The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. —Adam Segal
There is an extinct volcanic cinder cone a few blocks from my house, named Mount Tabor after the mountain in Israel where Christ, according to tradition, experienced transfiguration. At 636 feet, less than one third the elevation of its Holy Land namesake – dwarfed in the daylight by Mount Hood, which looms white-peaked in the distance like an imprisoned moon – the average hiker can hardly expect to undergo a divine metamorphosis on Tabor’s summit, crowned as it is by westward-pointing statue of newspaperman Harvey W. Scott. But the view sure is fine. Fine enough that some nights ago a friend and I stole up to the summit to sit on a bench and observe.
Through a deltoid clearing in the pines we watched a slice of Portland: the flickering boulevards, the nigrescent scar of the Willamette, the glowing city, the softly lit clusters in the hills beyond. Suddenly the focus broke, the wind died, and we were overtaken for that moment by some otherworldly turbulence. If I were a believer I might have called it a communion with God. But, mind tempered by a book I’d been reading, I supposed instead that it might have been an intimation of Something Else, a fleeting whiff of a world beyond human perception.
That book is Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing. Originally published in Romanian in 1996 as Orbitor: Aripa Stângă, Blinding takes place – nominally, anyway – in Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city. This is where narrator-protagonist Mircea (Cărtărescu) lives in a dark apartment and writes; this is where most of Mircea’s characters hail from or eventually find themselves.
But the novel’s true setting is hardly a physical one: Blinding occupies a liminal space between lucid “reality” and the imagined. It is a subjective empire built of memory, nostalgia, and absurdity; as well as the crushing anxiety that results from imagining all that may exist beyond the grasp of human sensory organs. Though where Blinding really exists, as Cărtărescu is keen to remind us, is simply in words on a page, words bled from the mind of one lonely man. In a passage that haunts the rest of the novel, Mircea – for it is the fictional stand-in who allegedly writes the book – concludes an early chapter chronicling the fabulous origin story of his grandfather’s rural village thus:
The bar was a place to toast the Devil, the Lord’s little brother… to kill each other with tomato stakes over a woman, to hold vigils over old men in agony, so that they wouldn’t have to die without a candle on their chests, and to look for rainclouds in the sky, all without ever imagining that, in fact, they weren’t building houses, plowing land, or planting seeds on anything more than a grey speck in a great-grandson’s right parietal lobe, and that all their existence and striving in the world was just as fleeting and illusory as that fragment of anatomy in the mind that dreamed them.
Cărtărescu’s prolific and continuing career as a poet, novelist, and essayist began in the late 1970s. He carries the torch of Onirism, a Romanian surrealist literary movement that flourished in the 1960s but was soon quelled by government censorship. “Oneiric,” a charismatic little word signifying something dream-like, is a frequent guest throughout Blinding’s multitudinous pages.
For simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to refer to the novel as Blinding, although The Left Wing is actually the first book in the Orbitor trilogy, followed in 2002 by Corpul, (“The Body”) and concluded in 2007 by Aripa Dreaptă, or “The Right Wing.” I find myself wishing the title had not been translated; Orbitor is a gorgeous word, stately and majestic. In an interview with Bookforum, Cărtărescu explains, “Orbitor is a special word in Romanian, it signifies both a dazzling light and a mystical light, and I wanted to do something mystical, something without any similarity to any other book in the world.”
“You do not describe the past by writing about old things,” Mircea muses in the novel’s introductory sequence, “but by writing about the haze that exists between you and the past.” If this is true, then Mircea’s haze is unlike any I’ve yet to encounter. It is a concealing mist, at once luminous and opaque, out of which nearly anything might emerge. Cărtărescu’s vast imaginative potential is essentially unhindered by the fact that Blinding is loosely framed as memoir. “I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies,” says Cărtărescu in an interview for The Quarterly Conversation, adding, “When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.”
So it should hardly surprise that Blinding struggles like a proud and cautious beast against traditional summary. We learn of Mircea’s mother Maria and her life as a young woman brought from the countryside to work with her sister in a Bucharest factory before and after the Allied bombings during the Second World War. We learn of Ion Stănilă, the state-employed statue-cleaner and onetime admirer of Maria who soon finds himself an agent of the Romanian secret police. And of course we learn, in dizzying, anxiety-ridden bursts, about Mircea: his multiple hospitalizations, his dreams and writings, his struggles to make sense of his own life as it relates to all human life and to all incomprehensible existence. These storylines, along with dozens of others, drift into and rise out of one another freely and without warning.
