Outside the Museum of Literature

On Mircea Cărtărescu

A vertically oriented black plane with a complex circular weave of white lines
Yasi Alipour, The Small Bird of Fortune. 2022. Folded toner paper. 62 × 40".

Mircea Cărtărescu, Solenoid. Translated by Sean Cotter. Deep Vellum, 2022.

It’s one of the great refusals of sentimentality
in the history of fiction: Gustave Flaubert writing to Louise Colet in 1853, in a funk of operatic proportions in the early months of the kitschy new empire of Napoleon III. He declared himself an aristocrat, a misanthrope, anything you want, as long as it’s objectionable and as such unburdened by collective pieties or fellow feeling. To hell with monarchs, to hell with workers, to hell with patrie, socialisme, humanitarisme, the love of man, the love of God. Throw it all in the latrine. “It may be monstrous pride,” he spits out, “but devil take me if I don’t feel as much sympathy for the lice that gnaw a beggar as for the beggar.” It’s an attack of spleen, yes, but also a declaration. From now on, nothing I see will be privileged over anything elsea gloriously unashamed hauteur that’s at the same time a call toward total abasement, to an absolute equality, to identification with the louse. A realism like this would necessarily be somewhat inhuman. Certainly Flaubert himself never went quite that far. The beggar, or human, remains at the center. It’s a promissory note written for the future.

That future is Solenoid, already one of our young century’s landmarks of fiction. Its opening sentence: “I have lice, again.” Mircea Cărtărescu’s colossal antinovel, an intricate and sprawling myth of multidimensional reality set in a Bucharest that is both completely itself and also the world’s very center, starts with its unnamed narrator picking nits. He is a schoolteacher, and he’s caught them from his students, the wingless insects climbing from the crowns of their heads up the strands of the narrator’s long hair as he bends over their work. On the pale skin of his scalp they feed, defecate, lay their eggs. At night he bathes in hot water to kill them, watching them cling to life, observing not just their anatomies but their expressions of shock: “Their inhuman faces show a kind of bewilderment.” We enter a world of dispassionate, microscaled attention, an eyesight so keen and so free of disgust that it can see every surface, particularly the surfaces of the body, undulating with parasitic, microscopic life.

Everywhere in Solenoid is the childlike, hallucinogenic fascination with the almost unbelievable reality of having a body. Once the nits are scalded, the narrator picks dead skin off his feet, examines it closely, relishes its ammoniac smell. He pulls a string out of his navel, a centimeter or so at a time, his body unraveling piece by piece, the organic becoming inorganic. (As if here we have a novelist saying: Go ahead and call my work “navel-gazing,” I dare you.) So this, one might think, is finally the real thing, the inhuman, molecular realism just barely imagined in the 19th century: Cărtărescu is its deliverer and Flaubert was his prophet.

Pull realism out of its usual scalar confines, into the infinitesimally small or unthinkably large, and it starts to become embarrassing.


But Solenoid’s parasites take us well over the horizon marked out by any kind of realism. In one of Cărtărescu’s odder fantasias, his narrator comes to know a librarian with a messianic vocation: to find a way to communicate with the subject of his obsession, the world of mites, on whose astonishing variety, beauty, and omnipresence at the edges of our attention he soliloquizes at length. (Mites, the librarian tells usand this is no small fact in a novel so devoted to sleep and dreamsmake up a quarter of the weight of any pillow on which we rest our heads.) He has even gone so far as to incubate scabies on one of his hands, simply to provide them with a hospitable ecosystem; in a microscope the narrator sees a parasitic Busytown in the librarian’s flesh, mites teeming into streets, intersections, large apartment complexes, “like on the boulevards of a large and melancholic city.” Next the librarian reveals a machine he has built, straight out of the world of cold war sci-fi: a teleportation cylinder by which a human can enter the body of a Sarcoptes scabiei, in order to bring its fellows a salvific message of love from the host organism on which they feed, the world they live in but cannot see. Given the chance to reverse Kafka and choose the metamorphosis, the narrator agrees to become the Christ of the acarids. And so he becomes mite flesh and dwells among them, bringing them, in the figures of their mite language, the good news that they are cared for by a higher power. He performs miracles for them; is misunderstood, feared, loathed; is put to death, finally, in one of their city’s central squares, one of those subcutaneous channels of the librarian’s hand; and is at the final moment of his martyrdom pulled back to his human body.

