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Guest Post: Matthias Friedrich on En Australiareise (A Voyage to Australia) by Svein Jarvoll

Not long ago, I wrote a brief post about the Norwegian writer Thure Erik Lund and his mind-boggling tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene. As you might already know, most of English-speaking readers first learnt about Lund from his mega-popular compatriot Karl Ove Knausgård. I have recently been told that there is one more Norwegian author mentioned by Knausgård whose writing is also challenging, experimental, difficult to translate and is little known outside his home country. The writer in question is Svein Jarvoll. His only novel En Australiareise (A Voyage to Australia) was published in 1988 and has since acquired a cult status among the few who have been capable of reading and appreciating it. The critical response, as usually is the case with challenging and unconventional novels, has mostly been that of puzzlement and incomprehension. Matthias Friedrich, the author of the German translation of the novel, which is scheduled for publication this year, has kindly agreed to write for The Untranslated a guest post about this remarkable work of literature.

 

Svein Jarvoll: En Australiareise (A Journey to Australia, 1988)

by Matthias Friedrich

 

In Boyhood Island, Karl Ove Knausgård reflects on the way his opinions have changed in the course of time:

Never, later in the life, have I had my finger on the pulse the way I had then with the girls living around us in those years. Later, I may have doubted whether Svein Jarvoll’s novel A Journey to Australia was a good or a bad novel, or whether Hermann Broch was a better writer than Robert Musil […].

Throughout My Struggle, Jarvoll is mentioned three times: as the translator of Adam Thorpe’s polyphonic novel Ulverton, as a writer who is able to talk precisely about what he does, and as the author of a strange novel called En Australiareise. But there’s nothing more than that. “Svein Jarvoll” is a name that may appear in an annotated edition of My Struggle one day. However, he is just a footnote in a truncated literary history despite his influence on Norwegian postmodern writers such as Stig Sæterbakken or Tor Ulven who both have been translated into English.

 En Australiareise was all but ignored when it was first published in 1988. One critic wrote about the novel’s “stylistic furor”, another needed to consult far too many dictionaries and lexica – but, of all things, was happy to find a reference to the Niffen, the sports club of Nordstrand (Oslo), in a passage of the novel which is a single run-on word: the so-called makrologos. And as Jarvoll said in an interview with the Norwegian magazine Vinduet, he once met a sailor in Northern Norway who told him that he had read En Australiareise, that he had expected a kind of personal account or autobiographical narration, but that he hadn’t understood anything of it.

What strikes the potential readers when they take a first look at the novel is its apparent nonconformity. It consists of two parts: Den gule boka (The Yellow Book) and Lonaquemor (which is Catalan for The Dying Wave). These two parts turn out to be very different from each other. The first one tells the story of Mark Stoller, a Norwegian traveller (although his name isn’t Norwegian at all) who sets off in València (Spain) and ends up in Australia. In between, he visits Ireland and undertakes a long train journey to Italy where sees Florence, Pisa, and Brindisi. The second part tells the story of Emmi who also travels; but she doesn’t leave Australia’s confines. Together with her friend Alice, Emmi battles her way through the jungle where her father Buster lives in a cabin, because she wants to visit him. In the cabin, she discovers a biography of a Norwegian anthropologist called Magnus C. Ztlohmul (who has a real-life prototype, namely the ethnologist Carl Lumholtz) and reads the book’s foreword before she decides to go back home.

Another thing that strikes the potential readers is its difficulty. The prose is dense, many texts are alluded to, and Jarvoll is quite ruthless when it comes to inventing new words which are impossible to track down, such as “Australopleust” in the first chapter; this means “one who is traveling through Australia”, but has a slight ironic touch. The novel takes in everything, from Dante’s Commedia and Rabelais’  Gargantua and Pantagruel to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man,  also featuring lesser known poets such as the Catalan Ausiàs March.

