I have read Mircea Cărtărescu’s latest novel in Marian Ochoa de Eribe’s Spanish translation, which was kindly provided for this review by the publishing house Impedimenta. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be an English translation any time soon – indirect evidence of that is the fact that the English translation of Cărtărescu’s acclaimed trilogy Orbitor ground to a halt after only the first volume came out in English as The Blinding back in 2013. So, if you can read Spanish or Catalan, or any other European language in which the book will appear within the next few years, I recommend getting this novel and plunging right into it: it is one of those awe-inspiring literary juggernauts which grace exacting readership only once in a decade. (2022 Update: Five years later, Deep Vellum is publishing the English translation by Sean Cotter).
Moreover, I will allow myself to be outrageously opinionated and blunt: Solenoid is the greatest surrealist novel ever written. I can imagine it firmly sitting at the top of a gigantic totem pole sculpture built out of the debris representing the evolutionary chain kick-started by the publication of Breton and Soupault’s The Magnetic Fields in 1920. Among the myriad elements of the construction you can make out the manuscripts of The Surrealist Manifesto and Nadja, a screen showing a repeating loop of Un Chien Andalou, paintings featuring the milestones of visual surrealism: the anthropomorphic chests of drawers and insect-legged elephants of Salvador Dalí, the sentient blobs of Ives Tanguy, the paradoxical tableaux of Remedios Varo, as well as more books: Julien Gracq’s The Castle of Argol, Max Ernst’s Une semaine de bonté, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Tristan Tzara’s Approximate Man, and so on until this enormous column of artifacts terminates with the hefty volume written by Cărtărescu. Here is the most advanced stage of this century-long development: a surrealist novel, which is also a maximalist novel whose encyclopedic penchant for exploring various realms of human knowledge is only matched by its savage commitment to bending, exploding and metamorphosing the “reality” it depicts.
Now, if that were not enough, Solenoid is also one of the four great novels of the 21st century exploring the theme of the fourth dimension, the other three being Miquel de Palol’s El Troiacord, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, and Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.
That being said, Solenoid is far from perfect. It hasn’t avoided the usual pitfalls of ambitious long novels: the book may feel repetitive, turgid and navel-gazing at times. Nevertheless, going through it relatively quickly took my breath away, and my main reaction after closing the book was: “What an achievement! They don’t write like this any more!” Reviewing it will not be an easy task, but I will try my best.
So, where do I even start with this? In a nutshell, the novel is presented as a manuscript of a failed writer who teaches Romanian at an elementary school in Bucharest, hates his job and wishes to find an escape route from the confinement of his body and the three-dimensional world around it. As in his epic poem The Levant, Cărtărescu includes plenty of biographical details in Solenoid. The nameless narrator, in fact, lives a life very similar to that of the Romanian writer until the crucial bifurcation point at which their paths begin to diverge. The moment in question is a literary soirée at the Faculty of Letters at which the aspiring author reads his long poem The Fall, hoping it would launch his literary career. Instead, he suffers a complete fiasco as the audience ruthlessly tear his work apart, making the young man forsake his literary ambitions forever. He will go on to have the mediocre life of a schoolteacher, whereas his other version will become a successful writer in an alternative world created by the positive reception of his poem.
The manuscript of the failed writer is not meant for publication – it is there to document his quest for the escape. This metaphysical journey is narrated through childhood recollections, the accounts of the everyday life at the school he teaches in, which exemplifies the sordidness and absurdity of the existence under the communist regime in Romania, the excerpts from his personal diaries, descriptions of his dreams and hallucinations, fragments of his “unsuccessful” literary experiments. On more than one occasion, the narrator emphasises that what we are reading is not a novel. He believes now, after his failure, that writers, just like artists and other creative people in general, are mere charlatans: they create trompe-l’oeils, doors so realistically painted on walls that for a moment we might even think that they lead somewhere, only to realise upon closer inspection that they don’t. His manuscript, however, presents ample evidence of the existence of doors into other dimensions, which are as difficult for us to conceive as is our 3D world for a Flatland inhabitant.
