Read first part HERE.
The first few hundred pages of the book—which is, so we don’t forget, the journal of a failed writer, his only work—represent a kind of backwards Bildungsroman, relaying to us the deformities and abnormalities of the protagonist, marked by the existential condition of the outsider. Raised by a poor, blue-collar family in the mahala, and subsequently moved to a neighborhood bearing all the marks of the inhumane, communist urbanism, the book’s unnamed protagonist, marked in adolescence by an oppressive, unhealthy solitude, is haunted by a series of mysterious, biographical episodes: a twin brother, dead shortly after birth and whose memory the parents deny, a hospitalization and an unexplained surgery—also a hospitalization, like a parental abandonment, at a preventorium in the mountains for the treatment of infantile tuberculosis—, and a series of bizarre dreams and night presences in the form of humanoid visitors. In fact, the entire narrative alternates between daily and nightly existences of the character, an average teacher of Romanian language and literature at the neighborhood general school by day and, by night, a witness to the parallel, oneiric, fantastic dimensions of the world, in part due also to their anomalies which bring on a reclusive existence, predisposed to hallucinations.
In view of the banal social existence of the literature teacher, Mircea Cărtărescu shows himself as an extraordinary realist. In the chapters devoted to General School #86, with all the teachers gathering in the lounge to gossip and plan for school and all the bitter students full of lice; here Mircea Cărtărescu gives extraordinarily descriptive pages, just as impressive and striking as those given to the neighborhood environment. The language, behavior and mannerisms of the teachers comprise a fascinating gallery of typological portraits making for wonderful pages of realist prose of an environment full of details of the life under communism. I can’t remember something similar in the Romanian prose of the later decades during the communist period. (It’s true that some episodes exceed a realist style—the one, for example, on paper recycling, a prose of perfect absurdity—, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note or emphasize the admirable expansion into realism by an author more familiar with the lyrical / fantastical / metaphysical.)
But the dull, repetitive life of the teacher and failed writer in a city of ruins, grey and cold (the descriptions of a decadent Bucharest are, as usual, overwhelmingly melancholic), who left his parents to live alone in an old house, making the same trip with the tramway through the neighborhood to the school and back, being denied a literary career and uninterested in the professional one, even being passed up by a tepid marriage that ended quickly due to his wife’s decaying mental condition, the mediocre, mundane life of the protagonist which is, in fact, full of unexplained or downright bizarre happenings and populated by grotesque or enigmatic characters, crossing through hallucinatory episodes, his journal of an existence permanently oscillating between the profane and… something else.
He buys an old house shaped like a boat which was built over a magnetic node created by an inventor of solenoids—actually, it’s not a house, but a modular maze of obscure rooms where the character levitates; with a mysterious machine in the attic made out of an old dentist’s chair as a sort of control desk, a kind of ship that floats on the world’s magnetic ocean. His hospital or preventorium are also mysterious institutions where the doctors and administrators aren’t what they seem to be, and the patients and the children are subjects of perplexing medical procedures. In the body of teachers at the school there is also a female teacher recruited by the mystical sect of picketers, led by a certain Virgil, a sect which takes part in nightly demonstrations in the cemetery and the morgues. The abandoned factory next to the school (where a janitor is abducted by unidentified entities), a factory with industrial, labyrinthine halls is, in fact, a museum of horrors which is more like a secret collection of abandoned biological experiments, exhibiting dioramas of huge parasites. There’s a “zone” on a slope at the periphery where different objects appear which defy the laws of physics.
There are also the books the protagonist reads (together with the inventor, Mikola, and the librarian, Palomar, is the other guiding figure of the protagonist): a novel by Ethel Voynich, books of mathematics by her father, George Boole; theories of physics by her brother-in-law, C.H. Hinton, the mysterious Voynich manuscript, as well as parasitic studies, the medical experiments of the coroner, Nicolae Minovici or Nicolae Vaschide’s interpretations of dreams; all this being placed in the same, large existential equation which should prove the possibility to overcome the human condition of only five senses, and to escape the world limited to only three dimensions.
