Book Review - Blinding

A mix of memoir and fiction, Mircea Cărtărescu’s three-part epic – seamlessly translated by Sean Cotter – is the first volume in a trilogy. To call it a challenging read is something of an understatement. Bogdan Suceavă, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, hailed Blinding as ‘a major discovery’, praising Cărtărescu’s ‘vision of the whole world’s array of antagonistic forces converging in one ultimate larger-than-life image, accomplished through literary expression that reaches beyond anything that our senses can perceive’. Meanwhile, in the Independent, Boyd Tonkin called it ‘a novel of visionary intensity’.

Cărtărescu’s narrator shares his first name, and we are taken on a hallucinogenic journey through the fictionalised Mircea’s past – his childish mind, his heightened sense of his adolescent self, and his fevered imaginings as he writes this book. We pick our way through his tangled memories and follow him through the history and neighbourhoods of Bucharest – in particular its numerous statues, labyrinthine streets and underground passages. We are told: ‘The past is everything, the future is nothing, and time has no other meaning.’

Mircea enjoys a happy childhood, but his adolescence is marred by a disfiguring facial palsy. He spends long weeks in hospital hooked up to a ‘rays’ machine and kneaded by a blind masseur and former Securitate officer. However, this long confinement enriches the boy’s imagination, hones his senses, consolidates his desire to make connections, and prepares him for a writing life.

Blinding circles around Mircea’s family and his mother Maria’s experiences before he was born. During the war, fifteen-year-old Maria and her older sister, Vasilica, worked long hours as seamstresses. At night they enjoyed the jazz bars of Bucharest, meeting a colourful array of characters, including the famous variety actress Mioara Mironescu and Cedric the black drummer from New Orleans – performers at the Gorgonzola cabaret. The sisters miraculously survive the wartime bombing of Bucharest before being fetched home by their distraught peasant father.

When Maria later returns to Bucharest and meets her future husband, she indulges her love of cinema. Her passion serves to represent a generation’s attempts to escape an increasingly totalitarian reality. Intertwined with linear accounts of Mircea’s parents’ courtship, a working-class upbringing and mundane hospital visits, are passages of fantastical musings and surreal flights of the imagination. Cedric the drummer regales the sisters with a fantastic tale from New Orleans’ French Quarter, and we learn how Maria’s Bulgarian ancestors arrived in Romania: while crossing the frozen Danube they killed a giant butterfly, ate its flesh and made sheets from its wings.

The butterfly is in fact a powerful motif that runs throughout the novel. Blinding is also about the nature of creativity and the three volumes are meant to represent the butterfly’s two wings and abdomen – the right masculine wing represents Mircea’s father, while the left wing’s feminine nature corresponds to his mother,

Maria, who also has a butterfly-shaped birthmark on her left hip that takes on mythic proportions. Indeed butterflies adorn pyjamas, tattoos and dreams throughout the book, and erupt from pregnant women’s abdomens, as Cărtărescu combines memory, folklore, real events and dreams to create a hypnotic, sprawling, carnivalesque world.

Originally published in the Romanian Riveter by