Mircea Cărtărescu’s Solenoid
(Deep Vellum, 2022)
Wondering whether literary greatness was still possible, Susan Sontag identified it in the ambition of one’s project and, as she put it, in a language that was free from “all undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.”
Although characterized by Romanian critics as a “postmodernist writer,” Mircea Cărtărescu, Romania’s greatest living novelist, lacks the type of self-conscious irony described above, which is one of the first things an American reader may notice when reading Solenoid. A corollary of such lack is that this type of writer is concerned with what one might call serious (or “ambitious,” to use Sontag’s term) existential themes, themes that have become obsolete in much of contemporary Western literature: the meaning of life, the terror of dying, the formation of the self, beauty as desire for the Absolute, literature as a door opened to the experience of the sacred. Solenoid is a novel about the search for, and the construction of, meaning, and its main theme is the narrator’s (and, implicitly, the author’s) mental landscape. A book is “a slot where [we can] look into another person’s skull.”
The novel’s Tarkovskian title, which is reminiscent of Solaris by the famous Russian director, who was very popular in Communist Romania when Cărtărescu came of age, opens the novel to a dimension that, as a genre, is that of speculative fiction. This dimension includes references to works dealing with physics, mysticism, numerology, the fascinating history of the Rubik’s cube, Tesla—themes of interest to a certain type of Romanian writer from Cărtărescu’s generation, although in his case, they are grounded in a very diverse reading list from many fields of knowledge.
The solenoid, which, technically speaking, is an electrical coil of wire that acts as an electromagnet when carrying electric current, is compared to a mystical or a metaphysical engine—a metaphor for the possibility of escape from the ugliness of daily life into a dreamlike reality. It is no accident that Cartarescu chooses such a prosaic, industrial element as the mechanism that triggers the escape. The ugliness of the world he describes, that of communist Romania between the sixties and nineties, is the desolation of industrial wastelands, and it is only poetic justice that the homeopathic redemption from this ugliness should come from a solenoid. The same metaphor is also used to refer to the first novel that made an impression on his very young self, the Gadfly by Ethel Voynich.
Like the Warsaw of contemporary Polish writer Magdalena Tulli, Cărtărescu’s Bucharest is made of a visible face and an invisible one: the solenoids reside in the invisible world, but this hidden world allows its inhabitants to be free. The main quality of Cărtărescu’s solenoid is an effect of levitation, which occurs when the narrator is in his bedroom and makes love to his lover, Irina. His house, in the shape of a ship, is an infinite labyrinth—an image modeled on the Borgesian image of the infinite library. In other words: his house is his library (or, rather, the other way around). The narrator’s house is on Maica Domnului Street (Our Lady Street, a street reminiscent of Mircea Eliade’s “Mântuleasa Street”—a mythical story for the Romanian reader). This street where the narrator lives, and, in fact, Cartarescu’s Bucharest as a whole—which is, in a way, the main character here—are of a Pasolinian ugliness, an ugliness that, just as in Pasolini, is an open door to the sacred.
My world is Bucharest, the saddest city on the face of the earth, but at the same time, the only true one. […] Bucharest is the product of a gigantic mind; it appeared all at once, the result of a single person’s attempt to produce the only city that can say something about humanity. Like Saint Petersburg and Brasília, Bucharest has no history, it only mimics history. […] The constructor of Bucharest planned it all as it appears today. […] His genius was to build a city already in ruin, the only city where people should live. A city of blind walls with bulging bricks barely held in by rusty iron bolts, of daft plaster ornamentation, of antediluvian trams, of bug-eaten doorframes and decomposing window frames, of unearthed paving stones, of sad courtyards with forgotten, unwatered oleanders placed on time-worn stairs. […] A city of unplastered houses, of storefronts with scarlet cupolas full of wasp hives. Of neighborhoods with clotheslines between houses and idiots sitting on fences.…
To compensate for its ruined palaces, Bucharest’s architect (read “God”) had the idea to give it—as a bonus—solenoids buried in the foundations of six houses, one above the morgue, and five others in various points of the city’s outskirts, all in dilapidated neighborhoods connected to the narrator’s biography. The solenoid buried in the foundations of his own house is described as a “gift” given to him, and his life’s search is to discover the purpose of the other solenoids spread in the other energetic points of the city. The invisible solenoid is the mechanism (the “madeleine”—Cartarescu’s word) that allows the narrator to transform Bucharest’s visible ugliness into a Magic City. A Romanian reader could recognize in this vision an ars poetica that comes from the interwar poet Tudor Arghezi, a poet who wanted to take “boils and mud” and turn them into beauty. This is obvious particularly in the scene of the “blue amphora,” a beautiful bottle the narrator discovers among the shards of recycled glass left on the school’s halls, and whose beauty triggers another levitation in his bedroom. We find out that the previous owner of the beautiful bottle, a high school student, also lives above a solenoid. A fourth solenoid is located under her school, the same school where the narrator teaches; and the fifth is under the house of a librarian who owns a copy of the famous Voynich manuscript, which he will gift to the narrator (the author of this fifteenth century manuscript, named after a Polish-Lithuanian book dealer, is not directly related to Ethel Voynich—but this coincidence is part of the search for a coherence that underlines the entire project of Solenoid. Coincidentally, these types of synchronicities are also very common in Sebald, who happens to be the writer that Susan Sontag identifies as representing literary greatness.)
