Michal Ajvaz's The Golden Age: An Interview
Last year, I put Michal Ajvaz's The Other City on Amazon's top 10 list for SF/Fantasy and wrote about it for Omnivoracious, saying in part, "There's a tension in the novel 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."
Now Ajvaz is back with The Golden Age, about a modern-day Gulliver's encounter with a civilization on a tiny island in the Atlantic. At the center of the islanders' culture is the Book, a handwritten, collective novel "filled with feuding royal families, murderous sorcerers, and narrow escapes." Because anyone can write in it and annotate it and cross passages out, the Book has lost most of the linear tendencies that rule the pages of normal (but mere) books. The result is a text of stories within stories and a destabilization of narrative that's as playful as it is fascinating.
I recently interviewed Ajvaz via email to talk about his writing and his latest novel. If you'd like a sample of his fiction, check out his wonderful story "The End of the Garden" online. For analysis of his work, try this essay.
Michal Ajvaz: I began to write poetry and prose when I was fifteen, but I haven´t written fiction all that time, there were also long periods when I was interested in other things (i.e. mainly in a philosophy). In spite of this I didn´t published any book untill 1989, when I was forty. I was writing imaginative, surreal prose, and this type of literature was, in Czechoslovakia at the time before Velvet Revolution, not allowed to be published, so I wrote only for the drawers of my writing table. It made no sense to send my texts to any magazine or to any publishing house, so I didn´t try it. My first published book was a collection of grotesque poems; since that time I have published a book of short stories, four novels, two novellas in one volume, a book on Borges, essays, philosophical studies, a translation from German (On the Cliffs of Marble by Ernst Jünger), a book on the theory of dreams that I wrote with Ivan Havel (Czech philosopher, brother of Vaclav Havel).
Amazon.com: What did you read growing up, and who do you consider some of your influences?
Michal Ajvaz: In my childhood I read books that children in that age were commonly reading: adventure and mystery stories, narratives about voyages to distant countries…This childhood reading has had great influence on my own writing: all my books are written on the basis of adventure or mystery stories from my childhood... So I can say the literature I was reading in my childhood is the first part of my literary influences. The second part is imaginative fiction: Hoffmann, Poe, Lautréamont, Carroll, Kafka, Borges, Jünger, Calvino, Gracq, Mandiargues… The third part is something I would name “a literature of intense seeing“ – Rilke, Conrad, Proust, Nabokov… (That maybe bears relation to the fact that as a child I wanted to be a painter.) And the fourth part is detective and spy stories, thrillers, science-fiction (Fantomas-books, Chandler, Fleming, Gibson and others...). The influence of that last group on my writing is increasing – my two last novels (Empty Streets and Voyage to the South) are a sort of a detective story with elements of sci-fi and thriller. I like authors from different genres, and I like mixing distant genres in my own writing as well.
Amazon.com: How would you describe your work? To me, it has dream-like qualities, elements of absurdism and surrealism, but also a sharp edge that keeps it from becoming too familiar.
Michal Ajvaz: Of course surrealism was of great influence on me. Critics often speak in connection with my work about “magical realism“, but I don´t like this label too much, I don´t think I have much common with authors like Marquez. But is it important to have any label? Let´s say my books are a sort of an imaginative, quasi-surrealist literature which is often searching for mystery and magic in things and spaces of everyday life, whose stories take place mainly in cities, which is trying to be attentive to the visual aspect of the world, and which is often using elements of thriller, detective story and science-fiction.
Amazon.com: Do you have any sense of how difficult or easy it is for your English translators?
Michal Ajvaz: This question should rather be put to the translators. As for me I have always tried – in spite of complicated and “surreal“ images and stories – to write in a sort of “classical“ language, in clear sentences which don´t miss inner logic, even if their content is absurd and even if they are often uncommonly long, so maybe this way of writing could be for a translator´s work a bit helpful.
Amazon.com: Do you write full-time?
Michal Ajvaz: No, I don´t. Before 1989 I worked, after finishing the university, in several manual professions (most of that time I worked in a caravan which was placed in different places in the country, where I measured the amount of underground water). Even now it is not possible to earn enough money by writing for me and my family. After the revolution, I worked some time in an editorial staff of a literary magazine, and now I am working in the Center for Theoretical Study of Charles University and the Academy of Sciences as a research worker in the area of philosophy.
Amazon.com: The Golden Age seems to be both an adventure of a kind and a satire and an exploration of what happens when different groups of people come into contact. What effect were you going for?
Michal Ajvaz: I didn´t want to write an utopia or dystopia in the style of Swift, Huxley or Čapek, a book that should have been a hidden criticism of our society. To tell the truth, I had no particular idea when I was writing the book, I only let the images develop and I recorded them. (It is my usual way of writing, I don´t want to give to my books any definite meaning.) But when I reflect on the book I wrote, I think that it most likely wants to show that the way we see the world, the way we relate to it, and the way we classify and hierarchize the reality are not the only possible ones, and that consequently our reality is not as self-evident as we realize and has a treat of weirdness – and of magic as well – in itself. And the book maybe also wants to say that there is a special relation between nothingness and emptiness on the one hand (which is a topic of the first part of the novel) and proliferation and interweaving of images, persons, and stories on the other hand (which creates a content of the second part): stories are born of the initial emptiness rather than of ideas.
Amazon.com: Your previous book in the US was The Other City.How was the US reaction, and how readers perceived the book, different from the reaction when it was published in the Czech Republic?
Michal Ajvaz: I have looked now and again at the Web, and it seemed to me that people who were interested in my book were mainly fans of non-orthodox sci-fi (above all of the New Weird). And I have to confess I feel in this company very good, much better than I would feel somewhere in the middle of the literary mainstream. Of course, neither The Other City nor any other of my books is science-fiction in the literal sense, but I feel the affinity for the New Weird, because of its mixing of genres, because of its interest in the mystery of the city – and also because of my liking for Lovecraft who is, if I comprehend it correctly, the “magnus parens“ of the New Weird. By chance at the time when The Other City was published, Miéville´s The City and The City appeared, and the two books were compared, because in spite of many differences their main theme was probably the same: a non-visibility of something that is present, that is close to us. (By the way, I liked Miéville´s book very much and I wrote a review of it for Czech magazine Respekt, in which I compared it to other books dealing with the topic of a borderline, e.g. Kafka´s The Castle and Gracq´s The Opposing Shore.)
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on, and what can we expect to see in English translation in the future?
Michal Ajvaz: At this time I am not working on fiction, I am writing a book on philosophy. But there are several my books of fiction that haven´t been translated into English yet, and it depends on publishers if they decide to publish any of them.