Interview with Miquel de Palol: On architecture, geometry, literature, nested narratives, the dodecahedron as a 3D table of contents, the soundtrack for his books, and the choice between Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade

The Untranslated: How did your studies of architecture shape you as a writer?

 Miquel de Palol: At the beginning of my youth, I made a life plan in which I envisioned architecture as a profession to earn a living and poetry as the expansion of my artistic impulse—I was following in a way the example of Spinoza, who was a lens grinder during working hours and a philosopher during the rest of the day. Soon I realised that both architecture and literature are very demanding endeavours that need one’s total dedication or are not worth pursuing at all. Architecture also has an important expressive dimension and requires a stylistic and ideological commitment by demanding a combination of technical knowledge and diplomatic work that takes almost as much time as the study of each project and its implementation. In the end, I had to choose one activity that I could see myself grappling with for the rest of my life. Only after my professional break from architecture did I notice its dimension and meaning in creative processes. I am often asked if I find it helpful to know how a house is structured or even if this knowledge has provided me with a model for structuring a text, especially if it is lengthy and complex. That might sound nice as a metaphor, but I’m very sceptical of such mechanism because the concept of “structuring” unites a vast range of attitudes and activities that considerably differ from one another. On the other hand, I’ve used, with a certain degree of freedom, some elements of architecture and some geometric figures in my writing, but when depicting them I utilised the symbolic rather than, let’s say, technical mechanism.

The Untranslated: You are obviously a voracious reader. Your books are marked by numerous sources of inspiration coming from fiction, poetry, philosophy, art criticism, and studies of a variety of topics, yet you have developed your unique, unmistakable style which is impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. Have you ever run the risk of becoming an epigone?

Palol: Not consciously. The risks of writing are usually the functions of ambition. I’m a proponent of being aware of one’s own strengths and limitations, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to set the bar a little higher than the one you believe you can clear, having objectively weighed your abilities. It shouldn’t be raised too high because then it will be difficult to reach, but high enough so you can get out of your comfort zone and step into the terrain of challenge that is more likely to yield an authentic work. I am also a proponent of humility: not of false modesty but of self-awareness; conversely, it would be a diplomatic risk to assume that your purpose is to create an absolute masterpiece and that if it doesn’t work out, in Cyril Connolly’s words, you “might as well be peeling potatoes.”

The Untranslated: In our debut novel The Garden of Seven Twilights, you adopt the technique of nested narratives. The 8th narrative level is the farthest point that you reach. Were you tempted to go even further when working on the manuscript?

Palol: Yes. At first, I toyed with the idea of exploiting this conceit to the maximum (16 levels, 32, 64…), but I immediately saw that this had no value in itself, unless I wanted to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The human capacity to separate and distinguish is limited. There are examples of that in all fields. If we take any plane geometric figure like a square and divide it in half with a line, we can differentiate the two parts at a glance. The same holds true if we divide the square into 4 parts, into 9, into 16—up to 64, probably. After that, a person without special training will have to start counting. A grid divided into 144 parts already requires some time (and, depending on the size, good eyesight) to be correctly evaluated. At some point, the lines begin to merge, and the human eye perceives the square as a whole, just like it was at the very beginning when it hadn’t been divided yet. The same goes for polygons: triangles, squares, and pentagons can be identified at a glance. But you have to rely on counting in order to distinguish a polygon with 100 sides from one with 110, and when there is a certain number of sides, polygons will begin to resemble circles.

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Miquel de Palol’s outline for the embedded narrative structure of The Garden of Seven Twilights. Photos courtesy of the author.

Music is another discipline where this phenomenon can be found. During Bach’s famous visit to Potsdam, in 1747, the king asked the musician (whether it’s true or not—doesn’t matter) to improvise a six-voice canon, and then an eight-voice canon. Did Bach do it? Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis is another example of an attempt to build a Tower of Babel, and before that, there was Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, composed of 40 voices (8 choirs of 5 voices each)—the effect is fascinating, but the voices are not distinguishable anymore. The Baroque anticipates the extravagance of Romanticism, a period when the excess in proportions becomes a distinctive feature. 6 voices appear to be the limit of appreciable distinction. In the case of my novel, 8 levels of nested stories seemed to me a reasonable equivalent of 6 voices in music. I believe that dealing with more narrative levels would have been overwhelming for the reader unless we are talking about an exceptionally gifted person with a photographic memory. Of course, it is possible to build a literary contraption with 1,000 levels of successive embeddings, but the reader will have an endless flow of events in their head and will lose track of the action.

The Untranslated: The world you have created in Ígur Neblí is extremely cruel. It reminded me of Alexei German’s film Hard to be a God. It is not a place any sane reader would like to inhabit. Nevertheless, when reading the book, I had a feeling that there were undertones of a certain tenderness towards that world as if you were describing something ugly but dear to your heart. Is there any substance to that?

Palol: That’s a very good point. It’s hard for me to allocate preferences to my books and easy to fall back on instinct or base my opinion on the joys and rewards they give, which may determine my positive or negative attitude towards them. The Garden of Seven Twilights should be my favourite work because it has given me the most returns, but I have to confess that I harbour a certain weakness towards the books with a more complicated life. Ígur Neblí is one of them (as well as El Quincorn). It came right after The Garden …, and I designed it with opposite parameters: a unique, equiescent narrator instead of a group of first-person narrators, structural linearity instead of the diversity of temporal planes, past tense narration without any incursion into the present, hypotactic register instead of simple diction. When deciding whether I wanted to make the story irremediably ruthless, it seemed to me that, by contrast, some compassion for the characters would be more effective.

The Untranslated: In a recent interview, you said that you preferred the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade to that of Immanuel Kant. Could you elaborate on that?

Palol: It’s an idea suggested by Lacan­—in that peculiar, fanciful style of his—in the sense that Kant is a staunch defender of Law as the expression of a divine attribute made accessible to humans, whereas Sade, by not subjecting human acts to moral categorisation and by advocating existential synthesis of good and evil turns out to be, in practice, absolutely tolerant and compassionate. Kant would execute a criminal in the name of Law. But Sade would pardon the criminal in the name of the impossibility to hierarchise any action. Sade’s paradigm of life seems to me more inclusive, comprehensive, and sympathetic than that of Kant. As history has shown, however, there are a lot of cases in which the administration of justice serves the right purpose, and not allowing justice to be dispensed would spell permissiveness or even inducement to commit violence, abuse, murder, and genocide; it would mean the banalisation of justice itself with impunity as a consequence. Existence is full of contradictions and inconsistencies and, when they can’t be resolved, there is no other option than to learn how to live with them. This learning is conflict-ridden and, quite often, wild. I am not familiar with the institutions of justice in the United States and civilised Europe, so I can’t say how humane they are, but in my country those institutions are so defective that the occasions on which one has the impression of witnessing an act of justice are exceptions. A large part of the judges, especially those with the highest rank and the most power, are noisy prevaricators who look more like medieval inquisitors and mobsters trading favours than servants of the supposed Rule of Law. At this point, the causal circle closes, and I end up choosing Sade instead of Kant, whose “fair justice” proves to be non-existent.

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Imaginary Portrait of D.A.F. de Sade by Man Ray and Portrait of Immanuel Kant attributed to Jean-Marc Nattier

The Untranslated: How did you arrive at the concept of The Troiacord and how close is the published version to the one you had in mind, both in terms of its content and physical appearance? I am also interested in how you came up with the idea of including a model of the dodecahedron in the published version of the book.

Palol: The Troiacord is the product of a challenge, or an illusion, not in the sense of emotional expectation but in the sense of an uncommon perception that Catalan literature and the society in which it is embedded enjoy acceptable normality in the European context, which, as we know, was not the case at that time, nor is it now. The apparent intention to put yourself above your country may seem pretentious, even conceited. I proceeded from the idea of the Game, which is one of the main elements of The Troiacord. None of my books are exactly like the ones I had in mind when developing their concepts, but as years pass, this resemblance increases with each new book. I don’t know whether it means that I’m getting better at it, or that I’m gradually lowering my expectations. If the latter is the case, it is something completely unconscious and involuntary, and if I really believed that it was happening, I would do everything in my power to remedy it. A novel of more than 600 pages requires a good physical shape: memory, endurance, mental balance, ability to synthesise, flexibility allowing you to distance yourself from your text so that you can see it from a new perspective as well as to switch between two frames of mind: that of your everyday life and the one you adopt when writing. The best years for writing novels are between 30 and 60: at the early extreme the novelist is limited by insufficient knowledge of reality and of the human being, and at the late—by a lack of energy. Of course, we all aspire to overcome the constraints of nature. The Troiacord falls in the middle of this range, which, of course, does not automatically make it a good novel.  As for the table of contents that extends over the surface of a dodecahedron, I thought it would be illustrative and entertaining to include in the edition the model to be assembled so that the readers could follow, if they pleased, the story in its true dimension, that is to say in 3D. The titles of the chapters are inscribed around the vertices of the polyhedron, and there is also a zodiac sign in the centre of each face to demonstrate the cyclical character of the object and to show how it is based on a game of symbolic correspondences. The publication of the novel coincided with a delicate moment for the publisher, and the book did not receive due attention. It was my idea to publish it in five volumes (just like I had the first edition of The Garden of Seven Twilights brought out in three volumes), but both the dodecahedron of the table of contents and the slipcase were made very poorly, which resulted in an inconsistent object of low physical quality. I hope to rectify this in the future edition, which we are going to start working on soon, and I trust that the book will look a lot like the one I would make if I had an unlimited budget, with a certain surprise for the readers that I will keep secret for now. I also hope that English-speaking readers will soon have access to the U.S. edition, whose translation is already underway.

