse en el lubricán ni en el polvo el lobo.” (The dust could not hide in the twilight nor could the wolf in the dust.)  Even in such a short and seemingly simple sentence, there is evidence of serious work with the language. Aliocha Coll chooses the rare word lubricán for “twilight”, not only because it has the l and n sounds necessary for the alliterative pattern but also because there is “wolf” hiding in the word, which is derived from the Latin words lupus and canis, i. e. wolf and dog. One cannot help but think of the famous epigraph in João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas: “O diabo na rua, no meio do redemoinho…” (The devil in the street, in the middle of the whirlwind). The devil or demon is hiding in the Portuguese word for “whirlwind”: redemoinho. Further on, we come across a vivid scene conjured up by just three sentences whose rhythm seems to mimic the squirming movements of a lizard’s tail that has gained an uncanny autonomy: “Lloraba el sauce y el álamo temblaba. La ondina aleteaba. Del saurio la cola se había desprendido y serpenteando iba corriente arriba en busca de la lengua.” (The willow was crying and the poplar was trembling. The water nymph was fluttering. The tail of the saurian had fallen off and, writhing like a snake, it was creeping up in search of the tongue.)

Although a substantial portion of the book reads like a hermetic prose poem abundant in metaphors drawn from mathematics, biology, geology, and architecture, there is an identifiable plot, concrete settings and characters whose actions and meditations can be followed and even occasionally understood. The Attila in the novel is not the bloodthirsty Attila the Hun we read about in the textbooks, but a philosopher and visionary whose full name is Attila History (Atila Historia). His wife is called Talía, which is an anagram of  “Atila”, the Spanish spelling of the title character’s name. The protagonist of the novel, however, is Attila’s son Quijote, who has renounced the name Quijote History and prefers to be called Hidatila Utopia. “Hidatila” (hijo de Atila) means the son of Attila. Quijote is eighteen years old, but since the age of three he has been living in Rome (whose ruler is also called Rome) as a child hostage. Sending child hostages to the potentially hostile nations was a common practice at the time: the historical Attila was himself such a hostage in the Western Roman Empire, whereas the young Flavius Aetius, his future adversary at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, was sent to live as a hostage among the Visigoths and later among the Huns. Quijote is planning to get married to his beloved Ipsibidimidiata, the daughter of Rome. At that point, he receives two different offers, one from his father and the other from his would-be father-in-law, and is faced with a tough choice. Attila’s grand plan is to revoke all the Hunnic hostages from the Western and Eastern empires and, using the Classical knowledge they have acquired in the course of their upbringing by the Romans and Greeks, to build a new apolitical and highly cultured society in the steppe. Quijote is expected to play a major role in the construction of that utopia. Rome also has serious plans for Quijote. He wants him to be in charge of the new codification of Roman civil law. Upon deliberation, Quijote rejects both the doomed Empire of the Romans and the projected ideal civilisation of the Huns, contracts a ship crew and sets sail together with Ipsibidimidiata with the ultimate goal of reaching a Greek colony and settling there. After many days of ploughing the high seas, their liburna makes a brief stop off the coast of Vandal Africa during which Quijote and Ipsibidimidiata come ashore and get inside a mysterious cave where they spend a night full of visions and epiphanies. Everything which happens afterwards does not seem quite to belong to the same reality which has been described up to the moment they enter the cave. There might be different interpretations of where the action takes place after this crucial moment. Maybe it is a higher metaphysical plane or, possibly, the mind of Quijote. It could also be the cave, which he and his fiancée never left. In Attila, the cave, as opposed to the one described by Plato in the Republic, is not a place of false perceptions but that of esoteric illumination and glimpses of hidden dimensions.

