Before they built the apartment blocks across the street, before everything was screened off and suffocating, I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room above Ştefan cel Mare. The window usually reflected my room’s cheap furniture – a bedroom set of yellowed wood, a dresser and mirror, a table with some aloe and asparagus in clay pots, a chandelier with globes of green glass, one of which had been chipped long ago. The reflected yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window, and I, a thin, sickly adolescent in torn pyjamas and a stretched-out vest, would spend the long afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the eyes of my reflection in the transparent glass. I would prop my feet on the radiator under the window, and in winter the soles of my feet would burn, giving me a perverse, subtle blend of pleasure and suffering. I saw myself in the yellow glass, under the triple blossom of the chandelier’s phantom, my face as thin as a razor, my eyes heavy within violet circles. A stringy moustache emphasized the asymmetry of my mouth, or more precisely, the asymmetry of my entire face. If you took a picture of my face and covered the left half, you would see an open, adventurous young man, almost beautiful. The other half, though, would shock and frighten you: a dead eye and a tragic mouth, hopelessness spread over the cheek like acne.
I only really felt like myself when I turned out the lights. At that moment, electric sparks from the trams that clattered on the streets five stories below would rotate across the walls in phosphorescent blue and green stripes. I suddenly became aware of the din of traffic, and of my loneliness, and of the endless sadness that was my life. When I clicked off the light switch behind the wardrobe, the room turned into a pale aquarium. I moved like an old fish around the pieces of putrid furniture that stank like the residue of a ravine. I crossed the jute rug, stiff under my feet, toward the cabinet in the bedstead, where I sat down again and put my feet on the radiator, and Bucharest exploded outside the lunar blue glass. The city was a nocturnal triptych, shining like glass, endless, inexhaustible. Below, I could see a part of the street where there were light poles like metal crosses that held tramlines and rosy light bulbs, poles that in winter nights attracted wave after wave of snowfall, furious or gentle, sparse like in cartoons or thick like fur. During the summer, for fun, I imagined a crucified body with a crown of thorns on every pole in that endless line. The bodies were bony and long-haired, with wet towels tied around their hips. Their tearful eyes followed the wash of cars over stony streets. Two or three children, out late for some reason, would stop to gaze at the nearest Christ, raising their triangular faces toward the moon.
Across the street were the state bakery, a few houses with small yards, a round tobacco kiosk, a shop that filled seltzer bottles, and a grocery. Possibly because the first time I ever crossed the street by myself was to buy bread, I dream most often about that building. In my dreams, it is no longer a dank hovel, always dark, where an old woman in a white coat kneads bread that looks and smells like a rat, but a space of mystery at the top of a staircase, long and difficult to climb. The weak light bulb, hanging from two bare wires, gains a mystical significance. The woman is now young and beautiful and the stacks of bread racks are as high as a Cyclops. The woman herself towers tall. I count my coins in the chimerical light as they glitter in my palm, but then I lose track and start to cry, because I can’t tell if I have enough. Further up the street is Nenea Căţelu, a shabby and lazy old man, whose bare yard looks like a war zone, an empty lot filled with trash. He and his wife wander dazed here and there, in and out of their shack patched over with tarred cardboard, tripping over the skeletal dog who gave them their name. Looking toward Dinamo, I can see just the corner of the grocery store. Toward the circus grounds are the supermarket and newsstand. Here, in my dreams, the caves begin. I wander, holding a wire basket, through the shelves of sherbet and jam, napkins and sacks of sugar (some with little green or orange metal cans hidden inside, or so the kids say). I go through a swinging door into another area of the store, one that never existed, and I find myself outdoors, under the stars, with the basket of boxes and jars still in my hand. I’m behind the block, among mounds of crates made of broken boards, and in front of me is a white table where they sell cheese. But now there is not only one door, like in reality – here are ten doors in a row with windows between each one, brightly lit by the rooms of basement apartments. Through each window I can see a strange, very high bed, and in each bed a young girl is sleeping, her hair spilling over the pillow, her small breasts uncovered. In one of these dreams, I open the closest door and climb down a spiral staircase, which ends in a small alcove with an electric light. The staircase goes deep into the ground, and in the alcove, one of these girl-dolls is waiting for me, curly-haired and timid. Even though I am already a man when I have this dream, I am not meant to have Silvia, and all my excitement spends itself in woolen abstractions of words and gestures. We leave holding hands, we cross the snowy street, I see her blue hair in the lights of the pharmacy window and the restaurant named Hora, and then we both wait for the tram while a snowfall covers our faces. The tram comes, without walls, just the chassis and a few wooden chairs, and Silvia gets on and is lost to a part of the city that I found only later, in other dreams.
By Mircea Cărtărescu
Translated by Sean Cotter
Extract from FROM BLINDING: THE LEFT WING
By Mircea Cărtărescu
Translated by Sean Cotter
Published by Archipelago Books (2013)
Published by kind permission of Archipelago Books.
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Mircea Cărtărescu is a poet, novelist, and essayist, and was part of the 1980s ‘Blue-jeans Generation’. Cărtărescu is the winner of several literary prizes, including the 2000 Romanian Writers’ Association Prize, and the 2012 Berlin International Prize for Literature.
Sean Cotter’s translations from the Romanian include Nichita Stănescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke and Other Poems, which was recipient of the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry. His essays, articles, and translations have appeared in Conjunctions, Two Lines, and Translation Review. He is Associate Professor of Literature and Literary Translation at the University of Texas at Dallas, Center for Translation Studies.