By Daniel Deleanu
Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nu striga niciodată ajutor (Never Cry Out for Help, Bucharest: Humanitas Press, 2020) seems to be the poet’s strangest book so far because it ostensibly tangles the reader, right from the start, in a mesh of desperation counterpointed by an acousmatic falsetto of hyperbolized sighs and exhalations. The reader is thus pushed into a bizarre topos with a murky setting and menacingly fraught sceneries. The dejection and depression sung by the poet, with the help of countless interjections, in his verses are, however, full of causticness, and thereby deceptive, because otherwise the poems would be at risk of becoming queasy and their tension might thus thwart. Cărtărescu’s poems are subsequently neither grotesque nor naïve in any sense. These poems are no longer characterized by the ludic air of the poems in a book like Headlights, Shop Windows, Photographs nor by the light-toned irony and jocular parody that could be found in such poetry volumes as Everything, Love or The Levant. Contrary to the title of the volume, which, evidently, contains a trace of antinomian self-mockery, these poems are in fact a desperate cry for help, whose tragic existential intensity is only comparable to that expressed by Munch in his famous Expressionistic painting The Scream, and that is because in these texts the poet confesses, abruptly and unequivocally, his angst in front of death. It is no surprise then that the Thanatic dimension of these poems predominates over all the themes and motifs present in this book, and it is even less surprising that the obsession with death leaves an ineluctable mark on the reader through its dark atmosphere, which makes these texts look more modernist than postmodernist.
The chthonic aura that surrounds the poems collected in this volume may be thus likened to an irrational battle for survival in an alienated world which the poet eventually finds, like so many of his fellow poets and artists before him, utterly meaningless and absurd: “never cry out for help/no one will hear you/since there’s no one around/anyway//swallow up your cry/suffer well/endure it all/…/don’t cry out for help/or else you’ll be wasting your time/don’t expect anything from anyone/especially from yourself//don’t believe in miracles/the only miracle is that you’re still breathing” (“never cry out for help”). As one can infer from lines like those quoted above, there are no visionary apertures here, and the feelings are left to stew and rot in a body whose depiction is Expressionistic in nature, reminding the reader of the poetry of Trakl or Benn. The agoraphobic shortness of the sentences leaves more than half of the pages of the book blank, and this summons a psychological emptiness circumscribed by grief and surrounded by a Freudian death drive with its own existential menaces. The effect is often that of reading a mistranslation of the real, one whose source text may be very different to the version presented here by the poet. This is not necessarily a book one enjoys reading, but once this person has read it, they will find it fascinating. The sparseness of the poetic texts, which makes one think of Roland Barthes’ Le Degré zéro de l’écriture (Writing Degree Zero), concurs with the theology of the bleakness created by Cărtărescu, who futilely grasps for some kind of redemption, which is repeatedly rebuffed: “i no longer hope/i no longer have faith/i’m no longer willing// i’m no longer willing/ i’m no longer willing/open your fist/and let me run away//or rather squeeze your fist tight/let’s finish it all//i’m no longer willing/i’m no longer willing//i no longer hope/i no longer have faith//with a tremendous strike/smash my skull/in which i cowered/in terror because of you//unmerciful fist//i no longer hope/i’m no longer willing/i no longer have faith//i’m no longer able to” (“i no longer hope”). Life itself can barely go on since it no longer has a meaning other than its own senseless self and subsequently the idea of suicide is contemplated within the framework of a nightmarish scenario that appears to be a cut-out from a Cioran book: “i often imagine/how good it would’ve been/if we had guns here too/as they do in other countries//oh, yes, if i had a pistol, I’d use it/i wouldn’t hesitate/to put a bullet in my head/to blow my brains out//what’s the point in living your life/like this?//when you feel that your whole body/is oversized, heavy, full of water/so nauseating/so unworthy of love/even of your own love/of anyone’s love in fact//when you look in the mirror/and all you can see is the wall/behind you/and you’re nowhere to be found//when you want to love and suddenly remember/that the time for love/has already passed” (“i often imagine”). The nightmare does not stop here though, nor its effects abate, for Cărtărescu’s sighs and exhalations transform into panicked groans and contrite howls: “a panic attack/that’s what my life has been/the dread of looking/at a knife//oh, i can no longer go on!/i simply can’t!//forgive me!/forgive me!” (“a panic attack”).
That Cărtărescu’s metaphysics of the void is for him something different from, and perhaps more than, mere poetic sentiments, can hardly be denied. That he holds an ars poetica enrooted in an existential philosophy is obvious to anyone who regards his oeuvre as a whole. But his poems, and especially those gathered in this volume, are not a cheap intoxication of metaphysics and poetic sentiment, as one can see in the works of other poets, whose verses are characterized by a syrupy elation. For Cărtărescu, poetry, alas, no longer has a proper place and function, and especially it no longer is a Cathartic anodyne based on reflective thought: “how many thoughts and images/does one assemble together in a lifetime?/quite enough to weep/in your future lives//how many nights/how many days/how many centuries/how many leaves/how many blades of grass//i switch the tv on/to watch nothing/i do a lot of thinking/to understand nothing//the blind cat comes gently to me/and jumps on my lap/i stroke her/there’s so much relief/in having a companion/to listen to the rain with” (“how many raindrops”). Love yields to the poet an anamnestic exposition of the desolation of existence and its bleak nature of things. And, to express this, the poet employs a Neo-Anacreontic discourse, only that the gods who lord it over the amorous dominions are no longer Bacchus and Aphrodite, but Eros and Thanatos: “i was loved quite a lot/for a while/then i was dumped//i have no idea why she loved me/i have no idea/why she dumped me//when she came into my life/she brightened my existence/when she left/she broke my neck/ever since i’ve been living/with my neck broken/but i’m not complaining//after all, people live/as they/can” (“i was loved quite a lot”).
Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nu striga niciodată ajutor (Never Cry Out for Help) is the book of a poet who has discovered, even without knowing it, truth in poetry. For old age, bodily decay and death have been discovered by him, just as Prince Gautama Siddhartha in the olden days, by getting out of his palatial comfort zone provided by the ludic and oftentimes even puny themes that characterize postmodernist poetry. Cărtărescu has proven, first and foremost to himself, that poetry truly can gain a teleological dimension, at least as long as its aim is to defeat its own purpose, whatever that purpose may be.
About the author:
Daniel Deleanu is a Romanian-Canadian writer and academic who sways between Toronto and his native town of Sibiu.
He has published articles, reviews and critical studies in cultural journals and academic journals from Romania and abroad (USA, Canada and Great Britain).
He has also published more than 1,300 academic books (critical studies of universal and comparative literature, studies of philosophy of literature, theory of literature, etc.) in English language, most of them in Canada.