Best Translated Book Award 2011
Perhaps, dear reader, you think that as I write my mind is filled with visions of the island, that nothing is important to me except the efforts to fish out of memory clearly-drawn pictures of the landscape of the island. Perhaps you think I consider you a remote figure, unreal and bothersome, a figure that disturbs my dreams and at whose behest I have to demean and exert myself by transferring glowing images into dark, clumsy words, to bind the manacles of grammar and syntax the free, light motions of waves, sands, and winds that linger in my memory. Perhaps you think that because of this I hate you, that I consider you the agent of my misfortune, that I set at my computer keyboard–whose gentle tapping beneath my fingers is transformed into the sounds of gravel underfoot on the scorched paths of the island’s rocks–hatching plans which do you harm, which use language to ensnare.
It begins with the author describing his stay on an island in the Atlantic. He left his native country, Czechoslovakia, and lingers on an island of apathetic natives whose interpretation of life is different than what we know. Here are a few of their characteristics and beliefs:
-The islanders did not drink alcohol or use drugs (with one exception, of which I shall speak later), but their love of rustling and other quiet sounds, sounds which we rarely perceive, had something in common with an addiction to drugs: the were able to listen all day long to the rush of the sea or the sound of the wind through a crack in the wall.
-On the island meaningfulness was taken as something base, almost something indecent, and the islanders saw a great many shades of pleasure in the meaningless.
-But there was no thievery and murder on the island. Although morality and humaneness meant nothing to the islanders, they were strangers, too, to egoism, and they were too dreamy and lazy to do evil.
-For this reason there was no silence on the island. After some time, I, too, learned to perceive that which I had taken for silence as an open country subtle sounds, as speech, as the whisperings of a faceless god.
-Although in the days when I was on the island, a tendency towards a pictographic script was predominant, one could see many other tendencies dormant under the surface of their texts–some on the wane, some just being born. The islanders also had a kind of literature, of course, not least their Book (which I will get to presently, I trust), but I sometimes think that the story of the island’s script makes up a more interesting narrative than all the stories contained in their works.
-Averroes writers that the islanders believe that the souls of the dead live on in stains on walls, that they prove this by a curious concatenation of evidence: souls are incorporeal so they must dwell in something with a material volume; volume lacks two-dimensional form, and as stains on walls are two-dimensional, souls undoubtedly reside in stains.
Along with these and a myriad of other creative and interesting descriptions of their food and architecture, board games and home design, there are digressions and beginnings. Stories that intrigue but never end, forever interrupted by other stories and memories. Ajvaz presents the idea of the Book and creates its likeness with the narrative of his own book, cleverly alluded to in this passage:
The story I told at the feast was no doubt influenced at least a little by the island’s Book, although for a long time I found this maze of adventure stories, fairy tales and myths about rabbits, princes and princesses, whose descriptions, insertions, digressions, improbabilities and anachronisms knew no end, quite insufferable.
The narrative shifts from its own island rules and descriptions to the focus of the Book. The book has pockets that unfold all throughout itself, filed with stories that contain alternatives texts, histories, commentary and other stories. The narrator even introduces another character, Baumgarten, who tells him a story about a thief who breaks into his house to get money to buy a painting that ‘is a great book of stories.’ Once we are introduced to the Book, then a fairy tale based on the history of the island plays out with all the classical elements of a medieval fairy tale. This is a tale of two feuding men, Tana and Taal. They each have their own kingdoms, Ilim an Devel, respectively. This is what the reader has yearned for…something to follow. There is relief when we are presented with a structure we know and understand. Point taken by the post-modernist reader.
Ajvaz’s set-up for this is too long. Sure, if you stick with it and if you don’t mind his antics, this is a inspired book that oozes creativity. But the ‘if’ is too large, too tenuous. That’s where the self-indulgence comes in. Obviously, Ajvaz is taking an exercise in intellectual and philosophical conceit to the farthest of boundaries. At times, I wondered if this was enough. In the end, it was too difficult to come to a definitive conclusion that answered that question. I was relieved that I had survived. I can appreciate his intellectual perspicacity and his artistic ambition and execution, but I felt it was more provocative about the function of writing and art than a satisfying read.
I think that the translation by Andrew Oakland was phenomenal and must have been a beast. If I felt this relieved when I finished reading it, I can only manage what he felt upon translating the final word. I also felt there were many times when concrete specifics could have been used opposed to the amoeba-like descriptions of the abstract. In particular, there was a scene in which the narrator fixes for the islanders a traditional meal but fails to include their reaction. There are lots of sensory examples where the abstract trumps the concrete when the narrative might have been served better by countradistinguishing to emphasize the difference.
Still, I loved Ajvaz’s first work translated into English, The Other City. To unpack this novel as a reader would just send you into madness, leaving with endless plot devices, story elements and digressions scattered all over your mind. So, dear reader, if you are patient and tolerant, this could an effort that will take your mind places it has never been and might not want to go. As for you, dear author, you of the unparalleled imagination, give a reader a break once and awhile.