Nostalgia: Mircea Cărtărescu

Translated from Romanian by Julian Semilian
Published by Penguin

This collection of three short stories and two novellas, set mainly in Bucharest, was written during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime and published in 1989, the year his regime fell. Nostalgia was originally published under the title Visul (“The Dream”), which seems appropriate: the pieces are fairly dreamlike and a bit strange.

The book is split into three parts: Prologue, Nostalgia and Epilogue.

Prologue consists of a single story, “The Roulette Player” where a dying man looks back to a time when playing Russian Roulette was common. People would gather in numbers to watch a man hold a revolver loaded with a single bullet to his head, and bet on whether he would blow his brains out or not. “I saw the plummeting of fortunes and the amassing of fortunes in the savage light of gunpowder.” But one man, known simply as “the Roulette Player”, becomes a legend, outliving all the others by beating death every single time. Soon he only has himself to compete against, so he raises the odds, increasing the bullets in the gun.   

The second section, Nostalgia, consists of three pieces: a short story called “Mentardy”, and two novellas: “The Twins” and “REM”. Mentardy is about a boy who moves with his family into an apartment block, where the children start by bullying him, but he soon ends up leading the gang, enchanting them with his tales. “In a short period of time, we realized that this kid who was younger than most of us surpassed us all in ways we had never been aware of.” But then he loses his hold over the children, and the enchantment is broken.

“The Twins” is about an obsession with another person, one that blurs the boundaries between the two. It starts with a man in an apartment that does not seem to be his, dressing in a woman’s clothes. Then the story goes back to the man’s intense relationship as an adolescent with his classmate Gina, which turns into an obsession. The man is writing his account of what happened, but there are hints implying that he is in a mental institution. But why is he in the women’s wing?

“REM”, the longest piece in this collection, is a story within a story. Nana has an affair with a younger man, Vali. But the real core of this novella are the events—which Nana recounts to Vali—that took place when she was 12.

As a child, Nana loved staying with her aunt, Aura: she was close to her cousin Marcel and was part of a group of girls her age. But when she was 12, her mother was ill and in hospital, so her father left her with her aunt. But Nana felt that things were not the same: “It was as though I had hibernated for a while and now woke up in a world different from the one I had gone to sleep in. And what confused me the most was that the differences were not radical, but of nuance—and it was those nuances that I couldn’t untangle, they were jumbled and swirled in my mind.”

One evening, Nana is frightened by two unnaturally tall strangers who walk into her aunt’s house. They are Egor and his mother, who live in a watchtower. Egor tells Nana about his ancestors and something called REM that they need to find. He gives Nana a pink mother-of-pearl shell shaped like a Japanese fan and asks her to place it under her pillow and report her dreams to him. She begins to dream of walking through a forest, and feels she is getting closer to REM.

But it is not just Nana’s dreams that are strange. A game she and her friends play is touched by magic: a wishbone seems to come alive, leading them to a burial site, and an old broken watch shows each of the girls getting older and dying. What is going on? And what is REM?

The final story is “The Architect”, which forms the section Epilogue. A couple buy a car but instead of driving it, they leave it parked by their apartment building. The man starts to become obsessed with the sound of the horn, and before long, has installed a musical instrument instead of the horn. The car becomes a mini-studio, where he conducts wild experiments with sound.

These are stories about obsession, in one form or another, and like Mentardy’s tales, pull you into another world, a world where the laws of reality do not seem to apply. Some of these pieces work better than others. “The Roulette Player” was hypnotic. I did not like “The Twins” as much and found it a bit long. My favourite story was “REM”, which was delightfully odd and conjured up a world I could get lost in.

I also loved Mircea Cărtărescu’s vivid descriptions of places which bring them to life, something that Julian Semilian’s translation does justice to.

Nostalgia is an unusual book, with a different way of looking at things. At their best, the stories are mesmerizing.

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