In the vision Quijote and his beloved share while in the cave they are split into two. They meet their doubles, Hidatila and Ipsibidimidiata, in a forest. The doubling effect is triggered when the horseman carrying Attila’s message to Quijote takes both roads at a bifurcation and turns into two identical riders: one who is preceded by a cloud of dust and one who is followed by it. The message to Hidatila is perfectly understandable; in it, his father asks him to get engaged with Ipsibidimidiata. The text in the missive received by Quijote is either encoded or gibberish: “xrstkjlmfffayñpzdrsejktvwulairmpxosknbaaagch”. The trope of doubling is also associated with King Solomon who the couple meet in their vision. The king orders the Ghost of Absalom to “recompose” the two children of the harlots from the well-known biblical narrative so that the dead one is alive, and the live one is dead. Something goes wrong, and, as a result, one child is “doubly” alive and will be eventually “doubly” dead, being an amphicephalous apod (i. e. has two heads at each end of the body and no feet), but the fate of the other one is even worse, for he is doomed to exist as an acephalous tetrapod (i. e. has four feet and no head). It should be noted that King Solomon and the Ghost of Absalom first appear at the beginning of the novel as characters in an esoteric play called Solomon along with the Queen of Sheba, the Living Son of a Whore, the Dead Son of a Whore, the Bad Whore, and the Good Whore. These characters keep cropping up at various points throughout the whole book.

After Quijote and his bride supposedly leave the cave and re-embark the liburna, the story, or rather a semblance thereof, develops in four subsequent settings. We never learn what happens to the liburna once it resumes its journey with Quijote and Ipsibidimidiata again on board. What we witness instead is the scenario in which the protagonist returns to his father and takes command over a large mounted troop of the Hunnic warriors. As Quijote and his detachment ride towards Rome, the alarmed forward scouts return to inform their commander of the strange and startling events they have witnessed farther ahead. Among those weird visions, there are scenes of futuristic warfare: bronze cauldrons spitting fire, heavy horseless chariots smashing through houses, birds without feathers throwing exploding eggs from the skies, and, the most terrifying of all, a single drop of the sun evaporating a whole city. Is the familiar course of our history the natural outcome of Attila’s attempt to create his utopian society? Is it a warning from the future about the inherent danger of any endeavour aimed at artificially subverting the natural order of things no matter how well-intentioned might be the goal, such as, for instance, the enforced equality of all people or a crash course in Western democracy? Either way, Quijote does not see any of that when he finally reaches Rome with the main body of his troops. What he does see is the capital of the once-mighty empire, in which he has spent most of his life, engulfed in flames and devastated by the hordes of the Vandals who cut a bloody swathe through it while fleeing from the Huns.

The next location is a desert landscape with seven stone trees and a vibrating dash (“una vírgula, que vibra”) instead of the sun. It’s a static environment in which Attila, Ipsibidimidiata, Hidatila, Quijote, and some of the dramatis personae from the play that opens the novel engage in abstruse conversations. Laocoön, Antigona and Melanthus are also present. These three happen to be the characters of yet another literary work inside Attila, namely the novel titled Laocoön. A ten-page excerpt from this novel immediately follows the play about King Solomon. In this frustratingly obscure episode, Attila announces to Ipsibidimidiata that she is his historical and utopian daughter as well as delivers a protracted encomium to the ruin, for even love itself is its integral part.

After the metaphysical desert, we are transported to the ancient Chinese city of Luoyang, famous for being the capital of various ruling dynasties as well as for its status as an important Buddhist hub. Quijote arrives in the city alone. The Chinese civilisation appears to him more vibrant and resilient than that of the Roman Empire. He is confident that China would have absorbed any Barbarian intrusion without any significant damage to its foundations and would have used the influx of the new ideas and worldviews brought by the newcomers to reinforce its imperial status.  Attila’s son is awestruck by the city and its environs; this awe is reflected in the long, cascading sentences with jostling townscape images, which as if try to capture and retain as many fragmentary impressions of his overwhelmed mind as possible. In Luoyang, Quijote has encounters with several women, in each of whom he ultimately sees the profile of Ipsibidimidiata. The most memorable of the women is an old prostitute who he follows all the way to the brothel. But the most significant meeting, which is evidently the main goal of his visit to the city, takes place in a spacious garden with a jade pavilion. The garden is the hermetic core of the whole setting, and what unfolds there is an uninterrupted flow of allegorical scenes that defy an easy explanation. In the garden, Quijote comes across the threshold between two worlds or two planes of existence, and at this threshold, the earth goddess Gaia waits for him in the guise of a blind woman. Their conversation is accompanied by a series of mystical visitations: cherubim descend from the skies followed by celestial dogs and dwarfs armed as hoplites, and then an apsara and a dragon, their tails intertwined, land on the blind woman’s bosom, whereas a mounted hunter chasing a doe escapes from her hair. Eventually, the blind woman departs from the threshold allowing Quijote access to “the temporal corner of the space dimension”. A ladder is lowered from heaven, but it does not reach the ground, and, therefore, Quijote cannot climb it. There is one more place left for him to visit.