It doesn’t have to involve a cold precision, this business of caring as much for the beggar’s lice as for the beggar. Go far enough down that path and the maddest, even funniest sentimentality can emerge, the most ill-starred devotions can be manifested, and some of the oldest typologically inevitable narratives lived out again, in full awareness of their futility. Pull realism out of its usual scalar confines, into the infinitesimally small or unthinkably large, and it starts to become embarrassing. Solenoid is, to a very great degree, embarrassing. It comes from a writer who seems to write majestically beyond embarrassment, wanting to cure us of our preferences for all the good manners of fiction: the spare, deadpan, or coolly affectless posthumanist-autofictional voice; the subjects chosen for their timeliness, the desire to speak to them, explain them, ameliorate them; the utopian rationales, from the liberal to the radical, by which fiction justifies itself. Cărtărescu writes like a claustrophobic trying to break out of that space, which is to say, wildly. Sometimes, in your flight out of the small space, you find fresh air. Sometimes you run into a dead end. And sometimes, as in Solenoid, you find both at once.

Mircea Cărtărescu has existed in English for less than two decades, and in only a fraction of the original Romanian. Julian Semilian’s 2005 translation of Nostalgia, Cărtărescu’s coda to the Ceaușescu period, was the introduction. One volume of his Orbitor trilogy, published as Blinding and translated by Sean Cotter, followed in 2013; the rest of the trilogy has yet to appear. More, though not significantly more, is available in Spanish and French, and the vast bulk of Cărtărescu’s workseveral other novels, two of which postdate Solenoid; volumes of journals and criticism; considerable amounts of verse, including Levantul, a notoriously “untranslatable” epic poem from 1990 that doubles as a history of Romanian poetryremains inaccessible. But with Cotter’s translation of Solenoid, there is now just enough in English to see the outlines of Cărtărescu’s territory.

It is continent-sized in its imaginative breadth, but largely restricted to one city: Bucharest. More so, to the immediate environs of his upbringing. Even the reader of Cărtărescu unfamiliar with Bucharest, which is to say the vast majority of his global audience, will come to know with almost exact topographical detail the neighborhood around his childhood apartment on the boulevard Stefan cel Mare, the view from its windows of the boulevard’s tramline, the nearby Dinamo Stadium, several of the streets and parks of the adjoining neighborhood of Floreasca. “My world is Bucharest,” Solenoid’s narrator says, “the saddest city on the face of the earth, but at the same time, the only true one.” It is a city existing in an almost timeless version of the 1970s, suffering a deterioration so pervasive that there is no further decay possible, instead simply an eerie constancy of flaking plaster and peeling paint, the colors of rust and concrete, trams and cars outdated from the moment of their production. All of it is permanent, inevitable, beyond the reach of fussy restoration or facile gentrification, beyond the reach, that is, of money. In Cărtărescu the city is imagined less as a historical phenomenon than an ontological given, as if it had been invented ex nihilo like Saint Petersburg or Brasília but by an architect of bleakness, decrepit from its very startimagined, that is, with the permanent view of the child, for whom the native city as it existed in childhood is immemorial. It is a dream town, a toy town, detailed and small and self-contained, but also somehow infinite.

If the perspective is intensely local, there is no “local color.” For all its topographic specificity, Cărtărescu’s Bucharest is something like an international style: the long historical tail of industrial civilization, the train tracks and tower blocks and power plants, the old gods of modernity in a permanent slow retreat but ineradicable still. The lack of parochialism is no accident, because Cărtărescu’s work emerges from an international style that was a response to industrial civilization. Surrealism is a term always applied to his work, in the sense of the broad stream of surrealist styles proceeding from Breton, Tzara, and Dalí and dispersing into the separate channels of magic realism and postmodernism. It was the style that animated the “Blue Jeans Generation” of Romanian writers coming out of universities in the mid to late 1970s, as a strategy of resistance to the Communist nationalism of the Ceaușescu regime. Politics appeared not as content but as form, repudiating the totalitarian definition of reality in favor of a cosmopolitan series of affiliationsKafka, Joyce, Woolf, Calvino, García Márquez, Cortázar, Borgesthat offered a road map out of realism. But also, and increasingly, in the literary coteries and working groups of the 1980s operating out of secretive, repurposed spaces in Romanian cities surfaced a more pointedly “Western” panoply of styles: the American postmodernists, Ashbery, Pynchon, Gass, Barth; Beat poetry; rock music; whatever images of British American youth culture filtered through. All of it was appropriated and understood as a vaguely continuous if somewhat polyphonic, anti-nationalist, broadly gnostic imperative for literature to show the way out. This was not, on the face of it, dissent of the kind common to other Soviet bloc nations, and as such none of it achieved the escape velocity, as far as the West was concerned, of Pasternak or Brodsky or Miłosz. Nor did it result in the same kinds of suppression. Perhaps because the kind of “escape” being envisioned was rather different. So at least Solenoid’s narrator mordantly suggests: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various waysI sometimes tell myself, parodying the famous phrase that has spilled so much bloodthe point is to escape it.”