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Which Catalan authors should be more well-known and more widely read, in your opinion?

Palol: Catalan literature is currently in a comatose state, but it has always suffered from a provincial, self-limiting and cowardly inbreeding, with occasional bouts of irresponsibility and madness. The scene is so small and weak that there is no place for heterodoxies, and even less so when heterodox authors have the bad idea to dispute cultural policies and norms in general. The imbalances of appraisal are surely the product of insecure subjectivities and can always be debated, of course. But there are some dismissals that I find outrageous and scandalous. Despite their “political” presence, Llull, Maragall, and Espriu are completely unknown in terms of their influence on contemporary literature and their reception by the readers; no one examined Espriu’s kabbalistic practices until Rosa Delor’s study. There are more serious instances of neglect: Agustí Esclasans, Ventura Ametller, Bru de Sala, Julià de Jòdar.

Music is essential to all your writing. Not only do you include numerous references to musical works and composers, but sometimes your text itself mimics the structure of a musical composition, like Boötes for example. Which musical works would make up the soundtrack for your fiction?

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Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

Palol: I have always been interested in the possible applications of musical structures to writing, in all possible aspects. The forms (sonata, rondo, toccata, vaudeville), the relationship between voices, harmony, and, above all, the counterpoint seem to me extraordinary expressive tools, which are capable of developing into various procedures and degrees of abstraction. Although they are present in the overall structure of most of my books, for some of those, like Graphomaquia and L-shaped Stories, they have specifically served as raw material. The soundtrack would be quite varied. Bach would be the most frequently featured composer along with the authors from his circle, not necessarily in the temporal or geographical sense. Besides some representatives of his immediate family (with Johann Christoph, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Carl Philipp Emanuel in the most prominent place), those would be: Biber, Purcell, Buxtehude, Fischer, Pachelbel, Telemann, Graupner, Handel, Zelenka, not to dismiss composers from other circles: Haydn seems great to me, Mozart, Beethoven and the romantics up to Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss, and then Busoni, Reger, Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Boulez, Berio, Gershwin, Bernstein, Penderecki, Ligeti. I’d also make sure to include Cohen, Dylan, the Beatles, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits.

The Untranslated: The famous phrase “Let None But Geometers Enter Here” could serve as an epigraph for any of your novels. However, you have chosen to use it for Boötes. Does it mean that this book is the culmination of your geometric vision?

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Page from Harmonices Mundi by Johannes Kepler

Palol: It is perhaps the book in which geometric elements play a more significant role, both in structural and symbolic terms. With the passage of time, I increasingly appreciate the extraordinary capacity of geometric objects to serve as an organising principle and symbolic frame of reference for other disciplines of thought and expression. Among the classical series of equivalences (colours – gems – planets – days of the week – hours of the day – animals – humours – seasons – trees – numbers – letters, etc.), polyhedra and polygons seem to me one of the most lucid sequences of such kind, and, at the same time, one of the most abstract (aseptic) and the most loaded with argumental content. In Timaeus, Plato (as you know) correlates the five perfectly regular polyhedra (they have equal vertices, edges, faces and are also known as “the Platonic solids”) with the elements. I have the impression that he didn’t know what to do with the dodecahedron and therefore assigned it the role of the model of the universe, but it is also possible that he feigned ignorance to hide from the reader some mystery knowledge (probably Egyptian) that he didn’t want to reveal. From that point, the extension to other areas of equivalence seems obvious to me.

The fact that the reality of geometry is what it is and not something else is at the heart of the unresolved polemic on idealism: whether geometry (and mathematics in general) exists by itself, on the margins of human vision; whether we have invented it or only discovered; to what extent one thing or another puts us in the position of hubris and fallacy with respect to the reality that we cannot quite understand; whether in another quantum state 1 + 1 would not equal 2, but some other number. All that is part of the internal discussion in Boötes, and that is why I thought it was appropriate to give it the epigraph you have mentioned, which would have been excessive in any other book (probably with the exception of The Troiacord and The Testament of Alcestis).

This is an English translation of the interview, which was conducted in Catalan.

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Miracle Plays of Terror (Миракули на грозомората, Миракли) by Slavko Janevski

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The fictional Macedonian village Kukulino has become Slavko Janevski’s own personal Yoknapatawpha. The Kukulino cycle comprises eight novels set in different periods of the village’s history. The three novels united under the ominous title Miracle Plays of Terror present to us the macabre and fantastic Kukulino of the Middle Ages. The trilogy appears to have had the most success with the readers and was the only part of the cycle picked for translation into Russian more than thirty years ago. The title of the translation proved to be more laconic than that of the original: just Миракли (Miracle Plays). The terror component was left to be discovered by the adventurous reader. The translator Nina Smirnova did a great job by mining the regional and archaic riches of the Russian language. Her translation is a dense, vibrant text that is enticing and alienating at the same time. It’s as if the novels had been written by someone living outside human time, equally at ease with the lexical layers of different epochs, harnessing that linguistic variety to better express the deeds of the undead, the bloodthirsty, the visionary, the scheming, and the phantasmagorical denizens of Kukulino. The trilogy employs an impressive ensemble of more than 200 characters each of whom is listed in the last chapter of the third novel. Not all of them are entirely human and many of them meet a most violent end. Miracle Plays of Terror is a chaotic, wild, gory, and surreal spectacle that is not easily forgotten after the curtain has been dropped.

The Legions of Saint Adofonis (Легионите на Свети Адофонис, Легионы Святого Адофониса)

The first novel in the trilogy is narrated by Borčilo the Grammarian, who was born in 6670 but began writing his chronicle on a cured sheepskin only in 6816, 146 years later. To convert these years, which mark time since the biblical creation of the world, all you have to do is to subtract 5508. The extraordinary longevity of Borčilo is explained by the simple fact that he became a vampire having disobeyed the two pilgrims who had taken him along to a dead city: they tried their best to talk him out of attacking the local upyr with a knife. The weapon went right through the dark shape without causing the creature any damage, whereas the attacker fell to the ground to get up as yet another upyr. Borčilo returned to the village of Kukulino, his birthplace, in this new capacity and took up residence in the half-ruined fortress that had used to belong to Prince Rastimir, his erstwhile adversary. Rastimir made Borčilo the game in a perverse travesty of hunting, which the Grammarian survived and came back to take his revenge. The murder of Rastimir initiated Borčilo’s exile from Kukulino and sent him on a series of adventures, which included captivity, cannibalism, pilgrimage, and vampirism. Upon his return to the old fortress, however, Borčilo did not become the nemesis of the descendants of his compatriots. He satisfied his appetite by sucking the blood of deer, bats, and hedgehogs. And now, the 146-year-old upyr is ready to assume the most significant role in his existence both before and after his death—to become the chronicler of the most terrifying and curious events that put at stake the survival of his native village.

The great disaster that strikes Kukulino is the massive invasion of rats under the command of their warlord Saint Adofonis, who is not a rat himself but a mystical entity whose appearance defies clear description:

He was standing on his outstretched shadow —neither a rat nor a human being but something vague, like a thickened smoke, like the ghost of a huge caterpillar, faceless and polycephalous: look at him squirming, completely hollow one moment and taking the shape of an enormous maw the next, spewing curses and orders in an infernal voice. And I knew that this malicious and murky voivode had a name and that the name was none other than Adofonis; around him, the trees of my youth drooped and desiccated, the water in the lakes evaporated, the fish’s swim bladders sank to the bottom, the leeches exploded, and the reed roots died. […] The shimmering, transparent shape wasn’t wearing any armour. But the black stain of his heart was marking time, moment after moment, not too quickly and not too slowly, so that it would be believed that the near end belonged to the pain and hardships of the people from the future, not those still alive near the fortress. Now he had the likeness of a human being, but his blurry and ethereal trunk was studded with little jaws clacking thousands of sharp, strong teeth and capable of consuming tangled sinews, roots, and stone. A puff of smoke escaped from the rat voivode; it darted, whirled, and came back as an animated shadow that turned into a rat with a terrifying boar hump upon which a naked woman sat. Her haunches were quivering, presaging lustful joys fraught with insanity and damnation. Suddenly, as if the nightmare were disrupted, the transparency of the rat and the woman coalesced into a gnarled stump filmed over with mushroom slime. And then there was nothing. Even the stump vanished. There was just the naked, cracked earth with neither shoots nor roots, without ant mazes, without the breath of a mole or a badger.