White Horse Temple in Luoyang. According to tradition, the oldest Buddhist temple in China. Photo Credit: Gary Todd

We are in a desert again. It is either a different location in the same desert or a different desert altogether. There seems to be a black mango tree (at least that’s how I understood the word “manga” here) with four archangels sitting in it. A little farther, there is a deep crevice out of which Quijote emerges. In the distance, the heads of horses loom above the line of the horizon. Near the mango tree, there is a two-step staircase. The whole scene is a bit reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí painting. Most of the previous characters reappear in this episode; its general tone seems to be that of reconciliation and harmony. Quijote’s decision to reject the proposals of Rome and Attila in favour of an independent life together with Ipsibidimidiata must have been right. There is a glimpse of all their descendants, while Attila and Talía declare, having mounted the two-step staircase: “Finally, we have been born by our children into the splendour of the day” and “We are beyond the utopia.” However, we should take this harmonious resolution with a pinch of salt because a little earlier we stumble upon a melancholic counterpoint coming from Quijote himself, which acquires tragic proportions when we remember what happened to the author of the novel when it was finished: “and he desired suicide, if only to discontinue existence, to put an end to the pain, and he remembered all the trees Attila used to name for him in his childhood, the trees in bloom with their leaves intact, and he desired suicide, if only not to become a brute, not to vegetate”.

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Melancolia by Mircea Cărtărescu

Laure Hinckel’s French rendering of Mircea Cărtărescu’s most recent book was the first translation that came out, and, naturally, I happily grasped this opportunity to find out what the Romanian author had to offer two years after the publication of his brilliant mega-novel Solenoid. Let us start with the title. The translator left it as it was in the original. Why? That is the first mystery to be solved about this book, which, upon careful reading proves to be brim-full of them. The Romanian for “melancholy” is melancolie, so the original title is not in Romanian unless its meaning is “the melancholy”. Nor is it in Latin, for the Latin word is melancholia. Two languages have melancolia for “melancholy”—Italian and Portuguese; but why would the author title his book in either of these languages? The Italian word melancolia is not as loaded as, say, inferno or paradiso. Nor does the Portuguese melancolia refer us to any immediately recognisable source. It is not in a language that we should look for the answer, but in art. This new consideration immediately brings us to Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia I whose title is also spelt, albeit more rarely, as Melancolia I. So, the first mystery solved, we are ready to dive in for others.


Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514)

Returning to the form that launched his career as a prose writer, Cărtărescu has published again a collection of novellas, this time bookended by two short stories: the Prologue and the Epilogue. The former is a fable employing cryptic and flamboyant symbolism to tell us about the limitless possibilities granted to us by imagination if we are ready to overcome all the self-created obstacles on our journey to creative fulfilment. The latter has nothing of the Prologue’s optimism. As a counterpoint to the Prologue, the Epilogue is a desperate lament about the oppressing and inescapable captivity suffered by anyone thrown into biological existence and into the physical world in general: we are trapped in the claustrum, which is trapped in the brain, which is trapped in the skull, which is trapped in the body, which is trapped on the planet Earth—the circles of this inferno keep propagating forever, beyond the reaches of the known universe and the limits of the presumed dimensions. “Hold on a second!” one is tempted to say. But isn’t the brain, which is one of hell’s circles in the Epilogue, also the source of unfettered creativity celebrated in the Prologue, in which the cupola of the magnificent palace visited by an unnamed traveller is shaped like a human skull, and painted in the inside to resemble the folded structure of the cerebral cortex? Yes, exactly. The more we think about this duality, the more we are likely to fall into the state of bitter melancholy, and the two stories allegorising this situation rightly serve as the frame of the main body of the book in which each novella represents a more particular instance of that heavy and overwhelming feeling so ingeniously personified in the German artist’s engraving.

