Mircea Cartarescu

'European unity is vital now'

The Romanian writer and intellectual was in Barcelona last month to give a talk at the CCCB on the fate of Europe

You recently came to Barcelona to launch the series of speeches, Vella Europa, noves utopies, organised by the CCCB. What did you think of the city?
If I am ever forced to go into exile – which is not at all ruled out given the way things are evolving in Romania at the moment – Barcelona will be one of my first options. I truly love this bright Mediterranean city, blessed by the genius of Gaudí. I really like Catalans; I feel close to them in terms of possessing a similar formula of soul, and I sympathise with their ideals.
Populism is now a common trend in many countries in Europe. How do you explain this movement? Is a united Europe better equipped to fight populism and extremism?
Populism is the ugly face of democracy. It represents the dictatorship of the majority, who have little problem in wiping their feet on minorities. Populism is always brutal and aggressive, reactionary and against civilisation. Only a liberal, humanistic, educated entity based on human rights can hope to fight against this political monster. The European Union is such a free entity, and has very clear values. The unity of the EU is essential in these times of confusion and historical regression. Since the Second World War, democracy has never been in greater danger.
What do you think about Brexit?
It was a big mistake. British citizens did not really want Brexit, but they were manipulated and lied to in order to get a Yes vote. Most of them regret the step taken by their country and, if it were possible, they would no doubt go back to Europe. The loss of Great Britain is a catastrophe for a united Europe: it is as if a plane were to lose one of its engines while flying.
In your talk, you described your personal Europe. Can you give more details about this idea?
I've always been a fervent pro-European. My Europe is one built on an enormous cultural, philosophical and scientific heritage. The Judaic-Greek tradition dating back 3,000 years is its spine. Descartes is the archetype of the European spirit. His famous quote starts with the word “dubito”, which is the most European word possible, in my opinion. The spirit of doubt, which leads to rational thinking, is the best thing that Europe has. This is my ideal Europe: a place of humanism, centred around education and culture.
Why do you think the European identity is so vital?
Because it represents the adhesion to a set of values that are much higher than local and national ones. It also steers clear of provincialism and provides a recipe for survival in a world in which there are no longer any certainties.
You also referred to the East-West, North-South divide. Where do you feel you belong as a writer?
I don't like divisions. They belong to a schizophrenia of thinking. The Berlin Wall was the main symbol of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. I dream of a Europe without frontiers, I am also aware that we still have a long way to go until we can hope to achieve this dream. European countries are not just simple squares on a map, but they have a bloody and traumatic past. The United States of Europe seems something of a utopia right now.
Some of your books have been translated into Catalan and Spanish. How do you feel that they have been received by readers here?
I am very pleased that some of my books have already been translated into the two languages, and even in a third in Spanish territory, Basque. Over the next few years, my essential books will be published here as well. Fortunately, they have been excellently received and their influence is growing. Their echo has even reached South America. An explanation may be that Romanian is part of the same group of Romance languages as Catalan and Spanish. There is a common spirit here, a tendency towards fantasy and dreaming in literature, which readers can find in my writing.
You've been nominated for the Nobel prize several times. How do you feel about it?
There aren't any official candidates for the Nobel prizes, just speculation. I am a stoic, and so I am not worried about what I cannot influence. I do not expect any good things; I haven't really had many of them in this life so far. On the other hand, there are people in my country who do everything they can to prevent me from getting this award, which makes more sense to them than to me. A Nobel prizewinner would have a much stronger voice in the fight in our country against populism and brutality, and there are many who are afraid of this.
How would you describe yourself as a writer and a poet? Do you agree when critics describe you as a postmodern writer?
On the contrary, it annoys and bores me to be considered post-modern, or anything else for that matter. All this categorising is again just putting up schizoid walls, which lead to misunderstandings. I am an author who writes with all of his strength, all of his organs, and I feel it is ridiculous to be labelled and dissected on the surgery table of literary critics. I don't write for the critics, but for those who genuinely read me, trying to find themselves in my books. I write about people and about literature at the same time, about the human condition and the condition of the writer in the endless and incomprehensible universe that is our home. I try to transmit the “fear and trembling” as Kirkegaard called it, which is our fate on Earth, but also the drop of hope that changes everything.
You are a big fan of new technology. How do you think it has influenced writers and readers, and how will it affect the writing and reading habits of the new generations?
Even with the new generations, readers will have a big advantage to those who don't read any more. Reading is more complex and creative than any other human activity. When you are a cultivated person, in the classic sense of the word, from all points of view, you are cooler, more visible in the world, more capable of giving off light. The format on which the reading takes place doesn't matter so much – I read quite a lot on the e–reader now myself, and I don't feel any difference to reading on paper. The important thing is, while you read, that everything disappears around you, and when you go to sleep, you suddenly find yourself completely immersed in a bright new world.

Fantasy and imagination

Mircea Cartarescu (Bucharest, 1956) is one of the most relevant Romanian writers, poets and essayists of his generation. He has received some of the most prestigious European literary awards, including the Gregor von Rezzori prize in Italy, and the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding. He has also been a candidate for the Nobel prize for literature on a number of occasions. His work, which is filled with fantasy and imagination, includes such works as Nostalgia, Levantul (The Levant), De ce iubim femeile (Why We Love Women) and Frumoasele straine (Beautiful Strangers), among others. His work has been translated into a number of different languages, including English, French, Catalan and Spanish. His trilogy Orbitor (Blinding), which comprises Aripa stânga (The Left Wing), Corpul (The Body) and Aripa dreapta (The Right Wing), is considered his masterpiece. Cartarescu was invited to Barcelona last month to lecture on Europe at the CCCB.

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