an extract from Blinding: Book One
Out of that corner came Silvia, her eyes sparkling, her lips wet. Her tiny nipples peered through the flesh of her crossed arms. Her thin, naked body, her hairless pubis, and her limpid legs white as chalk were drawn against the rough background of the wall, where nocturnal insects scuttled. I recognized Silvia as one of those transparent beings who visited me ever more frequently, who would sit on my bedstead and watch me carefully, without disappearing when I opened my eyes in terror. She would come down the steps gently and stop in front of me. Then, confused, I realized we were the same height, we stood eye to eye. I hadn’t grown since I was ten, but the walls had grown tremendously and the mill behind the fence was an obtuse castle, as big as a continent, crowding the square of night sky above. Brown moths turned through the spectral air in electric light and landed on the lumpy lime, forming a mosaic of triangles. Silvia climbed onto the tall throne and sat over the metal bowl, and I stood with my head tilted back, looking into her eyes, following her glassy, whitish body, enlaced by the smell of ladybugs and milked flour. Looking me in the eyes and smiling, her girl face suddenly started to urinate a yellow sparkling stream, which bounced in drops of diamonds over the pavement at my feet. She was a frozen enigma. She looked like a baroque fountain of elliptical beauty.
There were days when the only people I saw on the streets were blind. The first one I saw gave me a feeling of foreboding. And then they began to stream in from all sides. Other times I only noticed the deformed beggars, their shirts undone to display a tumor as big as an infant’s head coming out of their stomachs, a grinning tracheotomy, an abscess spread from neck to collarbone, or hands and feet crudely cut off and the stumps tied with strings, like sausages. It was as if the entire population of Bucharest had been mutilated. Afterward, I would come back here, to my attic, the top of the scarlet block on Uranus, a block I’ve known since I was a teenager. I would hang out in this attic apartment with a chair, a table, and a bed, never guessing that I would drop everything one day to live my dream: to live in the halo of solitude, an unearthly 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.
Last fall I rented this studio. I moved in bit by bit, first for a few hours in the morning, just to write, then to nap in the afternoon, and finally, I slept here, writhing through nocturnal nightmares. It’s a small room, with a ceiling that slopes from the front door to the window. One strange feature is that the window is oval – outside there is a garland supported by two plaster Cupids so that it frames Bucharest into a conglomeration of buildings and vegetation under a shifting sky, like a bad painting. The table is right by the window and bathed in light, while the bed is shaded in a dark corner. My bed is the deepest pit of my spider nest. The desk is only a projection of my bed. This text, which devours more and more white pages, like mold or rust, is the sweat, semen, and tears that soak the sheet of a single man. Spread like a damp piece of parchment, just-skinned, over a wooden frame, the sheet could be the map of our secret life, with large areas of white and yellow, wrinkled and burned parts, nothing but countries and dominions with allegorical names, deltas and rivers and deserts: the Land of Love and the Land of Atrocities, the Laguna of Fear, the Fjord of Dizziness. . . . Surfaces smeared by all the manure of the world, the cortex crammed under the skull like a dirty old shirt in a washing machine, sheets crumpled in the bed and pages in the notebook, trailed with ink marks – these three texts wrap themselves in and interpenetrate in my madness. If I were to stretch my cortex over the bed, it would cover it completely, like a gray blanket with six layers, crossed with veins. If I cut it into pieces and glued them between the covers, it would be this text, spoiled with lysergic acid, the fabric that holds my fearful, concupiscent sweat. Rising from the bed, I sit at the desk. Then I fall back into bed again, dragging the lace of inky letters, like a spiderweb, in my pulverized mind, and melting into the vast network of dreams.
Who am I? Who was I? How is it possible? Why did I come into the world? What does all this madness mean, this circus, this illusion? Why did I pop out of a woman’s uterus onto a speck in a constellation of dust? And why do I understand this dementia? Alongside the banal nocturnal thought that you will soon disappear forever, when you sit bolt upright and you say, “No, Lord, I won’t, please, please, Lord . . .” and you are sure you will never think or feel anything ever again – alongside these hideous banalities, I have often experienced others, maybe even more disturbing to me: I could have been born an earthworm or a bug or a mite or a bacterium, I could have experienced existence and then disappeared without gaining anything, diving into mud at the bottom of a lake, advancing with peristaltic movements, waving my vibrating cilia in a drop of water, digging canals with my mandibles through a foul hunk of cheese that would have been my universe for my entire life. I could have been a fungus that gave thrush to a stray dog, or who the hell knows what, anything else. I could have been not only without conscience, but even without consciousness, even without feeling. God, a life without feeling, how horrible! To have the sacred opportunity to live in the world, and all you get to be is a chip from a tree trunk, or a pinworm smeared with feces in the rectum that is your whole universe. This is when the madness hits me, when I jump out of bed and pace with my hands on my head, muttering something quickly so I won’t hear myself think. My suddenly clear and perverse mind tells me that this is actually what I am, that I really am a pinworm, that the world really is a nasty anus, and that I will never know the true world, or the true consciousness, or the true light that makes this world, in contrast, look like a cesspool. My mind tells me I’m nothing more than a pool of flesh, veins and arteries, cartilage and mucus, and that itself is a miserable consciousness, barely able to understand its own misery.