The first part itself is divided into nine chapters (or episodes); the second one is a single run-on text. There is no strict plot as the story seems to rely on coincidences and caprices. Additionally, the characters – especially Mark Stoller and his Danish girlfriend Lone, who accompanies him on his travels from Spain to Italy – just appear to be human. In fact, they are media in the etymological sense of the term – accumulators of (linguistic) signs. Their names aren’t random. For instance, Mark compares himself to Ausiàs March and takes a closer look at a poem which contains these verses: “A temps he cor d’acer, de carn e fust:/ yo só aquest que·m dich Ausiàs March.” (Sometimes, I have a heart of lead, of flesh and wood:/I am the one who is called Ausiàs March.) This poem focuses on melancholy and dying, two themes which have a significant influence on Mark Stoller: In fact, En Australiareise is a long conversation with death and the European tradition of danse macabre. Despite its morbidity, the novel is hilarious and funny; it has a Rabelaisian touch; it contains a lot of Joycean scatology. It is experimental in the sense that it intends to sketch a manner of speaking about death, the so-called thanatology, and takes into consideration every text which deals with dissolution and exitus. Right in the first chapter, Mark announces that he wants to “spall out the ground” of Dante’s Commedia, which means that he doesn’t want to construct a vertical, symmetrical world (as Dante does), but a horizontal world which could be defined, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, as dissymmetrical: a surface which seems to be empty, but erodes bit by bit and shows that it’s composed of different layers. It’s a geological landscape with a history of its own, but it is also arbitrary in the sense that it re-orients the traveller’s point of view; he or she must concentrate on the things visible and independently connect the dots which appear to be isolated. Thus, Mark is able to undertake a voyage which leads him through the European landscape of death; he himself becomes Dante who encounters many personalities, such as the painter Buonamico Buffalmacco, who is responsible for the Trionfo della Morte in Pisa; in a long and exciting discussion with this man who seems to be the reincarnation of the defunct uomo universale, Mark develops his thanatology and listens to Buffalmacco who himself outlines the developments of his (occasionally obscene) dream life.

Buonamico Buffalmacco, The Three Dead and the Three Living and The Triumph of Death, 1338-39.

Lone, whose name Mark derives from the Catalan l’ona, “the wave”, is the person who represents the novel’s style. Some elements appear as sinuated repetitions: it occurs frequently that some hypotexts, such as Dante’s poem, are transformed and parodied. Nevertheless, Mark’s etymology is false; in fact, Lone’s name is an abbreviation of the Danish Abelone, which itself is another form of Appolonia. As a cognate of the name of the Greek god of the arts (including poetry), Lone’s name sets the novel’s tone. “Lone, you whose name means ‘wave’ in Valencian, here I shall draw your contour in ten waves, and the contour which sketches the beginning of my own journey, a journey which traces a crooked M on the map” – and here, Mark lists the countries he is going to visit.

 En Australiareise remains a novel ignored by the public, even in Norway, in spite of the re-issue, which was published in 2008 in Gyldendal’s series Forfatterens forfatter (Writer’s Writer). It is poet Mazdak Shafieian who is responsible for this second edition, and who has written an informative foreword which can be read in German. A German translation has been announced by Urs Engeler and is probably going to be released in the course of 2018; the novel’s very first chapter has already been published in the literary magazine Mütze.

 

About the Author

Matthias Friedrich, born in Trier (Germany) in 1992, studied Creative Writing in Hildesheim (2012-2015) and is currently studying Scandinavian Literature in Greifswald. Last publication: kleine thanatoiden (Berlin, Sukultur 2016). Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/matthias.friedrich.359

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The Harmonious Forest (O Bosque Harmonioso) by Augusto Abelaira

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No, this is not some tongue-twisting onomatopoeic coinage from Finnegans Wake. As a matter of fact, in the language of  a certain tribe inhabiting the interior of Java Island, this word is habitually used  as the coordinate conjunction equivalent to the English and. Incidentally, these people make do with only thirty words most of which have multiple meanings. For example, the word trob can convey such disparate notions as “eagle”, “sea”, “milk”, “dog”, “stone”, “mother”, “son” as well as many other ideas.

We learn this curious but hardly trustworthy factoid from The Harmonious Forest,  a 16th century manuscript analysed by the narrator of Augusto Abelaira’s novel of the same name – a slim book with plenteous rewards. This Portuguese novel, published in 1982, follows in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino  and Umberto Eco in its playful treatment of history and textuality, its questioning of the reliability of written documents and its preoccupation with the blurred distinctions between forgery and authenticity, the copy and the original.

