I have chosen for this review the French translation of The Levant carried out by Nicolas Cavaillès. It’s essential to let you know from the outset that neither this version, nor the Spanish and the Swedish ones are the translations of the original epic poem Levantul. As stated by the Romanian author in several interviews, Levantul was composed as a seven-thousand-line rhymed poem that parodied the various styles of Romanian poetry and the language forms employed in it throughout different ages as a playful emulation of Joyce’s language experiment in The Oxen of the Sun. Cărtărescu was well aware that his finest stylistic achievement was virtually untranslatable, and it was unlikely that it would be as widely known abroad as his Orbitor (Blinding) trilogy. Realising that to present to the foreign audience this work, which was so deeply-rooted in the Romanian poetic tradition, would inevitably require sacrifice, he took upon himself to change and adapt the intractable piece to such an extent that it would be possible for the translator to come up with a faithful rendering. Cărtărescu changed most of the rhymed verse of the main narrative to prose, leaving untouched only the set-piece poems. The opera became an operetta, but, having lost half of its original appeal, it could now be translated. So, this is a review of the “simplified” version of Levantul Cărtărescu gave to his translators. Despite the huge losses inflicted on it by its own creator, it is a remarkable and highly entertaining text, and Nicolas Cavaillès’s translation deserves the highest praise for recreating in French the lexical and stylistic richness of the modified original.
The poem consists of twelve cantos, and most of the events narrated in them take place in the historical region of the Levant encompassing the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the early 19th century, a period of unrest in Wallachia (now part of modern Romania) reduced to the status of a vassal state by the Ottoman Empire. The people of Wallachia suffer under the oppression of the Phanariote prince or voivode, a representative of a large class of wealthy Greeks whose origins go back to the Phanar quarter in Istanbul. Phanariotes took important administrative positions in the empire and had been appointed as the rulers of the Danubian Principalities since the beginning of the 18th century. The poem recounts the adventures of a bunch of daredevils who travel across the seas and skies of the Levant to the lands of the long-suffering Wallachia in order to overthrow the tyrant. The historical context for their revolutionary activity would be most probably the events leading to the 1821 Wallachian Uprising, which coincided with the Greek War of Independence. Another important setting for the poem is a small apartment in a tower block in Bucharest where, at the end of the 1980s, high-school teacher Mircea Cărtărescu is writing his epic poem The Levant. Thus, Cărtărescu acts both as the author and a character in his own text, following and elaborating upon the grand metafictional stance of postmodern writing whose influence has percolated into the countries of the Eastern Bloc despite the restrictions of communist censorship.
Although what I’m going to write next might cause some to wince, for it does sound like an unforgivable platitude, I am absolutely sincere in stating that the true hero of The Levant is the language. With astonishing mastery, Cărtărescu succeeds in condensing the Romanian literary tradition into a 200-page scherzo of a poem demonstrating a dizzying variety of register, style and diction. Of course, for those reading the book in translation, this alchemist procedure is shown indirectly, like the famous play of shadows on the illuminated wall of Plato’s cave, but even with this handicap, we cannot help but gawk in awe at this scintillating display of wordsmithery. As a stark contrast to the author’s tiny kitchen in which he is sitting with all the gas stove burners lit to keep himself warm, clicking away on an old Erika typewriter, is the world he is creating: an overkill of colours, sumptuous details, florid verbosity and psychedelic descriptions liable to alter minds more effectively than acid. It’s as if the bitter and bleak reality surrounding the writer is overcompensated by the sweetness of this temple fashioned out of a rock of halva, to borrow one of the tropes the author of The Levant applies to his poem. The resulting text is rich in meaning and overstuffed with allusions to many Romanian literary works few readers outside Romania have ever heard of. But, like much of great literature, The Levant works at different levels: those who miss the literary parody can simply enjoy it as a weird swashbuckling tale with occasional forays into steampunk science fiction right out of a Myazaki animated movie. Consider this passage, for example:
The motley crew was climbing the paths overgrown with wild herbs when new bizarre forms appeared down in the valley: a jumble of cogwheels oiled with brake fluid, of arches, and of Maltese crosses was enmeshed with the broken teeth of a helical rack, with ball-bearings and bowls that were shaking as if they imprisoned the Demon. A machine the size of a bread bin was cutting apricots from the trees and putting the fruit into baskets using its three copper fingers. Another one, smaller, was plucking feathers from a chicken, sharpening the quills and dipping them into the inkwells that had sprung up on the rock to write some fable on a parchment. […] Another device, on spider’s legs, seized a pirate who had approached too close and shoved him into a compartment in its body and shut him behind the steel door. Then it regurgitated the captive who was freshly bathed, bald and pomaded, the cheeks and the head shaved like those of a Tartar. […] A shiver possessed them, nevertheless, when one more miracle was manifested: a tangle of tubes issued from a cauldron in which black foam was bubbling: it was cerebral, full of stars. The curls of the smoke rising from it in bundles coagulated into fragile, ephemerous spheres that floated gently in the air, and each of these globules was a planet in its own right, with its nations, its rivers, its fauna and flora, its incomprehensible laws, its bloody history, its intentions, its geniuses, its masters and slaves, its diseases, its crystals… All of them hoped to be immortal, but they all ended up bursting like soap bubbles, as lies, tyranny and stupidity always overrode the truth in the end, and destroyed it.
