By John Clute
17 May 2010
The first thing that comes to mind on reading Michal Ajvaz's seemingly dryasdust novels is water, water as a verb: water in motion, stealth watersheds urging readers into silent-running apprehension of hero flows of story beneath the desert sands of mitteleuropean discourse, secret but still musical within the blood of reading. Although The Other City and The Golden Age seem ostentatiously to eschew any structuring hints of narrative heroism—Ajvaz has made it clear he does not want to the reader to be reminded of Magic Realism in his work, that his texts do not valorize any hero bearer of sigils out of the swamp nor any origin tale at the heart of the delta of tales untold—the first thing that comes to mind on reading Ajvaz is story. But maybe that is what this reviewer always says.
Whatever. Like Karel Čapek, whose most famous titles, RUR and War with the Newts, are also water-drenched, Michal Ajvaz (pronounced EYE-voz) comes from the part of Czechoslovakia that eventually, after World War Two dry-gulched Čapek's world, became the current Czech Republic: a land which, through all its border changes, has been land-locked. There should be nothing procrustean here: I think a longing for words in motion rings deep in our blood; and it does seem entirely natural that Czech writers seem to have incorporated a kind of narrative meme into the body English of their deepest fictions, a linguistically isolated island-shaped enclave of Czech locked inside the mountains of Middle Europe, almost literally afloat, rain-drenched, snow-covered, like a corpuscle, or an ark. Moreover, both Čapek and Ajvaz are writers whose works specifically drown in sussurant, shadow-puppet Prague, a city which can only really be seen as if through mirrors bathed in their medium: snow-triangles on the gargoyles, the river winding everywhere beneath, rain tintinnabulating down the runnels of the city, every intersection a snowglobe.
To finish reading a book by Čapek, or by Gustav Meyrink, or a volume of poetry like The Plague Column (trans. 1979) by Jaroslav Seifert—or foreigners' takes on Czech like Sylvie Germain's The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague (trans. 1993), or David Herter's Czech Trilogy (to be reviewed here later)—feels more like emerging than ending. I quote from Leo Perutz's By Night under the Stone Bridge (trans. 1989):
The evening wind swept smoothly over the waves of the river, the rosemary flower snuggled closer to the red rose, and the dreaming Emperor felt the kiss of his beloved on his lips.
And so it goes. And so it is with Ajvaz, which may not entirely be his intention. For there is no attempt to pay attention to the heroism of continuing form in either The Other City or The Golden Age: the reverse, rather. Each novel is, it is true, narrated to us by a young or youngish man whose name is unknown (if either name is ever given I am failing to retrieve it); but in each case the narrator disappears slowly—like a floater one has gotten used to—into each novel's occasionally rather moany mitteleuropean labourings of the obvious about perception, about the indecipherability of origin: that we cannot perceive the dark matter of the real, that the self-illumining proprioceptive shark-lunge of the continuous wordings of the storyable unfolding in the wet of our eyes is an illusion without grist to feed on, for the languages we utter—the stories we tell—are exitless, they shut us away from that which they would open or penetrate or define (hey! so that's the problem with sub-primes!); and that the voice that narrates a book is no more real than the sentences his words cannot make "real." All this, Ajvaz would seem to claim. But all the same, all the same, his books are water. Both novels may seem pretty similar when they are in the grumps, but there are two separate texts here, two separate worlds awash in an eloquence which seems, at times, as I just said, half-involuntary.
The Other City was first published in Czech in 1993, and translated—eloquently though with an occasional quirk—by Gerald Turner in 2009. It is told in the first person. The narrator is in an antiquarian bookshop in the heart of Prague. He finds a text written in an unknown script (Ajvaz demonstrates throughout a knowledge of H. P. Lovecraft), which he takes to a librarian, who begins to tell him the long story of his own search for an earlier iteration of the text. The power of the text seems almost magnetic: sentences uttered by the narrator, when uttered through the light of the script, become grammatical engines of perceptual estrangement, opening into the subaqueous city (or cities) of the other Prague. The world as worded turns into an indefinite recursion of rabbit holes (there are parodic echoes throughout of Alice's dream journeys in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll is taken as seriously as though we were small children under his eye), down which, seemingly imperturbable and deadpan, the narrator quests: for he is haunted by a sense that—behind the cupboard behind the cupboard in the shadowy hotel, at the end of the line the streetcar traces in the snow—a truer Prague intersects with the daylight (may one dare say unwatered?) world we are trapped in up here.
In the end, each excursion through the ungrammar of perception ends back in the entrapping Prague of our lives; these returns are, I believe, precisely mapped, so that readers familiar with the city will find themselves haunted by a sense that their eyes are capturing the messages contained by only one sheet of the palimpsest of tellings and grammatical turnings that, for all we know inadvertently, conceal the other city from the day dwellers. That there is some similarity between this and the relationship between the two cities in China Miéville's The City & the City (2009) is obvious enough, though Miéville does not read Czech, and no direct influence could credibly be traced. More important than chronology, however, is an essential distinction between the two maps of understanding of the sign-drowning complexity of urban life.