The preconditions making the nameless narrator an eligible candidate for the escape attempt are to be found, naturally, in his childhood. The lonely kid reads voraciously and has the first glimpses of the possible existence of other dimensions in sci-fi and mystery stories. His favourite is the one about a prisoner who manages to flee captivity thanks to the inmate in the neighbouring cell who transmits the getaway plan encoded in a system of knocks. The protagonist of the story translates the knocks into his own symbolic notation and breaks free. Some years later he returns to the prison to find his saviour and express his gratitude only to find out that the adjacent cell doesn’t exist and the wall that the mysterious neighbour used for his message faces outside. Another important source of knowledge is the narrator’s dreams, hallucinations and the nightmares brought about by what appears to be sleep paralysis, i. e. a state of numbness one experiences between wakefulness and falling asleep, during which the person has an illusion of being in the presence of strange things or people, often of threatening nature. In case of Solenoid‘s main character, during the episodes reminiscent of sleep paralysis he sees strange individuals sitting on his bed. The “visitors”, as he prefers to call them, might as well be messengers from another world trying to get across some important clue he’s yet unable to understand. The narrator also keeps diaries in which he writes down detailed descriptions of his dreams, some of which are reproduced in the manuscript. There is no sharp distinction between actual events, memories, dreams and hallucinations when it comes to the narration in Solenoid. As the protagonist himself confesses “I live in my own skull”; so, everything he sets down here is the subjective product of this limitation. Not that he’s very content with this state of things either, which is evident in his other statement: “All I’ve been doing my entire life is looking for cracks in the seemingly smooth, solid, logical surface of the mock-up of my skull”.
Besides the constraints imposed by our five senses, there is a more sinister limitation: that of human life expectancy. The inevitability of death and various ways of coming to terms with it inform the strong thanatological element of the novel. The narrator, whose first significant encounter with death happens when he loses his twin brother when still a child, dedicates considerable part of his enquiry to the nature of last things. The perfect environment for such ruminations is the tuberculosis sanatorium Voila to which he is sent after testing positive for TB in school. The narrative about the sanatorium is a morbid and fascinating set piece that can be read as a children’s version of The Magic Mountain. There the young narrator gets to know another boy called Traian who becomes his companion and even mentor in his search for the cracks in reality. Traian has arrived at his own eschatological model which he readily shares with his friend. According to it, after death people are doomed to a millennia-long journey in a dark otherworldly realm along a branching and crisscrossing path, occasionally meeting monstrous beings who ask them questions. If the answer is wrong, the monsters lock the traveller up in their own hell; if not, the journey continues for millions of years interrupted by scarce encounters with other monsters. When this seemingly infinite trek comes to an end, the dead soul enters a cave where he meets his mother who can take up any shape: a lioness, a moth, a lizard or even a translucent larva. The wanderer crawls into the womb of his mother to be born again in our world. For the mother is the final monster. It is also Traian who first shows to the other boy a secret sign that is going to be widely used by various sects prophesying death-defiance in Romania at the time when the grown-up narrator works at school: an insect sitting on the open palm.
One such sect is called “picketers”. What they actually do is gather around places associated with death and dying (for example, morgues, cemeteries or hospitals) and picket them, holding up protest signs with slogans against death, mortality and disease. The narrator attends one of their most significant pickets which takes place near the Mina Minovici National Institute of Forensic Medicine, a veritable palace of death that comprises a morgue, an amphitheater, a library, forensic laboratories and a pathological anatomy museum. Cărtărescu takes the real historical building and embellishes it to the state of grandeur worthy of St. Peter’s Basilica. In his version the cupola of the institute is surrounded at the base by twelve allegorical statues representing twelve gloomy states of mind, whereas the thirteenth statue, four times bigger than the others, is hovering half a metre above the top of the building. It represents Condemnation. Led by the preacher with the telling name Virgil, the picketers intend to implore the statue of Condemnation to interrupt the never-ending series of death and suffering the countless generations of humans are condemned to go through. In return, Virgil offers as a sacrifice his body and all his memories, invoking the total sum of human knowledge, the scientific and cultural achievements which will be saved along with humankind if the brutal cycle of destruction is broken. However, this offering does not appear as valuable for the forces in charge of the grim determinism of human life as the preacher believes. Eventually, it will be up to our narrator to come with a better offer, but in order to reach that status he still needs to learn and experience a lot.
