Review: The Other City by Michal Ajvaz

"Fantasy is a place where it rains." This is how Italo Calvino begins what would have been one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, with a riff on a line from Dante’s Purgatory. In Michal Ajvaz’s world, fantasy is a place where it snows. Prague in winter is a space of pure possibility. It snows heavily from the very first chapter – the one where our hero and narrator finds a mysterious book on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop. The snow and darkness outside contrast with the coziness of the interior: warm, quiet, smelling pleasantly of old books. But the contrast is deceptive. The books inside are described as if alive: “pages rustled as they were turned, as if the books were sighing in their sleep,” when one book is withdrawn from the shelves the others “draw breath” and fill the space. The snow outside seems to have a life of its own as well; it arranges itself in “snowy chimeras” that hypnotize and entice the narrator. It’s part of what makes him buy a book written in a strange alphabet, part of why he decides to pursue the source of the mysterious script. As he says:
(...) the snow lying everywhere is almost already the beginning of the unreal. It too urges us to leave: we are bound to find in it footprints of chimerical beings, footsteps that will lead us to secret lairs in the depths of the city.
In this novel's world, the decision to buy a strange book is not a minor one. It is a step towards crossing the frontiers of our ordinary, normal, logical lives, and it is described as such from the start:
Like everyone, I had, on many previous occasions, ignored a half-open door leading elsewhere - in the chilly passages of strange houses, in backyards, on the outskirts of towns. 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. We are walking all the time along a shore and along the edge of a virgin forest. Our gestures would seem to rise out of an entity that also encompasses these concealed spaces, and in an odd way they reveal their shadowy existence, although we are unaware of the roar of waves and shrieks of animals - the disquieting accompaniment to our words (and possibly their secret birthplace); we are unaware of the glittering jewels in the unknown world of nooks and crannies; usually we don't stray off the path even once in our lifetime.
What would one find straying off the path? Our narrator finds another city, a city whose life seems to run parallel to Prague's. Some of its inhabitants are citizens of Prague by day, citizens of the other city by night. Others were citizens of Prague until they stepped onto a green marble streetcar one day and left the normal world entirely. They all seem to worship a Christ-like figure, Dargoos, a man killed by a tiger. All this we piece together from the narrator's forays into the other city. He becomes obsessed with getting to the center of the city, with unraveling its mystery. He sneaks into ceremonies, sermons and lectures. They are all incomprehensible, shot through with absurdity. Every piece of discourse from the other city is a plunge into the fantastic, the absurd, the surreal for both the narrator and the novel as a whole.

One – perhaps paradoxical – effect of this strategy is that the surreal aspects are somewhat tamed by mediation. The frame of the book is the real world, from which the narrator gradually separates himself in order to explore the unreal. At first, all the meaningless sentences are confined to quoted discourses from the other world. It's never the narrator who tells you that pianos turned into crabs or that the Great Battle in the Bedrooms was an important historical event; it's always someone from (or connected to) the other city. The narrator's merit is to accept all this with an uncanny lack of surprise or fear, which adds to the strange atmosphere: he is an almost transparent medium through which we can experience this unusual world.

But as the book progresses and the narrator gets more and more immersed into the other city, some of these absurdities become literal reality for him. He gets to experience surrealism in the flesh and he accepts it with the same calm he accepted discourses about it. He has his own battle in the bedrooms, in the sheets of an inexplicably giant bed. The books that seemed to be alive in the first chapters turn into a literal, dangerous jungle, which he decides to brave in order to find the center of the other city. This episode is one of the most visually-striking in a book that is full of inventive and stunning images, from glass statues filled with water and schools of fish, to waves lapping at the carpet in a room, and ships sailing through the snowy streets of Prague.
This rampant life of the library - the rotting and twisting of shelves, the swelling of books, the aggressive burgeoning of plants, the ripening and rotting of fruit, the pervasion of creatures - meant that the bookcases expanded and became bloated with the constant turmoil; the aisles between them became narrower; I was obliged to squeeze through gulches and cut myself a path through overgrown books with the machete. 
This is, then, a book that allows you to sink into its strangeness slowly before it envelops you entirely. But I think that's partly because that strangeness is instrumental. It's never about the images themselves, striking though they are. This is not really a "strange and lovely hymn to Prague," as the blurb describes it. It is a philosophical novel using strangeness to make its point. You are dropped into surrealism gradually, but into philosophical reflection suddenly and from the first pages. That second passage I quoted is a good sample. 