Necessarily, many of this Romanian generation’s Western inspirations were already anachronisms in their places of origin. Some of these cultural artifacts reached Bucharest as the light of a collapsing star. Perhaps, before 1989, their dated quality was hard to know. Perhaps it was irrelevant. But the opening of Romania to the marketplace of world literature did not, in Cărtărescu’s case at least, force some kind of catching up with a different timeline of literary styles. In recent interviews, for instance, he is still happy to cite the surrealist-postmodernist lineage of his youth, still openly affectionate toward it, and not at all naively so. What this has come to mean is a devotion to surrealism precisely as an anachronism. Not, that is, as any kind of crossing into a future, as either a progressive maneuver within a game of stylistic contemporaneity or a utopian demand, but exactly because of what is now its stubborn antimodernity. Solenoid is in this respect perfectly anachronistic. It is neither utopian nor dystopian, exactly; its futurisms, like the teleportation machine with which the narrator briefly becomes the Messiah of the mite world, are gloriously clunky and out of date. It isn’t much given to the tendency of speculative fiction toward world-building or counterhistories or alternate historical timelines; its disinterest in sociopolitical context, aside from some humorous set pieces about Communist-era schooling, is consistent. It’s the old terrain of Breton, combined with the lingering effects of the 1960s oneiric movement in Romanian letters, and with whiffs of pulp sci-fi, biopunk, and horror. The best way to describe this anachronistic mixture for a Western reader is to say of Solenoid, earnestly but also in embarrassment: it’s trippy.

Only in a country where literature is still so consecrated — not yet just “content”; still tasked with preserving a national language and a still largely unknown literary tradition — can you grow to hate it so well.


The hallucinogenic quality is produced through its one, grounding alternative timeline: the creation story of a narrator who is and isn’t Mircea Cărtărescu. Born in the mid-1950s, a native of Bucharest who when young aspires to write, a member of a literary group attached to the Department of Letters at the University of Bucharest, later a schoolteacherthis is the Biographical Cărtărescu, the Cărtărescu of the autofiction Solenoid does not become. The Solenoid Cărtărescu, however, is born when literary fate takes a different turn in the novel’s opening sections, in a workshop meeting in 1977. Here, in the “Workshop of the Moon,” the narrator reads from his thirty-page, seven-part poem called The Fall, an adolescent summa about which he thinks, “It was, in the end, the only poem that would make the universe good for nothing, that would banish it to the museum, like the electric locomotive did to the steam engine. Reality, the elements, galaxies would no longer be needed. The Fall existed, within which Everything flickered and crackled with an eternal flame.” Naturally, it bombs. The audience critique is relentless and detailed, lancing in all the possible catastrophic registers of literary failure. The poem is derivative, dull, unintentionally amusing, pompous, tone-deaf, childish, bathetic. “Amputation without anesthetic, but also without hate, the way children pull the legs off flies” is the untranquil way the narrator recollects it. (Not at all coincidentally, leg amputation is later the means by which the narrator’s messianic mite body is martyred.) Unlike the actual Cărtărescu, the darling of his literary set, this one is exiled from the company of Literature, never to find his way back.

And good riddance. It means, of course, life as a solitary, a failure: confinement to the humiliating drudgery of teaching, a world without peers, without readers. It also means liberation from the deadening pieties of literary sects and collectives, which means liberation from Literature itself. “Literature,” he argues later, “is a hermetically sealed museum, a museum of illusionary doors, of artists worrying over the nuance of beige and the most expressive imitation of a knocker, hinge, or doorknob, the velvety black of the keyhole. All it takes is for you to close your eyes and run your fingers over the continuous, unending wall to understand that nowhere in the house of literature are there any openings or fissures.” From here begins Solenoid itself, the antinovel manuscript this alternate Cărtărescu writes, a record of those very openings and fissures, the places in the worldin dreams, in hidden rooms, under the floors of Bucharestwhere the givens of reality yield to the quasi-gnostic secrets of other dimensions. It is that old dream of Writing purified of the Literary, meaning cleansed of any connection to literary fashion. And in being liberated by rejection to pursue it, Solenoid’s narrator becomes a chosen one, a medium, attuned now to other worlds and their tentacular connections to drab, depressing Bucharest. So, fuck the reading groupany literary group. His manuscript is what “I always imagined and never found anywhere: a text outside the museum of literature, a real door scrawled on the air, one I hope will let me truly escape my own cranium. A text that hethe one giving autographs and meetings with teachers and who knows what in other countriesnever dreamed of.”