The protagonists of the novellas, in contrast to those of the “bookend stories”, are young. They are, respectively, a five-year-old boy, an eight-year-old boy, and an adolescent of fifteen. There are indications that the protagonists of the first and the last novella are the same person. As is the case with most of Cărtărescu’s writing, he heavily draws on his own experience in crafting these fable-like narratives, but the personal is inevitably transmuted into the universal as the events and situations depicted by the Romanian author in his hallmark style, which intertwines reality and surreality, are all too familiar to us. Many adults reading this collection are likely to be galvanised into a series of unexpected recollections by the acid-soaked madeleine Cărtărescu has prepared for them.

The first novella, titled The Bridges, relates a well-known situation: the mother is absent for too long, and a small child left home alone starts believing she is never going to return. The little boy’s anxiety is externalised in a variety of bizarre ways with the general outcome of the motherless space becoming a surreal environment that defies natural laws. The unnamed boy is not aware of the course of time: it’s either weeks or months or years that he spends alone in the apartment. What is more, the seasons change every day; the radio transmits phrases in an unknown language; the front door won’t open because the staircase has been clogged with tons of earth and the only way to leave the apartment is by walking over translucent elastic bridges that spring up at night between the windows and various destinations in the city. The boy’s solitary existence in this fabulous space eerily devoid of other people gives him for the first time an opportunity to delve deep into introspection and to solve some important issues weighing on his mind as well as to discover new things about life.

His major entertainment is playing with three dolls: a little white horse, a blue cat and a clown called Hubert. Not surprisingly, the clown is the villain of the scenarios he acts out, each time capturing the little horse and subjecting it to tortures. The horse would perish if each time the blue cat didn’t come to its rescue and defeat the nasty clown. The clown always comes back, and it seems this cycle will never be broken until the boy takes Hubert with him on his first journey over the bridge leading to the rubber factory opposite his apartment block. The boy returns without the toy, which he leaves at the factory. It seems he can now resume his games with the white horse and the blue cat without being worried about any violent disruption, but he doesn’t want to play anymore. Without the clown, his game has become meaningless. Thus the boy, feeling like “a helpless god”, comes to the startling conclusion that evil is an inherent part of this world and is a necessary condition for the greater good.


Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914)

Another important artwork whose influence on Cărtărescu is unmistakable here is Giorgio de Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. He himself acknowledges his indebtedness to Chirico in the interview with Magda Gradinaru (available in Romanian). The bareness of the urban landscape in which the hoop-rolling girl is running towards the shadow of a statue is echoed by the depopulated spaces of the city visited by the boy with the help of the bridges. However, the presence of Chirico is not limited only to this painting. As we know, many of his works feature human replicas instead of humans: dummies, mannequins, statues. And it is in that uncanny metaphysical form that the child finds his parents on two nightly journeys over two different bridges. His mother and father expect him in the guise of mute monumental effigies in the spirit of Chirico.

We learn that the boy has a father and that his father is absent too only later into the novella. At first, we might think that he is being brought up by a single mother. The difficult relationship with the father is expressed by the shape in which the boy finds him at the end of his first trip across the bridge. The man appears as a colossal naked statue made entirely of greyish rubber lying supine on the ground floor of the rubber factory. This must give us pause. How can the protagonist come to this symbolic representation of his difficult relationship with the father at such an early age? Surely, it is his grown-up self who does that, and the boy is no more autonomous than the dolls he has been playing with. And, indeed, in the same interview Cărtărescu explains that this episode illustrates the result of his own attempt to come to grips with his father: “I always had a very complex relationship with him and very mixed feelings. I often tried to understand the monolith that my father was, to break it into its component parts, and finally I realized that there were no component parts. He was moulded in one piece, and that’s why I imagined him as a rubber statue. I never understood him; that’s the truth.” But, of course, such a personal revelation can hardly be unique, and many of us could perhaps find in this symbolism some echoes of what we feel about our own parents. The fact that the boy leaves the evil clown at the feet of the rubber statue as an offering of sorts, further accentuates his problematic attitude towards the father, yet this can also be seen as an attempt at reconciliation.

