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Dublin Literary Award 2024 winner Mircea Cărtărescu: ‘It’s one of the greatest prizes I’ve ever won’

Romanian author and his translator Sean Cotter on significance of receiving world’s biggest prize for single work of fiction published in English

“It’s one of the greatest prizes I’ve ever won. I feel very grateful for being chosen, and for being still in the game.” I’m speaking to the Romanian novelist Mircea Cǎrtǎrescu – his first name is pronounced Meer-cha – this year’s winner of the Dublin Literary Award, for his novel Solenoid.

And because the book is a translation, the innovative structure of the award means that the prize money of €100,000 – which makes it the biggest award in the world for a single work of fiction published in English – is split 75/25 between Cǎrtǎrescu and his English-language translator, Sean Cotter, who joins our conversation.

Solenoid is a long and unusual book: in the award’s history, you probably need to go back to 2003, when My Name Is Red, by the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, won, to find a comparably strange, knotty and epic winner. “It’s a big and complex novel,” says Cǎrtǎrescu, “a sort of metaphysical novel talking about the continuous problem of evil in the world.”

If this doesn’t sound especially appetising, remember that the theme is not the story. The ideas are contained within what the 67-year-old calls “a realistic scaffolding. Everything takes place in a high school on the outskirts of Bucharest, where my main character is a high-school teacher who wants to have a literary career.” Indeed, the narrator in some ways echoes the author’s own life before diverging from it. Cǎrtǎrescu came to fame as a cool young literary gunslinger in the 1980s and 1990s, as Romania was transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. His novel Nostalgia was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2021.


His narrator in Solenoid, however, doesn’t follow this path. “He’s not allowed to have this [literary] career, and because of that he develops a sort of paranoia, and becomes a visionary writer. So it’s a very complex dance around this topic.” Indeed, the book spirals out from the narrator examining his navel in the bath to the outside world, from giant solenoids – electromagnetic coils – concealed around Bucharest to the 15th-century Voynich manuscript, and to real people alongside invented ones. It even stretches out to other universes.

This is not a book that lacks ambition, then. Does the finished novel match Cǎrtǎrescu’s original vision for it? Yes, he says. “It follows my vision up to the minute details. I say this because of the way I write, which is peculiar to my style. I write by hand all the time, [and] I never edit anything. So it’s a process of continuous inspiration. I prefer to surprise myself on every page, because otherwise where would be the pleasure to write? So I love not knowing what I’m going to write each day.”

Given the eccentricity of the novel’s content and composition, it might be surprising that Solenoid has become such a hit since it was published in English, in late 2022. Last year, even before it was longlisted for the Dublin City Council-sponsored award, I saw people raving about it and proselytising on its virtues on social media. People didn’t just like it – they loved it. “It’s been great,” says Cotter. “I’ve been amazed by the reception it’s had, from people all over the English-speaking world.”

And is Cǎrtǎrescu also amazed by its success in English? “Not really,” he says. “I think people need complicated books, really Joycean books. It’s a tradition that will never die, because not everyone prefers consumer books or popular books.” He adds that he was particularly pleased by its success in the United States – “my publisher was very happy with the number of copies he sold” – because “I teach American literature. I taught American postmodernism in Berlin, Vienna and so on. Thomas Pynchon is one of my heroes. So I’m pleased that the American public, and of course the Irish and the public in Great Britain, seem to like it.”

I wonder how a translator goes about approaching such an unusual novel. Cotter had previously translated the first part of Cǎrtǎrescu’s 1,500-page trilogy Blinding – “a good warm-up!” he says. It wasn’t the complexity that was a problem but the fact that “I identified too much with the protagonist. He’s a teacher in a school in Bucharest, and I spent two years teaching in a school in Bucharest. When I was translating the book [and] describing the school, my basis was always the hallways I worked in, the feel of the felt on the table in the teachers’ lounge.

“And I think this is characteristic of the position of the translator. We’re always stuck between [our] experience of the world and the reader, who’s reading you precisely because they don’t read Romanian and probably have’t been to Romania.” The other issue is that, “unlike Mircea, I do many drafts. He gets off easy, right? He only has to write it once. I have to write it four or five times.”

The quality of the translation is important to Cǎrtǎrescu because “for me the phrase is the most important” element of the novel. “Not the plot, not the story, not the characters. I love to make nice, beautiful, flexible phrases. I like to keep them in front of my eyes, like a caterpillar, and see how it moves its legs. Any phrase of mine should be alive.”

‘I think I would have been nothing without the public library in my neighbourhood when I was an adolescent’

—  Mircea Cărtărescu

And the process is slow. “Writing by hand helps a lot. I like to wait a bit and turn the page, and think, What will be really interesting for a reader? I wouldn’t make long descriptions, because I know that the reader doesn’t like it. I wouldn’t write about love triangles or other boring things. I would like to write about something striking. Something the reader would enjoy – in terror or in bliss.”

Terror and bliss certainly appear in Solenoid. But the book – capacious, daring, wild – is also regularly entertaining and even funny. Is this important to him? “No doubt about it,” Cǎrtǎrescu says. “I think any book should be entertaining in one way or another. There’s a legend that Cervantes laughed when he wrote some pages [of Don Quixote] and cried when he wrote others. I think it’s important that a book should please the reader – but not in a sweet way: in a tough way. Kafka said a book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Has the Dublin Literary Award’s sharing of its prize between author and translator – an innovation now adopted by the International Booker Prize too – helped elevate the respect accorded to translators? “There’s been increased recognition,” Cotter says. “It’s truly remarkable. It’s really important to me that I’ve won this prize, riding on Mircea’s coat-tails. It’s a very big thing.”

“It’s important that we have translations,” he says. “They disturb the homogeneity of literature that otherwise [tends] towards greater and greater similarity. There’s a kind of convergence that is healthfully disrupted by literatures from outside that system.”

Cǎrtǎrescu has already referred to Pynchon, Cervantes and Kafka – and there’s a long sequence in Solenoid, set in a sanatorium, that reminds me of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. What were his reading influences growing up?

“I think I would have been nothing without the public library in my neighbourhood when I was an adolescent,” he says. “It was a very small one. I described it in Solenoid. Only four walls full of books, but over two or three years I read them all. Masterpieces from all the cultures: Dostoevsky, Mishima, Joyce. Although Romania was in a dictatorship, there were very good programmes for translations. That was the paradox of that period [under Ceausescu]: we could read good literature.”

Given his name, I’m bound to ask Cotter, who is based in Texas, if he has some Irish blood. “Just a wee bit,” he says. “My family is Irish on my dad’s side.” He has been to their homeplace of Cork before.

The award ceremony is also not the only time Cǎrtǎrescu has visited. “I’ve been in Ireland several times before and loved it. I’ve been a fellow at [the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in] Annaghmakerrig, about 20 years ago, and I met a lot of Irish writers. So I feel kind of at home in Ireland and Dublin.”

And given that the award will gain his book many new readers, what is Cǎrtǎrescu hoping they will get from it? “Solenoid is the breakthrough I always wanted in all the cultures and languages [where] it’s been translated. So it’s my own personal icebreaker.” It is a way for readers to get to know him, in other words. But, he concludes, “the end is not near! My literary adventure continues.”

Solenoid is published by Deep Vellum. Copies are available to borrow from Dublin libraries and from public libraries throughout Ireland, as well as in ebook format from Irish libraries’ BorrowBox service