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Gustave Doré, The Council Held by the Rats, from Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables

The villagers have to use all their resources to withstand the devastating attack of the rats, whose packs are capable of gnawing off the flesh of their victims to the bare bone in no time. Three fire barriers spring up around Kukulino to impede the assault of the rodents, but it is thanks to the mystical intervention of birds, allegedly summoned from the Holy Land by the first elder Serafim, that the villages succeed in saving their lives. Flocks of falcons, eagles, snipes, kestrels, magpies, crows, starlings, owls, hoopoes, and ibises peck the grey legions into extinction. Life in the village returns to its normal course (which, we shouldn’t forget is still extremely grotesque because it’s the Kukulino normal), but it is obvious to everyone that sooner or later the second invasion will follow.

The main intrigue of the chronicle bookended by the two rat invasions is the identity of the pair of strangers, a man and a woman, whose arrival in the village is accompanied by a series of weird events. Are Isailo and Rahila, as they introduce themselves, in reality, the notorious Adofonis and his spouse Ratusia, who have infiltrated the village to prepare the next invasion of their legions? Borčilo is very much certain of this. He is sure that Isailo is the nasty rat who bit him between the eyes in the old fortress and had to be pried off with the tip of a knife blade. The shapeshifter has come back as a human to resume making mischief. However, there is also a possibility that Isailo and Rahila are just father and daughter who have returned to their home village. According to Isailo himself, their unwitting ancestor is the hermit Blagun, who is still alive and lives in the cave at the foot of the Blue Cliff.

As we read on, it becomes clear that most of the readerly pleasure is to be gained not from the resolution of the mystery, which at some point becomes irrelevant, but from the numerous encounters with the bizarre characters and their equally bizarre stories. Pathfinder Bogdan can see a whole new world in the crack of his gourd. Witch Jaglika milks the teats of the moon and washes her eyes with the obtained milk to contemplate the busy routine of the dead Kukulino dwellers. The stammering adolescent nicknamed Black Spipile spends whole days roaming around and looking for unburied human bones, which he then assiduously commits to the earth. The bandy-legged Petkan always wears the bearskin which he got after disembowelling an old she-bear: he removed the intestines through the animal’s mouth with a bare hand wrapped in a length of hemp rope.

The Kukulino dwellers love to while away the time by telling weird stories to one another. In the original, those are called either legends (преданиjа) or just tales (сказаниjа), whereas in the Russian translation the word nebylitsi (небылицы) is used. I would like to latch onto this genre because its peculiar features fit best the hilarious and absurd folklore cultivated by Janevsky’s characters. A nebylitsa is often translated as a cock-and-bull story. It is a short prose work or a poem that depicts an absurd situation or event, in which the rules of reality are explicitly violated. The very word nebylitsa means “that which didn’t happen”. Nebylitsi represent a rich deposit of the proto-Surrealist imagery available for mining to any artist or author curious enough to examine the old lore. I do not know whether the weird nebylitsi-like tales in The Legions of Saint Adofonis have any basis in Macedonian oral tradition or if they are just the product of Janevski’s wild imagination. They are present to various extents in each novel of the trilogy by the end of which it becomes clear that the scary, silly, and strange stories exchanged by the villagers at leisure are in fact the titular miracle plays of terror! In contrast to the medieval drama pieces showing the life, martyrdom and miracles of Christian saints, the imaginary theatre of Kukulino gives centre stage to fantastic creatures, uncanny events, and unsettling distortions of reality. On the next meta-level, Janevski’s opus itself becomes a three-part miracle play of terror, whereas the readers turn into its bewildered spectators. The Legions of Saint Adofonis is especially rife with nebylitsi. According to Petkan’s son Paramon, the grandfather of Rusijan, (also one of the villagers) had a small horn protruding from the back of his neck on which a heavy-breasted samovila (woodland fairy) rode at night; eventually, she offered him the gift of an earthworm pre-soaked in honey. Reaper Kuzman saw a cow that was herding a hedgehog’s skin in a pasture. He also relates how the world dissipates and its place is taken by an infinite slab with rivers of molten metal inhabited by two-headed fish: one head squeaks and the other guffaws. Petkan assures his listeners that he can drink wine with his ears and boasts of meeting Philip and Alexander of Macedon, who bowed to him. The nine women known as the “Pythias” of Kukulino, utter a series of puzzling predictions, which prove to be yet another bunch of weird, entertaining tales. Dolga Rusa’s omen is a hazel tree that gushes poisonous water with piebald tadpoles. The horns of the goat that drank it turned into hot tar. Smilka saw a fiery mole with a human voice lifted by green flames on the grave of a murdered monk. On the same grave, she found a one-eyed baby bird wearing a cassock. Velika came across tiny, green-haired old women devouring grain from the ears of wheat as well as a horse with squirrel’s paws that climbed an aspen tree and fell asleep. Karpo Ljubanski, a guest from another village, offers his own interpretation of the gloomy predictions, which does not clear up anything and ends up being yet another nebylitsa.

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Nebylitsa in a lubok (Russian popular print): Beasts and birds bury a hunter. Image Source

The novel abounds in nature descriptions. The plants, bodies of water, birds, insects, beasts, fish, and meteorological phenomena are as significant to Borčilo’s narrative as the human characters. The lonely upyr hiding in the murk of Rastimir’s crumbling fortress has a close affinity with the natural world, for now he belongs to it more than to the world of humans. Our storyteller has the ability to contemplate and take in all the numerous and minute manifestations of the forest life that mostly escape the busy, bustling villagers. A well-known trope in literature is the description of nature just before some dramatic or terrifying event like a murder, a battle of two armies, a life-changing decision, or a chilling confession. Janevski does this beautifully by interrupting the imminent clash between the scythe-wielding Paramon and Timotej with a page-long description of nature living its own life on the eve of bloodshed. Timotej happens to be Borčilo’s great-grandson “from the foreign blood”, for his ancestry goes back to the gang rape of the Grammarian’s wife Nestorija by Rastimir and his henchmen. He is about to cross scythes with Petkan’s son Paramon over the seductive Rahila. The rat woman’s erotic sway over the two young men, leading them down the path of deadly strife is yet another calamity she and her partner Adofonis have brought to Kukulino. Just as Timotej and Paramon begin approaching each other, nature comes to the fore. We learn about partridges calling one to another, a pear falling from a twig, a mullein flower gazing at a transparent cloud in the sky, tortoises rustling about, snails crawling back to their holes, a chub waking up in the river Davidica. Although he hasn’t had any truck with the living after his return to Kukulino, Borčilo has to interfere somehow not to allow the tragedy to happen. And so, he does it, but indirectly, almost as a providential force of nature whose part he has become.

As a tangential point, I’d like to share all the 20(!) names of the oak tree that Borčilo mentions when recounting Rahila’s visit to the anchorite Blagun with the goal of persuading him to return to Kukulino and ward off the curse that doesn’t allow the construction of the village church. The thing is that the oak tree in those parts is called “blagun” after the hermit, but besides that, there are also other names such as: ostrogon, ploskach, krastun, belik, gozhlak, sladun, kletser, gorun, chernik, stezh, plastichak, dobrotsvet, badnilist, ogneshnik, lozhnik, kotolist, drobnik, tser, zheladets, gromoplodnik. I have transliterated the Russian spelling into the English one for the ease of pronouncing these words, which are hardly possible to translate. Moreover, when I checked this list against the one in the Macedonian edition, I found out that the Russian translator had similarly transcribed all the names in the letters of the Russian alphabet without even trying to translate these unusual words. Now the question remains whether all these oak tree names are authentic or whether Janevski partially or even completely invented them.