The novel itself is presented as a notebook kept by  Arnaldo Cunha, a schoolteacher with scholarly ambitions who is constantly tormented by existential anxieties. The contents of the notebook are a hodgepodge of different texts that provide us with a glimpse of the narrator’s everyday life, his philosophical musings, and the subject of his research. There are four primary documents making up the text of the notebook. First of all, there is the Renaissance novel The Harmonious Forest written in Latin by the obscure 16th century traveller and polymath Cristovão Borralho. We get to know this work indirectly, either through translated excerpts or just through brief summaries provided  by Cuhna. Secondly, there is the biography of Borralho penned in Portuguese by his friend Gaspar Barbosa. Thirdly,  there are  copious annotations left in Barbosa’s biography by an anonymous 18th century political exile in Paris. Likewise, these two texts are made available to us as either quoted passages or the teacher’s retellings. Finally, the notebook contains the personal diary of Arnaldo Cunha in which he discusses the three above-mentioned texts as well as vents his numerous frustrations and insecurities. Since jumps between these four texts are rather abrupt, it requires a certain effort to keep track of the story gradually emerging through the interaction of  direct and indirect quotations, summaries, observations, digressions and interpolations. 

Arnaldo Cunha is a self-conscious parody of the typical protagonist in an existentialist novel. Oppressed by the absurdity and wretchedness of everyday life, he wants to achieve something significant, knowing all too well that he is neither talented nor ambitious enough to do that. He has a lot of interests in various fields that he feeds with disparate reading, but none of his enquieries are profound enough to let him make his mark in the world. He is trapped in the limbo between his immediate surrounding, which he considers low-brow and tedious, and the unattainable realm of  stellar performance and recognition. The only way to satisfy his ambitions seems to be writing an important work (think Antoine Roquentin from Nausea). However, he realises that it cannot be a work of fiction due to his lack of imagination, so the only option on the table is a critical study of somebody else’s work. And that somebody should be virtually unknown to the literary and critical establishment, so that it would be “easy to say new things without great effort”.  The mysterious Cristovão Borralho appears to the ideal candidate for such an enterprise.

The name will be familiar to those who have read The Travels of Mendes Pinto, a 16th century travelogue chronicling its author’s adventures in Asia and Africa that warranted  justified comparisons with Marco Polo’s famous Book of the Marvels of the World.  Cristovão Borralho is mentioned in The Travels several times as Fernão Mendes Pinto’s companion.  Borralho’s The Harmonious Forest is a patchy affair. Most of the book  is made up of  the tall tales shared by his comrades aboard an India-bound vessel on the eve of its fight with a Turkish galliot. The stories are either bawdy tales reminiscent of The Decameron or fantastic adventure stories with philosophical undertones bringing to mind some of Voltaire’s Contes and Swift’s satires. If we assume that the real author of these narratives is Borralho himself, then it becomes evident that the traveller and scholar had a precocious mind that greatly outstripped his epoch and envisaged already in the 16th century some of the developments in philosophy and science which would take place only centuries later. One of the funniest stories is ascribed to Tomé Lobo (who is also mentioned by Mendes Pinto). In it we learn of an island inhabited by astute macaques who have invented their own means of communications using a chest with golden pieces as their vocabulary. Each piece stands for a specific word, so in order “to talk” a monkey has to use the relevant tokens and then put them back into the chest. Everything changes, however, with the visit of the Portuguese explorers who introduce on the island the idea of God and thus trigger a language revolution which leads the monkeys to differentiating between the signifier and the signified and thus creating the prerequisites for the democratisation of discourse: the appearance of paper words, serviceable insofar as their value is backed up by the golden pieces, and accessible to all monkeys. Tomé Lobo’s account is not just a sweeping satire of the critical theories fashionable in the 1960-1970s (i.e. structuralism and poststructuralism) – it makes fun of the common human urge to create theoretical systems explaining the world and then regarding  them as the ultimate truth. Some of the macaques bear suggestive names: Planton, Fucô, Lunan.

By and large, when describing their encounters with the indigenous population of some exotic place, the local language is one of the primary objects of the explorers’ interest. Besides the already mentioned tribe, which communicates using just thirty words, we get to know an indigenous community that has a multitude of words for each thing, each of those reflecting its specific condition: i. e. they will use different words for an eagle, depending upon whether the eagle is in the sunlight, or in the moonlight, or under the rain, etc. There is also a tribe which uses the same word to denote completely different objects: they have, for example, one word for “fish”, “triangle”, and “moon”. When there is no food and a child is hungry it is enough for the mother to point at the moon/fish and the little one will be sated.