The mother’s sculpture is different. It also lies supine, but on the ground floor of a department store; it is made of chocolote and is completely wrapped in shiny foil. The statue is a precise large-scale replica of his mother both on the outside and inside. This gives the boy the opportunity to fill the major gap in his knowledge he has been obsessed with for a while: what does the place in which he spent nine months before being born look like? Whereas the father’s statue was described as a corpse, that of the mother is compared to “a goddess of solitude”, and in almost religious awe the child unwraps a sheet of foil around her thigh and eats enough of this transubstantiated body to make a large hole which allows him to burrow inside and explore the inner organs of his mum. His offering to the statue is the blue cat, which he places below the large beating heart of chocolate.

Visiting the effigies of his parents gives the boy a temporary peace of mind. It seems he has resolved some of the urgent issues with his parents, but the main challenge is still ahead. As in most tales, things come in threes here, and the boy has to confront the third bridge, which is unlike the other two. It harbours the revelation about the inevitability of growing up, integrating into society, giving oneself up to the routine and the humdrum existence, getting old and dying. It is the boy’s call now if he wants to have a symbolic tour of the experience that will surpass by far the intensity of the two previous journeys, and which will also entail sacrificing the last toy he has left, or if he chooses instead to meet his mum finally coming home after all these days, months, and years.

The second novella is called The Foxes, and it is the scariest in the collection. This fairy-tale-like narrative (but think the grimmest by the Brothers Grimm) even begins like one: “Once upon a time there lived a little brother and a little sister, Marcel and Isabel […]”. The eight-year-old boy and his three-year-old sister for the most part live in an autonomous world of their own with the occasional intrusions of two ethereal entities that feed them and say good night before sleep. In general, the world of adults is just a haze surrounding the exclusive domain of the siblings. They play different games, but one of them, which takes place at night, is special. They pretend to be little rabbits threatened by foxes. The denouement of the game is always the same: Marcel leaves the space under the blanket that stands for the rabbit burrow and protects his sister by courageously fighting the fox that has discovered their shelter. The game has a happy end as long as the fox is imaginary, but one night a real fox shows up, snatches Isabel away, and carries her into its lair to gnaw and maul. Marcel’s mission now is to save his little sister at the cost of a personal sacrifice.

Knowing Cărtărescu well, it does not come as a surprise that the “fox” which steals Isabel is not a fox. This creature neither is a fox in the hazy world of adults, nor is it one in the fabulous habitat of the siblings. From the parents’ perspective, the girl comes down with a grave illness, probably pneumonia, and is rushed into hospital where the medics begin fighting for her life. The boy sees things differently. For him, the “fox” is a creepy child with a cadaverous complexion, hollow inhuman eyes and a melancholic “smile” cutting across his face like a scalpel incision. The lair of this fox is a Lynchian limbo situated in one of the buildings of an abandoned and dilapidated block of houses that can be seen from the window of the siblings’ room. To save his sister, the boy has to visit that place.

In this novella the personal and the universal merge again. The game of rabbits hiding from foxes comes from Cărtărescu’s own childhood: he used to play it with his sister. As the author notes in the interview I keep referring to: “It’s the first time I’ve written about my sister, and I did it with great emotion. This story is a kind of gift to my sister.[ … ] it’s a deeply autobiographical and deeply disturbing story for me.” In The Foxes, the tragic individual experience of losing someone close to you is nourished by the rich mythological tradition in which the protagonist ventures into the realm of the dead either to bring back the loved one or to gain special knowledge. Some of the most notable examples are the journey of the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh across the waters of death, the katabasis of Orpheus in Greek mythology, and the descent of the twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque into Xibalba in the Mayan sacred text Popol Vuh.

