Mircea Cărtărescu’s collection of stories “Melancolia” – Culture
For readers who are still looking for suitable access to the hermetic work of the Romanian monumental storyteller Mircea Cărtărescu, but shy away from the sheer scope and claim of his visionary world novels, there is now an easily accessible gateway into this unique literary universe. Unlike the phantasmagorical “Orbitor” trilogy and the surreal childhood and Bucharest novel “Solenoid” “Melancolia” is a slim composite of five manageable narrative texts, which nevertheless impressively show what this author is all about in his entire oeuvre, namely fantastic images of metamorphosis, of the world’s constant change of shape. Cărtărescu doesn’t just want to tell stories about the world; he has the ambition that his work should itself be world.
In fact, the creator of all of Cărtărescu’s narrative oeuvre is the self-sufficiently playing little boy he once was, in his nursery in a prefab building on Bucharest’s Stefan cel Mare Chaussee. Mircea alone at home. Starting from this children’s room, all narrative spaces open up. Everything is self-exploration, everything takes place solely in the head of this child, from there all narrative streams originate.
The fantasies, dreams and nightmares of the child of yesteryear are reminiscently imagined by the adult Cărtărescu in his literary work and developed into his very personal mythology. The inner universe under the skull of this child is his real world, his only real world, and it is characterized by extreme sensitivity. Compared to this, external reality has only the status of a spooky, shadowy parallel world in a state of incessant decay.
The “Melancolia” volume is framed by a prologue, a Kafkaesque gatekeeper fantasy, and an epilogue, a lament about lifelong imprisonment in the dungeon of one’s own body. In between, three central pieces, stories about the childhood and adolescence of three Bucharest boys in three stages of their development in the 1960s – as a five-year-old, eight-year-old and fifteen-year-old.
There are three phases of the floating transition, the shape change of adolescents who remain imprisoned in the dungeon of their own ego. All three phases are impregnated with melancholy, fear, loneliness and death. The parents figure only as shadowy ghosts or lifeless giant idols, the father a colossus made of rubber, the mother a gigantic chocolate figure in colored tinfoil, a sweet womb into which the boy often imagines crawling back.
The three boys’ aggregate states of consciousness oscillate between wakefulness and sleep. All three texts leave the degree of reality of what happens to the boys in limbo. The reality is perhaps only dreamed and the dream world is the true reality. The five-year-old of the first story “Die Stege” sees himself left alone with his toys in the apartment: “One morning his mother went shopping and never returned. Weeks or months or years had passed since then.” Sometimes he ventures out into the spooky outside world via magical rainbow bridges. Finally he hears his mother turning the key in the door outside – is that now or was it a dream before?
The boy hoards the discarded skins he has outgrown on hangers in his closet
In the second text, “The Foxes”, a pair of siblings, eight-year-old Marcel and three-year-old Isabel, live in the children’s room together, deeply enthralled in the magical world of their endless games, from which they can no longer find their way out. Are the murderous foxes that threaten Isabel a product of the brother’s nightmare fears or his fantastical reinterpretations of the little girl’s real death? Cărtărescu leaves that in the dark.
Finally, high school student Ivan in “The Skins,” the last and most profound of the three stories. The fifteen-year-old lives and suffers through all the fears of puberty of his own fluid identity and fantasizes about the mysterious physicality of girls, which fascinates him tormentingly. Ivan’s change of shape is not only evident in the clothes he has grown out of.
Cărtărescu models this transformation after the metamorphoses of insect larvae emerging or snakes shedding their skins. Ivan hoards his discarded skins, which he has outgrown, on hangers in his closet and eventually even discovers where the mother kept his early embryo skins. At the same time he is haunted by the first fantastic forebodings of his future poetry. His idol is a venerable poet with the symbolic name Vasile Singurătate, the Romanian word for loneliness. “Melancolia” contains the whole Cărtărescu like the kernel in a nutshell. It’s worth nibbling on in the most delicious way.
Mircea Cărtărescu: “Melancolia”, short stories. Translated from the Romanian by Ernest Wichner. Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna 2022. 272 pages, 25 euros.