The discoveries of the Portuguese travellers are not limited to the seas, as becomes know from  Borralho’s account of his journey to the Moon under Mem Taborda’s captainship. Needless to say, the latter has also been lifted from Mendes Pinto’s travelogue. Just like in the story about the talking monkeys, the tranquil life of the indigenous community on the Moon is overturned by the ideas the Portuguese explorers bring along. Mem Taborda and his crew, carried in a makeshift sailing vessel to the Moon from the Tibetan mountains by favourable winds, shake the seemingly solid foundations of the communist utopia built by the Lunar inhabitants. The newly arrived discover to their surprise that the locals don’t have fire arms, work only three hours a day, do not have any private property, and think little of gold because of its sheer abundance on the Moon. At first, they  deride the insatiable greed driving the adventurous subjects of the expanding Portuguese Empire. But as the intruders depart with a load of gold, they have already infected the Lunar civilisation with their avarice, and when they come back in two years’ time, they can contemplate  all the fruits of a society obsessed with accumulating wealth: social inequality, lack of rescources, rebellions and repressions. 

The stories are not limited solely to the quests for new lands and the enrichment of the empire. We also learn about more personal quests presented as gripping allegories: one man’s quest for God and another’s for a woman.  The former is narrated by yet another seafarer from The Travels, Vicente Morosa. It is the story of a Chinese man called Xang Tu, who sets off on a journey looking for God after his wife’s death. He closely follows the tracks left by somebody he believes to be God, uttering each time when he stumbles upon some evidence of misery or destruction: “God has passed here.” In the long run, the man realises that it is actually the Devil he might be pursuing, ultimately failing to see the difference between the two. As for the quest for a woman, this story is not to be found in Borralho’s manuscript, perhaps due to its excessively racy content. Luckily for Arnaldo Cunha, this tale appears in Barbosa’s text, and he is more than happy to summarise it for us. The protagonist of this tale has sex with a masked woman at a Venitian-style ball, and the pleasure granted to him by her vagina is so great, that he dubs it “the harmonous forest” and dedicates all his life to finding its mysterious possessor. His glass slipper is the memory of his ecstasy, so he travels the world making various women “try it on” by the only method available to him, that is, by sleeping with them. “Proustian precursor of Henry Miller?” wonders the author of the notebook after finishing his summary of this tale. But what about his own quest, does he succeed in proving that he has discovered an unknow monument of 16th century travel writing?

There’s the rub, for lacking conclusive proof the manuscript’s authenticity at his disposal, Cunha is faced with several different possibilities, and not all of them are favourable for his grand project. The least harmful one is that Borralho never existed – Gaspar Barbosa invented him and wrote both The Harmonious Forest and the fake biography to avoid possible persecution at the hands of the Holy Office. But things could be worse. What if both Barbosa and Borralho are the witty inventions of the 18th century anonymous author of the marginalia? Then most of the revolutionary insights of the Renaissance scholar are nothing but anachronistic flourishes of a person observing the 16th century from the heights of the Enlightenment. And, of course, Cuhna’s discovery will be completely nullified if it turns out that all the three texts have been forged  in the 20th century. This issue never gets resolved, but come to think of it, nor does the protagonist’s anxiety about the meaninglessness of life. As he himself neatly sums up at the end of the novel: “All that bitterness. To know that life has no sense and still keep looking for it.” Let’s leave him there. We know that he is just a function, an “existentialist” seedling in the metafictional forest of Augusto Abelaira.

“The key to the treasure is the treasure”, John Barth famously wrote in 1973. Perhaps Arnaldo Cuhna would have a hard time accepting this postmodern principle, but, at the end of the day, this is what really drives his own story. What he might believe to be a failed attempt at a search for meaning through scholarly work and self-analysis, we should regard as a masterfully constructed narrative device not only generating a plethora of meanings for each reader, but also giving  us the pleasure of watching a great ludic mind at work.

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Solenoid (Solenoide, Solenoid) by Mircea Cărtărescu

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.

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 a 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 arcane 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. 

Mina Minovici National Institute of Forensic Medicine. Image Source

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. 

