Some novels are so avant-garde they resist easy synopsis. "Blinding," the latest novel by Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu to be translated into English, is one of those novels. Rather than steer the reader with the aid of something as quaintly prosaic as plot, Cartarescu propels us by plunging into a labyrinthine and phantasmagorical Bucharest and assailing us with a madcap cast and torrent of hallucinatory ideas and imagery. We regularly lose our bearings and our purchase on reality, but such disorientation and entanglement keep us rapt and at times transfixed over 400-plus pages.
The book's first section is the strongest. Our protagonist — who may be the author — is a poet with bad teeth who stares out the window of his attic apartment at night, reflecting on his past. Then, all of a sudden, "Bucharest exploded outside the lunar blue glass." Cartarescu's magical mystery tour has begun. Memories warp into fantasies and cityscape melts in and out of dreamscape. Segments of realism (the narrator's family's history, his country's Soviet occupation) serve as springboards to great swaths of surrealism, much of it nightmarish (marauding zombie armies, statues that come to life). We get gypsy folklore, bloody legends, close-up anatomical detail and grotesque erotic reveries.
The second section introduces Maria and her sexual awakening, cabarets, catacombs and — yes — evil sewing machines. When we return to our poet in Part Three we are apprised of his hospitalization as a teen and, in keeping with the book's antic and supernatural episodes, are given rich commentary on madness and illusion.
All of this won't be to every reader's taste, at least not those in search of straight storytelling and a semi-solid narrative. "Blinding" is, in places, a demanding read, the more fantastical passages a result of the narrator's feverish mind. Early on he tells us he enjoys his loft seclusion, living "in the halo of solitude, an unearthly life." Later, he decides "solitude is just another name for insanity," by which point his prose ("this illegible book") has spoken volumes about his mental health.
Some of that prose is too baroque for its own good ("We live on a piece of plaque in the multiple sclerosis of the universe") and whole paragraphs contain lines that send us scurrying for the dictionary ("the catoptromant of memory"). At these junctures we are less fond of Cartarescu's excesses and more in awe of Sean Cotter's magisterial translation. Elsewhere, however, Cartarescu astounds without resorting to showiness, and the sheer energy and exuberance of his language is intoxicating. What's more, his extra-sensory vision of Bucharest (and beyond) is mind-expanding.
In "Blinding," Cartarescu seems to want us to think and to read differently. Yes, it challenges, but it never feels like a slog, and sticking with it pays huge dividends. Forget the lack of plot and countless tangents and simply lose yourself in its otherworldliness.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.