The statue of Condemnation is suspended in the air on account of a huge solenoid (a coil of wire producing magnetic field when electricity runs through it) embedded in the wall beneath the imposing cupola of the forensic institute. The discovery of huge solenoids hidden in certain “energy nodes” of Bucharest marks an important development in the teacher’s search for the access to other dimensions. One such coil is immured in the foundation of the house he buys from the crackpot scientist and inventor Nicolae Borina. Perhaps due to the influence of the solenoid or some other mysterious forces, the newly-bought house turns out to be a receptacle of ambiguous and paradoxical spaces bringing to mind the architectural puzzles of M. C. Escher. Not only it is impossible to say how many rooms there are, not only the owner himself has to be cautious not to get lost in his own home, there is also a mysterious place concealing a rip in the fabric of reality behind a window designed as a porthole. The place in question is a turret that can be accessed only by a staircase. Inside the turret the teacher finds a chamber occupied by a dental chair with the relevant armamentarium, a reified metaphor for human pain and suffering easily identifiable by those who had to visit the dentist before the 1990s. The round window in the turret offers a glimpse of an alien world, a different dimension which might grant the coveted escape route for the narrator, but it is unlikely that he would be delighted to take it. What he sees is a bleak and crepuscular landscape populated by nightmarish beasts:
With a melancholy impossible to express in words, processions of entities roamed this landscape: herds of creatures that sometimes resembled elephants — but on spider legs, like the ones in Saint Anthony’s vision by Dalí — at other times, cows with bestial masks on their heads, and, on occasion, insects of a long-gone kingdom. On their articulated legs, similar to the fingers of a human hand, they were laboriously dragging a shapeless body covered by soft carapace through which sprouted sparse hair. Each protuberance, each rough spot, each bulge and each bristle looked limpid as if under oblique light. Their faces, dominated by beaks and hooks, were blind. They were making way through intertwined fibre by virtue of the sensitive filaments with which they were palpating the backs of those walking in front.
There will be more inter-dimensional rifts like these, and each time the narrator comes across a similar portal into the unknown, he will feel being closer to the solution of his main problem, all the time aware of the giants who came before him, and on whose shoulders he is carrying out his research.
Nicolae Borina, the inventor of the paranormal solenoid, is a fictitious character, but besides him there are quite a few real historical figures in the book. We get to learn about Mina Minovici, the founder of the above-mentioned institute, who was one of the greatest forensic scientists of his time. Even more curious is his brother Nicolae, a keen researcher of the effects of hanging upon the human body, who conducted hanging experiments on himself. In Solenoid, Nicolae Minovici is portrayed as a thanatological visionary who produces a number of gruesome engravings that depict his hallucinations experienced while hanging himself. Another important contributor to the narrator’s growing database of recondite knowledge is the psychiatrist and psychologist Nicolae Vaschide. He is also a real historical personage who devoted a lot of effort to the exploration of dreams, which resulted in the publication of his treatise Somnul și visele (Sleep and Dreams) in 1911. In the novel Vaschide proves to be a member of a secret fraternity of oneiromants with the uncanny ability to see other people’s dreams. His goal is to experience the crystal-clear dream he calls “orama”, the highest manifestation among all types of dreams. We follow his search through a series of lavish oneiric adventures, such as entering a giant skull excavated in a hill in the Ferentari neighbourhood of Bucharest and finding inside a little girl resting on the butterfly of the sfenoid bone.
George Boole, his wife Mary Everest and their children deserve a special mention. Their incredible story feeds the narrator’s insatiable curiosity about the four-dimensional world. It all starts also in childhood, with his reading of Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly, a cult book in the Soviet Bloc countries due to its romantic portrayal of the revolutionary struggle in the 19th century Italy. Ethel was one of the daughters of the two mathematicians, George Boole, the founder of the logic of algebra (later known as Boolean algebra) and Mary Everest, an author of progressive education materials on mathematics. His other daughter married Charles Howard Hinton, also a mathematician and an intrepid investigator of the fourth dimension who introduced the term “tesseract” for the 4D hypercube and who developed a complex system for visualising it using a collection of colour-coded cubes. And then, there is yet another daughter: Alicia Boole Stott, who elaborated on her brother-in-law’s research and made an important contribution to the study of four-dimensional polytopes by calculating their three-dimensional central sections and making their models. So much effort invested in the attempt to approach the hidden world in which tesseracts and hyperdodecahedra are as mundane as the Platonic solids are in our 3D reality! So, will the penetration into the fourth dimension grant true freedom? Our protagonist thinks about this issue a lot, marvelling at the extraordinary possibilities of those existing outside the prison of length, width and height. The inhabitants of the four-dimensional world would be able to cure patients without opening up their bodies and even to resurrect the dead; they would be able to appear and disappear in the 3D world whenever they pleased. When the contact with the dwellers of the higher dimension does occur, it happens within the context of the now happily forgotten communist-regime enforced practice of collecting waste paper and empty bottles. It takes the writer of Cărtărescu’s peculiar wit and inventiveness to come up with the idea of a schoolgirl bringing a genuine 4D Klein bottle to school along with regular empties. Having stumbled upon the impossible object, the author of the manuscript seeks out the girl who shows him her impressive stash of polytopes which she picked up in some kind of zone visited from to time by a mysterious bubble. At the same spot, the invaders from another world abduct the heavily-drinking school doorman, perhaps in exchange for their gifts. The man eventually comes back, not as an enlightened mouthpiece of the salvation message, however, but as a victim of a cruel medical experiment. What kind of freedom is that?