For, in fact, this is the protagonist’s obsession and the idea behind the whole book: leaving the body and the world, salvation. The manuscript of the teacher / failed writer comprises not the anomalies, but the signs of possibly overcoming the conditions and unveils, page by page, the signs of some ways of possibly opening the world. The house and neighborhood of the writer are full of ruins, secret rooms and doors, basements and other similar places of crossing; while his life, with visitations in the night, abductions / disappearances of some of his acquaintances, clues, writings, messages, formulations and codes he gets from books or which are shown to him in dreams and drawn in tattoos—all are outbursts and manifestations of other dimensions, glimpses of parallel worlds, superior and sacred, prophesied and foreseen by the protagonist, a world which is “shown” to him and which he longs for in every muscle and fiber, with everyone neuron in his brain.
Is the teacher himself one in the series of the insane, including the inventor, the picketer, the janitor and the librarian? Probably so, like any other prophet.
Last time I was saying that the theme of the book is an effort on the part of the protagonist to escape his own body and reality, from “the mind dressed in flesh, the flesh dressed in the cosmos.” The world is a multidimensional puzzle, a metaphysical prison limited to the five senses, in the three dimensions. In struggling through his life and the neighborhood, searching for the exit / transcendence / enlightenment, the teacher, animated by a predetermined feeling, tries to solve an equation which actually draws in the whole, unknown world. Nothing is insignificant because nothing is what it seems to be in a parallel dimension (“I couldn’t afford to ignore a single pore in the enormous sponge in which I was living: any one of them could have been The Exit”), and thus also the obsession for finding the meaning – cipher in any sign which is, all at once, the code, the guide and the proof: characters, places, objects, eerie numbers and quotes, manuscripts in unknown languages, impossible objects, Escherian drawings / Rubik’s cubes / Möbius bands, tattoos, tesseracts and polytopes, theories of mathematics and physics, anatomical and oneiric experiments.
The protagonist lives in the middle of a map scaled much too small to have the perspective of the cosmic plan, of his own limited and limiting dimensions: “We’re little people drawn into a square on the page. We can’t cross the black line, and we exhaust ourselves rummaging, tens of hundreds of times, through every corner of the square to crack it. Until one of us suddenly understands, because that one was destined to understand, the page’s plan can’t be escaped. That the exit, wide and easy, is perpendicular to the page, in the previously inconceivable third dimension. So that the choice to suddenly break the chrysalis astonishes those left between those four, fluffy lines, as the chosen one spreads enormous wings and gently rises, casting a shadow from above his old world.” Is this not the description of ascension? What can ascension be if not Exit, escaping to a higher plane?
The solenoid becomes the agent for escape to another dimension. Technically speaking, a solenoid is a producer of an electromagnetic field which modifies the properties of the surrounding area and therefore, implicitly that of human perception. The protagonist’s house is built on a solenoid which modifies the gravitational field and makes copulation miraculously possible while levitating with Irina, with whom, in the end, the teacher will withdraw from the world into a metaphorical dimension of love (speaking of which, like the butterfly effect, the end may be the result of a small act from page 91 of the book). The fabulous, decrepit city of Bucharest lies on a series of solenoids which, in the end, will ensure its ascension in the most incredible moment of the book. The importance of the solenoid resides completely in the law of gravity being broken. But a solenoid is also a mathematical concept pertaining to topology, to geometry: the solenoid is a mathematical attractor which organizes all that is irregular, and orders all that is diffused. At the narrative level, all the main characters from the book are attractors: the inventor, the colleagues from the teachers’ lounge, Irina, the librarian … From this point of view, the importance of the solenoid lies in the agglomeration of information and experiences from all spheres of knowledge, just as the book offers a powerful diffusion of that which exceeds the literary field. The teacher’s manuscript is, at the same time, a fantasy treatise of parasitology, with elements of abstract mathematics, theoretical physics and alternative history.
