Monday, February 1, 2010

Prague Peasant

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 over the border, which undermines our order. We fear what looms in the twilit corners; we don't know whether they are broken or disintegrating shapes of or our world, or embryos of a new fauna, which will one day transform the city into its hunting ground. . .

When I reviewed Louis Aragon's 1926 novel/treatise/memoir Paris Peasant a couple weeks ago, I had no idea that I also owned its uncredited sequel. A prominent member of the French Surrealist movement, Aragon, like many writers and artists following the Great War, perceived a rapidly changing world in which traditional notions of art and expression were being demolished. "A great crisis is brewing, an immense disquiet taking shape as it approaches. Beauty, good, right, true, real . . . so many other abstract words are crumbling into dust at this very moment. And their opposites, once accepted in their turn, soon lose their own identity." Responding to this vertigo - an uncomfortable liberation, eternally detached from the familiar, nostalgic and and full of loss - Aragon tried to re-imagine the function of mythology, which had once ordered and articulated a contingent, amoral universe. While acknowledging that most people do not want to break from their accustomed ways, Aragon sought to argue in favor of looking beyond the surfaces and reinventing the mundane into something wonderfully subjective. The modern world is still full of possibilities: you just have to be willing to look for them.

Now it is one thing to just think up new, radical ideas in literature. It is quite another thing to actually realize them.

Although Aragon tried to put his theories into practice by writing Paris Peasant, a novel that he claimed would break the rules of the novel, I don't think anyone truly succeeded in mythologizing the modern and wedding metaphysics to art and literature until Michal Ajvaz came along and wrote The Other City (Druhé město, translated from Czech by Gerald Turner) in 1993. The Other City is not simply a rumination on different modes of seeing and interpreting. It is not a treatise. It is a book that takes the Surrealist transformation of everyday objects and crosses the border into speculative fiction. It is simultaneously an argument in favor looking beyond and beneath words and surfaces, and the story of a man who discovers another world embedded in our own. Think of a cross between Paris Peasant and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and you'll have at least a partial idea of what Ajvaz has accomplished.

Like the reader, Ajvaz's unnamed narrator begins with a book. (Like The Angel's Game too - I wonder how many other novels share this metafictional premise?) One snowy afternoon in a used bookstore he comes across a purple-bound volume written in an unknown language, accompanied by several strange illustrations. He takes it to a scholar, who is immediately unnerved and recommends that he put the book back and forget the whole thing. Instead, the narrator's curiosity is intensified, and he quickly finds himself wandering deep down the rabbit hole. As with Last Nights of Paris, by Louis Aragon's compatriot Philippe Soupault, there is a very Surrealist preoccupation with chance and spontaneity. Although the narrator does have a fixed goal in mind - to learn more about this other dimension and eventually reach its core - the unfolding of his knowledge occurs not through rational, deliberate clue-seeking but via unexpected encounters with fantastical beings and bizarre situations, such as the time he wrestles with a shark behind a cafe and ends up impaling it on a cross held by a statue on the St. Nicholas parapet.

The speech of the otherworld denizens is appropriately meandering, full of long-winded nonsensical tangents and built on wild metaphors and unexpected juxtapositions.
"Until just a few years ago the scientific community, with the rare exception, was of the view that the great battle in the depths of bedroom could not be regarded as a historic event. It was maintained that the records in the reference books were not reliable and were the result of the historicization of certain rituals connected with underground celebrations of expulsions of dragons from savings banks. It was also pointed out that there was no reference to the battle in the famed Lion's Chronicle, which was found, as you all know, on a rainy night in a plastic wrapper on a seat in an unlit compartment, just as the train stopped on the track and the compartment was just beneath the lighted window of an Art Nouveau villa at Všenory, the light of which was reflected in the wet leaves of the darkened garden. It is truly astonishing that the scholars who were hypercritical about the source material should not have found it odd that the chronicle was found precisely outside a villa in whose window could be seen dimly lit on the wall part of a picture on which could be discerned the figure of fauns dancing in a meadow. It would seem that one of the historians noticed that the small object painted in the grass below the birch tree bore a striking resemblance to the scrubbing brush used in the spa-temple, where, one evening, the priest said into the clouds of steam rolling over the baths: 'In the buffet of a distant town, on a blackboard with the names and prices of the meals, is written in chalk the last message of the Lord of the Outskirts - a warning that the blackened interiors of vases exhale into our spaces. This breath, declares the Lord of the Outskirts, corrodes the old constellations. Nor must you forget the impatient and nimble pincers of machines lurking behind the long walls in the streets of Smíchov. . .'"
It's absolutely wonderful! Very reminiscent, I thought, of some of T.S. Eliot's imagery -

