Nostalgia (Romania)

Nostalgia Book CoverOk, so I was totally wrapped up in WRITING a novel during the month of November (Nanowrimo) so I didn’t post. Sorry about that. My friend Dana in Romania sent me this book. What a delightful surprise!

by Mircea Cartarescu
“Mystic of Housing Projects” & (might I add) “Poet Laureate of the grim Soviet housing block.”

Nostalgia hit me as a cross between Pan’s Labyrinth and Where The Wild Things Are with a dash of JD Salinger. It’s a trip!

WARNING: This book messes with your head. It’s not linear, like we’re used to in the Western Cannon. You have to shut up your left brain, as my painting teacher Mr. Stan Miller is fond of saying. You have to be willing to sit with uncertainty for most of the book. It’s like closing your eyes and sledding down a hill.

What’s funny is, the whole time I was reading the book, I didn’t see the screaming man on the cover. Suddenly, as I uploaded the photo for this blog: Whap! Fap! OMG, what have I been looking at this whole time? Seems an apt metaphor for living under an insane regime. Any of them.

Controversy: Is Nostalgia a novel, or is it 5 unconnected stories? Cartarescu says it’s a novel. Publisher’s Weekly says it’s a short story collection. Here’s my favorite:

The Roulette Player

Nostalgia starts off in Bucharest with underground Russian roulette played by the wealthy and the bored. They get a bum off the streets and offer him an astronomical amount of money if he will put a pistol to his temple and pull the trigger. The gun has one bullet in its six chambers–five chances to live.

Then one vagabond, “The Roulette Player,” changes everything.

“During a period of two years, the Roulette player lifted the pistol to his temple eight times in various cellars throughout the filthy labyrinths underneath the foundation of our city. Each time, I was told–and later saw it for myself–on his tormented face almost without a forehead, an overwhelming terror etched itself; an animal fear that you couldn’t bear to witness. It seemed as though this very fear cajoled fate and helped him escape. His emotional tension reached a peak when, tightening his eyelids and smirking, he abruptly pulled the trigger.

“You heard the slight click, after which his frame with its heavy bones crashed softly to the floor; he lost consciousness, but was unharmed.”

The city’s elite are in the Roulette Player’s hands. He owns the game. He calls the shots. (Ha ha.) He is the wealthiest one there, yet he keeps gambling with his life. A world champion at survival, yet constantly increase the odds against himself. Why? (I think I caught some historical irony there.)

To Dream Enormously In Demented Colors…

The other stories: I won’t recap because we’d be here all night.

The narrators are children or teens, so the POV is limited. Floating in the memory fog are half-understood conversations and events, plus partial memories that may or may not have happened. (I am not fond of the male coming-of-age genre with its creepy sex obsession–didn’t care for it here either.)

But the boy who snuck into his sister’s closet was interesting: In Cartarescu’s sharp, elegant prose you could feel both the joy and pain of the cross-dressing compulsion.

And who hasn’t been obsessed, at times, with a lost first love? Creepy and curious.


I take strong exception to the Publisher’s Weekly note that “the self-conscious postmodernism of this collection may prove off-putting for American readers accustomed to conventions of realist fiction.” (Excuse me, I’ve taken 2 college courses on Postmoderism. I think Americans have some idea about it.) And I have a feeling that once I’ve digested the prose, and spent time away, I will be reading the stories again.

All told, Nostalgia was a great entry point for me to go and discover more Romanian writers. With a little help from my friends!

*PS: I know the ” at the beginning of the blog is displaying incorrectly. It does drive me crazy but it’s late, I’m tired, and I’m going to bed. Lol

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