In the twisted world of Slavko Janevski there is no clear-cut line between the holy and the profane. This ambivalence is evident already in the title of the first novel of the trilogy: the commander of the evil legions is somehow a saint. This contradiction is further explored when Isailo, the alleged reincarnation of Adofonis, comes to the village to work as an icon painter. There is an obvious parallel with the Christian devil Nikon Sevast in Milorad Pavić’s novel Dictionary of the Khazars. His infernal origin, betrayed by the absence of the nasal septum and the presence of a tail, does not prevent Sevast from becoming a much sought-after practitioner of sacred art, constantly getting commissions from monasteries. Likewise, Isailo is entrusted with painting holy scenes on the walls of the newly built church, whose erection became possible after the pious hermit Blagun agreed to return to the village from his cave under the Blue Cliff and consecrate the foundation of the new temple. Before that, the construction of the church was impossible because any masonry that was put up by day collapsed at night. The holy and the unholy unite to give Kukulino a place of devotion, to establish an island of order in the midst of chaos, which seems to be the natural state of this gleefully cursed village. There is no guarantee that the church will remain standing, but Kukulino will endure. And once the immediate danger is averted, it will start craving for a new one. The chaos has to be maintained.

Dog’s Crucifix (Кучешко распетие, Песье распятие)

The events in the second part of the trilogy unfold nine years after the invasion of the rats under the command of Saint Adofonis. The title of the novel refers to the legendary place, near an oak grove, where a dog and a man were crucified on the same cross. Many years ago, the pagan inhabitants of Kukulino nailed a dog to the cross to mock the Christian missionaries who had arrived to convert them. The Christians retaliated by catching one of the villagers and nailing him to the blasphemous crucifix. The man and the dog rotted together until, one day, they disappeared from the cross and ascended the skies. The stunned villagers saw that the coat of the canine Jesus shone with gold, whereas the man fell to pieces. After that, the Kukulino dwellers started calling that spot the Dog’s Crucifix.

The protagonist and the main narrator of the novel is Timotej, whom we already know from The Legions of Saint Adofonis. Things have changed since the great victory over the carnivorous rats. Timotej now is called Nestor. He has taken monastic vows and serves God along with four other monks at the Monastery of St. Nicetas. (Since circumstances will cause him to leave the monastery and reassume his secular name, I’ll keep calling him Timotej to avoid unnecessary confusion.) The new chronicler of Kukulino’s turbulent history relates to us two great disasters that strike his native village, causing grave harm and severe suffering to the inhabitants. The first disaster comes in the form of Timotej’s childhood friend Rusijan, who, upon his return from the war between the Serbian King Milutin and his brother Dragutin, establishes himself as the tyrannical ruler of the village. Rusijan’s despotic governing that crushes Kukukino’s population under the unbearable weight of tributes and quitrents is brought to an end by the second disaster: an organised raid of outlaws led by their savage and pitiless chieftain Prebond Biž. What is remarkable about this new stage in Kukulino’s history is the fact that the miraculous and the supernatural take a back seat. With Borčilo gone, there aren’t any other vampires to haunt the environs. The enemies that the villagers face are people like them, not some monstrous creatures, for those have been banished to the hearsay, the legends, and the visions provoked by the ingestion of a hallucinogenic root. The local folklore serves as the source of titillating fright and frisson, whereas real danger comes from the vain and avaricious human nature. Hardly a gain for Kukulino.

Rusijan’s transformation into a despot was made possible by his rise to the rank of voivode in Stefan Uroš II Milutin’s army. He comes back to his home village as a representative of the Serbian Kingdom, which has ruled over Macedonia since Milutin conquered it in 1282. The high status allows Rusijan to establish himself as the undisputed potentate of Kukulino with minimal control from the outside. The new ruler makes sure that the big city (apparently, Skopje) receives its share of the grain collected from the villagers to make the royal authorities satisfied and render any interference in his affairs ungrounded. The conflict between Rusijan and some of his former friends like Paramon, Bogdan, and Karpo Ljubanski makes up the main plotline of the first and the second parts of the novel. The fugitives from the despot’s oppression take arms and unite under the command of a certain Papakakas, also a fugitive, but from the Byzantine authorities. Despite Timotej’s aspiration to keep distance from worldly affairs, he ends up defrocked by Prohor, the hegumen of the monastery, and begins working for Rusijan as an estate manager of sorts. Not that such a turn of events is entirely unwelcome, as the monk has been obsessed with the tyrant’s wife Simonida for some time (as she has been with him), and his newly-gained proximity to the ruler allows him to slip into his wife’s bed when he is away on business in the city.

The Dog’s Crucifix remains the focal point of the dark energy accumulated in Kukulino since the violent irruption of Christianity into its pagan world. No wonder the small-time tyrant has chosen that spot for the building of his own fortress. The stones of the old one, which used to be the haunt of the vampire Borčilo, are now being repurposed as the building material for Rusijan’s new residence whose erection becomes yet another unbearable burden on the shoulders of the villagers. The true vampire is not the green-eyed man whose mildewed skull they used to see from time to time between the merlons of the old fortress, but the parvenu feudal, who forgot his humble origins as soon as he accessed a bit of power and status. Just like the church decorated by the alleged rat chieftain Adofonis, the fortress at the Dog’s Crucifix will not be finished. Rusijan’s smaller punishment is to be cuckolded by the defrocked monk Timotej in the half-built monument to his megalomania, and the bigger one is to lose it all after the marauding invasion of Prebond Biž’s army of outlaws. The triumphant brigands carry the loot to Bižanci, their leader’s domain, leaving Kukulino in shambles. They are planning to return soon to finish the business. Left with only two warriors, Rusijan will humbly seek to join Papakakas’ troop (partly made up of the victims of his own persecution) in order to prevent the complete destruction of Kukulino by carrying out a pre-emptive strike in the attackers’ lair. His power will never be restored, but the village will be saved, and his participation in that expedition will be a small contribution to the atonement for all his brutalities that can never be completely atoned for.

Although limited to the realm of legends and nebylitsi, the supernatural and horrifying elements still play an important role in Dog’s Crucifix. Without them, it would be just an average adventure story with a medieval setting and rather in-your-face social message. Just like whimsical illuminations and grotesque marginalia elevate a manuscript with the same old text to the status of an art object, the fantastic and horrifying lore interwoven into the novel makes it an unclassifiable oddity worthy of a serious reader’s attention. The principal raconteur of weird stories in the novel is the herbalist and healer Teofan, who is also one of the five monks at the Monastery of St. Nicetas. It is thanks to Teofan that the village folk learn that the chief outlaw Brebond Biž is a warlock with two rows of dog’s teeth behind the upper lip who can easily cross swamps because mermaids and drowned humans build with their own bodies a makeshift causeway for him to tread on. Needless to say, the real Biž does not quite correspond to this colourful description. When urging Timotej to beware of the Devil’s tricks even on the holy grounds, Teofan tells him the sad story of the monastery elder Makarie Ognožeg, who fell foul with a Satanic monk. As a consequence, the elder’s forehead became covered in warts, which, upon closer inspection, proved to be the miniature heads of deceased Kukulino residents. During the Great Lent, Makarie slaughtered and ate all the monastery goats to keep the gluttonous warts nourished. On a different occasion, to entertain his audience, the herbalist stacks one nebylitsa upon another:

[…] at the bottom of the streams that shelter transparent cranes made of solidified moonlight there is more gold than sand, and that gold is alive: it burns through the skin and singes bones; moths that feed on upyrs’ meat to spare humans have nestled in the fur of wolf cubs; at the edge of the desert grows a tree whose fruit makes barren women gravid; beyond the sea, someone built subterranean weaver’s shops for decorating the bronze and iron cloaks of rooster-headed dwarfs who ride in carriages pulled by mole crickets.

One of the most ancient and awe-inspiring legends, known to every villager, is that of a giant hand. This story excited the Kukulino dwellers’ imagination long before the Monastery of St. Nicetas was built. According to folk tradition, from time to time, the enormous hand bursts out of the ground beneath the Blue Cliff whose caverns have given shelter to pious anchorites. As already noted, the co-existence of the holy and the demonic is nothing out of the ordinary for the village. Woe to those who find themselves in the vicinity of the monstrous limb:

Each of the five wrinkled finger pads of the giant hand was endowed with black lips that perpetually protruded. They leeched and sucked into anything they touched: be it a beast, a living human being, or someone dead. More than a hundred years ago, heavily-armoured crusaders came from distant lands and, at the foot of the Blue Cliff, clashed with the ragged but intrepid dwellers of the leafy woods. After the battles that lasted for days, the trampled grass was strewn with thousands of bloodied corpses. But not for long. The lips of the giant hand sucked them in before the eagles had the time to glorify the concord of man and death. The five gullets that converged into one pushed the prey into the bowels of the earth, refusing, however, to accept the blue eyes of the warriors: they were absorbed by the stone that got covered in moss afterwards. The villagers frequently use this blue moss to treat eye diseases, eyelid inflammation, and even blindness.