What are the philosophical ideas behind this, then? It's always dangerous to offer the Ultimate Philosophical Interpretation to a piece of literature, but here is one way of looking at it, pieced together from the numerous openly philosophical passages in the novel. A point the narrator makes over and over again, more openly as the book progresses, is how his – and by extension, ours – is a world that lost its meaning, a world "whose events, in which the sap of meaning has dried up, have gradually been changing into a meaningless ritual." At the same time, we are prisoners in this world, because of our incapacity to look beyond it.
(...) we have excised heights from our space just as we have the dark outskirts. What do we know about the mysterious landscapes of facades that sail above our heads like miraculous islands? If a city of gold, with temples and palaces growing on the roofs, who would notice? Maybe a child who has not yet entered the narrow passage of the meaningful, which we stagger along in pursuit of our images, or someone defeated, who has come out of it because his final goal, whose attraction was enhanced by this passage, has collapsed: maybe the person who strolls along without any goal in the glowing new space opened up by the final defeat will suddenly notice that the facades of houses are pages of books on which are written the messages of the departed gods that we vainly sought throughout our lives. 
The narrator, who tells us so little about himself, says in the very first chapter that his "failures of recent years" are what made him less afraid of crossing the frontier. So he is the defeated person, ready to step outside "the narrow passage of the meaningful." But is it really possible to do so? There is a difference between the vague, slightly corny message "There are miracles everywhere, if only we remembered to look." and the possibility of there being a world completely, radically different from our own. The other city is an example of such a world, and it is not without significance that our narrator encounters so many difficulties in getting to the center of this city, in penetrating the mystery. 

Can we ever know a world completely different from our own? Nothing in it would make sense, because nothing in it would follow the rules of our language, which are the structure of our reality. Everything in that world that we managed to understand by our rules, to translate in our terms is just part of our world. The rest, like everything the other citizens say, is nonsense. We cannot, with the tools of our world, grasp a different world. One of the characters says this directly:
Don't concern yourself with weird books that remind you of the frontiers of our world. They can't lead you out of it, they can only eat away at its structure from within. The frontier of our world is a line with only one side. There is no path from the inside out, nor can there be.
That's basically early Wittgenstein. But of course the narrator ignores this advice. What he hopes to find is that his city and the other city, his language and the other language, have a common origin. His quest for the center of the other city is actually a quest for a new center for his own world. He is after something that would transcend his world and return meaning to it. And what he is told, again and again, is that he has to forget about the center. One character tells him that "by searching for the center you move further away from it," because the center is everywhere.  Another agrees with him that the other city is the secret center of this world, but tells him that the other city also has a center, and that center also has a center. It's centers all the way down, and one cannot hope to ever get to the final center. Finally, at the end of his journey through the library-jungle, the narrator is told by yet another character that there is no final center to get at:
It is not all a question of the center being remote and mediated in too complicated a fashion, nor of the original law being irreparably distorted by countless translations of translations like a game of Chinese whispers, nor yet of the god's face being hidden behind thousands of masks. The curious secret is that there exists no final center, that no face is hidden behind the masks, there is no original word in the game of whispers, no originals of the translations. (...) All cities are mutually the center and periphery, beginning and end, capital and colony of each other.
All of these are perspectives of individual characters. None of them are The Truth. But what the narrator does in the final chapter seems to follow the implications of that last quote. He accepts the idea that his attempt to impose meaning on the other city was what kept him forever on its margins. He was carrying his own world with him and it is only by giving it up, by giving up meaning, by giving up goals, that he can reach it. (Though, of course, once he gives up having a goal, he may reach the city or not, it doesn't matter anymore.) There are no more shapes or attempts at meaning projected by him mind onto the surrounding world. No more footprints of chimerical beings. No more of this book, which belongs to this world and stops at its frontiers. His final journey to the other city is over "untrodden white snow."

The Bottom Line 

Should you read this book? Yes, but do it twice. The least you'll get out of it is an encounter with two fascinating cities. The glimpses we get of Prague make it sound quite lovely in its own right, and the superimposed world of the other city is delightful and unexpected at every turn. These are the kind of beautiful fantastical images that will stick with you. But there might be more waiting for you – you might agree to my attempt at an interpretation above or find your own theory as to what's going on. Despite what I believe to be its overarching message, I don't really think embracing the idea that the book in itself is meaningless is the way to go, but even if you do that, you'll be enriched by reading it. And if I haven't convinced you, go read Emily's review. She recommended this book and she does have a way of presenting books that makes you want to read them.

PS: If you liked the quotes here and want to find more, I transcribed a bunch of them on my tumblr.

No comments:

Post a Comment