It will be hard to describe this book in words that do it justice, but I will try. In short, this is the most dazzlingly hallucinatory, horribly beautiful, stunning, weird, surreal, and searingly memorable book I’ve read in years. It has vaulted it’s way easily to land among my top ten, possibly top five favorite books ever.
Cărtărescu is a Romanian novelist, poet, short-story writer, and literary critic, who is currently a lecturing professor at the University of Bucharest. His prose and poetry have won or been nominated for dozens of awards, many international. Judging by this one book, they are very well deserved.
What’s Blinding about, then? That’s hard to say. It’s part memoir, part family history, part historical fiction, and part pure hallucinations and dreams. It ranges from Bucharest to New Orleans, from the 1800s to WW2 to present day, and across many subjects. Here’s just a smattering of the wild scenery: a group of Bulgarians crossing the frozen Danube river, beneath which they find giant frozen butterflies which they dig up and eat… an entire village getting high on milk of the poppy and hallucinating an undead army and demon attack… the narrator’s time in a hospital where he endures electric shock therapy for his paralyzed face… and so much more, endlessly more.
However, it’s not the subject matter that is so impressive, but how it is written. How everything is described in such a visceral, vivid way. For example, this description of silence:
A whistling silence vibrated the crystal chandelier in the stairway for over an hour. The nuns, seated together on a plush bench near the door, looked through the window at the back of the next house, loaded with purple clusters of Japanese lilac. It was a tense, mental silence. There were currents of silence freezing the air in the hallways, just like those sometimes emitted by the ocean, at a frequency of eight cycles per second, which irritate the hypothalamus unbearably and make entire crews of sailors hurl themselves into the sea, leaving their sponge-covered vessels drifting, sails mangled by the winds, prow and stern paced only by seagulls
Or this moment, a few pages later:
It took a few minutes for Fra Armando to notice how odd the southward rushing waters looked. The twilight-colored river had turned to blood. The Friar followed the dizzying rush of lenticular red cells, the size of loaves of bread, the amoeba-like gliding of the white cells, transparent enough to show their darkened nuclei, the snaking spiral worms that must have been malaria germs, the unusual fluorescence of lymph, the currents of glucose and protein. Fascinated and deathly tired, the Friar suddenly sensed that everything was alive, that everything lives, and that the universe does not at all operate like clockwork. Instead, it is a malleable architecture like the human body, a temple of skin, a basilica of scratches, a cenotaph of snot, with no right angles or durable materials, where the person creates his dreams, thoughts, and illusions, his time and his language like a cell secretes a hair or the crystal horn of a nail. And still, the least important cell in the universal body receives, through angel hormones and neural visions, the imperious commandments of God.
Or this snippet from an impossible journey down into the earth below New Orleans:
We descended further and further, careful not to crush the translucent newts in the puddles where we stepped, and not to snag our hair on the horrible blind cave spiders of the caverns. We passed through a hall shaped like a cistern, half full of green water, through a hall with walls completely covered in fur, through a hall like a freezer, of thin, white crystals, through a rectangular hall of tile, with broken urinals on one side and, on the other side, pipes with the vestiges of calcium-crusted faucets. The Albino would sometimes say something out loud, and every time he spoke in the dripping silence, his voice sounded so brutal and obscene that it stabbed our stomachs with a sour flood of adrenalin. His colorless skin, pale eyes, and cotton hair made him seem like one of those depigmented beings in the depths of the earth, of the same lineage as the wingless insects, the crustaceans fanning their tactile organs over wet stone, and the ragged, famished bats …
These are all taken from within the same dozen or so pages. And all 450 pages are like this–every page, non stop. I could have taken some beautiful, stunning nugget from almost any one page.
By the time I was 15% through, I already felt there were several moments that were so impactful I would have been happy if they were the climax of the whole book. After that, I lost count. The entire book is a continual climax.
If those quotes were at all intriguing to you, I strongly suggest you take a look at the sample on Amazon, and see if you are not immediately roped in like I was. Though the writing is dense, and full of new words, (I looked up dozens) even so, it reads like a thriller. Something about the sentence structure just drags you along, heart pounding, eyes racing across the words.
If you end up being a fan like me, you are in for a bit of frustration. Though the book, to me, was satisfying on its own, there are two more in the series which have not been translated into English. This one was published in ’96, and then translated into English in 2013. It’s been 9 years, and the second one was never translated (it has been into Spanish and French, but not English), meaning it likely won’t be any time soon. This probably is because the first one wasn’t enough of a success in the English speaking world to warrant doing the other two.
Maybe, if I can cause a surge in popularity of this book, some other publisher will pick up the second two… not likely, but it’s fun to hope!
Otherwise I’ll just have to keep working on my Spanish, and maybe in a few years I’ll be fluent enough to read the second two in the Spanish translation!