Review of Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu

Monsu held the butterfly uterus in the open palm of his right hand. Its skin fibers gently pulsed. In the end, it took flight, not through the mechanical beating of lepidoptera, but by undulations within the gelatinous medium, the way transparent beings on the bottom of the ocean proceed dreamlike through the abyss. P. 458

This book is nuts. In ways reminiscent of snatches of William S. Burroughs. But Cărtărescu’s approach to the novel appears to stem from a deep appreciation for poetry. His habitual use of arcane scientific terms can only be intentional, geared toward, one would hope, precise observation and the enhancement of photo-realistic depictions alongside the dreamlike, demented transformations and unholy images recorded by the detached narrator. It’s enchanting, unnerving and brilliant. But it would be easy to pick apart his hastily conjured juxtapositions. Death and birth, death and sex, death and lust, death and dreams, and lots of skeletons, both sentient and inanimate, human and animal, all cut a jig through the tormented landscape of post-war Romania. Wallpapered with more butterflies than the books of Nabokov, the texture and tone puts me in mind of a wild Dia de los Muertos procession, an exaggerated show of fanciful horror. Every ingredient under the sun makes it into his witch’s brew, concocted for sheer entertainment. Even the above quotation, while elegant in its imagery, requires a leap of faith. You must suspend your disbelief and turn off your critical faculty. The only way to enjoy this luscious prose is to ‘see it’ rather than ‘read it.’ Flaws of logic make way for jungles of interpretation and labyrinths of the imagination.

Blinding thrives on impressionism. It follows its omniscient eye through uncanny valleys of hospital nightmares and filthy streets, where coupling ghosts wreak havoc alongside childish phantasms. He stirs in helpings of philosophy and sprinkles in holy relics. The author challenges your mind while delighting the senses. Many will be offended, as he does not shirk away from fluids and acts often better left in the dark, but his brand of magical realism casts wide nets, roping in astral projections, macrocosmic wombs, and ending in an unwelcome exegesis. Luckily, Mircea eases the reader into his madness, describing lengthy family and community rituals, focussing his intense author’s lens on the finest of details, tackling every topic you can think of, while descending into moments of traditional coming-of-age narration. Truly this is how I would have liked My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård to read. This is more imposing, acerbic writing. You can learn from his fantastic gravitas, whereas Realism so often strikes me as pointless reiterations of thoughts and emotions that are all too familiar. If done right, this is not always the case, of course.

Once again, prepare for long descriptions, flights of fancy, and an uncontrolled narrative. This will obviously rub many readers the wrong way. It cannot be called autobiography unless you consider Dante’s Inferno autobiographical as well. Nor is it strictly a dream diary. Much effort went into the craft of the sentences, even if the scattering of the themes and watering down of the plot inevitably followed. It is also a remarkable feat of translation that we can read this in English and still be astounded at the density of invention on display.

This novel is a bold experiment and a delight to read. It sustains a high pitch of aesthetic value and political relevance. It relishes, celebrates and shames human anatomy, religion symbols, and urban squalor. Like Pessoa, Cărtărescu lives vicariously through dreaming. Welcome to his madhouse, watch your step, when you come out the other side, the world may not look quite the same…

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