The reference to Biographical Cărtărescu is worth a laugh; this is the literary celebrity lampooning himself. Sure enough, you can find Cărtărescu on social media, accepting prizes and honorary degrees, holding the covers of his many translated editions, appearing sunned and adored in picturesque settings from Knossos to Medellín. He looks genial, kind. Frequently in pictures with his wife, the poet Ioana Nicolaie, he looks happy. That’s the life, if you can get it. That’s also the life, Solenoid insists, you have to lose to enter the kingdom of Writing. The other Cărtărescu, the prize-accepter and Instagram poster, is after all stuck, imprisoned by the distorting lens of acclaim. One could be amused at this self-critique, or charmed by its humility. And Cărtărescu, in all his self-presentations, seems entirely free of brittle pride. But charmed or not, one still has to take the critique seriously. It is far more earnestly meant than one might be prepared to hear. The bifurcated timelines of the two Cărtărescus in Solenoid, the failed manuscript writer and the famous autograph-giver, evoke the necessary bifurcation of any real writer’s goals: to serve literature and to hate it at the same time. This is perhaps where Cărtărescu is most steeped in a Romanian context. Only in a country where literature is still so consecratednot yet just “content”; still tasked with preserving a national language and a still largely unknown literary traditioncan you grow to hate it so well.

From that scene of literary rejection, Solenoid sprawls into a temporally jumbled autobiography of sorts, a record of the many fractures in predictable realityin the novel’s private dialect, the “anomalies”that this literary exile turned medium is afforded. Episodes follow each other with only the loosest associative logic, although the book is also continually recursive, bending back to follow up on hints and draw subterranean connections. We get accounts of mysterious childhood illnesses, which involve journeys to dark chambers of medical torture; the permanent disappearance of a twin brother; and time spent after that as a young girl, as if his childhood self was too malleable to be defined by any one embodied stateby gender, by any knowable disease, by solitude or siblinghood. One long childhood episode involves time spent at a tuberculosis “preventorium” in the countryside, a horror-style vignette in which children are taken from their beds at night for unknown experimentation. Here the narrator meets one of the novel’s many messianic figures, the young boy Traian, who spins for his listeners an anti-Platonic eschatological vision in which souls return, after surviving the trials of numberless monsters, to the mother’s womb, the final cave and “the last in the line of monsters.” There are diary entries about the narrator’s lucid dreams, a series of bedside visitations from figures with opaque, often threatening messages to offer. There is an early marriage, which ends when his wife has an affair with what might be his own childhood self, a double or apparition that lives on in the house of his childhood. As seemingly banal context to all this, there is the largely isolated mundanity of his adult life as a teacher of Romanian in a school of scrofulous children and the inhabitant of a decrepit house on the Strada Maica Domnului, within range of his adolescent home on Stefan cel Mare. It’s the least adventurous of lives. It’s the early 1980s, and 1989 is centuries away.

But here, in the dead-end work-and-home routines of an adult life run aground, in a place and time where history moves only with the slowness of rust, the novel develops its occult topology of Bucharest. The narrator’s house, which has the branching, unmappable, and recursive corridors and towers of an Escher print or Jameson’s Bonaventure Hotel, is also “an enormous stomach,” an organism powered by a solenoid, a torus of electrical coil buried in its foundation. The solenoid is an industrial product, manufactured in Switzerland before the war and transported by rail to Bucharest, a result of all the hard facts of modernity, of steel, copper, steam, hydraulics, electric current. It is also a kind of omphalos, vibrating with a paranormal energy, the house’s solar plexus. A button at his bedside, part of the house’s original design, activates its power and allows the narrator to levitate several feet above his bed, where he can enjoy acrobatic, gravity-free sex with his partner, Irina, a fellow teacher at his school. (As I have said: the willingness to be embarrassing.) Later, involvement in the lives of his fellow teachers, a gallery of the warped and desperate middle-aged, reveals five other such solenoids, hidden in sites across Bucharest, radiating the energy necessary to suspend reality’s norms. Each house, factory, library, and construction site is potentially a portal. The saturnine city sits on tangled paths of biocurrent, electric chakras of the occult.