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Art by Vasko Taškovski, Image Source

The ruins of the old fortress, the unfinished church building, and the equally incomplete and abandoned new fortress are grim reminders of the fact that Kukulino prefers the constancy of metaphysis to the perishability of material artefacts. Whereas Rusijan’s citadel is slowly reduced to a pile of rubble by the scavenging village folk, the mystical energy of the Dog’s Crucifix never subsides. Timotej finds that out for himself when he hears one night at that place a continuous howl that penetrates all his being and refuses to leave him afterwards. From now on, he will carry that sound inside wherever he goes and whatever he does. He cannot be entirely sure whether the howling belongs to the crucified dog or to the man who joined it later. If the former is true, then the howl is the prayer of the dying animal that is meant to be heard forever in that spot as an edification to the pagans. If, on the other hand, it is the scream of the crucified man, its longevity is the sign of the pagans’ defiance against forced Christianisation. Whatever the case may be, Timotej becomes reconciled with the idea that he will keep hearing the howl until Judgement Day. That does not prevent him from writing this chronicle, however, and, maybe, it is the howl that inspires its most thrilling and spectacular passages.

Waiting for the Plague (Чекајќи чума, В ожидании чумы)

The last chronicler of Kukulino’s tribulations is Evtimie the Scribe, who is the grandson of Bogdan, the possessor of the prophetic gourd. When Evtimie writes his story of growing up and coming of age in the village, Macedonia is already part of the Ottoman Empire under whose rule it will remain for the next five hundred years. Evtimie looks back at the time when the residents of Kukulino, having withstood the rat invasion, Rusijan’s tyranny, and the outlaws’ raid, are bracing themselves for the coming of the plague only to find out that the real plague is other people.

Evtimie’s father Vecko left Lozana, his mother, before he was born. An eccentric newcomer to Kukulino who calls himself Spiridon the Great Flier, begins living with Lozana in what now would be considered a common-law marriage and raises the boy as his own son. With time, Evtimie learns about Spiridon’s extraordinary abilities that distinguish him from the other, less interesting villagers. He can see with his tongue and listen with the tips of his fingers. He has no use for his ears and intends to cut them off and present to his little stepson as toys. His main prowess, however, is the ability to fly, which he developed in infancy after swallows fed him stoneless cherries and worms when he lay alone in his cradle. Spiridon confides to Evtimie that the skies are salty and that he can get that salt any time he wants as long as there are no witnesses. The day after he does bring some salt home, he gets arrested by the city’s authorities for stealing it and is put in jail. All his stories prove to be nothing but nebylitsi.

Literacy is a rare skill in Kukulino, and there is only one person in the village who offers reading and writing lessons. This teacher is the aged author of the previous Kukulino chronicle Timotej. At Spiridon’s insistence, Evtimie regularly visits Timotej’s house to study together with his foster daughters Rosa and Agna (The latter is going to become his wife when they grow up). Without realising it, Timotej passes the narrator’s baton to his student and thus ensures the completion of the trilogy. Timotej’s final significant achievement is his becoming the elder of Kukulino after it is united into one parish with the neighbouring villages. The circumstances around this reform, however, mark the beginning of a new period of troubles after the respite following the defeat of Biž’s outlaws. The Monastery of St. Nicetas is now in the hands of the monks sent by the city authorities to take care of the neglected monastic property. All the villages belonging to the parish now have to provide the monastery’s lands with free labourers as well as to give away a third of their harvests. In order to ensure the fulfilment of the corvee and the payment of the quitrent, six heavily-armed warriors have been sent along with the monks. Timotej’s decision to become the elder is dictated by his wish to spare the lives of his compatriots, for defiance on their part will inevitably lead to a bloody conflict with the city, which has enough troops to quickly and brutally quench any insurrection.

As if the tyrannical oppression was not enough, the village folks have to gird their loins to face something even more terrible. News and rumours of the devastating plague begin to trickle in. We should bear in mind that a large part of the novel is set around the middle of the fourteenth century, the time when the Black Death was brought to Europe by the Genoese ships departing from the Crimean city of Kaffa, that very same city into which the besieging troops of Khan Janibeg had notoriously catapulted the plague-ridden corpses of their fellow soldiers thus unleashing what might have been the first instance of biological warfare. Within a few years the pandemic devastated Europe, killing almost a third of its population. The horrific and inevitable death presaged by the appearance of pus-oozing boils on the afflicted body is a matter of much greater severity than the tribute and free labour exacted by the powers that be. The residents of Kukolino are gripped by the anxious expectation. They have survived the attacks by the rodents and brigands, but will they be able to fight off the bubonic plague, the most wicked adversary they will ever have to counter?

There seems to be a growing premonition that the world is on the cusp of a tremendous transformation that will be ushered in by a great calamity like the predicted plague. The old world has to die so the new one can arrive in its place albeit not everyone will survive to see it. Perhaps the most conspicuous symbol of that archaic, dying world is the rag-and-bone man Saltir, who tirelessly collects all sorts of junk and crams it in his house like some kind of scavenging Noah that hopes to save as many vestiges of the doomed civilisation as possible. Upon his death, the new tenants, who enter his cluttered dwelling, are taken aback by the sheer volume and heteroclite nature of those odds and ends that used to be precious artifacts for their collector and are mere rubbish for the new occupants:

The smells of the past, unidentifiable under the mould of turbid recollections, had accumulated in that lair, which was chockful with worthless junk: the effaced marbled heads of Greek gods and kings, helmets corroded by rust, pieces of iron from the smithy that had been abandoned more than thirty years before, worn-out shoes, old terracotta and metal vessels, baskets and mouse-eaten, water-damaged prayer books, candlesticks, fire strikers, poleaxes of unknown provenance, fabrics with neither colour nor use, cracked belts, ox horns, mangy skins, a quern-stone, a quiver without arrows, spears with blunted points, bundles of dry grass, mattresses, goathair blankets, jugs, pickaxes, scythes, oil lamps in the shape of galleys, tin cans for sacred oil, ikons, spindles, shards of dirty glass, bits of cinder, dog skulls, hare skins, a string of boar tusks, numerous masks made from cloth and leather,— a true kingdom of mice and moths, spiders, cockroaches and worms.

Despite all the omens and admonitions, the plague never arrives. This theme of the frustrated anticipation of a menace that fails to materialise is already familiar to us from such classics as C. P. Cavafi’s poem Waiting for the Barbarians and Dino Buzzati’s novel The Tartar Steppe. Janevski’s novel, however, does not accentuate the expectation to such a degree as these texts because there are so many other things going on, and, besides, the realisation of the futility of waiting comes home to the villages pretty quickly— soon after two competitive eschatological sects occupy Kukulino with the overt goal of offering its denizens salvation from the coming apocalypse. The first to arrive is a group of devil-worshipping flagellants informally dubbed the Brothers of the Scourge. It is led by Photius the Miracle Worker, who claims to be a relative of the last Byzantine basileus. Photius calls on the villagers to join his sect, maintaining that self-flagellation is the only way to cleanse one’s body from sin and scare away the plague. The leader of the Brothers proselytises the adoration of Satanail whom he calls “our Christ from the Golgotha called Hell”. Photius and his acolytes settle in the unfinished fortress at the Dog’s Crucifix. The other fortress, the one that used to be the retreat of the vampire Borčilo, soon becomes the main base for the second sect—the Followers of the Seashell. The members of this group wear seashells on strings instead of crosses and hide their faces behind masks made from different materials such as leather, clay, cloth, or feathers. Their chief is the Italian Catholic priest Father Lorenzo, who assures the Kukulino residents that the only way to escape the disease is to put on a mask. According to Lorenzo, the plague strikes only those whose brows have been previously branded with an invisible mark. To avoid getting this mark, one has to keep their face well hidden. It is symbolic that the newly arrived invaders have chosen as their homes the places that used to belong to the two cruel tyrants: Rastimir and Rusijan. Instead of salvation, both groups introduce new oppression and harassment of the long-suffering villagers, who quickly realise that the plague has already arrived, not as a deadly disease but in the guise of the two marauding hordes vying for total control over Kukulino. Evtimie, Agna, Spiridon, and a bunch of other villagers flee their homes to seek shelter against the rampaging sectarians; they find it beneath the Blue Cliff, the former abode of hermit Blagun. With time, they are joined by more people, including those from other villages. When the fugitives have enough men and arms to form a military force, they set out to take Kukulino back. They have been spared by the plague so they can fight to regain some peace and relative freedom which they will lose again some forty years later as a result of the Ottoman conquest.

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Francisco de Goya, Procession of Flagellants

“The time of miracles has passed”, says Spiridon at some point in Evtimie’s narrative as if alluding to the dissipation of the supernatural throughout Janevski’s trilogy. Instead of miracles, we are offered the perverted miracle plays fed by the pagan lore and the long-standing tradition to entertain one’s audience with bizarre, make-believe stories. No matter what upheavals affect this Macedonian microcosm, the wild and absurd tales remain the constant in its dwellers’ lives. Far from being just a horror and freak show, the trilogy explores such sober themes as feudal oppression, religion, friendship, sexual attraction, family ties, and the relationship between nature and man. It would be unfair to say that these issues are tackled in a perfunctory or primitive manner, but there is little doubt that they play a secondary role and form the backdrop for the outbursts of the author’s whimsical creativity permeating all three books. This is the performance we all have come to see: the miraculous gift of human imagination taking a variety of fanciful forms each of which assumes a life of its own.

