Mircea Cartarescu – Why We Love Women (De ce iubim femeile)

Mircea Cartarescu’s book is a collection of personal essays on women. I’m not sure why I picked it up; maybe it was the idea that soon enough I would be far away from Romanian literature (the odds of finding anything in this language in Bangkok are pretty slim) so I’d better take advantage of the time I had left and the books available. Strangely enough, a few days after finishing the book I found out about Romanian Writers Challenge hosted by Snow Feathers and thought this was too much of a coincidence. Hence the review.
I really liked this book up to the last story. That one robbed it of a 5 star rating. But bear with me, we’ll get there.

Mircea Cartarescu

Mircea Cartarescu

Twenty-one short essays about women – women who were unforgettable for different reason, some, because of their beauty, others because of what they did (or didn’t do), or the way they came back into the author’s life after a long time. Stories of lust, love, eroticism, betrayal, tragedy, all plucked from the folds of memory, dusted and printed on the page, ready to be smiled upon, frowned upon and even shed a tear upon. I smiled reading about Carturescu’s self-professed awkwardness and I can very well imagine the strange, thin youth who used to go around quoting favorite authors to the dismay of acquaintances and girls in particular. I kept smiling when he talked about finding a room filled with old books in a dilapidated building, and spending hours of pleasure immersed in reading, sealed away from the world until one day the room along with its treasure was gone.

It’s hard to describe with accuracy the tone of some of the stories. Imbued with the air of a long gone era – some of them take place during the communist regime that ended in 1989 – I found myself laughing at some of the expressions I found nearly impossible to translate. I wonder what the English translation of this book is like. Although Cartarescu is older than I am (he was born in 1956 and is still living), he talks about a Bucharest that doesn’t seem that old – a dilapidated house, a subway station, the gray apartment buildings rising tall and ugly (they’re still there), a black and white photograph (my parents still have those, where people look like ghosts printed on hard pieces of paper with jagged border all around), a big market that still exists where Gypsies are on the prowl for wallets belonging to inattentive customers. This is probably the main reason why I felt such a connection with these stories – he writes about the familiar, things and people I can readily imagine and accept because at some point I’ve seen/met them.

There are some stories that are not that personal – Zaraza is one of them. This is one of my favorites because it’s a tale of a love story so intense and dramatic I couldn’t help but be moved and immensely saddened by it. According to the author, this is a true story that happened in 1944 when Bucharest was caught in the grip of war and the nightlife was luxurious, loud and tumultuous. Two famous singers vied for public attention, Cristian Vasile si Zavaidoc. They were rivals and both under the protection of local gangs. Because they were so popular nobody would touch them, although Zavaidoc wished his rival’s death and even asked a local gangster to kill him. But the man liked Cristian Vasile’s music and refused to kill him. He killed his lover instead, the famous Gypsy woman Zaraza. Her death was the end of Cristian Vasile’s life as a singer. After she was cremated, he stole her ashes and ate them one spoon at a time, then tried to kill himself by drinking a toxic substance. He survived, lost his voice and kept on living, a broken man who made his living as a stagehand in a theatre, nearly voiceless and forgotten.
Probably his most famous song which bears the name of his beloved has survived and you can listen to it here:

The last essay in the book is an ode to women everywhere. Carturescu sees women as candid beings, sensual, sometimes difficult to understand but always great to be loved. He also shows a somewhat archaic understanding of women by claiming they don’t do things I’m sure most of them are familiar with. Here’s a 5 minute YouTube reading of that last essay. I found minute 4.20 particularly funny.

I enjoyed these stories/essays. They kept me alert, the writing is smooth and lyrical and sensual, with a pinch of the bizarre, and Cartarescu’s flair for the dramatic stands out. This is certainly a great book and one I recommend. You can find the English translation by following this link.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in February-March 2016

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13 Responses to Mircea Cartarescu – Why We Love Women (De ce iubim femeile)

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    I find musings that relate to gender very interesting. Even if one does not agree, as you pointed out regarding some outdated ideas here, I think that the ideas and stereotypes themselves are often fascinating. Just knowing what people think about these subjects seems a useful way to spend time reading.

    Great review as always.

    • Delia says:

      I agree, this kind of writing is always interesting and entertaining. As usual, nobody understands the other gender completely (even we don’t understand ourselves sometimes so no big surprise here) but I find it always fascinating to see how men perceive women. I recently read a Romanian book called, “Men come from Mars, Women come from the beauty parlor” (my translation). That was quite funny even if a bit exaggerated.

  2. Athira says:

    What Brian said. I love to read musings on gender even if I don’t always agree with them. This one sounds particularly fascinating. I don’t know if the book is available here but I will look for it.

    • Delia says:

      That’s always the thing, isn’t it? Understanding up to a point, that is.
      Maybe you can find the book on Amazon. It would be great to see what you make of it.

  3. Bina says:

    That book sounds fascinating, Delia! I hadn’t heard of the author so I’m glad you posted your thoughts! Often I’m luckily that lots of books are translated into German, I’ll have to see about this one!

    • Delia says:

      A German translation! That sounds interesting. If you do read it please let me know. I’d love to know your thoughts.
      Mircea Cartarescu is quite a famous writer in Romania and he has a lot of fans. I remember going to a book event last year and he’d just released a new book, Solenoid, (and a chunky one at 840 pages) but I had other authors I wanted to see so I just passed by. His name, however, stuck in my head and I decided to start small. Why We Love Women was the perfect size. 🙂

  4. Sounds like a fascinating read, Delia. Thank you for this extensive review. I enjoy the Youtube links too. Thank you. 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Deepika,
      I’m glad you enjoyed them. I like it when people do readings on YouTube, at least you can listen to/read a part of the book and get an idea of what is like before deciding if you want to buy it or not.

  5. Bellezza says:

    I love this review, and plan on reading for the challenge myself. Ally always has such good ideas for challenges! She suggested this author to me, and now I look forward to reading him as well. He was born in 56, you say, and I was born in 61, so I should be able to relate to him well. And no, it doesn’t seem like those days in Hungary were so very long ago.

  6. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, Delia. I can’t believe that I missed it when you posted it. I haven’t heard of Miracles Cartarescu before and so this is a wonderful new discovery for me. Thank you. I loved the Cristian Vasile song. Romanian sounds a little bit like Russian. I also loved the second video in which the author reads from the book. Glad to know that there is an English translation of the book. I would love to read it.

    • Delia says:

      Mircea Cartarescu is quite famous in Romania. I enjoyed this book – his writing can be poetic at times – and I look forward to read more of his books in the future. I don’t know anybody who has read a Romanian book I have read so if you do give this one a chance, let me know. 🙂

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