Cities Superimposed #1: The Other City by Michal Ajvaz
With China Mieville guestblogging this week in connection with the release of The City & The City, I thought I might focus on a book that nicely co-exists with some of the fantastical concepts set out in Mieville's novel, although very different in texture, intent, and execution.
The Other City by Czech writer Michal Ajvaz repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues. As the jacket copy reads, the novel serves as a kind of "guidebook to this invisible 'other Prague,' overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads." Clearly, the publisher, Dalkey Archive Press, is trying to evoke echoes of Italo Calvino and Jorges Luis Borges. However, The Other City tells a more conventional story than Borges and it is too much Ajvaz's own creation and style to be called "Calvino-esque"--especially since Ajvaz's prose in translation is meatier, less dry in its humor, more generous in its descriptions. A book, naturally, triggers the adventure embarked upon by our nameless narrator, a book that shows that "The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn't run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it."
There's a definite whimsical streak in The Other City, and at first I thought it might overwhelm the stolid foundation of reality needed to make most fantasies work. However, the whimsy becomes encrusted with the absurd and the grotesque until it begins to make the reality look almost ephemeral by comparison. Strange scenes involving bizarre fish and other monstrosities evoke the great Czech filmmaker Svankmajer, with a hint of Dali in their nimbleness.
Then there are overheard conversations, as when the narrator eavesdrops on a surreal discussion between a teacher and a girl, with the teacher bombastically making various claims only for the girl to give this remarkable speach: "The girl moved closer to the teacher. 'Don't fool yourself,' she said harshly. 'The artillery will never return. They will study in a decaying, incredible Oxford of garbage tips. The candied books will be confiscated and, for the glory of shiny and cruel machines, they will be tossed into saurians from the reviewing stand. (Saurians in those days will still parade obediently four abreast, but soon afterwards they will conspire with us little girls and declare aloud what has been hushed up for centuries, namely, that dogs have no objective existence).'" When the teacher protests that he has solved this problem by purging "geometry of polar animals. Are you saying that was all in vain?" the girl replies, "Of course it was all in vain...You purged geometry of polar animals...You've forgotten the first axiom of Euclid states that there will always be one or two penguins in geometrical space?"
And so it goes. There's a tension in The Other City between the fanciful and the baroque, the cleverly odd and the deeply odd, that makes the novel work. It's the kind of book you let wash over you in waves--episodic, funny but not too silly, and marked by a first-class imagination. It deserves a longer review than I've given it here, but full marks to Dalkey Archive Press for introducing readers in English to the talented Michal Ajvaz.
Tomorrow: China's last guest post, and a short piece on Magic Prague, an extremely eccentric book intermingling the fictional and the nonfiction Prague.