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A Danubian Narnia: Nostalgia, by Mircea Cartarescu, reviewed

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

Nostalgia Mircea Cartarescu, translated by Julian Semilian

Penguin Modern Classics, pp.352, 9.99

Mircea Cartarescu likens his native Romania to a Latin American country stranded in eastern Europe. Certainly, his writing delivers not the pared-down parables and ironies of his self-exiled compatriot (and Nobel laureate) Herta Müller, but a rainbow-hued riot of fantasy, imagination and invention. The gender-switching narrator of ‘The Twins’ — one of five linked tales that make up Nostalgia — urges his lover to remember that ‘under the obscene rococo of our world and flesh, our bones are gothic and our spirit is gothic’. That feels about right, although Cartarescu fills his grotesque and hallucinatory scenes with tropical warmth, colour and light on top of the sepulchral chills of old Europe. If you looked for the perfect director to film Nostalgia, a joint effort by Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam might just do the trick.

A poet before he turned to fiction, Cartarescu had a breakthrough success with this book in 1989 — in the dying days of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, it fell foul of the censors. In English, we can still only read fragments of his output, so credit to Penguin Modern Classics for picking up this humdinger of a translation by Julian Semilian (first issued by New Directions in New York). Each part of Nostalgia unfolds in a Bucharest filtered through memories, dreams and visions that imbue childhood games, street markets, Christmas parties or tram rides with ‘the pure joy of strolling through the Marvellous’. Or the pure horror: behind the excursions into wild fantasy lies an urge to keep faith with the all-consuming power, for good or ill, of childhood and adolescent ways of seeing and feeling. Cartarescu’s narrators and characters live in ‘golden worlds, thick with ecstasy and emotion and suffering’.

He begins with a pre-war tale about an underground gambling network of Russian roulette sessions. One desperate player becomes the ‘world champion of surviving’, as the number of bullets in the chamber rises from one towards five, then six. Only in fiction, our writer-narrator insists, can ‘the laws of statistics be broken’. After this dip into the milieu of Stefan Zweig or Joseph Roth, ‘Mentardy’ returns to the bleak blocks, factories and yards of iron-curtain Bucharest, and a fey, charismatic kid who spins yarns that catch a gang of rough boys in ‘the net of their enchantment’. Transformed realities multiply in Cartarescu’s prose: ‘The Twins’, one of two novella-length pieces here, begins with its protagonist’s meticulous drag makeover.

Later, Andrei and his beloved Gina make a nocturnal foray through the basement chambers of a natural history museum, ‘the centre of the world’s enigma’ where exhibits come to thrilling, terrifying life. The dark glamour of Cartarescu’s gothic surrealism finds its match in Semilian’s feverish and luxuriant translation. Behind this freewheeling fantasy, however, a strong pulse of everyday adolescent love, lust and fear still beats.

In ‘REM’, a sarcastic vampire narrator eavesdrops on the memories of a woman who revisits her girlhood self. Nana and her little playmates become queens, shamans, prophets, even a ‘goddess of love and death’, as Cartarescu spins through stupendous galaxies of myth and legend. In the young minds, magic kingdoms, miracles and monsters breed. The girls’ imagined — or embroidered — adventures take them into enchanted forests, womb-like grottoes and crenellated towers where bizarre curios tell tales of far-off lands. But we never lose sight of the ‘bunch of frightened little girls’ in mental flight from run-down shack homes at the ragged edge of 1960s Bucharest. Although C.S. Lewis might be shocked, Nostalgia does summon the wonder and terror of a sort of Danubian Narnia.

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