The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. This symmetry would offer us a heightened consciousness and make us all prophets, or angels, or gods. “Yes, we are neural embryos, tadpoles caught in atavistic organs… How strange we will be when, like cetaceans, we complete our departure from the firm earth of inert flesh and adapt to the new kingdom, where we will bathe in the mental fluid of enormous knowing…” Blinding is a psychedelic dream of transfiguration.
So keen is Cărtărescu to remind his reader of the butterfly’s symbolic power that the insects appear in almost every scene, not as saccharine representations of sunny summertime innocence but as winged behemoths trapped under vaults of ice, as loyal children fed on human milk, as subterranean monstrosities whose piercing proboscises bore into brains and deposit eggs straight into the victim’s mind. But Blinding is a gallery full of recurring images. Nipples and vulvae are frequent visitors (“All around the walls of the granite vagina where we traveled”), alongside machines wrought of bone and blood, and organic bodies composed of concrete, rebar, marble, steel. Towering statues of disfigured humans stand as reminders of our imperfections, monuments to the blindness we don’t even realize we suffer from.
Mircea’s revelries, though they hinge on familiar images, know few limits. “There were ghost towns there,” he says of his mental space, “villas with crystal columns, and torture chambers with instruments of gold. There were crematoria with violet smoke coming from their chimneys. There were Flemish houses lining canals where cephalorachidian fluid flowed lazily.” Cărtărescu has a vocabulary that seems to press against the very limits of human knowledge. “Three quarters of the books I read are scientific books,” he admits in the Bookforum interview. “I’m very fond of the poetry you find in science. I read a lot about subatomic physics, biology, entomology, the physiology of the brain, and so on.
And it shows. Human knowledge drips from the pages, it seasons every sentence, one’s hands get sticky with it. Exploring the wreckage of a bombed-out factory elevator, Mircea’s mother “held out her hand with such grace that it seemed to cascade from her body, like a pseudopodium full of florescent corpuscles.” This is a rather concentrated sampling, but it is hardly a misleading one. Cărtărescu weaves together a massive interdisciplinary lexicon and uses it to build marvelous structures of text. While reading I often felt that were I to earn a degree in biology, or medicine, or pure mathematics, I might gain something new from the novel each time I returned to it with fuller understanding.
Yet just as Cărtărescu masters the protean majesty of the dream world, he also faithfully recreates its almost claustrophobic sense of unknowability. Blinding is a difficult text, one I predict some readers – those partial to conventional storytelling and a more cohesive narrative – might find alienating. No one is more aware of this fact than Cărtărescu himself, whose narrator-persona “Mircea (which Mircea?)” sees himself “writing a demented, endless book, in his little room,” and elsewhere ponders “my senseless and endless manuscript, this illegible book, this book…” Is this a genuinely apologetic aside, and does the author truly find his work to be unworthy, or is it part of the game Blinding is playing with identity and self-reflection? I suspect these options might not be mutually exclusive.
The novel’s finale takes place in an unspeakably large hall with a mirrored floor, billions of doors leading to everywhere on Earth, and a central light source that is “a column of pure, liquid flame.” It is, on one hand, an exposition of technical brilliance. With unapologetic prose, Cărtărescu crafts a hellscape that – in terms of utter visual insanity – rivals Bosch’s depiction of the underworld in The Garden of Earthly Delights. And yet, after all the hallucinatory voyages of the first few hundred pages, the novel’s culmination left me oddly underwhelmed. The horrific butterflies, the rhetorical inclination toward duality, and the constant transmutation of organic bodies; after so many encounters these images begin to lose some of their wonder.
In an early scene, Mircea visits a woman whose scalp is adorned with arcane tattoos. He loses himself in the tattoos. In a segment that mirrors the way one might approach this very novel, Cărtărescu writes, “exploring any detail meant you had to choose one branch, ignore the rest of the design, and concentrate on just one detail of the original detail, and then a detail of the detail of the detail. This plunge into the heart of the design could be deadly for one’s mind to even attempt.” Mircea, scouring the scalp for hours, massaging it and entreating it, eventually sees “Everything, and everything had my face. Looking directly at the middle of the fontanel, I saw my face in a convex reflection.” Spend some time with Blinding. Search its pages, approach it from new angles, get lost in it. Then please, tell me what you see.
Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.