Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Gaining the ability to immerse myself in Mircea Cărtărescu's densely poetic novel was almost identical to overcoming writer's block. I would stare at the pages like I sometimes do the computer screen, eyes jerking haphazardly downward until I reached the bottom, where I would realize as I was lifting them to begin the top of the second page that I had no retention of the first. After that, my optic nerves bounced weakly between the book and my brain, holding the jumble of words upside down and backwards, but not translating what they'd seen into anything meaningful. I knew the book wasn't terrible, like, say, Battlefield Earth, or impenetrably dense, like a contract law textbook. But I still struggled with it. Finally, what helped me with reading was what helped me with writing: I took a step back and asked myself what I wanted to get out of the experience. With writing, it helps sometimes if I decide what it is that I want to say, then say it as simply as I can, one word at a time, until they either begin to flow more rapidly or they don't and I take a longer break. With reading, I asked myself the same question: why am I reading this book? Is it for pleasure? If so, then why am I not enjoying it? If it isn't badly written, then why am I struggling? Finally, I realized that I was reading Nostalgia in the worst possible way. I was trying to rush through it like it was The Devil Wears Prada. Where Lauren Weisberger would describe a scene were she enters a parking garage by writing, "I pulled the car into the garage," Cărtărescu would spend two and a half pages describing the car, the parking garage, a sad-eyed peasant woman outside the garage eating a wormy apple, the worm, the worm's feelings on having its home ingested, the number of oil stains on the garage floor and their shapes, the weather, the weather forecast for the next five days, and so on.

My choice was either to read each page as if it were a complete story unto itself (what a sad story about a homeless worm! O, the plight of the invertebrate!) or I could give up. I made the same choice with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and it worked out extremely well. Once I quit dictating to the novel how I wanted to read it and let it decide how it wanted to be read, I was able to slip inside the dense, poetic prose and enjoy it.

Nostalgia is Cărtărescu's first novel translated into English. First published in 1989 in Romania, Nostalgia was one of the better books written during the post-modern underground movement in Bucharest that began at the end of the 70's. The movement's group of writers, known as the "Blue-Jeans Generation" due to the influence of western writers, were officially condemned by Romania's communist regime due to the independence of thought and expression from communist ideology.

Rather than giving a nod to the party line, Cărtărescu envelopes the streets of Bucharest in a Daliesque dream. Even though the book seems to be broken up into five unrelated short stories, Cărtărescu calls Nostalgia a novel, insisting that "it could be said that what we're dealing with here is a Book, in the old and precious sence of the word. The stories connect subterraneously, caught in the web of the same magical and symbolist thought, of the same stylistic calligraphy. This is a fractalic and holographic novel, in which each part reflects all the others."

The first and last stories, "The Roulette Player" and the "The Architect," are fairly straightforward, plot-driven slightly creepy narratives, similar to contemporary Western fiction. "The Roulette Player" tells the story of a man who defies all odds playing Russian Roulette, while the "The Architect" is a mild-mannered man who becomes utterly consumed with an obsession with sound, that has dramatic implications for the world at large.

The middle, longer pieces are where Cărtărescu, also Romania's premiere poet, really unleashes the full force of his descriptive, surrealistic writing. All three feature young children or adolescents as narrators. "Mentardy" is a short story about a wild gang of little boys in the slums, with a penchant for animal cruelty, who are momentarily tamed by a preternaturally possessed child with a hypnotic story telling ability. The second, "The Twins," is a Kafka-like novella about the entertwined lives of teenagers Andrei and Gina who switch bodies (Andrei + Gina = Androgyny. Julian Semilian, you clever translator, you!), and the last, "REM," my favorite, was about seven little girls and their quest to find the Creator, for good or ill.

Each of the stories is, as Cărtărescu said, loosely connected by a central theme of obsession; in particular, the artist being consumed by his/her own art.

When taken separately, line by line, word by word, Nostalgia is a series of fantastic images. When layered over, image on top of image like the clear plastic anatomy pictures in encyclopedias, a skeleton covered by muscles covered by blood vessels, when the last layer is added, a fully formed complex creation is at last in place.
by Mircea Cărtărescu
translated by Julian Semilian
New Directions Publishing
Soft Cover
316 pages
This edition published in November, 2005

This review originally appeared at TARGET="_blank">J LHLS.

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