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Mircea Cărtărescu’s Interview for De Reactor: On Solenoid, mites, butterflies, Kafka, untranslatability, censorship, a paradise in ruins, and his latest novel Theodoros

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I am honoured to publish on my blog the English original of the recent interview that Mircea Cărtărescu, one of my favourite living authors, has given to the Dutch-language platform for literary criticism De Reactor. Big thanks to the contributing writers Emiel Roothooft and Remo Verdickt for providing me with this great opportunity.

 

Interviewers: In contemporary literary discourse, there’s a lot of talk about so-called autofiction. Would you yourself consider this book, with all of its surreal splendor, a work that is strongly autobiographical? 

SolenoidHumanitasMircea Cărtărescu : First, I have to try and remember this old book of mine because it was published seven or eight years ago. Since then, I have written six or seven other books. Now I’m going to release a new novel. I’m trying to remember and get myself back in the atmosphere of Solenoid, which is in my very modest career maybe the second most important book, following the trilogy called Orbitor ​​[of which the first part appeared in English as Blinding], which has also been published in Dutch, translated by the same translator, Jan Willem Bos, an excellent translator and a great friend of mine. That trilogy was in a way the aircraft carrier of my modest fleet or the most important ship in this fleet. Solenoid is another very, very important book for my career. Solenoid is a metaphysical book. The first thing that I have to say about it is that it’s metaphysical, it is a “vertical” book, directed to the skies. 

Also, it is an ethical book, which is very much preoccupied with human destiny and with the distinction between good and evil. I think that is the biggest topic of this book, which in a way starts with a parable in one of Albert Camus’ stories ​​[The Artist at Work], where one of his characters is lying on his deathbed and pronounces his last word. The people around him cannot understand whether he says “solitaire” ​​[solitary] or “solidaire” ​​[solidary]. This is the dilemma: to be with people, to share the fate of people all over the world, or to be alone, to be aloof, to be only concerned about your work, about your goals, about your dreams. 

This is also the dilemma of the main character in Solenoid – a character with no name – who teaches at a high school on the outskirts of Bucharest and who dreams of becoming a writer. And just because he couldn’t become a normal and “banal” writer, he becomes a true writer. A writer similar to Franz Kafka, for example. A writer who doesn’t play the game, who writes only for himself, who writes not for the readers but for God. This character has always had this dilemma. 

He wants to be saved. He’s looking, in a metaphysical and theological way, for his salvation. When this salvation is offered through a portal in the walls of this world, but only to him, he realizes that he doesn’t want to be saved if the other people are not saved. So, he prefers to stay with his family, with his little daughter, with his friends, and lead the life of the “normal”, real people on this earth, rather than to be saved himself. This is a sort of message, if you want, the message of the whole novel. In this novel, I felt for the first time in my life what happened inside the human soul when one has to decide about one’s fate.

Gabriel García Márquez has always been an important influence on your work. Is Solenoid, both in its very title and through its ultimate conclusion, a reversal of One Hundred Years of Solitude? 

SolenoidDutchYes, because in the end, it is about human solidarity. This is the last word, I would say, of this novel. What I am particularly proud of with this novel (which I see now like someone else’s novel because so much time has passed since I wrote it – in four and a half or five years, if I remember well) is its construction. I think Solenoid is one of the best-built stories that I’ve ever done, together with the short story REM from my first book of prose, Nostalgia. While REM was a long short story of over 150 pages with a very subtle construction, I would say that Solenoid is like a rocket with several stages.

The first one is a book that could have been published completely separately. Before thinking of Solenoid, I had another idea: to write about my anomalies. So, the first 200 or 250 pages could have been published as another book called My Anomalies. In this part, I was mostly preoccupied with some things that have really happened to me and made me very nervous for many years, for my whole life actually, mainly in specific and very particular states of my mind, mainly in dreams. Some of my dreams were recurring dreams that kept coming my entire life. Other ones were lucid dreams that I could control. The other ones were absolutely fantastic and very coherent dreams. 

Because I’ve been writing a journal since I was seventeen years old, I’ve written down almost all the dreams that I’ve had during my lifetime. That means I can study them, I can classify them, I can find out what kind of dream appeared in my life at which stage of my life. Some of them were very powerful and constantly recurring between when I was fifteen and when I was twenty-five, some others after the age of twenty-five and so on. But some of them, three or four of them, were absolutely stunning for me. They actually determined some of my books. I use these dreams, which I have really dreamt, as skeletons for some of my writings. Many other anomalies of mine are also featured. For example, what I call “my visitors” – the people who appear at night in my character’s bedroom – could be seen for ten seconds, for instance, as very normal, very natural and real people, and then they dissipate. There are many other things that have sometimes made me feel special, feel different from other people. I’ve tried to hoard a lot of experiences of this kind – strange, fantastic, dream-like, oneiric experiences. 

So, while writing this part of the book, I didn’t have the idea of writing a novel yet. I was writing a sort of study, a study of a clinical case, let’s say. But step by step, I kind of began to understand what these dreams were all about, what they signified, why I felt that they were so important to me. And I discovered that, actually, I was writing only the first stage of a bigger book, the stage where the fuel is, where the indistinct mass of matter was gathered for giving fuel and power to the other part of the novel, which I only started to write. At a certain moment, I understood that it was only the stem of my book and that after the stem some branches should follow. 

At the point where the branches will go in all directions, there’s this parable about a burning house. You can only save one thing from the house where you have a little baby and a masterpiece, a fantastic painting, a classical painting like Vermeer’s or Rembrandt’s, a masterpiece without a price. So, what would you do? What would you save, the baby or the wonderful work of art? When I wrote this part of my book – it was a dialogue between two characters in a school, two teachers – I myself didn’t know what I should answer. What would I do myself? I wasn’t sure. And I let them decide. 

To my surprise, to my very big surprise, my character chooses the baby all the time. His lover, a teacher of physics, plays the devil’s advocate and tries to break her friend’s argument. She says: “Okay, you saved the child, but what would you do if you knew that this child would become Adolf Hitler?” And he says, to my surprise, without preconception: “I would still choose the child.” “But what if you knew that that child would become a serial murderer, who brings a lot of pain into the world, a lot of tragedy?” And my character says: “I would still choose the baby.” 

Here I gave an answer to some other scenes of this kind in world literature. First, there’s Fyodor Dostoevsky, who, in his huge novel The Brothers Karamazov, wrote that scene with the Great Inquisitor. One of the characters, Alyosha, says that he cannot understand evil. If everybody would be happy and only one child be killed or tortured because of it, he couldn’t bear this, he would think the world was monstrous. The same thing happens to Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Castorp has a dream in the snow at that tuberculosis sanatorium on the mountain. He dreams of a temple where everybody is very happy, but under it, a child is being murdered. This was some kind of compensation in a continuous fight between good and evil. 

This topic reflects one of the most important questions in the world: Unde malum? Where does evil come from? It’s the most important philosophical and theological question. I try to answer it myself in Solenoid, which, in a way, is an ambitious novel about human fate. The choice of my character is absolutely important in the novel because it guides my character towards the end, where he decides that redemption should be for everybody, not only for some, not only for the good people but for absolutely everybody. Until everybody is saved you do not have permission to save yourself.

Interesting. That sheds totally new light on the novel. As with Blinding, the novel reads like an ambiguous love letter to Romania’s capital, Bucharest. Would you say you feel less drawn to a contemporary Bucharest than to an earlier but lost version of it?

When I was a young writer, I was jealous of the writers who had their own cities. Of Jorge Luis Borges who had Buenos Aires and always wrote about this fabulous city. Of Fyodor Dostoevsky who had Saint Petersburg. Of Lawrence Durrell who had Alexandria. Of course, James Joyce invented, in a way, a fabulous Dublin. I had in mind, by writing, to appropriate my own city. If I couldn’t find an interesting real city, I should invent it. So, in a way I recreated Bucharest, and, in another way, I invented it. If you come to Bucharest, you will very soon realize that it has little to do with its image in my novels. I’ve invented much of it. I tried to create a coherent image of, as I call it in my novel, “the saddest city in the world”, a city full of ruins, a city full of images of the old glory which is no more. I made Bucharest in my own image, in my own personality. I tried to transform it into some sort of alter ego or a twin brother. I projected myself on the very eclectic architecture of this city, which has several layers of history and architecture.