What is, in fact, the teacher’s manuscript? Was his literary failure real, or did his poem, “Căderea,” greatly surpass not only the horizon of expectations, but also the understanding of those who were working with, and could only understand, “just” literature? The narrator of this desperate manuscript doesn’t want to be another false, literary prophet: “One really only needs to write Bibles, only gospels.” That is why, his both elegiac and hallucinatory manuscript, grotesque and sublime, desperate and spectacular, flamboyant and compassionate, oneiric and paranoid, cryptic and cartographic, visionary and agnostic, which can only be destined to the flame, wants to be a potential theodicy (as Radu Vancu called it), an alternative and tragic gospel containing the Apocalypse without Genesis, the gospel of a Chosen One sent “with a message of salvation” to the world of Sarcoptes scabiei, who fails to save (the whole episode is stunning), in a way similar to another Chosen One who was once sent into the human world and ascended to Heaven, leaving us in the same ignorant / desperate / conscious / three-dimensional condition.
At the Cărtărescuean level of creation, Solenoid marks a “node of works” in the way it, like a narrative attractor, brings together all the marks, themes and literary obsessions of all the other books, organizing them into a pyramid formation. And as the underworld is immediately revealed upon the ascension of Bucharest, Solenoid hides the connections to all the other books it communicates with, “feeds on” and rises over. The first two hundred pages come from Orbitor, after which the novel is populated by visitors, mysterious entities from his diary, revisiting the topography of Nostalgia and the adventures of adolescent identity from Travesti, full pages being genuine poetry, pieces seeming from his sea of poems from another time. And so one. I can continue making countless connections and analogies.
There have been references to Pynchon (Cărtărescu’s declared idol) in the reception of the book until now, and other such big names being very evident from world literature. One is Kafka—the descent into the world of Sarcoptes scabiei being a Kafkaesque-Swiftian theological metamorphosis, while the 1966 film, Fantastic Voyage, by Richard Fleischer, can just as well be invoked, where a submarine team is sent on a rescue mission in the circulatory system of a scholar. Another is Borges (at one point in Solenoid, an Aleph actually appears, not only the theme of the librarian, of the manuscript, of the tlöniene conspiracy), then Nabokov (in view of the sophisticated language, with a dizzyingly variated vocabulary, borrowed from all domains; only Cărtărescu can use “pusillanimous” instead of “fear”) or, from our own Arghezi (Cimitirul Buna-Vestire being the most “Cărtărescuean” work of Romanian literature). There can still be other names invoked with whom Cărtărescu shares literary greatness: the histories of the two Nicolaes, Minovici and Vaschide, real characters with biographies woven into a Cărtărescuean fiction, reminiscent of what E.L. Doctorow does in Ragtime; and through narrative amplitude, David Mitchell would be in the same league.
But consciously/voluntarily or not, Solenoid is also an extraordinary attractor of ideas/motives present in the popular culture of the times. If it is for me to refer only to cinema, for example, someone brought Interstellar, by Christopher Nolan, into the discussion by way of the parallel space/time theme, but the model of 2001: a Space Odyssey, by Kubrick, should have been named if only for the scene where the protagonist, following Ștefana, meets himself as child. I would also mention Prometheus, the prequel to Aliens, directed by Ridley Scott (besides, the techno-gothic image and the organic machinery of the dentist’s chair from the house-boat bridge has quite a bit in common with the biomechanic and mechanomorphic creations of H.R. Giger, the xenomorphic creator of the Alien series which is, in fact, an oversized parasite, like those in the dioramas of parasitic factories) where, as is the case with the statue of the Damned which crushes Virgil’s picket, an engineer of the Universe smashes the man daring to ask the meaning of life. Or Martyrs, by Pascal Laugier, a horror film on the subject of martyrdom as a possible way to enlightenment. And other cinematographic works of Sci-Fi can be invoked as well, since Solenoid is, itself, a blockbuster narrative: an epic of compassion and tragedy (Cărtărescu has never been so tragic) whose stylistic beauty and spectacular imaginary are consecrated only in the depth of questions and meanings.
Anyways, this book will be written about for a long time from now on, without us ever having the feeling that we sufficiently contemplated its mechanism, that all connections were spotted and that it is a true and definitive “read.” So that of the solenoid, the field of meaning of the works by Mircea Cărtărescu will infinitely modify in the interaction with each reader. Because this is the feature of a masterpiece.
Translated by Andrew K. Davidson