Thursday, 19 December 2013

'Blinding' by Mircea Cărtărescu (Review)

Every so often, I read a book which almost defies reviewing, a story that goes in so many directions at once that giving an overview seems facile, childish and, quite frankly, impossible.  Today, we'll be looking at such a book, a novel which has been on many people's lips recently, one that's bound to be up there next year come the prize season for literature in translation...

I suppose I'd better give the review a go anyway, then ;)

Mircea Cărtărescu's Blinding (translated by Sean Cotter, e-copy courtesy of Archipelago Books) is a wonderful, confusing, mind-stretching work, a book which draws the reader in right from its initial childhood dream sequence.  We meet a writer who spends hours gazing at Bucharest from his bedroom window, perhaps in an attempt to work through some traumatic moments in his life:
"It was a place to attempt (as I've done continuously for the last three months) to go back where no one has, to remember what no one remembers, to understand what no person can understand: who I am, what I am."
p.122 (Archipelago Books, 2013)
Later, we revisit Mircea's childhood and spend some time in his gigantic, scary apartment building - so far, so Knausgaardian.

That is until the scope widens, and we realise that this is a book which will be taking a slightly wider look at what constitutes reality - and beyond.  There's a trip back to the nineteenth century, where frightened, drug-addled villagers witness a battle between angels and demons; a section set in Bucharest during and after the Second World War, with bombs and butterflies all around; several strange tales of people entering a vast underground cavern, returning much later to the surface, scarred by their experience; oh, and a terrifying tale of quasi-voodoo magic to round off the book, fifty pages of pure madness...

The word that comes to mind when reading Blindness is 'ambitious', and in its scope and its desire to pull the reader in several directions at once, it reminds me a little of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (there's even a birthmark).  However, where Cloud Atlas is neatly arranged with its Russian-Doll structure, Blinding is a twisted, tangled maze of echoed ideas, parallels, possible red herrings and (of course) butterflies.  The strands of the novel intertwine, disappearing and reemerging later unexpectedly.  It's also written using quite complex vocabulary - and when I say complex, I mean complex (Sean Cotter must have some really good dictionaries...).

Like Cloud Atlas, Blinding is full of parallels, most of which, no doubt, I failed to pick up.  The most obvious ones are the subterranean experiences several of the characters have, wandering through the vast underground caverns which are connected with the idea of birth and life.  There are also the two priests that appear, the brave man who summons the angels in Bulgaria, and a polyreligious, voodoo-wielding counterpart in New Orleans.  When this mysterious figure starts intoning in the final pages of the book, we are surprised to hear that the magic words he chants are very familiar to us from our travels through Bucharest...

There's also the frequent mention of asymmetry, a topic the writer obviously wants to develop further:
"And yet, we exist between the past and the future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.  We use one wing to fly, because we have sent our nerve filaments out to its edges, and the other is unknown, as if we were missing an eye on that side.  But how can we fly with one wing?  Prophets, Illuminati, and heretics of symmetry foresaw what we could and must become." (p.80)
This image of the asymmetrical butterfly is mirrored several times, most prominently on the ring one of the characters wears - and in Mircea's face after his illness.  Despite the deliberate construction of some of his settings, the writer frequently returns to this idea of lop-sidedness.

There's plenty of scope for this when he shows us the people in his novel.  Cărtărescu, along with the narrator, is fascinated by anatomy, of people, machines and cities.  In Blinding, everything is a living entity, and the narrator sees the way life seethes under the surface of inanimate objects.  Bucharest is an organic city, with statues having sex in the park, trams rushing down the streets like red-blood cells through veins, while the roofs of building become transparent, showing us the pulsing brains of the city.

The narrator is obviously trying to work through something with these images, and as the novel progresses, we learn more about his personal issues, health problems which influence his view of the world.  However, it's never quite as simple as all that - even something as mundane as the massage sessions he has at the hospital suddenly turn into a new link to the shadowy, universal conspiracy which permeates the book.  And when I say universal, at times it appears as if the narrator is simply trying to understand the universe and the very nature of existence:
"A purulent night wrapped every corpuscle into being, in a dark and hopeless schizophrenia.  The universe, which was once so simple and complete, obtained organs, systems and apparatuses.  Today, it's as grotesque and fascinating as a steam engine displayed on an unused track at a museum." (p.76) 
The universe as a machine, and the city as a body - at times, Cărtărescu's ideas take some following...

While the writer's mind may at times be out in the universe, another of the themes of the book is much closer to home - his mother.  There's an obsession with Maria pervading the novel, and she enters it as a protagonist in her own right in the second part, a young country girl newly arrived in the big city.  The relationship between the two, distant, but regretfully so, is a complex one, and you suspect that the female references in the writer's musings about the universe (replete with wombs and vulvae...) are somehow linked to this obsession.

In truth, though, there's a temptation to read the book as the product of someone with a touch of a God complex.  There are many hints as to Mircea's being a second coming, such as the tattoos he finds with his face prominently displayed - and his being the son of Maria/Mary, of course.  The narrator himself states early in the book that he sees people as existing only to play minor roles in his life, creations of his mind more than real people.  Then again, perhaps that's reading too much into things; in the narrator's own words:
"Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, yellow, blinding, apocalyptic howling..." (p.338)
The book finishes with a compelling, enthralling final section, a piece I had to read in one sitting despite its length and difficulty.  This last scene is breathtaking in its ambition, but it leaves everything up in the air, with the reader left stranded:
"There was nothing to understand, yet everything cried out to be understood..." (p.109)
Yes, Mircea, that pretty much sums it up ;)

Luckily, there's a fact I've been keeping from you, namely the real title of the book.  You see, today's review was of Blinding: The Left Wing, the first part of a trilogy of novels, and I'm sure the other two books (the body and the right wing...) will reveal a lot more about Cărtărescu's bizarre inner world.  Hopefully Archipelago (and Cotter) will continue with the series - I, for one, am very keen to see how the story continues.  This year, I've read around 125 books, including many classics of translated literature: Blinding is definitely up there as one of my books of the year.  Do read it :)