The Czech Houdini!

Theme:  Eastern Europe

Michal Ajvaz is a literary magician creating worlds of worlds, worlds of words, worlds of objects.  He is the fantastical baby of Borges and Timothy Leary.  He is a cartographer on mescaline.  He is Czech.

His novel, The Other City, gives us a model novel of magical realism.  The anonymous narrator finds a purple spined book on a shelf at a local bookshop written in an unknown language.  And there begins his foray into understanding what he does not know, a language from a foreign place and a reality that is unfamiliar to him. As he searches for clues to the symbols on the pages of this book, he begins to discover that another world exists in the places we ignore – shadows become entries, crannies become rivers, solid objects become hollow and filled with life – all for him to explore.  But don’t think that this is an innocent exploration of  an alternate reality.  There is a malicious element to the other city that lurks beyond his peripheral. A waitress from a cafe he visits in real life evolves into a mildly sadistic version of a gatekeeper to this netherworld, unwelcoming to his interest and intrusion into her city beyond the walls.  One thing transitions into another and the meaning it has in the real world takes on a different meaning in the world he seeks to become part of.  Fish talk, bedsheets unfold in white roads, pictures go one for miles and it all seems as if we are, as a reader, just about to uncover some perverse message. Or will unearth the question we should ask ourselves that will send us on a path to the ultimate understanding of our existence.

What do objects mean?  This is all one can ask yourself as you turn from page to page, wondering about Ajvaz’s imaginative testament to the study of semiotics. 

What is the concept of home?  Does psychogeography apply only to what we know or is there some version of it that lies in wait beyond the borders of our own consciousness?  Throughout the novel, as we attempt to understand his magical meanderings, we begin to wonder what we think we understand about our surroundings. 

It is not at 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 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 original of the translations.  All there is is a constantly turning string of transformations, giving rise to further transformations.  There is no city of autochthons.  There is an endless chain of cities, a circle without a beginning or end over which there breaks unrelentingly a shifting wave of laws.

And we follow along with him just as he follows in search of the origins of the book in the dark, mysterious places that promise to open him up to what he doesn’t know.  Then we begin to wonder if either of the realities are real or if there are the fictions of the fiction.  The words are not what we think they are telling us.  There is a concentric aspect to this novel that we are never certain if it is leading us in or out.  The writing itself is fluid, concrete and vivid as sometimes dreams are, and just as irrational.  As irrational as dreams are, we know that it stems from our own subconscious and Ajvaz plays on this flawlessly:

Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own, one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city and yet we know absolutely nothing about it?  The more I pondered on it, the more I was inclined to think that it was indeed quite possible, that it corresponded to our lifestyle, to the way we lived in circumscribed spaces that we are afraid to leave.  We are troubled by the dark music heard from over the border, which undermines our order.  We fear what looms in the twilit corner; we don’t know whether they are broken or disintegrating shapes of our world, or embryos of a new fauna, which will one day transform the city into its hunting ground–the vanguard of an army of monsters slowly lurking its way through our apartments.  That is why we prefer not to see the shapes that came into existence on the other sde and we don’t hear sounds emitted at night beyond the walls.

Ajvaz takes us there, beyond the walls in a beautiful and eerie way – through the magic of words.

Movie Pairing The Science of Sleep is just as engaging with the perfectly bizarre blend of the real and the imagined.

The Other City
By Michal Ajvaz
Translated by Gerald Turner
Dalkey Archive Press
168 pages
ISBN: 9781564784919

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