Rather strangely, given the austere impersonalities of Ajvaz's sense of how the world is perceived, The Other City can only be told as a quest told through the kind of heroic story-building sentences that befit a culture hero protagonist: a figure who himself unravels the opacity of the world beyond the words that normally describe it, who tears the veil asunder, who crosses the river into the other city, who returns saturated with sigils. What is so astonishing—so deeply refreshing—in Miéville's text is the fact that his two cities exist openly in one place and time, each physically braided into the other, the residents of each interwoven city obeying a kind of vade mecum of perceptual rules that allows—demands—that only one story of the city can be told at any one time. There is no need here for an heroic narrative (of the sort that Ajvaz conspicuously denigrates, though he just as conspicuously depends on the heroism of narrativity to carry his burden); basically, what is demanded of inhabitants of Miéville's city/cities is that they be trained to live in cities. That if there is too much world for any one story, then the stories need to sign contracts. The virtues of The Other City, almost despite themselves, lie in a heroic intensity of the storyable that allows the reader to follow the spoor of the city within, into a Prague so scored with storiations that the eyes water; but always to return, the narrator always "awakens" into this world up here, though rarely dry:
I dashed back through the kitchen and dark bedroom and leaped onto the parapet of the window, through which water was beginning to pour. At the last moment I caught hold of the disappearing deck and climbed onto the boat. I lay down on a snow-covered pile of sand and gazed upward into a long vertical tunnel through which snow was falling. . . . Not long afterward the boat was resting once more at the spot where I had first set eyes on it.
The Golden Age is bigger and smoother and rather more rebarbative. The narration this time takes the traditional form of a manuscript written down after the fact of certain events by a narrator who has almost certainly told his tale prior to his own second, and presumably permanent disappearance. Travelers's-Tale structures of this sort are common in the Fantastic Voyage genre, and indeed The Golden Age, though set in the twentieth century, is structured precisely to disengage its readers from that century into a different era, where islands are shaped like stories in the blood stream. Indeed, though it is never given a name by its inhabitants, the island that serves as the sole subject of and venue for The Golden Age is located somewhere not far from the Canary Islands, and its inhabitants may have claim to be survivors of Atlantis.
At one level, nothing ever seems to happen on the island. Its inhabitants seem impassive, polite when addressed or conquered but ultimately indifferent to the highly narratized demands of the outside world. But within this seeming passivity there exists what might seem to an outsider—what certainly seemed to this reviewer in the course of attempting to follow The Golden Age's demands—a huge burden of turmoil. Ajvaz's narrator's manuscript details his investigation of various features of the island's life, though the most telling description was the first. The town lived in by the islanders lies within a kind of combined waterfall and labyrinth, an almost vertical watershed whose liquids are guided through innumerable channels, all of them sounding; and simultaneously activating innumerable chimes and signals. But whenever the islanders may seem to be listening to one thing, one chord or charm of the music that they dance their lives to, they are in fact giving a false impression: for no single instant, no one sound, no one narrative description of anything, can make anything like sense. Europeans who visit either go native, which is to say begin to sink into the Golden Age that precedes any era in which the world is made sense of by our monkey fingers, our monkey brains; or they live like water-bugs on the meniscus of the real.
The narrator studies the water music; and the language of the islanders, which constantly dissolves just as do the letters in which it is written; and the islanders' games, which cannot end; and the food, which is prepared endlessly; and the architecture, the king and the mayor, the religion, the arts. Everything seems governed by a basilisk-intense focus on turn, so that a sentence, or a word, turns into something else, a turn which governs grammar or harmony only till the next turn, a fractal spiral of turns. Some of these turns seemed reminiscent of the grammar of The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Luis Bunuel's last and perhaps most transgressive film. (Other names who came to mind during a fast reading of The Golden Age included David Lynch, Raymond Roussel, George Perec, Ernst Junger, Lost.)
Perhaps the main underlying problem with The Golden Age relates, once again, to an implicit or reintroduced heroism of narrative: because, unlike any of the examples of similar works or writers one can come up with, Ajvaz in The Golden Age seems uniquely fixed on describing his system of governance. One central consequence of this focus cannot, I think, have been intended: it is a vastness of exhaustiveness that not only wearies readers, who know they are going to be told, again and again and again down to the last detail, that there is no one thing that can be told entire, no one word to carry a sufficiency of the burden of continuance. What The Golden Age says is not exactly that nothing can be told; but that, inevitably, more must be told than we can here. It should be possible for readers, through inherent sophistications in the art of reading fiction, to understand these delirious spirallings into the fractal as an abstractable discourse lying between them and the world/worlds of the text, as in the knowing and reader-complicit plays that mark Nicholson Baker's negotiations between the magnetic interactions between the storyable and the fractal in The Mezzanine (1989). But in The Golden Age, no such interplay is acknowledged, not even in the long narrative synopses from the Book, the islanders' one written work of art, which occupy most of the second half of the novel with rather conventional Arabian Nights-style nested narratives iterated as though the coherent epic tale that does emerge had done so without the author noticing. No questions are asked, no explanations given of the Book's mollifying cohesiveness. Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (full trans. 1995), with its searing clashes of story modes and its savage abruptions, is far more taxingly disruptive of the syntax of the West than anything exposed through Ajvaz's covertly reintroduced Heroics Light.
For it is here that his habitual recourse to narrative heroism fails Ajvaz, two feet short of the well: because he cannot admit to that recourse here, and his novel is therefore mute to his own joy. In the midst of Ocean, surrounded by sleek proprioceptions of story eager to drench us in these waters, The Golden Age comes to a stop in its universe of sand, the dark matter of sand clogging us drown, entropy draining the waters dry.
The Other City was a raft. The Golden Age, which seemed caulked for Atlantis, turns to sand.