In this book, there’s the so-called architect of the city, who decides to build it from scratch. I had this idea that Bucharest should be torn down and rebuilt from scratch by an architect who is the opposite to the one who built Brasília, for example, also a city built from scratch by a great architect. The opposite because he decides to make a city already in ruins, already ruined, as if hundreds of years had passed over it. He says that the real interesting cities are the ruined ones because they are like human destiny because time destroys everyone because each and every human endeavor will end in nothingness. In the same way that children are very happy to play in the mud, human beings feel at ease among ruins.

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Ruins of the Antonine Baths, in Views of Rome. Image Source

It’s interesting that when I was in Brussels, me and another writer were asked what paradise looked like for us. I said that my idea of paradise is a huge planet full of ruins – no inhabitants, but only houses, millions of houses in ruins. I would love to explore all of them, to get inside, to see the destroyed furniture, to see the bathrooms and the kitchens in ruins, to see everything covered with algae, with spider webs. Being able to explore this field of ruins would be, for me, fascinating and wonderful. 

So, Bucharest is not at all a real city in my books. Actually, it’s different in each book – each book draws a new image of Bucharest. It’s a state of mind and it’s a metaphor, a metaphor for my inner life.

Speaking of metaphors, you often characterize the human condition as louse-like or mite-like, as the experience of a small insect or parasite. Is this more than a metaphor? Do humans and mites have fundamentally similar experiences?

I have always been fascinated with insects, like Vladimir Nabokov himself. When I was in Harvard, I could visit his office. He stayed there for seven years, not as a professor of literature but as an entomologist dealing with butterflies. This was his specialty as a biologist. I saw thousands of butterflies prepared by Nabokov, and many of them have the names of his characters. There was a butterfly called Lolita, another one Humbert Humbert, and so on. Insects play a very important role in my novels for no other reason than that I’m fascinated with them. 

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Part of Nabokov’s butterfly collection. Image Source

In my trilogy Orbitor the butterfly is the most important of them. Even its structure is in the shape of a butterfly – the right wing, the left wing and the body in the middle. It’s a huge butterfly, which I sometimes call a “flying cathedral”, at some other times “a mystical butterfly”. In Solenoid, which deals much more with the problem of evil, I chose the insect of the insects: mites, insects that cannot even be seen with our eyes. Still, they are very real. They are interesting in their monstrosity if you look at them under a microscope. And they cause a lot of diseases, like asthma and many others. If you consider that about a quarter of the weight of your pillow is made out of their bodies, it becomes very frightening. 

In Solenoid, using a science fiction device, the main character is sent to the world of mites. He becomes a sort of messiah for the mites, a Jesus Christ, who finds himself in a very, very small and insignificant world, trying to save it, trying to bring them resurrection. But he’s killed, like Jesus Christ was killed, because of the misunderstanding between two civilizations, two ways of living where there is no bridge possible ​​(you cannot communicate with God, like a cat cannot communicate with you, for example). These are very different worlds and the problem here is the impossibility to communicate. Also, the spider, of course, is very important to me because if the butterfly is an angel – the spider is a devil. In exactly the middle of my trilogy, there is a fight between a tarantula and a big and beautiful butterfly in a terrarium.

Orbitor’s triptych-like structure is itself modeled on that of the butterfly (the original Romanian titles are The Left Wing, The Body, and The Right Wing). Why did not all your foreign publishers retain that structure in their respective titles? 

It’s kind of a funny situation because I think Orbitor is translated into most of the important languages and in some of the less important languages, let’s say, although all languages are important. The strategy of my publishers was very different from country to country, from language to language. For example, my French publisher, Éditions Denoël, decided to consider the three novels as absolutely separate novels, without any hint that it’s a trilogy. So, they published it as three separate novels with fantasy titles. They never asked me if I agreed with it, and I was rather upset with how they treated my book. The titles had no real connection to what happened in those novels. 

Other publishers decided to use my Romanian title, “Orbitor”, which is very different from the English “orbiter”, because “orbitor” in Romanian means “mystical light”, or “the Tabor Light”, the light that Saint Paul meets on the way to Damascus when he’s struck by illumination from the skies. It’s the light of truth, the light of revelation. Some translators interpreted it in one way, some others in another way, but I think “blinding” or “abbacinante” in Italian reflects better what I meant by this title. In Romanian, it’s very beautiful by the way, because “or-bit-or” has “or” at both ends, which means “gold” in French, and “bit” in the middle, which makes me think of a microchip surrounded by golden threads. 

Orbitor-Aripa-stanga-20211  Orbitor-Corpul-20211  Orbitor-Aripa-dreapta-20211 

What we really admired about Solenoid, is how it succeeds in blending the so-called “novel of ideas” with a novel that is driven by sensory impressions. Do the big, metaphysical ideas come to you the same way as the sensory impressions? Is it the same way of writing or is it a different process?

Now we’ve arrived at the problem of how I write and this, in my opinion, is very interesting because I don’t know any other writer who does that. I write by hand, without any plan, without a synopsis. My way of writing is a pure and continuous inspiration. Let’s say, today I’m in the middle of a novel and I have to write one page or two like every day. What I do is, I read the page I wrote on the previous day and I try to write in the same key, like a musician. On each and every page I have the chance to change everything, to change the meaning and the course of the novel. 

It’s madness to write like that, without knowing what you’re going to put on the next page. It’s like using a 3D printer to make a car, not by assembling all its parts, but by making the lights at the front of the car first, then the windscreen, then the seats, then the engine, everything up to the back of the car instead of making everything at once. I have to have enormous faith in what my mind can do because otherwise you cannot write like this. It’s writing like a poet, not like a prose writer. 

Of course, when you write this way you can fail very, very easily because on each and every page you have to decide your book’s trajectory. It’s as if there are crossroads everywhere, all demanding a decision. But here is the trick: it’s not you who decides but your mind. Your mind knows better than you do what it is going to do and where it wants to go. It’s like a horse running a race: the jockey doesn’t win the race – the race is won by the horse. The jockey should be very small, very light, and should only touch the horse in very few places. The ideal would be that the jockey doesn’t touch the horse at all, that he just flies above it. It’s your horse, your mind that wins the race, not you. You are the small person that guides the horse, nothing else.

So, I usually let my mind work. I do not touch my book but let it flow in every direction, wherever it wants to go. I’m only the portal, the medium, nothing but the voice of someone inside, and it is this person who actually dictates this book. Sometimes, it feels as if the text is already written on the page and I only remove the white stripes that cover the words. I just erase them and let the text appear.

Do you create your prose and your poetry in the same way? We’re particularly interested in hearing about your work Levantul, one long poem about the history of Romanian poetry and which you have described as untranslatable. 

LevantulCoverYou might remember a certain episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses that’s called The Oxen of the Sun. It takes place in a maternity ward and some medical students are talking, eating sardines, while in the other room a woman is giving birth to a child. Joyce decided to use all the stages of the English language in this chapter, from the first ecclesiastical books to the slang of the people in the Bronx or Harlem in his own time. Levantul is quite the same. It is an Alexandrine poem of 7,000 lines, two hundred pages of nothing but poetry, which reconstructs the whole history of Romanian poetry, starting from seventeenth-century poets, up until the present day. This is why this book is actually untranslatable. You cannot translate it for people who have no idea about Romanian poetry and its history.

It’s one of my very best books, maybe the best thing that I ever wrote. In my country it’s a classic, it’s in the schoolbooks. But I have always been very sad about the untranslatability of this book, so at a certain moment, I decided to do something quite crazy: to translate it into Romanian myself because many people in Romania can’t read it – it’s written in the language of old poetry. So, I re-translated it into contemporary Romanian, letting out the frequent quotations and literary allusions, and keeping only the plot and stories. In the prose version of The Levant, I kept only the adventures, the many interesting stories that appeared in the text, love stories, stories with pirates… Everything is presented in an ironic, sarcastic, and humoristic fashion.

I gave this version of The Levant to all my translators and I asked them: “Can you do this book in your language?” And four of them answered: “Yes. It’s worth trying at least.” And they started to work and they were very happy to be challenged like that and they recreated their own “Levant”, not only in their own language but in their own culture, their own literature, the history of their own poetry. So now we have a version in Spanish, one in French, one in Swedish, and one in Italian. All of them are very different. It’s like translating mutatis mutandis, it’s like translating Finnegan’s Wake. If you translate it in ten languages, you’ll have ten new books because that book is untranslatable.

We’ll have to go for the French version then.

It’s a very nice version, the French one.

Or maybe push your friend Jan Willem Bos to translate it into Dutch. Try harder, Jan Willem!

