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Mircea Cartarescu

Review: Mircea Cartarescu (2022) Solenoid.

The narrator of Solenoid believes there are only two types of readers. Those who will fail to see that the autofiction presented here has resonances with—indeed intertextually communicates with—the works of Borges, Kafka, Kleist, Schulz, and Marquez among others. And those who, like the narrator himself, know that in that day many will say Lord, Lord, did I not identify the parallelism between Cartarescu’s protagonist turning into a mite and Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a fly? Did not I show cognisance of the fact that the narrator’s incarnation as a mite-messiah and his crucifixion for the sake of a mite colony deliberately cultivated on the human skin of their benevolent entomologist God was modelled on the life of Jesus as related in the Gospels? To these readers he will say plainly I never knew you or your desire for meaning, for literary critical revelation by diligent comparison of a text with its forbears and peers. Away from me, you wordcels. Those who persist with my parataxis and convoluted allegories will hear my words and build their evaluation of this amorphous seeming mass of heteroclite texts and narrative strands on the solid foundation of the plot of a schoolteacher and failed litterateur investigating the curious—and magical—solenoids under his own and five other’s people’s houses in Bucharest.

Is there a There there?

Solenoid has rightly been called a surrealist detective fiction on a cosmic scale. But it is perhaps more descriptively accurate to call it a why-done-it where it—the crime scene—is the world as it is. If one can abide the existence of quasi-magical electromagnetic doodads that allow the characters to float above their beds and through alternate realities in a work of capital L Literary fiction then one is in for a treat, a whirlwind ride through a world haunted by prehensile shadows and projections of the factual and the familiar. The presence of magical elements in this work that is not straight forwardly magic realist avoids frustrating the trusting reader averse to novels laden with dreams as a narrative device. The illogic of dreams is here not vulgarised by reduction to a mechanism for plotline reconciliation, or denying the premise on which the narrator hangs his hat in extra-oneiric contexts that stretch credulity even as they meditate on mundane empirical matters. Neither is the latent symbolism of the dream content, which is prodigious in its quality and variety, simply there to saturate and overdetermine unmotivated actions of the characters populating the novel. Instead, the dream symbolism ties us ever more securely to the emotional and practical necessities they must endure if they will make even the smallest difference-making choice inside Cartarescu’s Bucharest—itself a hybrid of the real city and a highly imagined literary namesake. The bungling and repressive authoritarianism of 1980’s Communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, for instance, are transposed into a myth-like story about a long-suffering  revolutionary group, the Picketists. protesting against suffering, aging, and death only for a statue to come to life and stomp one of them into a pulp. Death, suffering, and aging continue meanwhile reassuring the reader they are in the real world. He spends over nine pages quoting the litany of the Picketists as they riot: “help, help, help…” 3,105 times. This compulsive reportage, and the underlying hypergraphia that enables it, belie the narrator’s frequent assertion that he isn’t a writer.

I Fucking Love Science and Existentialism

He had once wanted to be a writer. His ambition for literary stardom was snuffed out when his early poetic masterpiece The Fall was roundly dismissed as amateurish nonsense by a jury of writers he had thought his peers, and by an eminent literary critic whom he personally respected. He becomes a schoolteacher and spends a lot of his time railing against literature. He gets lice from students at the school. He traces the arc of the lice’s life, starting from a nit in his hair and ending in the sewer after being rinsed off. A girl in his class has an eye poked out when a childish caper goes wrong. He cannot look at her without commiserating with the fact that she will grow up to be a spinster working a manual job at a local factory making buttons, or mourning the hypothetical life she could’ve had as a great beauty who’d have her pick from men of substance. In addition to housing a solenoid his residence seems to have an indefinite number of rooms that shift around; one of them a turret accessible only via a staircase contains a portal to another dimension. But no matter which dimension he goes into, the narrator is fully articulated and constrained by his all too human body. For a man so full of dreams and extra-dimensional revelations he is never at risk of leaving bodily preoccupations behind. The body as site of agency in this world and as vehicle of escape into another saturates the totality of worlds contained in Solenoid.  

The narrator’s I-Fucking-Love-Science-bro energy in passages replete with coruscating analogies of scale can be grating in its tendency for bombastic palilalia and anticlimax. But his prolonged interrogation of the ineliminable illegibility of mite to man, man to cosmos, man to supernatural beings, and man to man is shorn of its potentially alienating aura by the text’s remaining responsible to the individual consciousness qua narrator engaging the reader. If Cartarescu introduces a story rest assured he’ll conclude it. Let the digressions and erotetic analyses of vagaries wash over you while the cliff hangers are left dangling for later resolution. Stylised histories of geniuses like George Boole and his daughter Alicia Boole Scott, founder of Boolean algebra and  significant contributor to the study of four-dimensional polytopes respectively, create the infrastructure the narrator needs to recce the possibilities embedded in a 4th dimension where humanity perhaps escapes the indignities of pain, aging, and death by escaping the constraints of space and time. Surveys of the visions and reports of mavericks like Nicolae Minovici, who studied the effects of hanging on the human body by undergoing the ordeal personally for as long as was possible on six or seven occasions, tie the narrator’s gloomy thanatological reveries to a concern with making life maximally free from limitations implicit in its mortal constitution and powers. Of course, these anti-literary efforts of diarising are futile in the face of these goals as the narrator acknowledges. But the fault lies not in his capacities as a writer but in literature and language itself.

The Vocation of Literature

Language wasn’t given man to ponder the imponderables though many a sentence can make it feel that way. It is easy, for instance, to pose the question as the narrator’s girlfriend Irina does “What would you do if you could save one thing only from a burning building, and you had to choose between a famous painting and a newborn child…[a child destined to become Hitler]?” The narrator’s pat response “the child” depends on his implicit faith in a tendentious story he’s telling himself about his own parenting prowess, of nurture’s power over nature, and more generally about the power of story to civilize the beast that is man. The impulse to call the sort of writing on offer in Solenoid abstract is understandable, but mistaken. It is not merely legible writing without a legible subject. It is legible writing about the phenomenon of illegibility. Just as it is impossible to foreclose the possibility that a child rescued from a burning building will turn out to be a genocidal maniac it is also impossible to foreclose the possibility that the dreams, visions, and literary experiments of a failed writer will push the world along one branching path in time rather than another. Whether literature will save us or not is a poetic question, and the narrator’s prosaic denunciation of its false promises cannot settle the matter one way or another. Towards the end the narrator throws his manuscript into a burning abyss, choosing to save his child with Irina. How then are we left with this lexical arabesque delineating the contours of the possibility space occupied by human consciousness in an indifferent world? Solenoid answers the riddle by positioning itself qua literary work as a noble lie. In successfully reporting the narrator’s choice of the human satisfactions of love and commitment the literary work overcomes its chimerical destiny.


Mircea Cartarescu (2022) Solenoid. Trans. Sean Cotter. Deep Vellum Press.

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