For Cărtărescu such categories as the terrifying and the uplifting or the pleasant and the revolting are not entirely separate. There is a certain aesthetic grandeur about the ghastliest places he describes, and even the most hair-raising of his stories can be imbued with unexpected optimism.  It is not enough for the Romanian author to tell us the uncanny fairy-tale of his; he wants to go even deeper by giving us a glimpse of what kind of fairy-tale is read by the characters of the kind of fairy-tale he is telling. Marcel reads from a large children’s book a story about a fabulous castle with a king and a princess inside. However, the scenes that get retold in the main text of the novella alert us to the fact that this book is not very appropriate for small children, at least in our world. Here is one passage:

The terrible monster broke through the floor of the castle and planted two enormous brown claws in the middle of the ballroom. The injured princess was lying on her stomach, her mane of hair falling onto the Persian carpet with interlaced patterns, her dress torn to shreds and the skin on her back split, baring all her vertebrae and ribs as if she was a fish cut open on a plate. She was still alive, and her fingers were creasing the smooth fabric of the satin sheet. The king on his throne felt in his chest the throbbing of the spider, which was spreading its thick venom throughout his veins. Making use of an extremely long straw, the king began to drink the moon, which was showing its belly in the window. The black rainbow arching over the kingdom now could be seen better: this giant bridge was made up by a procession of black ants with lustrous skulls and entangled legs clinging one to another in thousands, in hundreds of thousands; they were twitching their antennae and crawling, which produced a sharp sound that stayed in your eardrums for a long time. In the marble abdomen of every statue in this remote land there was a living baby girl ready to come into the world. It was possible to see through the translucent stone the closed eyelids and the ears like little seashells. It seemed that this whole world, which was inlaid under the varnish of paper like in the transparency of a frosted lake, was waiting for a fearful and hopeless event.

This tableau does not bode any good, yet the princess is going to be healed when the monster and the spider clash in a lethal fight on her blood-oozing back. She is going to stand up and shake herself free from both “chimaeras”. Not everything, which starts out ugly, is going to end up this way. Maybe little Isabel can be saved, like the princess. And if a book like that can give its reader a bit of consolation, so can the novella that contains it, despite its many terrors.

In The Foxes, the living and the dead have different concerns. They are curious about different things. What might make sense to the ones will seem nonsensical to the others. We get to know some of the things that the otherworldly boy ruminates about, and they do seem strange and meaningless. He fills his notebook with questions that no living person could possibly ask: “how does a smile burn?”, “how much does sadness cost?”, “why does milk not lie?”, “what is the echo of the tongue?”, “how does destiny snow?” No living ordinary person, that is. Such questions can be asked by entities from the netherworld as well as by poets from the world of the living. In fact, the last question appears as part of the poem quoted in the third novella of Melancolia.

This text, called The Skins, is the longest in the collection, running at ninety pages. It is also a kind of summary of some of the prominent motifs of The Blinding Trilogy and Solenoid, which can be equally reassuring or irritating depending on your attitude towards some symbolic staples of Cărtărescu’s works, such as butterflies, levitating statues, and mysterious factories. In this text, the author is particularly apt at defamiliarising familiar situations, and by doing that, paradoxically, making them even more familiar to us provided that we had a similar experience in the past. If you lived as a child in a city with well-developed ground public transportation and used either a bus, or a trolleybus or a tram to get to school, as I did, then you should remember the feeling of ambiguity about your daily route. On the one hand, the moving urban landscape is hardly registered after a year of regular journeys; it becomes just a background for your idle thoughts. On the other hand, this all too familiar city section becomes an undiscovered territory as soon as you decide one day, on a whim, to explore it on foot. Cărtărescu takes this experience, known to many, and enriches it with the aesthetics of a capriccio painting. Capriccio artworks feature a combination of real and imaginary architectural elements, or create fantastic landscapes by clustering in one place real pieces of architecture from different locations, or reconfigure buildings as melancholy ruins from a distant future. This genre was practised by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Guardi, Hubert Robert, and Joseph Gandy, to name a few. The most remarkable contemporary artist working within this convention is Carl Laubin. In The Skins, the familiar route to school gets defamiliarised in the tradition of capriccio and in keeping with the young protagonist’s secret desire:

One day at a psychology lesson, the teacher asked them a question: “How do you picture paradise?” and, to his great surprise, a single image came to his mind: the reverie of an infinite region filled with ruined buildings. He would have loved to be immortal and to be able to explore forever this universe of ruins, to enter each time-ravaged edifice overrun by vegetation, with yellow lichens on the walls and old photographs strewn on the floor, and skeletons wrapped in rags still sitting around the table in the dining rooms with mouldered draperies […]


Joseph Michael Gandy, A Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830)

When the main character finally decides to explore the street running through the seven tram stops between his home and school, his wish is partly fulfilled. He does enter a region of mostly ruined buildings, which he saw in passing from the tram but had never approached before. Of course, the city section he at last visits on foot is not infinite, but it is paradisiacal enough for him to meet his first love and to learn more about himself and the role of poetry in his life.