He will be happy to, but the problem for Dutch and other languages too is that it’s hard to find a publisher. It’s hard to find a publisher for books that are pure art and are not commercial. They do not guarantee to sell very well, and so on. I always had this problem in The Netherlands, but luckily one of the best publishers there, De Bezige Bij, had the courage to publish two of my very big and, from a commercial point of view, very risky books. I’m extremely grateful to them.

From the very start, your work has been subjected to external alterations. Wasn’t it the Ceaușescu regime that originally forced you to change the title of Nostalgia to The Dream?

Nostalgia1993Well, it would have been very nice if only my title had been changed, but actually… Nostalgia came out in 1989 when we were still in a dictatorship in my country. There were four months left until the Romanian Revolution happened. Being in a dictatorship, there was official censorship, so my book had to be censored, or rather, had to be mutilated by the censorship. It was published with one of the five original stories eliminated from the book, and with many other passages, tens of pages, eliminated from the other stories that remained in the book.

Which story was left out, was it The Architect?

VisulCoverIt was The Architect, you are right. And this happened because the censors were very sensitive about all the things that from their point of view could be seen as allusions to the president, to the political life and so on. Since by that time Ceaușescu was destroying villages all across Romania, he was ironically called “the architect”. Hence my eponymous story was eliminated. The title of the book has an interesting story as well. The original title was indeed Nostalgia (editors’ note: later editions would re-instate both this title and the banned story The Architect), but in 1989 they changed this into The Dream because by that time the great Russian movie director Andrei Tarkovsky had just defected to Italy, where he made his first movie while he was abroad, Nostalghia (1983). And because this film was banned in my country, like in Russia, like in many other countries from the east, I couldn’t use this title. So, they forced me to accept another title that I didn’t want to have. There were recurring instances of this kind of monstrous habit of censoring books by that time.

What explains your interest in science? Have we lost a great scientist to a great writer?

I always thought that being a writer is being not only a person who writes about love triangles or global warming, but it means that you should be a complete person. You should be somebody who cares about yourself and at the same time about the whole world around us. I think it’s about an inborn curiosity. I’m a curious person. I don’t just read literature, like many writers do. I read everything. And I don’t only read, I watch TV, YouTube, all of these viewing platforms. I watch everything I’m interested in and I’m interested in everything. Half of what I read is science, from mathematics to quantum physics, to biology, to medicine, to embryology – each and every field within my reach.

My publisher in Bucharest has a very good collection of science books, which is absolutely wonderful, and what I buy from my own publisher are not so much books of literature, but books of science. In the last years, I’ve been more and more interested in philosophy. It’s my new and very burning passion because I discovered that in order to be able to write – even novels, short stories, or poems – you should have some philosophical training. Now I’m very eager to read very difficult books, about the history of philosophy. I’m reading Kant and Descartes with much pleasure and I feel greatly enriched by their work. I read books from all fields, some of them not very easy to read. I read mathematics books, for example, though I cannot decipher an equation. I’m very interested in the history of mathematics, the personalities, Georg Cantor’s work… I’m an omnivorous reader.

In Solenoid, there’s this sect that protests against death and everything else that’s bad about life. Did you think about anti-natalism and its prime Romanian proponent Emil Cioran when writing about them?

Of course, I read some books by Cioran as he published his first books in Romanian. But I’m not very fond of him because of his political past. I totally disagree with his political ideas, which were right-wing, extremist, fascist ideas. This is why I am suspicious of everything he wrote. He was a very good writer, before being a very good philosopher, in my opinion. His works are absolutely wonderful as pieces of esthetic experience, but not of political or ideological experiences. He was a cynical writer. He was a sort of a new Schopenhauer, who actually was the exact opposite of what he argued for in his philosophy – he was a gourmand, a womanizer, or as we say, “he was burning the candle at both ends.” It’s quite the same with Cioran. He was the philosopher who was talking all the time about suicide, but he had no intention to commit suicide himself, it was all pure fancy.

My picketers, the people who protest against death, madness, every evil of the human race, no, they have no connection to anything. I just invented them. I started with Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”, which is the most important protest against death that I know. Starting from that and some texts I found in Herodotus, I started to imagine a group of people who do not protest against war, against economic issues, but against the fundamental evils of our race, of our species: death, madness, diseases, and so on.

A very interesting thing is that now my characters really exist. Literature has changed life in a way. In Latin America – Colombia, Mexico and other countries – after I published Solenoid in Spanish, those piquetistas, as they call themselves, just appeared. Now they are a sort of group that do the same thing that my characters do in my novel. They have big signs and go in front of the hospitals where cancer patients have died, in front of the morgues, and so on. So, in a way, my novel – and I’m very astonished about it – created a new reality, which didn’t exist before it.

We’ve read on your Facebook wall that these piquetistas were present at one of your events and that the police had to be involved?

Yes. I don’t want to show off, but this really happened. When I had a reading in Colombia – it was like Beatlemania – the people just started to crowd me from all directions and I couldn’t breathe anymore. It was very scary for me but the people who were ensuring order there surrounded me and we started to run through the crowd to the exit of the book fair, about four hundred meters. We ran and a crowd of readers followed us. They all shouted: “Hey Mircea, we are here! Give us autographs! Sign our books!” I was about to die there, killed by my own readers. It was a very interesting but also scary episode, but I survived (laughs). I have now made preparations to go to Mexico as I have just received a big prize there (editors’ note: Premio Fil de Literatura). I just love Latin America, all of my visitors are enthusiastic about me.

We’ve noticed that you’ve just finished another book, Theodoros. We already know a little about it. It’s going to be a long book again. Can you tell us something? How did it turn out? Are you glad about it? What do you still have to do?

TheodorosI’ve just started rereading it, which I still have to do as I finished it a few days ago. I will say that I’m satisfied with this book, which is a pseudo-historical book. It takes place in the nineteenth century and it’s about the life of a person who, being a simple servant at the court of a small aristocrat in Romania, had from a very early age this dream of becoming an emperor. As a child, all his games with other children were already marked by this dream, as he always played the role of the emperor and the other kids were his subjects. All his life, in everything he did, he wanted to reach higher and higher, to grow more and more. He even commits all kinds of evil things: robberies, piracy, and so on. None of this bothers him as he goes on with this very intense wish that he has. Finally, he succeeds and he becomes the emperor of Ethiopia in Africa. So, it’s a sort of picaresque novel about the fantastic and fabulous life of the character. It’s a work of imagination. It’s very different from either Orbitor or Solenoid. I would say that it is my “real” novel. It is my first novel that is really a novel, not a poem, not a metaphysical treatise, and so on.

In Solenoid the narrator also says that he is writing an “anti-book.” Is that what your previous works were, “anti-novels”?

(slight hesitation) Yes, in a way. But this one, which I have just finished and in a way am still finishing, is a real novel. It’s not an anti-novel. At the same time, it also has a kind of relativism to it, so it is also a kind of postmodern novel, full of irony and this distance, distances.

To go back to the notion of anti-novel and Solenoid’s narrator’s preoccupation with Kafka, I’d like to finish up with this tiny passage about Hermana and Isachar: “The Dream Lord, great Isachar, sat in front of the mirror, his back close to the surface, his head bent far back and sunk deep in the mirror. Hermana, the Lord of Dusk, entered and dived into Isachar’s chest until he disappeared.” The narrator says this is the best thing Kafka ever did because he didn’t turn it into a story. Do you agree with the narrator in that respect? Is that the greatest achievement of literature, when it refuses to become “literature”?

Franz_Kafka,_1923You are now talking about Franz Kafka. One of the most interesting things in discussing his work is that he wasn’t actually writing his diary, his journal, his short stories, his parables, his novels even, separately. He didn’t write his novels in a certain notebook and his short stories in another one. He wrote all of them in the notebooks where he wrote his journal. So, everything that he did was a single manuscript! He wrote a very long manuscript, including his novels, including his short stories, including his parables and so on, and integrating everything into his journal, his diary.

We find there very short… let’s say stories, nuclei of stories. We have descriptions of dreams. We have parables that came to his mind and which were not finished. Sometimes, he started to write again and again on each of them. So, he didn’t want to produce books. He was only interested in the act of writing, in the process of writing. This episode with Hermana and many other episodes are in my opinion masterpieces in themselves. Even if you cannot say that they are real stories or real poems, etc. But they are extraordinary insights into his own soul, into his own absolutely dark and fantastic inner side.

In that case, thank you, Mr. Cărtărescu, for this extraordinary voyage inside your dark and fantastic skull. Now, Jan Willem and Sean Cotter, let’s get cracking! 

 

The Interviewers:

Emiel Roothooft, Research MA of Philosophy at KU Leuven, Belgium.

Remo Verdickt, PhD in American Literature at KU Leuven, Belgium. Writes his doctoral thesis on James Baldwin.

 

© De Reactor

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