The sixth solenoid is buried under a brightly lit warehouse (solenoid comes from “sole,” sun), which the narrator used to see in the distance, as a child, while playing inside the cabin of an abandoned truck without wheels when visiting his aunt in yet another impoverished area of Bucharest, Dudești Cioplea. I have no doubt that in that truck, which is located across from the central solenoid around which all the others are positioned on an imaginary ring, the child that Cartarescu once was, used to daydream and imagine fantastic, beautiful worlds. Inside this ugly truck, a great writer was born through an alchemic process that turns low into high, ugliness into beauty and darkness into light (speaking of alchemy, gold is a recurrent word in countless expressions used in the novel). In L’espace des rêves, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard advances the theory that the first space where we daydream as children is the matrix that forms our future creative selves. I suspect that this truck is the space where the author of Solenoid was born. By writing over eight hundred pages to disclose that the central solenoid of his quest is located in the crux where his self was formed, Cărtărescu has written a novel whose quest is its own origin. A Proustian novel.
And yet, as the story of a failed novelist who has no other ambition than to be an anonymous, average teacher of Romanian whose life story won’t be written by anyone, to be “the writer/reader/liver of my own life,” Solenoid is deliberately anti-Proustian. The narrator, an “anti-writer,” writes every night “an anti-book.” Once, in his youth, during a literary salon, his work was rejected by his audience and critics, and, as a consequence, instead of going on to become a successful writer (whom Cărtărescu calls “the Other”), he has become an anonymous individual, someone who chose life over literature. Several times in the novel, the narrator tells us that if he had to choose between saving a masterpiece or a child from fire, he would save the child, even if he knew that the child would turn out to be Hitler or the Antichrist. Of course, the very fact that Cartarescu has this dilemma is a sign that literature is still impregnated for him with a mythical value that it doesn’t have for most Western writers, of whom very few (maybe a George Steiner) would be concerned with this kind of moral dilemma. Briefly, in choosing to be an anti-writer, Cărtărescu writes a counternarrative in which he imagines that instead of becoming the successful writer he is today he would be just the opposite. But in choosing anti-literature he still chooses myth over life. When the narrator, given the choice between his child and his manuscript, chooses to sacrifice the latter by throwing it into the fire, he, indirectly and paradoxically, ends up embracing another literary myth: the myth of Kafka’s sacrifice—Kafka, Cărtărescu’s literary idol, whose last wish was the immolation of his manuscripts after his death. While Kafka’s decision may have been grounded in a religious ethos (the desire to be faithful to a Jewish vision of non-representation), or simply, the desire to be faithful to the Absolute, Cartarescu’s choice of life over literature is also, indirectly, a rejection of one of Romania’s foundational myths of creation, the Ballad of Manole, in which the craftsman Manole sacrifices the person he loves most in the world, his pregnant wife (and therefore, his future child), by immuring her in the walls of the monastery he builds, and thus, giving eternal life to his creation. Whereas Cărtărescu’s reason to burn the narrator’s manuscript is, in a way, opposite to Kafka’s, insofar as it is a rejection of any type of Absolute, the act itself, the sacrifice of the manuscript through fire, replicates the act of his literary model. As the manuscript is burning, the main character of Solenoid, the city of Bucharest, is subject to a Hollywoodian apocalypse: all the buildings are collapsing, and the narrator, his beloved and child are running for their lives, and then, the city begins to levitate, like a Marquezian character, toward the skies. The ending is highly ambiguous: Cărtărescurejects the Literary Absolute, but his main character is elevated from a decaying structure to a celestial dimension. The same thing happens with the burnt manuscript, which flies toward the heavens. Under the sign of Mors (death in Latin), ugly reality morphs into divine fiction.