Now, while I am writing these sentences, these pages are turning so dim I can barely see them. It’s a twilight you don’t often see in spring. The sky has suddenly turned yellow and threatening, leaving dregs of gold in the craggy apartment blocks – a yellow-green sky, like cobra venom. The sky is growing darker, while light still hangs on the houses and the windows, heating their pale skin, giving them the ravaged color of memory. I myself am as white as a pillar of salt in the shadowy room. I stand up by my desk to gaze at Bucharest, my city, my alter ego. This strange block on Strada Uranus, where I have decided to live, has always looked to me like the city’s penis, red and erect, with veins and cables flowing under its skin. My skull, transparent in the twilight, my thin, fluttering body, pink in the glowing window – I am a spermatozoa, ready to shoot toward the sky. As far away as the Intercontinental Hotel, the city raises its forms and branches, its roofs and clouds. My oval window is too small for me to notice the scene’s lack of edges, as I did as a teenager on Ştefan cel Mar, before they built the block across the street. Now I am on the other side of the block, within a symmetrical and far-off chakra. I am grown up, that is, I am an idiot, that is, I am tired, I’m decidedly finished with my life, I’m doing the only thing I have left to do, that is, I’m sending lusty and feverish glances through the block-curtain, through the shutter of my body, like a voyeur peeking at his own life, as though, like a shellfish, I was female until the middle of my life and then I became male, as though I could fertilize myself through the perineal wall. I am a voyeur of my own childhood and youth, trying to understand what is happening behind the blinds, running from one window to another, misreading what I see in the shadows, mistaking an elbow for a breast, mistaking a dress thrown over the back of a chair for exposed buttocks, mistaking black branches against the window for lovers flopping onto the bed. I cannot be there, I will never be there, but still I must get there, I must try to understand.
The buildings on the horizon have turned pitch black, smeared at the edges with a gloomy orange. I don’t want to turn the light on, even though now all I can see is the oval window, the dark orange page, and a trace of the same dirty color from the tip of my pen. In the (maybe) quarter-hour of visibility left, I turn back to the word engraved in brass. PîNCOTA. “Paunch,” I’d said immediately, moving further through the harsh and burning light, turning onto a cross street. On both sides of the street were lines of square, yellow buildings with their plaster shattered, like Etruscan tombs. Some sort of house-wagon, two stories high, with all its windows broken, sprang directly from a pile of broken toilets, flattened cans, and paper. Old gypsies poked their heads out the windows. It all seemed familiar to me, and it hurt like a wound, as if the entire neighborhood were a crust of dried blood on a child’s knee, and I, the child, picked at the scab until beads of blood appeared. I could not place anything precisely, however. I don’t know how many corners I turned, or how many strange, triangular piaţas I found, each one with a statue of a soldier surrounded by puddles as green as bile, brimming with pollywogs. How many times did I retrace those streets, how many times did I pass the house (or castle) built by a crazy old man, who decorated it with turrets, niches with statues, and mysterious emblems. . . . In the yard, there were glass globes in pink, blue, lilac, and saffron staked on poles, pembá, like a landscape of Christmas ornaments, plaster gnomes, and tomato trellises. Pîncota. I knew it had to be the name of a street, and that it couldn’t be anywhere but this tangled neighborhood. Pîncota. Paunch. When I was looking at the ruins – and actually all the houses were ruins, ruins that smelled like laundry soap and dirty water – the poem I had written a few years before came to me, written when I saw in a dream (as I would so many times) the house where I was born. I recited it out loud to the rubble of concrete fences, to the tiny flowers growing through the stones in the pavement, to the clouds built overhead like another labyrinthine district, overwhelmingly sad:
i remember: beads of sweat growing through pavement stones
i recall: the grocery in the slums knocked over by clouds
and clouds running to my mother’s stomach, crashing into a billion snail horns
huddled there in the billions of pores.
i know: kindergartens, nurseries, roads of lamp gas
i understand: night, night with a goiter
stars, chopped chrysanthemum stuffing
chopped arteries, ponds . . .
i see again: I see you kneeling again, sagging breasts, black hair whirling
white arm outstretched, fingers crinkling my face
huge, terrific, bomb exploding in slow motion
big black fly buzzing in the net of my nerves.
my dear mother who never bore me!
i write these lines to you, lines that will never be born.
i still know diamond street and house number zero
where you knit my veins into a sweater for dad
i still know, i know those clouds chained like rabid dogs
rushing towards your stomach, rending it – taking me out
taking me out of there, i remember, mamma,
and wrapping me in the blanket of your hair.
how you screamed out, how bruised you were when the clouds,
and gynecologist fertilized you, delivered me,
when I, pure as milk and polite
left the shadow of my fingers upon your face.
