Escaping into the past

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

DUBLIN did not really exist until the publication of James Joyce's "Ulysses," Norway was a dim country assigned to the Vikings until Knut Hamsun published "Hunger," and Portugal was finally revealed to readers with Fernando Pessoa's "Book of Disquietude." Literary cities owe something of their existence to the writers who walk their streets and remember them for those of us who will never go there.

Though it is unlikely that one could rebuild the physical reality of Bucharest based on Mircea Cartarescu's "Nostalgia" -- the first novel by this premier Romanian writer to be published in English -- Cartarescu has provided us with the clearest approximation of the interior lives of those living in that city through the darkest days of the Ceausescu regime. Composed during that time and finally published in 1989, the novel is a timeless invitation to dream and embrace the comforting power of personal memory, the only sure bulwark against the effects of totalitarian control.

"Nostalgia" opens with "The Roulette Player," a hypnotic, suspenseful prologue in which a man rises to an unimaginable level of success playing Russian roulette and, when no longer facing any challenger, decides to challenge himself by adding bullets to the revolver.

Vast sums of money are wagered by frenzied audiences on the outcome of these solitary performances. One gives nothing away by saying that toward the end of the story he uses a fully loaded revolver and somehow beats these impossible odds: This setup is incredible, and so is the narrator's voice, asking us to ponder many things, including the nature of reading. "The Roulette Player is a character," the narrator explains. "But then I, too, am a character, and so I can't stop myself from bursting with joy. Because characters never die, they live each time their world is 'read.' "

Though billed as a novel, "Nostalgia" is really a collection of stories and novellas dense with reverberating nuance and self-consciousness. "Even though this volume is comprised of five separate stories, each with its own world," the narrator explains at one point, "it could be said that what we're dealing with here is a Book, in the old and precious sense of the word. The stories connect subterraneously, caught in the web of the same magical and symbolist thought, of the same stylistic calligraphy."

In the novel's middle section the reader fully enters into the world of memory as the narrator remembers his childhood and later years. Titled "Nostalgia," the section is divided into three parts -- "Mentardy," "The Twins" and "REM" -- and we find ourselves following young children along as they play in the ditches and among ruined tenement houses. Mentardy is the new, awkward boy in the group; he tempts the children away from their scavenging in tunnels and ditches by charming them with the stories he learned from books:

"He told us, I recall now, the legends of the Round Table; Charlemagne and Arthur, the horrific pagans, and a sword that had a name.... He paused in the middle of the story and said the place was not right for telling stories. The dirty ditches, he said, the dirt mounds, the pipes mended with putty did not allow him to concentrate. 'I know a better place,' he said, smiling."

Just as Mentardy interrupts his own story, so does Cartarescu, who speaks out to the reader: "You would like to turn the reader's heart inside out, but what does he do? At three he's done with your book, at four he takes up another, no matter how great the book you placed in his hands."

Cartarescu's vision of childhood is not exclusive to Eastern Europeans of a certain time and history, however, for the reflections of his narrators touch on something familiar to all those who have realized that their childhood is gone. Entering the world of childhood is like entering another civilization, into which adults wander seeing now only the remains of an abandoned school: "We also found strewn across the classrooms torn pages from a spelling primer and from a music book and tests corrected with red ink. The children who had studied there were now adults; they had passed into another species, into another world. They would never return."

The lives of the young, however, are inevitably entangled with their elders. In "REM," a crass, loutish 24-year-old man becomes involved with a much older woman, who embarrasses him even as they hide away and make love in a dreary Bucharest apartment. The rooms are choked with books on cancer, the collected works of Rimbaud, "The Saragossa Manuscript," a Julio Cortazar book and a tattered copy of a Garcia Marquez novel: "For the moment, [the young man] lives with his parents, reads, reads, and reads. His profession is to become enthusiastic. He writes a little. He will write, for instance, two years from now."

"The Roulette Player" is based on an impossible idea; it sends us into something like a fantasy realm in suggesting that one can play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun and survive. At the other end of this book is "The Architect," a story that takes us out of fantasy and into the modern daily life of Bucharest. After many years of waiting, an architect is able to buy a shoddy automobile. Inadvertently one day he beeps the horn to see if it works and, to his horror, it sticks, causing abuse and potatoes to rain down from the tenant balconies above.

From that simple sound, Cartarescu sends the architect right back to the dawn of music -- he looks for a replacement horn, another melody, and his obsession affects his life. He buys an organ at a music store, connects it to the car's horn and creates a new music that is eventually heard and praised by critics.

The architect is transformed into one of Romania's greatest artists, and Cartarescu ends his story with a sudden visionary flourish showing how the Earth in "an extreme state of rarefaction, condensed itself during a period of incommensurable time, lost its consistency and became star crumbs, which ignited suddenly in the darkened and empty universe. A young galaxy revolved now, throbbing, pulsating in place of the old one."

Mircea Cartarescu's "Nostalgia" is gripping, impassioned, unexpected -- the qualities that the best in literature possesses. *

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