Not everything has been subject to decay and neglect on the road along the tramline. Some objects are intact; for example: a bizarre sweetshop selling chocolates in the shape of insects and tapeworms, a maternity hospital with a woman and a newborn baby looking out each window, the monument to the fictional poet Vasile Solitude hovering above the pedestal, and, most significantly, the house with an art nouveau doorway awning, where the teenage girl Dora lives. Ivan, for this is the name of the protagonist, gets acquainted with this newly-discovered territory and with the girl, who is always to be found in the front yard of her house. Their odd friendship begins, and thanks to it, Ivan is destined to discover the great mystery that has occupied his thoughts for a while : where do women hide their skins? Ivan knows well that males moult first at the age of one, then at four, at seven, and after that, every five years. He keeps his sloughed skins in the wardrobe in his room, neatly hung on coat hangers. The old skins of his father are stored in a suitcase. But he has never seen the skins of his mother; nor have any of his classmates discovered those of their mums. The strange girl Dora, who looks the way Ivan would if he were a girl, is the key to this secret knowledge with an unexpected entomological side to it.

The last name of the fictional poet suggests one of the major motifs not only in this novella, but in the whole collection, for solitude and melancholy go hand in hand. Ivan, obviously modelled on the adolescent Cărtărescu, is a solitary and pensive individual who prefers to spend lesson breaks at the back of the school reading a book of poems. He is on the cusp of two important initiations: into love and poetry. So far, he has been just an observer of the opposite sex and a reader of dead poets’ works. But now, it seems, he is ready to become a lover and a poet himself, and the melancholy attending this transition, full of doubts, fears, and soul-searching, is masterfully captured in this text, like an insect in amber. Actually, the entomological slant of the novella is further reinforced when Ivan finds out that a giant stag beetle is going to be his guide on a journey in the fantastic land with several moons, evergreen valleys and four rivers of pink, viscous fluid. The majestic landscape opening before the boy’s eyes after he enters the secret door in the pedestal of the monument to Vasile Solitude is situated in his own brain, and the four rivers carry neurotransmitter substances: dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and acetylcholine. His claustrum appears as a vast cemetery of dead poets from the previous centuries, each of them lying in a crystal sarcophagus filled with lacteous liquid. When the liturgy administered by the stone effigy of Vasile Solitude begins in the factory-cathedral nearby, they leave their graves and take places in the pews, dripping the turbid liquid on the floor. The altarpiece in this cathedral is represented by two other statues: one is made of rubber and the other of chocolate wrapped in shiny foil. They are Ivan’s parents. Guided by the beetle, Ivan attends the liturgy and participates in a strange ritual, as a result of which the statue of the poet gets mutilated. Wielding a hammer and a chisel, the stag beetle removes the brain, the heart, and the genitals of the effigy and then passes them one after another to Ivan, who smashes them against the cathedral floor. There can be different interpretations of this vision, yet it is obvious that Ivan’s irreverent deed with respect to his idol (literally a stone idol here) marks an important stage in his development when he is no longer satisfied with being a passive admirer of the poetic tradition but is ready to take part in it himself. This epiphany appears to be confirmed when he travels inside his brain for the second time, and witnesses how the thousands of dead poets, now all enclosed in organic cocoons, simultaneously burst free from their graves and fly away as multi-coloured lepidopterous creatures. The message of Ivan’s intracranial wonderland seems to be clear enough: now that this site is no longer a cemetery, it is up to you to build on it something of your own; make a capriccio that will make the former denizens of this place proud and the future visitors aghast with amazement. Almost half a century later, Cărtărescu continues to amaze.

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