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Blinding: the Left Wing, By Mircea Cartarescu: Book review - memory and satire meld magically in this Bucharest tale
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Thursday 28 November 2013
The media hysterics who depict Romania solely as the home of demon migrant hordes will not care that a novelist from that country became a hot tip for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.
But Mircea Cartarescu, born in 1956, would be deeply interested in their fearful fantasies. For conspiracy, paranoia and the search for a perfect foe to shore up our fragile sense of identity count among his abiding themes. That's hardly surprising, for a writer from working-class Bucharest who came of age in the heyday of Ceausescu's dictatorship and its baroque, all-pervasive intelligence agency – the Securitate.
That local history not only pervades his astonishing sequence of autobiographical fictions. It does much to explain the obsessive quest for patterns, plots and affinities among people who yearn to see "everything connected to everything else in a vast, crystalline conspiracy." Although the first volume of three "wings", Blinding: the Left Wing – in this superlative translation by Sean Cotter – stands up well alone. Cartarescu demands much as he scrambles memory, satire, fantasy and near-mystical speculation, but amply rewards your commitment.
The book functions, first and foremost, as a portrait of the artist as a boy and adolescent – an intensely subjective study of the "growth of a poet's mind". Those are Wordsworth's words. Indeed, anyone familiar with Wordsworth's "Immortality" ode may feel curiously at home as Blinding outlines a rapturous theory of one-ness with the universe in which our birth is a forgetting and art a means to recover this union. "You are not from here… You have to search for the exit," the priest Fra Armando proclaims in a closing soliloquy that showcases all Cartarescu's gift for phantasmagoric dream sequences.
Behind such delirious fantasias, long passages return to solid ground. Stitched into the multi-stranded fabric of Blinding is a tender, mesmerically precise account of a humble Bucharest upbringing and its formative effects: "The me of today englobes the me of yesterday". Prolonged illness and its solitude led little Mircea to dive within his broiling imagination for sustenance. Blinding captures these hospital episodes with devastating force. Meanwhile, the careers of relatives expose the morbid paranoia of the regime.
Above all, Blinding insists that memory can make a world. "The past is everything, the future nothing." From that past – which stretches back to encompass all of human history – Cartarescu has fashioned a novel of visionary intensity. Bring on the next instalment – soon.
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