Bookforum Talks with Mircea Cărtărescu

Nothing can prepare you for the scope and ambition of Blinding, the first volume of Romanian author Mircea Cărtărescu’s acclaimed trilogy. A phantasmagorical blend of fiction, memoir, surrealism, entomology, war, sex, death and destruction, the novel is, to use its own words, on a “a continuum of reality-hallucination-dream.” It’s author, by contrast, is a collected, unassuming man who looks, at moments, like the actor Daniel Day Lewis. At least that was my impression when we met on a recent Saturday night, in a book-lined Brooklyn apartment where Cărtărescu was staying for the New York leg of his American tour. Though he was struggling with a stubborn cough, it didn’t prevent him from speaking at great length about Europe, the novel, science, memory, and Romania’s lingering post-revolutionary hangover.

Bookforum: This is not your first time in America, is that right?

Cărtărescu: I was part of an international writing program in 1990 and I spent two and a half months in Iowa City. I had the opportunity to travel a bit throughout the United States. It was normal at that time for people enrolled in the program to choose five locations in America to visit for a week. So I got to see San Francisco, my first choice, and Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York.

Bookforum: The contrast to Romania in 1990, just after the revolution, must have been extreme.

Cărtărescu: Yes, I have to admit that I experienced culture shock when I first came here. I had never traveled before. I was 33 and I thought that I would spend the rest of my life in prison—the huge prison that Romania was at that time. I didn’t even have a passport, nobody did. I couldn’t complete my doctorate. There were many things that were forbidden to us. After 1989 I practically parachuted into New York City. It was the first new landscape I had ever seen. So you can imagine the shock, the dismay, and the happiness that I felt. I wrote a poem about it, one of my most well-known poems, called “The West,” where I said I felt like the magi in T. S. Eliot. That is, not belonging to the old culture anymore but unable to integrate into the new one. Stuck somewhere in between.

Bookforum: What was your experience of the revolution like?

Cărtărescu: I had been naïve, like most of my compatriots. I believed very much in this revolution, which proved to be a postmodern fake: It was a televised revolution that hid a coup d’état. But we didn’t know that at the time and were very happy. The day of the revolution—the December 20, 1989—was maybe the happiest day of my life. There were a million people in the street in the middle of Bucharest, everyone was embracing, it was like in Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve, you know? Everyone was so happy, there was a real fraternity among people. It is very rare to have the occasion to experience such an event. But that was followed by disappointment and fury when we realized we had been cheated. But that’s another story.

Bookforum: You wrote a political column for many years, is that correct?

Cărtărescu: Yeah, I wrote it for seven years. I gave it up at the beginning of this year.

Bookforum: Why did you stop writing it?

Cărtărescu: I am not a political writer. I don’t define myself as an activist or an ideologue. But events sometimes force you into doing something that is not natural for you. I was forced at a certain moment to look around and see what had gone wrong in my country. I couldn’t look and not react. So I started to write political articles. After a while, people began regarding me not only as a fiction writer but also as an important public opinion-maker. This had very grave consequences for me because I was always writing against the governing elites. And because they controlled all the media they launched various press campaigns against me, sometimes with such tremendous force that I thought that while I could withstand torture, I could not handle being slandered. I become a target for tons of lies, as did my family—my parents, my wife. And my work was systematically demonized by the people whom I wrote against. This happened on a regular basis for two years. So I had to retire. It was too much. I resisted these campaigns for as long as I thought there were positive forces in Romanian politics worth writing about. Now I don’t think there are any positive forces left. You have to choose between more or less the same people, the same crooks. But wherever I go, on each and every occasion, I raise my voice and talk about what’s happening in Romania. Just two weeks ago, during the book fair in Gothenburg, Sweden, I spoke about the Romanian situation and my situation on four or five panel discussions.

Bookforum: Let’s turn to your fiction. How did Blinding come about?

