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.

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.

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