While In Search of Lost Time is the story of the discovery of a literary vocation and of writing down the story of this discovery, Solenoid is the antithesis of Proust’s search in its programmatic desire to destroy the myth of literature, which, judging from Cărtărescu’s interviews, was the absolute myth of his youth. In this sense, Solenoid is, more than anything else, a project to understand one’s own life, a search for meaning. His life’s desire, says his narrator, has always been to find a coherence of all the signs that scream to be deciphered, and to interpret the puzzle thus found, and his biggest failure would be not to be able to uncover an answer. Of course, the reader can say that the very existence of this book contradicts the narrator’s/author’s claim about his lack of interest in a literary project, but this is the paradox and advantage of literary space, which is also that of a dream: to allow the writer/dreamer to speak about it while being inside it, to be both inside and outside of a given space. His repeated remark that he hates fiction and novels can be read, then, in this context: what he hates is gratuitous invention and the articulation of a plot, and he refuses to invent in the same way Celan once said “I never invented anything.”
Some of the less fictionalized scenes in the novel are the descriptions of daily life in Communist Romania (which are also the most absurd, and which, for this reason, may be wrongly seen as “surrealist” by some American readers). While the novel’s overall, very ambitious artistic vision may not be evident to most readers, there is general agreement, even among its critics, that its most realized aspect consists in its realist depictions of life in pre-nineties Romania. Solenoid contains some of the greatest scenes I’ve ever encountered with the grotesque humanoids Communism has created—see, for instance, the scene with the students who participate in a contest called “the best atheist,” in which they are competing by spitting on an icon of the Virgin Mary—, but because the author has no horse to beat, its political aspect is not immediately evident, especially not for a Western reader. In this sense, Solenoid is a great lesson in how to write a novel with political implications: Cărtărescu, an apolitical writer, proves that a novel written without any agenda can be truly political if the writer has the power to reflect the truthfulness of an era.
There were moments when I felt that Cărtărescu’s programmatic rejection of literature in the name of life (his choice of the child over the masterpiece) was a little self-indulgent, insofar as, logically, this book wouldn’t exist if he truly rejected literature, but the more I approached the ending, the more I thought that Solenoid is, in fact, a painfully honest, raw testimony (for instance, there are several pages filled with the word “Help!”). Cărtărescu’s project is mystic rather than literary, and his literary persona here has a Dostoyevskian touch. He doesn’t want to create “the greatest novel” ever written, which is the ultimate ideal of most writers. What he wants is to go to the very sources of knowledge and to the matrix through which we, humans, understand the world. Toward the end of the novel, he imagines that he is a different type of creature, and he gives us an amazing metaphor of Christianity by putting himself in the body and mind of a dust mite. The dust mite creates a God in its own image, and then a child of God to redeem its sins.
One can understand a lot about a writer if one looks at the first and last words of his book. Solenoid starts with “I” (which in Romanian is implicit) and ends with “stars”—the stars about which the narrator tells us several times that they cause him a strange terror, a sort of horror sacrum. This adventure in knowledge takes place between the I and the higher, terrifying realm of the stars, that is, it moves from low to high (or from the realm of the subjective to that of the divine and the impersonal). Westerners have forgotten that the sacred was the realm in which our distinctions between low and high don’t apply (see the meaning of the Latin word “sacrum”)—an ambiguity that is still valid in a non-Western country such as Romania.
Is literary greatness still possible? Maybe so, but only if one believes in certain categories that have become obsolete in contemporary “posthuman” Western societies. Maybe in order to write the “greatest” novel one needs to place oneself in the world in such a way as to see oneself the way Cărtărescu sees pregnant women, each inside another one, like Russian dolls, each one a link in a preexisting chain, a chain that offers a much larger perspective than the one of the binary division between “form” and “content.” A woman inside another woman inside another woman negates this division, as well as the distinction between inside and outside, because she is both container and content. Ultimately, Cărtărescu attempts to rethink the categories through which we look at the world and at ourselves, and, in rethinking them, he becomes himself a link in the long chain of the world’s great writers. In attempting to place him somewhere within the map of literary greatness, his Romanian publisher has compared him to Albert Camus—a comparison born, I believe, of the wish of Solenoid’s narrator to find “an exit” for his existential dilemma. But while this existentialist framework is one of the possible readings of the novel, it narrows its much greater vision and ambition.
If you begin reading Solenoid you may not be able to finish it—it took me several months—but this is one of those rare books you should have in your library because its shelf life will endure as long as literature lasts. Although I read Solenoid in its original Romanian, and only part of it in English, based on the excerpts I read and on everything I know about the translator, Sean Cotter, I believe that this translation is an impressive achievement.