Mircea Cărtărescu – Clockwork Animals
The menace of artificiality hides within Mircea Cărtărescu's Clockwork Animals. The story begins pleasantly enough, with the narrator – whom for the sake of ease we shall conflate with Cărtărescu himself – relating his memories of childhood, and particularly those memories concerning toys and the receiving of gifts. Cărtărescu begins by saturating us in the ordinary and the commonplace – for what is more comforting than the slightly folksy recollections of the endless days of childhood?
But soon things change. Cărtărescu's narrator begins to list the toys he longed for as a child, remembering each time to provide the materials with which they were constructed (tin, mostly, but cloth, too, and gears, and paint). The joined-together nature of these toys is what fascinates, and soon the child is smashing up his toys, viciously separating the cogs, wheels, plates, joints and springs. What's inside?
I'd reached the essence of the thing. There was a period when I did that about ten times a year. It thrilled me every time I held that complex, wondrous object in my tiny five-year-old hands. It was the object which explained movement. It was the primum mobile of that pitiful hen.
It is this essence which frustrates the child, for the essence of a thing exists when it is complete, healthy and active, and disappears once its parts have been separated from the whole. The mechanicality of a moving toy is similar to the soul of a person – something invisible, intangible, impossible to locate yet inseparable to the summation of self.
Red with anger, I'd hammer chaotically at the parts, all the time hoping that the frame that held them in place would come apart...Reaching the Mechanism had not been enough. It had to be taken apart down to those indestructible atoms, the final components.
Cărtărescu, of course, learns simply that a toy destroyed is comprised of items which may, should one wish, become toys themselves. Or they may simply be rubbish, and discarded as such. A child at five is beginning to develop an identity separate from their parents in a manner in which they were previously unable. Language, once a barrier, is becoming a pliable tool which may be used to make one understood apart from one's guardians. So, too, with thoughts – a five-year-old is able to keep secrets, create lasting memories, and to operate autonomously, and all this mostly through play. Cărtărescu's child discovers that within the thing – the toy – is both nothing and everything, and that learning the truth of a matter may in fact be what destroys it. He learns that autonomy is linked inextricably to the harmonious functioning of discrete parts, and this infuriates his childish sense of order and rightness.
It's hard not to read a great deal into the play of the narrator. Cărtărescu encourages such interpretation by layering the child's playtime with metaphor, imbuing simple activities with great meaning. We can't help but personify objects, be they toys as children, video game characters as teenager and adults, or our pets, smiley faces in text messages, a figurine, a favourite pillow, a treasured utensil, comb, rock, egg cups, shells. Whatever they may be, we make of them more than they are, and this begins when we are very young. Without this personification objects remain cold, disaffected, and disinterested - or at least, that's how they seem. We want them to want us. Cărtărescu's child recognises this and rebels against it, smashing his toys to discover what's behind the artifice.
And then consider the ending, when the parents have become sick and tired of their child taking apart the toys they scrape and scrimp to purchase:
But there was one particular year when I had been to Tântava, in the country, where I got a flea...that was the only time I didn't take the machinery apart. On that occasion I used it just as it was, scratching my plagued skin with the cool cogs of the gears. I had invented the scratcher.
Clockwork Animals is short, and it's surface – a child of the '60s playing with and destroying his toys to see what makes them tick – is certainly sufficient. Cărtărescu, in only a few short pages, adds more, making of the story a slightly unsettling intellectual awakening of a precocious child determined to reach the essence of a thing, even if that means it 'dies' in the process. Clockwork Animals is a strong, well-told story that holds up under careful scrutiny and several rereads.
Clockwork Animals by Mircea Cărtărescu is a short story from Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania.
From Pururi tânâr, înfâşurat în pixeli (Forever Young and Swaddled in Pixels)
||Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania|
Other stories from the Absinthe: New European Writing Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania issue include:
---Agopian, Ştefan - The Art of War
---Bittel, Adriana - Names
---Lungu, Dan - To the Cemetery
---Suceavă, Bogdan - Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?
---Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Chewing Gum
Index of short stories under review
Contemporary Romanian Writers
Plural - Romanian/English Online Magazine
Czech Position - Literalab