Salvador Dalí, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1946. Image Source

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. 

Alicia Boole Stott’s models of  cross-sections of 4D polytopes. Image Source

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?

Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. (Author’s archive) Itch mite (Sarcoptes scabiei). Optical microscopy technique. Image Source

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.

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Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death (Matando enanos a garrotazos) by Alberto Laiseca

The debut short-story collection by the recently departed Argentine maverick Alberto Laiseca contains the seeds of all the major themes that will be brought later to exuberant fruition in his mega-novel The Sorias. The thirteen stories first published together in 1982 cover a lot of grotesque, cruel, and absurd topics save the titular extermination of the dwarfs. As a matter of fact, there are no dwarf characters at all in this collection. Laiseca’s book begins and ends tongue-in-cheek, dragging the reader through the diseased Disneyland of his perverse imagination, in which each attraction is an affront to the good taste and an ingenious exercise in gallows humour that will make you  guffaw at the ridiculous atrocities unfolding before your eyes and immediately feel embarrassed at such a reaction. Not since Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal have we been in the hands of such an incandescent satirist holding a distorting mirror to our reality twisted beyond repair in the first place.

The world of The Sorias is already present in the collection, albeit in a rudimentary state. Most of the stories are set in the dictatorial state of Technocracy ruled by the cruel Monitor. There are also references to the rival state of Soria and to some geographical features of  Laiseca’s fictional universe such as the desert Satan’s Bronze. Here we meet for the first time the duo of hobos Crk Iseka and Moyaresmio Iseka relaxing at a vagabond resort which nobody would risk to take away from the homeless folks as the Monitor has a soft spot for hobos, believing them to be “magical animals”. Crk and Moyaresmio provide some degree of cohesion to the collection: they are featured in two stories  (the second and the last one) and one more story is presented as a tale narrated by Moyaresmio to Crk.  Moreover, in the final story there is a metafictional trick of suggesting that the whole collection might have been written by Moyaresmio and is to be submitted for a literary competition.

Despite the overall playfulness, the stories mostly deal with grim and disturbing topics. The most shocking, and at the same time, strangely enough, the funniest, is the first story titled The Great Fall of the Indecorous Old Woman (Gran caída de la indecorosa vieja). It is a tale about the sadistic torture of an old lady in an ostentatiously exoticised Arab land that one could only hope to encounter in One Thousand and One Nights re-written by the Marquis de Sade. It can be read as a morbid  allegory of the legal injustice of a totalitarian system. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but I think that the satirical effect is achieved by the inversion of the ludicrous situation described by Anton Chekhov in his short story The Death of a Government Clerk. In Chekhov’s story a petty clerk accidentally sneezes on the head of a high-ranking official sitting in front of him in the theatre and cannot forgive himself such an impudence. After several increasingly annoying apologies to the official, the miserable man arouses in his high-status “victim” an angry outburst and goes home to die, unable to reconcile himself with the offence he has committed. In Laiseca’s story  the tables are turned as a similarly minor insult provokes a disproportionate response from the affected party. An old woman inadvertently pokes a qadi in the eye with a corner of her bag while riding on an archaic bus propelled by a team of slaves. This hardly grave incident leads to her suffering unimaginably painful tortures at the hands of the qadi’s assistants, while the sadistic magistrate keeps wondering at the discourteous behaviour of the woman who refuses to answer his questions after red-hot nails have been driven into her gums as a new set of false teeth. Even the sweet music played on the flutes fashioned from the shinbones of her amputated legs is unable to obtain from her an intelligible response!

Laiseca’s two well-known interests, classical music and ancient Egypt, converge in The Mummy of the Clavichord (La momia del clavicordio), a tale recounted by Moyaresmio Iseka to his companion. The story tells about two egyptologists and their aides visiting the Valley of the Kings of Music with the purpose of extracting Mozart’s clavichord from the tomb of pharaoh Tutantchaikovsky (sic!). The clavichord is cursed, for, as it later becomes known, there is the mummy of Mozart hiding inside. The removal of the musical instrument triggers a chain of mysterious deaths among the members of the team led by the egyptologists. Quite soon everyone is dead except one of the heads of the expedition, a fellow called Pedro Pecarí de los Galíndez Faisán. His fate is the most dreadful of all: he is chased in a nightmare by the mummy of the great composer, bowed ponytail and all, wielding a huge fork.