The author of these technological marvels is the Greek inventor Leonidas the Anthropophage who lives with his Romanian wife Zoe on the fabulous island of Hosna. His visitors, coming from the real island of Zante, are a recently formed band of rebels taking part in zavera, an organised revolt against the Ottoman Turks and their servile henchmen. The group consists of sea pirates under the command of Iaurta the One-Eyed and the Greek and Albanian militiamen called palikares. The informal leader of the rebels is young poet Manoil, the protagonist of The Levant. He is accompanied by his beautiful sister Zenaida and resourceful French Zouave Languedoc Brillant who is in love with her. The plan of the revolutionaries is to persuade Leonidas to join zavera, and to use his airship to fly to Bucharest where on a certain day the voivode and his family are supposed to climb the Coltea Tower, the tallest building in the city, in order to observe a comet through a telescope. The intention of the plotters is to kidnap the tyrant and his family members. To everybody’s joy, The Greek inventor accepts the plan, and thus the journey to the liberation begins. Manoil, Zenaida, Langedoc, Zoe, Leonidas, and his monkey Hercules get on the zeppelin, whereas Iaurta with his men and the palikares return to the ships. They have agreed to reunite in two weeks in Giurgiu, a city to the south of Bucharest. As the two groups part their ways, we follow the progress of both. The great cause of their mission with time attracts more supporters, as Iaurta’s team incorporates a whole Gypsy camp or shatra when they travel through Bulgaria.
From the very beginning of the poem, when we first meet Manoil on the prow of a caique furrowing the waters of the Mediterranean on the way to Zante from Corfu, and until the end, when “Mircea Cărtărescu” is treating his own characters to a cup of coffee at his apartment in Bucharest, we come across a rich assortment of poems and songs interspersing the narrative. These set pieces are undoubtedly parodic in nature, but, as I’ve already said, the uninitiated reader can enjoy them for what they are: ingenious constructs of all possible genres, rhyme and meter patterns, and usually with the whimsical subject matter. There is an animal fable in which the wolf king orders the other animals to walk on their hind paws; a song ballad recounting the chilling story of a princess preyed on by a lecherous strix endowed with buffalo testicles; a melancholy poem composed by a lonely geisha pining in a rock garden; a panegyric to Wallachia as the Cockaigne of the Balkans where almost everything is made of delicious comestibles; a sonnet dedicated to the amazing appearance of a balloon in the sky of Giurgiu; a circular philosophical poem musing on the idea of multiple worlds and Arthur Koestler’s notion of holon in which the first and the last stanzas consist of the last lines of the other stanzas; a verse chronicle documenting the air battle between the zeppelin of the rebels and the voivode’s gilded caique pulled in the sky by a team of swans, which is used in the film adaptation of the same battle and is read to the accompaniment of a mehterhane (an Ottoman military band) chanting pa, vu, ga, di. Far from being an exhaustive list, these several examples make us aware of the extent of the ambition underpinning this epic work and the incredible challenge facing its translator. Nicolas Cavaillès did a stellar job in rendering all these poems in French. When I finished the book, I kept re-reading some of them for pure enjoyment as standalone texts.
In Cărtărescu’s literary universe “reality” is frequently stranger than art inspired by it. This principle is evident in the main narrative of The Levant, which, let me remind you, is not rhymed in the translation. There is no lack of surreal episodes which I might as well call “oneiric moments”, considering the cultural background of Cărtărescu. Oneirism is a medical term denoting a dream-like state experienced while being awake. This word was used by a group of Romanian avant-garde poets and writers in the 1960s, led by Dumitru Tsepeneag and Leonid Dimov, as a name for their literary school that drew its initial inspiration from surrealist paintings. Romanian oneiric poetry is virtually unknown to the English-language reader due to the lack of translations. I can refer you only to one study examining it in some detail, which is available in English: Dumitru Tsepeneag and the Canon of Alternative Literature by Laura Pavel (Tr. Alistair Ian Blyth). Cărtărescu can be viewed as the postmodern inheritor of the Oneiricist aesthetics with its emphasis on the hallucinatory and the phantasmagoric and with its ambition to explore and comprehend dream logic. It is not only in the embedded parodies of his literary precursors that the writer employs the outlandish imagery of a wakeful dream — the framing story itself is chock-full of oneiric episodes, and there is a feeling that in his creative appropriation Cărtărescu has out-Heroded Herod. The visions are unexpected and intense. When Iaurta and Manoil slit each other’s forearms in some kind of blood brother ritual, out of their blood emerge, respectively, a translucent baby homunculus and an ivory-fleshed seraph who recite patriotic verses before disappearing into thin air. In Cantos 6 and 7 we learn that the crew of the airship gets stranded on an island shaped like the letter H (it’s the first one in a group of islands forming the word HELLESPONT). Manoil and his friends enter a cave in the mountain where they meet a naked woman with a ball of quartz that gives access to all possible worlds. The protagonist wants to know if their revolution is going to liberate the common folk. The woman, Princess Hyacinth, suggests that he liberate himself (read: his consciousness) first, and gives him the ball. A gaze into the depths of this aleph-like object is enough to send the young poet on a wild hallucinatory journey of shape-shifting and revelations. Appropriately enough, at some point he reaches a land called Hallucinatria where clouds have skeletons, towers are wearing lace-embroidered attires and the moon sports blue shaggy eyelashes. The main destination of Manoil is a city carved in the rocky mass of an island in the centre of the world. There, he is granted the revelation about the future of Romanian poetry dedicated to the exploration of dreams. Five quaintly fashioned statues representing the five classics of Romanian modernist poetry come alive and recite poems written in the style of Tudor Arghezi, Ion Barbu, George Bacovia, Lucian Blaga, and Nichita Stănescu. Manoil meets each of them in a network of passages and grottoes concealed within an ankle of another statue, that of the Virgin Mary, which forms part of a gigantic mechanism of Poetry:
