A surrealist landscape stands revealed in this 1989 work by one of Romania’s leading novelists and poets; this is the author’s U.S. debut.
There are three stories and two novellas here. Cartarescu believes they form a novel because they “connect subterraneously.” Well, maybe, but there are clear differences between the taut bookend stories and the maze of the long middle section. The first story, “The Roulette Player,” focuses on a poor wretch who draws huge crowds as he tries to commit suicide by playing Russian Roulette. Here, as elsewhere, in a playful post-modern gesture, there is a peek-a-boo narrator who mostly stays hidden. The last story, “The Architect,” concerns a man who cannot stop his car horn and becomes obsessed with sound; his obsession will have cosmic and even galactic consequences. The remaining stories, collectively titled “Nostalgia,” feature as protagonists children or adolescents from a lost past. “Mentardy” is a short tale about a gang of Bucharest street kids whose lives are disrupted by the appearance of a “wise child.” The first novella, “The Twins,” features high-school seniors Andrei and Gina, who “felt like twins…inside a hallucinatory uterus without exit.” In this inaccessible exploration of gender boundaries, the two make love and somehow exchange bodies. “REM,” the other novella, concerns Nana, a middle-aged woman having an affair with a university student. When she was 12, Nana met two skeletal giants, mother and son, who lived in a watchtower. The son Egor’s role was to facilitate Nana’s dreams, in which she discovered REM, which just might be the key to the universe.
Cartarescu’s phantasmagorical world is similar to Dalí’s dreamscapes, but long blocks of prose with minimal breaks make it hard to enter.