There is one more lead offered by the history of the Boole family: as we know, Ethel got married to Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who came into possession of perhaps the most mysterious manuscript of all time, which has carried his name ever since. The narrator’s enquiry into the history and possible meaning of the Voynich manuscript brings him to a man who has interest not only in enigmatic books, but also in the subclass Acaridae, all representatives of which can be found in his personal library of glass slides. Having examined the possibilities of extra-body experience provided by dreams, hallucinations, death and the fourth dimension, the narrator is ready to take a dive into yet another mysterious realm, that which we can normally see only through a microscope. In a hilarious episode, weird even in comparison with the other surreal vignettes, the protagonist travels to the subcutaneous city of itch mites with the good news of salvation entrusted to him by the scientist who cultivated the scabies on his own hand. Maybe, before trying to decipher messages from higher dimensions, before attempting to puzzle out the motivation of entities beyond our reach, we can make our presence known to the creatures to which we, in our turn, may appear as inconceivable godlike inhabitants from another world? With this episode, Cărtărescu accomplishes something extraordinary: a bio-punk rewriting of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which an itch mite possessed by the human mind encounters aggression and incomprehension among the fellow acarids and is ultimately doomed to martyrdom. The inconvenient truth is that humans might also be just parasites on a super-colossal body without any prospects of getting their voices heard. Not only here, but throughout the whole novel Franz Kafka is a salient presence. He is the most important writer for the author of the manuscript, but not because of his fiction. The teacher believes that his greatest work is the diaries, and that the most stunning thing Kafka has ever written is this baffling short text: “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.” Here, according to the protagonist, the great writer managed to distill the pure essence of his self, leaving out all unnecessary artificial elaborations employed millions of times in millions of useless literary works.
The protagonist’s girlfriend Irina, with whom he habitually makes love levitating above his bed thanks to the energy emitted by the solenoid, at one point presents him with a dilemma that proves to be the cornerstone of the whole novel: if you had to choose between saving a baby and a great work of art, what would you choose? The answer isn’t so obvious as it may seem, since there are always additional factors: e.g. the baby is incurably sick or it is going to become Hitler when it grows up. The narrator firmly replies that the baby is more important to him than any piece of art, even more than Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (which has considerably influenced Solenoid itself, by the way, not even if it is an artwork created by himself and opening thus a different kind of escape route: the one of cultural immortality. This is the question which the narrator will have to answer again at the end of the novel in the murky hall of the Mina Minovici Institute, in front of the monstrous statue of Condemnation sitting in a giant dental chair. A monster demanding a reply – just like in the eschatological scenario revealed to him by Traian in the Voila sanatorium. Perhaps the true portal of escape is to be found in his manuscript. After all, it was never meant to be a trompe-l’oeil, but the distillation of the narrator’s self in all its baroque complexity. Is he ready to sacrifice the child he’s had with Irina and turn his personal notes into a work of art, a novel? No, even if what is going on is just a hallucination, an allegorical masque performed inside his skull, he is not. The narrator will forever remain a man without a name. He is ready to give up his dreams of artistic transcendence in exchange for the cessation of pain and suffering, albeit temporary, and even if that means letting go of Bucharest, the saddest city on the face of earth, which gets torn away from the ground and, like Laputa – both Swift’s and Miyazaki’s – soars up powered by the vibrating solenoids and disappears in the sky. But can we be sure that Mircea Cărtărescu, the successful double of the author of the manuscript in an alternative world, would have made the same choice? What sacrifice has he offered to write such an extraordinary novel? I pray to God we’ll never learn.