The citizens of  Technocracy appearing in the collection, from the highest state officials  down to the grass roots, are usually obsessed with solving some intractable problem. For example, Professor L.B.J. Iseka aspires to build a flying machine capable of taking its pilot inside a tornado. Luckily for him, it is up for his assistant Laponio Iseka to find out whether the newly invented apparatus can sustain the destructive force of the rotating wind. Dionisios Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the secret police of Technocracy called the I Double E, wraps his head around the challenge of disposing of the millions of the dead bodies of the enemies of the state murdered in the numerous concentration camps. His solution, based on the mathematical calculations faithfully reproduced in the story, is to throw the corpses from aircraft into an enormous crevice with a recently discovered cavern adjoining its bottom. The cavern, which was exposed  by the Technocratic engineers, will provide the necessary additional space to accommodate all the victims of the regime. Political commissar José Kaltenbrunner Garbanzo (no relation to Dionisios), after declaring the independence of a small province in Technocracy and staving off the inept attempts of  the secrete police chief to oust him, now faces the major invasion led by the great Monitor himself, an operation which might grow into a civil war. During a staff meeting in the Situation Room of his HQ guarded by the SS troops (he has adopted the Nazi style of dictatorship) Garbanzo is also trying to solve a problem: he wants to put his finger on the exact moment during the historic Battle of Stalingrad when the equilibrium between the Soviet and the German forces was broken, which precipitated the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich. A typical Laiseca touch is the presence of the Nazi-sympathising dictator’s importunate mother who turns out to be a cartoonish stereotypical Jewish mum. She is constantly interrupting the meeting in the headquarters, asking in Yiddish if her son is alright and even brings to the participants a platter with traditional Jewish hot cross buns. The three problems that have been puzzling humankind for centuries are “solved” in the short story with the telling title The Quadrature of the Circle, Perpetual Motion, Philosopher’s Stone (La cuadratura del círculo, el movimiento perpetuo, la piedra filosofal). The leader of an esoteric sect talks about the outlandish ways in which he has succeeded in squaring the circle, inventing a perpetual motion machine and transmuting lead into gold. It is obvious that his elaborate solutions are just groundless fantasies worthy of a madman suffering from the delusion of grandeur. However, woe to those will dare to dispute his grandiose achievements: terrible retribution is in store for them. Perhaps, it is the sad fact the leader of the sect spent sixty years dividing the circle into ever-diminishing triangles that has made him so cruel and intolerant?

The last problem to be solved in this short-story collection is finding the right name for it. In the concluding piece, appropriately called Inventing Titles in the Winter Cave (Inventando títulos en la caverna de invierno), Moyaresmio Iseka discusses with Crk various possible names for the collection of short stories he has almost finished. There are dozens of variants: some are funny, some absurd, and some are pilfered from well-known literary classics. Finally, the cultured and respectable hobos decide to opt for the same title which, as we know,  Laiseca gave to the story collection in which they are prominently featured. Indeed, Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death is a cool title, especially considering the absence of the little pesky creatures in the book. But what does it mean? Of some help is the epigraph to the collection taken from a quote in Argentine writer Horacio Romeu’s novel A bailar esta ranchera:

 A la vera de un camino

dos enanos castigaban una flor

mientras le decían:

—Aunque tengas buen olor

¡no nos gustan las florcitas!

 

On the edge of a road

two dwarfs were tormenting a flower

all the while telling it:

“Although you smell good,

we don’t like little flowers!”

Far from demanding to exact revenge on the flower-hating little men from a verse, Laiseca calls upon us to bludgeon to death the metaphysical dwarfs of political and cultural intolerance, state-sponsored violence and bigotry. At least, that’s my interpretation of the title. We shouldn’t forget that all these stories were written during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, a period of mass persecution and murder of thousands of political dissidents by the military government of the country. So, the dwarfs must be a symbol of all things heinous in human nature that Laiseca exposes and castigates in this work the way he does it best: by diluting the mundane horrors of repressive regimes with the grotesque, the absurd and the fantastic.

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The Levant (Le Levant, Levantul) by Mircea Cărtărescu

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 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 Coltea Tower in the mid-19th century

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 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 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 Cockagne 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.

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