Melancolia by Mircea Cărtărescu

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


Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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11 Responses to Melancolia by Mircea Cărtărescu

  1. Mark R. Harris says:

    Interesting sidenote on Mystery and Melancholy of a Street: That painting is in a private collection that I have never seen identified. Almost no one has seen it “live” in decades.

  2. Stefan White says:

    Thank you for this perceptive tour through Melancolia. I actually first found your blog when I googled for reviews of Solenoid; I’m so glad you’re back. When I first read Blinding–in its spectacular translation by Sean Cotter–it blew my mind permanently, and ever since then I’ve hungered for all his untranslated books. For now, your in-depth reviews are as close as I can get.

  3. You are very lucky to already have a translation to your language of Cartarescu’s last work. In Spanich, we have almost everything, but we are still waiting for the last part of Orbitor (Cegador, in Spanish) and Melancolia, which, to my pleasure, sounds the same as in Spanish (only misses the accent). Thanks your your insights on the book; it’s fascinating to trace those relatiions Cartarescu has with painting. Greetings from Colombia.

  4. Maria says:

    The title also has a more mundane explanation in Romanian. “Melancolia” is the definite form in nominative, singular of “melancolie”. A literal translation would be “the melancholy”.

    • Thanks for the additional explanation! It is noteworthy then, that instead of translating the title as “La mélancolie”, the French translator has chosen to keep the original title.

  5. Daniela Amaximoaie says:

    I think there is another link of the title to Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia, a synonym of melancholy. There is a parallel in depicting their respective childship and parents.

  6. Bogdan A says:

    Great post. I’m glad to see romanian literature reach outside the country.

    I wanted to mention that ‘Melancolia’ is a romanian word. In romanian definite articles are at the end of the word. So ‘Melancolia’ is ‘the melancholy’.

    • Thanks for stopping by! This point has already been made by another reader from Romania. I was guided by the fact that the French translator did not translate the title as “La mélancolie” (The Melancholy) but decided to keep the original title.

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