Add to this the novel’s several set-piece historical divagations, a motley anthology of attempts to reach alternate dimensions or point outside the confines of ordinary human understanding. There are some greatest hits that might already be familiar: the Voynich manuscript (which plays a key role in leading to the Passion of the Mites), the Antikythera mechanism, Charles Howard Hinton’s formulation of the tesseract, and its more pedestrian offspring, the Rubik’s Cube. But also odder histories. First is Nicolae Minovici, the Romanian forensic scientist who experimented with autoasphyxiation in order to record the visions of the dying. Later we get the early psychiatrist Nicolae Vaschide, the taxonomist of dreams seeking the orama, the dream-as-message from another dimension; and the extended Boole family, leading from the creation of Boolean algebra to Alicia Boole Stott’s work on the four-dimensional polygons she called “polytopes.” These historical sketches, paeans to the trapdoors to the beyond that open up even within the most empirical of sciences, are Cărtărescu at his most midcentury postmodernist. They give to the experience of reading Solenoid its information-addled, several-tabs-open-at-once texture.

When collectivity emerges in Cărtărescu, it does so in the enormous sympathy offered the defeated.


It is almost too much; at times, absolutely too much, an endlessly ramifying series of set-piece grotesques, room after room of a crazy Wunderkammer without any exit sign. The pace is insistent, the style feverish, and drooping from exhaustion is part of Solenoid’s reading process. As is the recovery, the unpredictable shock of a particularly compelling image, the fascination of seeing how much more Cărtărescu can pull off, what the next doorway or membrane might conceal. And over time, one detects a grammar to the madness, a set of repeated figures or motifs played in obsessive variations. This is continuous with Nostalgia and Blinding, something like a genetic signature but presented in recombinant forms. Insects and parasites, of course, with their fantastically small-scale detail, their parallel existence among, on, and inside us. Surfaces and barriers, from walls to the folds of our skin, the convolutions of our brains, the whole imaginative world of the dermatillomaniac. A constant vocabulary of spaces within spaces, the fractal repetition of structures, of tunnels, tentacles, wombs, placentas, all the nautilus shells that human organisms fill almost to bursting. And all of it, every episode from the realist mundane to the most outlandishly Lovecraftian, happens slowly. Cărtărescu is constantly resisting speed, never succumbing to rapid summary. There are in Solenoid no speeding cars, no rockets, no instant telecommunications. Even when things explode or lift off, they do so languorously, with time enough for panic to decelerate into wonder. It’s an unvaried pace, and risks tedium. But at the same time there’s a stubborn tenderness at its heart. Ernst Bloch once wrote of cinematic slow motion as a peaceful effect. Even boxers in the ring, he suggested, if you slow them down enough, are caressing each other, hands landing on faces with a lover’s touch. So it is with Solenoid, the novel’s constant adagio expressing an undifferentiated affection, for everything. It’s Flaubert and the beggar’s lice, but entirely without spleen.

Finally, then, for all its death-metal magic and hallucinogenic intensity, one has to return to Solenoid’s pervasive sentimental fondness. Even the most grotesque description in the novel is wrapped softly, swaddled in something like care. Cărtărescu is, more than anything perhaps, a nostalgist, with the indiscriminate and generous love a nostalgist has for anything vanishing, obsolete, decayed. Certainly for Bucharest above all else. But here the role of surrealism is an interesting, complicating factor. Surrealism in Cărtărescu enters into a mutually transformative relationship to nostalgia. The surreal, in its peculiar 21st-century obsolescence, opens up new horizons of things to care for, occult vulnerabilities, the palpitating agonized flesh inside the hard walls, all of it far from the antisentimental mode announced by Breton. And nostalgia, by being surrealized, loses its connotations of familiarity, comfort, retreat, and achieves something of the status of an adventure.