Cărtărescu: At a certain moment of my life, after I had written lots of poetry, I felt the need to do something crazy. I think that every writer should do something completely out of the box in his or her life. I wanted to write a very big book—over one thousand pages—but I didn’t know what shape it would take. I just felt it was time for me to write such a book. When I started to write I had nothing in my mind except the word orbitor, which in English means ‘blinding.’ 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. At the same time, orbitor is a very beautiful word, it is a sort of palindrome, a round word, like a serpent biting its tale. Anyway, I started to write by hand in notebooks. I knew nothing about this book—I had no plot, no characters, no ideas. I just used my childhood memories. I went on inventing freely like this until the middle of the book. I never rewrote anything. What you see before you is the first draft. I regret now that I didn’t bring the manuscript with me to show people. It’s hard to believe. But it’s just how I work. I don’t research and I don’t rewrite anything.

Bookforum: How long did it take you to write the novel?

Cărtărescu: Fourteen years. I wrote it all abroad. There is not a single line written in Romania. I started it in Amsterdam, where I lived for two years. I wrote the second volume in Berlin and in Budapest, and the third volume, which only took me a year, in Stuttgart. I have to make a living in Romania, so I can’t afford to write there. Instead I try to find grants or opportunities to live abroad.

Bookforum: I was very intrigued by the fact that, on the one hand, Blinding is a very postmodern book: there’s no straightforward plot, no traditional characters, and so on. But on the other hand there is something ancient and almost biblical about the novel.

Cărtărescu: Yes, it was my intention to create a kind of arch from the lowest element of human life—scatology—to the highest, eschatology. For me, there is nothing anti-scientific about this kind of mysticism. I consider it to be a point where different kinds of knowledge are united. It is the point at which science is unified with poetry, with geography, with mathematics, with religion, with everything you can imagine. Three quarters of the books I read are scientific books. 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. I’ve always thought that being alive is a great gift, one that should be explored.

Bookforum: Someone, I forget who, said that literature is the act of remembering with a memory that is not your own. This was very much on my mind as I was reading Blinding because it deals so much with memory—the recollection, the discovery, and even the invention of memory.

Cărtărescu: In Blinding, I wanted to remember everything, not only my own birth but also the years before it. I wanted to break through individual and collective memory. For me, memory is not just remembrance but invention. I invent memories. This is because I believe—as do many postmodern writers—that history is not reconstruction but simply construction. I’ve always thought that I could invent memories by placing fake ones among real ones and consolidating and giving them coherence. I do this all the time in my book, which is an autobiography, albeit a very unreliable one.

Bookforum: So much of this novel revolves around the narrator’s mother, whose memories you recall and reconstruct. At one point the narrator even says that he’s only ever written about his mother.

Cărtărescu: That comment is specific to the first volume, which is centered on the character of the mother. The second volume is centered on my own character, and the third on my father. This book is shaped like a butterfly; it was a sort of gimmick that proved to be much more serious than I had anticipated. I thought it would be very beautiful to name the first part of the book “The Left Wing,” the second “The Body,” and the last “The Right Wing.” But then I realized that the spirit of the butterfly impregnated the pages. I have lots of real butterflies everywhere, like those drawers you see in natural museums.

Bookforum: A bit like Nabokov.

Cărtărescu: Well, he was a serious guy—not like me. Two days ago I visited Nabokov’s butterfly collection in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was in the room where he worked every day for seven years, studying butterflies. I took some beautiful photos. He was a scientist, a real specialist with innovative ideas about how to distinguish between species of butterflies. His father was also an entomologist. My interest is more cultural and poetic.

Bookforum: Another major character in this book is Bucharest: it’s almost like an organism itself, a creature that lives, breathes, sleeps, and bleeds.

Cărtărescu: Bucharest is in a way a living background in this novel. It is like an alter ego. Many people think I know Bucharest well, which is absolutely false. On the contrary, I barely know it at all. My parents were peasants who came to the big city because the regime wanted them in the factories. They were simple people who did not stray far from what they knew. They made a little village in the city. They never went beyond a little triangle defined by three cinemas, because my mother was a great fan of movies. Until I was eighteen I had no knowledge of Bucharest. Even after that, because I’m very introverted, I kept to myself and read books. The Bucharest in Blinding is like Thomas Pynchon’s Florence. When Pynchon wrote V. he’d never been to Florence; he just reconstructed it from tourist guides. It’s the same with me. I invented Bucharest but apparently did such a good job that people tell me they recognize it!