It is equipped with pistons of shining metal, but it is also the Virgin with the child, and little Jesus’ bald head is divided into coloured squares. From his scalp extend electrodes along with a butterfly sucking with its trunk a pair of lovers coiled up between the sheets. Among the camshafts, levers, connecting rods and screws there is a man sleeping; he has female breasts and his body is covered with sores and boils, a dahlia growing out of each wound. A clay woman dressed in gold and purple is working next to the steaming cauldron. A punch-card sticks out of her thigh and there is a coloured prism between her eyes, which reflects the chamber. She is pressing the pedal of her sewing machine to make the butterfly beat its wings, while Mary is caressing the solitary, gentle and tortured Messiah.
No less oneiric are the methods by which Zouave Langedoc receives secret messages from his agents: the upper body of a spy will suddenly appear out of the horn of a phonograph or the unzipped belly of a donkey to transmit some crucial information, or, if the addressee happens to be travelling in the airship, the message will be given by a parrot concealed inside a waistcoat pocket of his own effigy designed as a kite. Oneirism is omnipresent in The Levant both as a tribute to the said literary school and as the modus operandi of the poem itself. What is more, dream-like sequences are not limited to the world of the poem but also spill over into the higher diegetic level inhabited by the author of The Levant as the boundaries between fiction and reality grow thinner.
One of the most curious characters of this work is the fictional Mircea Cărtărescu who is composing the epic poem as we read it, commenting upon his creative process as well as telling us about the circumstances under which the text is being written, which gives us an insight into the life of the real-life writer working at the end of the Ceaușescu era. The author of The Levant cares little for the verisimilitude of his pastiche, scattering anachronistic details as well as name-dropping an impressive constellation of twentieth-century writers, scientists, and thinkers who have influenced him: Jorge Luis Borges, Werner Heisenberg, René Thom, Mikhail Bakhtin, George Steiner, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Julio Cortázar. Early on, it becomes evident that the writer has no scruples in establishing a Pirandellesque relationship with his characters when he starts intruding in the fictional world of The Levant, making his creations mistakenly believe that they are visited by God. But of course, the writer is well aware, what with his interest in postmodern theories, that the author and God are not the same. The culmination of these games occurs when “Cărtărescu” decides to extract Manoil from the text into his “reality”, but, as a result of the ensuing scuffle, ends up being dragged into the world of The Levant. He joins the participants of zavera and takes part in some of their adventures, all the time wondering who is writing the text in his absence. He will have an opportunity to receive an allegorical answer to this question when he returns to the contemporary Bucharest along with the main characters, and the response will come as yet another oneiric vision: a tiny Erika typewriter is hatched from from an egg-like sphere and swiftly grows filling up all available space, sucking in “Cărtărescu” and his guests, eventually mushrooming to the size of the universe. A “gigantic Elohim” will type on this typewriter for eternity “with his fingers of comets and supernovas”. This hallucination may be seen as both as a grotesque illustration of the concept of the world as a text as well as a veiled hint to “Cărtărescu” about the existence of Cărtărescu who stands behind it all.
It would be wrong to regard The Levant with its metafictional excesses as just a work of a latecomer to the postmodern scene who is eager to make up for the lost time by over-egging the pudding. This is not only because Cărtărescu is as playful and ironic with regard to the postmodern tricks of the Western writers as to the avant-garde techniques of his Romanian predecessors. Written at the twilight of the Communist regime in Romania, and uncannily predicting the overthrow of Ceaușescu (for it can be read as a political allegory as well), The Levant is the quintessence of the total freedom of artistic imagination exercised within a society deprived of all other liberties. It was never meant to be published, and, consequently, the author had no restrictions in creating this landmark work the way he saw fit. Cărtărescu’s pessimism regarding the book’s fate was proved wrong as The Levant came out shortly after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Thus, it turned out to be a work written on the fault-line between the tectonic plates of history, and all the more significant for that. Besides, The Levant can be viewed as Cărtărescu’s intermediate summa, a work of maturity that condenses his aesthetic worldview, showing us what lies at the foundation of his extraordinary talent and giving us a glimpse into which direction it is going to develop. As we know now, this development has been nothing short of dazzling.