The clue, if we were to look for one, is back in one of Cărtărescu’s models: Borges. The true nostalgist’s desire, Borges once wrote, is not for home itself, for the precisely bounded and familiar districts of childhood, but “its still mysterious environs,” the nearly adjacent, the zone of the immediately unfamiliar that rings childhood comfort. So it goes in Borges’s “A New Refutation of Time.” “The reverse of the familiar, its far side, are for me those penultimate streets, almost as effectively unknown as the hidden foundations of our house or our invisible skeleton.” This is almost exactly a map of Cărtărescu’s world. The nearby, “penultimate” streets. Not Stefan cel Mare, exactly, but close to it, a short walk or tram ride away, the child’s forbidden and threatening wonderland of where you go when you’ve wandered a little too far. The “hidden foundations.” All those buried solenoids, all those sources of strange energy in the basement we did not dare to visit, the closed doors we didn’t dare to open. The “invisible skeleton.” All the organic matter we can’t see beneath, or inside of, our own skin. This is the land nostalgia wants. Not home, but what was so close to home it couldn’t quite be seen. It’s the most exotic space possible in Cărtărescu because it’s always been there, just at the edge of our earliest memories. It’s nostalgia, but estranged. Nostalgia for what we never quite knew. One wants another word, from some dictionary of the untranslatable in some other language, to capture it.

Maybe this, then, could be something like Solenoid’s motto: to evoke, in as full and intense a way as possible, a memory of the escapeinto that nearby land, those other streetsthat once beckoned but is now foreclosed. Not escape itself, but a glimpse back into its vanished prospect. (Always in Cărtărescu’s writing there is the young Mircea, in that apartment on Stefan cel Mare, looking out the windows at the nearby horizon.) What ensues is the cul-de-sac of Cărtărescu’s work, its antiutopianism, its continual restaging of moments in which one runs headlong into a dead end. It’s the dead end that calls forth the fondness, the nostalgia. It’s there in virtually every scene. It’s there even when the scabies mites reject their human Christ. They had their chance for escape, and they couldn’t take itnor can any of us. When collectivity emerges in Cărtărescu, it does so in the enormous sympathy offered the defeated. Which means one finally has to talk about the strand of Solenoid that stands the best chance of being its lingering afterimage: the drama of the Picketists.

Government officials come to the narrator’s workplace to warn his students of various sects operating contrary to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the most dangerous of which is the mysterious Picketists, whose secret sign is an extended hand with an insect in its palm. Through Caty, one of his fellow teachers and a Picketist convert, he learns of their nighttime meetings, where they dress in black and march on local hospitals, cemeteries, and morgues, carrying signs reading Down with Aging!, Down with Cancer, No to Eternal Disappearance! It is an ongoing, recurrent, futile protest against the realization that:

you are living in a slaughterhouse, that generations are butchered and swallowed by the earth, that billions are pushed down the throat of hell, that no one, absolutely no one escapes. That not one person you see coming out of the factory gates in a Méliès film is still alive. That absolutely everyone in an eighty-year-old sepia photograph is dead.

Prophets of the Picketists come and go. The first we see, the unsubtly named Virgil, is martyred pointlessly by a solenoid-powered statue representing Damnation inside the National Institute of Forensic Medicine. All there is to do in response is scream the one-word imprecation “Help!,” which later in the novel is simply repeated for seven pages. And to continue to gather, again and again. The Picketists are a dead-end collective, a sodality of the soon-to-be-annihilated. There is an absolute unrealizability in their demands, as if to scream, in a kind of masochistic ecstasy, that another world is not possible, not for us.

It’s a release, the culminating surge of the novel’s libidinal, electric energy, the burst right before the blackout. One thing Cărtărescu has caught here is how true the appeal of the Picketists feels, how their abandonment to hopeless rage can feel like the best, or only, basis for solidarity: the death drive screaming “Where’s the lie?” at any attempt at placation. So true that they’ve already crossed outside the novel. In Colombia, at least, there is a group calling themselves “Los Piquetistas,” who reenact the novel’s gatherings. And the reception for Cărtărescu in an April 2022 tour for Solenoid’s Spanish editionin this as in many other ways the US lags behindwas so enthusiastic as to require, on one occasion in Bogotá, police intervention. Anyone who’s seen a muted post horn in a toilet stall won’t necessarily be surprised. But the Picketists are tapping into something less coolly detached, wilder, a desperation appropriate to a time when opting out no longer works, because there is no other place to go. In dreams begin disenchantments. Cărtărescu’s surrealist visions set literature a task it may not want, to imagine what’s beyond the wall in order to remind us that the wall is still and always there, to pound at it so as to feel it. Can literature survive the loss of utopia? Can utopia survive the loss of literature? Either way, the best guess would be that there are going to be a lot more Picketist gatherings of various kinds in store for us.

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