Michal Ajvaz: The Other City

This is a short Czech novel from 1993 that just got translated into English last year and showed up on lots of SF/weird readers’ 2009 best-of lists. The genre is magic realism, which is to say highly-literate fantasy that takes place in the real world. The narrator (I don’t think he ever gets a name) starts discovering clues to an alternate fantastic city that exists in parallel to Prague (shades of China MiĆ©ville’s The City & the City). And this other city really is fantastic, full of arresting poetic images that don’t make much rational sense.

Those images, at their best, are really gripping and memorable — two scenes that come to mind are a fight to the death with a shark on top of a tower and a bushwhacking expedition through a library-jungle — but just as often seem more random, as if the author was picking words from a dictionary and then trying to connect them in some sort of Oulipian manner:

“Of course it was all in vain, you fool,” she said disdainfully. You purged geometry of polar animals… You’ve forgotten that the first axiom of Euclid states that there will always be one or two penguins in geometrical space? Wasn’t it you who tattooed that sentence on my thigh in your automobile of ice? […] You turned us against you when we discovered you on the lavatory squeezing oranges onto a pocket calculator. We don’t like you and find you ridiculous.”

Which rather than making me savor each crazy image makes me just skim until I can find something that makes a little sense again.

So although there are some reoccurring images and themes that do give the book some structure, I sometimes had the same experience I have with David Lynch movies, where, after a bit of seeming to have some strange internal logic that is tantalizingly just beyond the reach of my rational mind, the work just goes off the rails entirely. It was short enough and cool enough that I am perfectly happy with the time I spent with it, but overall for me it didn’t fulfill that top-ten promise it started out with.

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