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Also very similar to the results of William S. Burroughs's "cut-up" method too (though considerably tamer). The dialogue isn't simply randomness, however, or weirdness for the sake of weirdness. And this is where Aragon failed and Ajvaz succeeds: Ajvaz, through his haunting and beautifully jumbled prose, articulates the inarticulate. Aragon, despite his claims to the contrary, tried too hard to appeal to the intellect and resorted to difficult philosophical concepts to support his ideas. (What the heck is "frisson"? He kept using that word. I do not know what it means.) The result is a book that's largely inaccessible.

The Other City, by contrast, is deeply instinctive. That's the one word I can use to describe it. Everything makes sense even when it shouldn't, and even when you can't explain it in concrete terms you know the meaning is there in the back of your mind.
Conversations with members of one's own tribe are always only a tedious echo of one's own words. All conversations are fed from the great conversation between those who live within the homeland and what wafts over the border: a murmur, in which the rustle of fabric mingles with the howling and whining of monsters and musical compositions played by an orchestra of exiles for the space of several days.
The language and spaces of the Other City are the dark areas under furniture and in the backs of drawers and camouflaged within the patterns of wallpaper. In a world that constantly seeks answers, to discover the Other City is to come close to the primeval source of being, where the mind expands and the nooks and cracks are filled in and objects take on new forms. "Why are you poking your nose in our affairs?" an indignant citizen demands of the narrator. "Just remember: whoever crosses the border becomes entangled in the bent wires that stick out of things that you consider broken and which, in fact, have returned to their original form, as it was etched in the surface of a glass star wandering among the constellations." It is dangerous and dizzying, this search for the central plaza where a young god's body was torn to pieces by a tiger and meaning will be made real.

Or is the plaza truly the end of the journey? Are there cities upon cities upon cities, all layered on top of one another, and going not deeper and deeper towards the source but laterally extending into infinity? Ajvaz asks us to consider these questions, and many others. "The Other City" is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and I strongly recommend it.

Surrealist WIN!

4 comments:

JoAnn said...

The premise sounds intriguing, but I usually don't 'get' surrealism. So glad it was a winner for you though!

Richard said...

I love it when books you read soon after one another have such unexpected links, E.L. Fay. Isn't that one of the greatest feelings? Also, I enjoyed the comparison you make between Aragon and Ajvaz, the latter of whom was entirely unfamiliar to me. Since you're on a surrealist kick this year, I'll have to recommend you check out the proto-surrealist icon Maldoror (1870) by the Comte de Lautréamont: one of the most entertaining and possibly the most effed up book(s) I have ever read! The Penguin translation is easy to find and quite nice. Can a readalong be far off?

E. L. Fay said...

JoAnn: That's okay. Surrealism really isn't for everyone. Don't you love it when books are such winners?

Richard: Have you read Aragon as well? I've never heard of this Maldoror but if it is indeed both "effed up" and entertaining, I will probably like it. Can't be screwed up than Naked Lunch, though.

Emily said...

The experimental/Modernist/Surrealist novel is one of my favorite genres, but you are so right in pointing out the gaping gulf between having good ideas about reforming the novelistic genre, and actually succeeding in DOING it. That said, it's so exhilarating when an author succeeds! Thanks for this illuminating and well-written review, EL Fay.

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