The windows on one side of the streets had already begun to sparkle in the dusk when I found it. “PîNCOTA (formerly Silistra)” was written on a small blue placard, nailed to a fence greased with petroleum. I cannot understand to this day why they changed the name of the street. But I know when I entered that tunnel of unsettling houses, walking with small steps, I was trying as hard as I could to recognize, to reconstruct, and to relive. I’d only glimpsed this completely walled-off part of my life in my deepest dreams, and even then as something ambiguous and surreal, something combined with disparate objects from other layers of my mind. I walked with the feeling that nothing was real, that I was entering my own brain, or entering a realm attached to reality like a denture over toothless stumps. There was an overlapping stage décor, something fabled and psychic, enchanted. I saw the balcony with oleanders, propped on the pink clay backs of the two Atlases with hairy pubises. On the balcony, so eaten away by termites that the holes could be seen from the street, a wicker rocking chair swayed gently in front of a door with rectangular windows. I passed the old grocery store, with its low entryway beneath a stone arch. I put my head into the basement where, in my mother’s arms, I must have stared with round, dumb eyes, and touched the fire-red poppies in the showcase (still there after twenty-eight years) near the primitive cash register, with rolls of paper for tickets, and the receipts and shelves of canned food and pasta glimmering in the shadows. The shopkeeper was still there, mummified, her nose eaten away, her teeth bare, wrapped in the rags that remained of her apron. Spiders scurried everywhere, caught between old wormy sacks of flour and petrified sugar, in webs so thick that they looked like pieces of felt or batting. Across the black and withered hands of the shopkeeper (with a faded bow in her hair) crawled oily cockroaches, touching their antennae in an abstract alphabet. Everything was rotten, everything stank, everything in the old grocery store was infested. I left with cobwebs in my hair, as if I had turned gray from grief, and I went on through the neural tunnel until I saw before seeing, I intuited, located or maybe constructed, digging through the day’s soap with my own eyes, the House. The old and dear house, forgotten and remembered so often, the house in the middle of my mind.
When I actually saw it, behind the wrought-iron railings, in the U-shaped courtyard, it seemed surprisingly narrow. In my memory, in dream and dream-memory, it was different, vast and teeming with people. In fact, it was not more than six or seven meters wide. Half of its flat and sunny façade was taken up by a blue pathetic looking Mercedes from the 70s, battered and repaired. I shook with excitement. I was seeing what I thought I never would. The building that shared the yard was irregular, as if its three parts, each with a second floor, had been erected at different times. The right side, where Madame Catana and the old man lived, was like a country house, painted blue, with wood-framed windows, while the one in back was a middle-class house, yellow and flaking, with a wooden hallway upstairs (where the ship was, and Elvira and Nenea Nicu Bă). The dirty-white painted hall also went along the left side of the building, supporting the roof with its wooden pillars. Through the pillars I saw windows with deep-blue wooden shutters. The shutters were torn from their hinges, and the windows were broken, some walled-over, and others covered with newspapers yellow with age. Below, a burgundy door opened in the blue wall, the scarlet door of my nightmares, present like a seal of blood over everything I have ever written, and everything my mind describes in sleepless afternoons.
Shaken, with my hair standing on end, I opened the wrought iron gate and entered the yard. There was no one there. Bright clouds were motionless in the sky. In one corner, a pink oleander, the only living thing in the empty courtyard, exuded a wild smell. I stopped in front of the deep-red door. I leaned my head against it for a moment. I felt like I was draining out of myself, flowing over the courtyard tiles like a shadow. The door was not locked, so I opened it halfway and went in. I was no longer in reality. I knew, I recognized everything. I knew the stairway, also scarlet, that smelled like detergent and petrosin. I walked upstairs slowly, ready at every step to faint. Emotion eclipsed me like an overwhelming pain, one so vast that it became a kind of joy. I reached the next floor, the gallery with plank floors, worn by time. I opened another door between shattered windows. I entered a vestibule I knew, one I remembered with a new wave of adrenaline in my arteries. There were three doors here, in a thick green light, where gnats swarmed. I did not hesitate for a moment, because it was the front door, also scarlet, it was the wallpaper with flower baskets, moldy and ripped from the walls, but still recognizable. I opened the door and entered the room. I stopped on the threshold, squinting from so much light.
A blinding morning sun poured into the room, and in the intolerable light, at its center, I saw my mother, young and naked, sitting on the bed, the lupus mark on her hip, her hair tossed onto her shoulders, looking at me with a welcoming smile.
ContributorMircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, out now on Archipelago books
Mircea Cărtărescu, poet, novelist, and essayist, was born in 1956 in Bucharest. As a young member of the Blue-jeans Generation in the 1970s, his work was strongly influenced by American writing in opposition to the official Communist ideology and by Romanian Onirism. The appearance of his book Nostalgia (New Directions) made him a young literary star in Romania. Cărtărescu is the 2013 winner of the Swiss Leuk Spycher Preis and the Serbian Grand Prize for International Poetry in Novi Sad. He currently lives in Bucharest.
Sean Cotters translations from the Romanian include Nichita Stănescu's Wheel with a Single Spoke and Other Poems (recipient of the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry), Liliana Ursus Lightwall and Nichita Danilovs Secondhand Souls. His essays, articles, and translations have appeared in Conjunctions, Two Lines, and Translation Review. He is Associate Professor of Literature and Literary Translation at the University of Texas at Dallas, Center for Translation Studies.