To my knowledge, the only Czech literature I’ve read is from that fairly famous author who has his own adjective. It was to expand my range, more than anything then, that led me to open Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City, lauded as a hymn to Prague, a city I’ve never been to but hope to visit. Of course, the intimations of eccentric imagery and the connection to Borges also interested me. Oh, and everything the Dalkey Archive puts out is at least worth looking into.
The book started clearly and methodically enough with a nice scene where the narrator is reading a book on a snowy Prague day. It spoke nicely to my mood.
I was in no hurry; I was happy to be in a room that smelled pleasantly of old books, where it was warm and quiet, where the pages rustled as they were turned, as if the books were sighing in their sleep.
This peaceful beginning, while somewhat indicative of the nice imagery to come, is completely misleading in other respects. This is perhaps the only peaceful part of the book. Soon we are taken for a ride, getting whiplash, as Ajvaz pulls us from one scene to the next, each getting increasingly bizarre. It all starts when the narrator finds a book with a purple binding and a strange unearthly alphabet. It emits a sort of glow and he starts getting glimpses of another world just out of his periphery.
It was not the first such encounter in my life. Like everyone, I had, on many previous occasions, ignored a half-open door leading elsewhere — in the chilly passages of strange houses, in backyards, on the outskirts of towns. The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it. We are walking all the time along a shore and along the edge of a virgin forest. Our gestures would seem to rise out of an entity that also encompasses these concealed spaces, and in an odd way they reveal their shadowy existence, although we are unaware of the roar of waves and shrieks of animals — the disquieting accompaniment to our words (and possibly their secret birthplace); we are unaware of the glitter of jewels in the unknown world of nooks and crannies; usually we don’t stray off the path even once in the course of our lives. What golden temples in the jungle might we find our way to? With what beasts and monsters might we contend and on what islands might we forget our plans and ambitions? Maybe it was the fascinating flurry of snowy chimeras outside the window or maybe an ironic love of fate, engendered by my failures of recent years, that caused my old fear of crossing frontiers to protest only feebly — as if out of habit — and then quickly fall silent; I pulled the book out and opened it once more.
As the narrator goes about his business, thinking about the book, other people begin to admit they’ve encountered the strange letters and have felt the presence of, or even seen, another world that coexists with Prague (perhaps it was my uninitiated senses, but this book didn’t seem to hinge on knowledge of Prague at all; seemed more incidental, but I’d love the insights of others). A particularly affecting account came from an old man whose daughter was taken away by the strange citizens of the other world.
We’ve never met our daughter since, except for a few occasions when we’ve caught sight of her face in the depth of a mirror or in a darkened room, and sometimes we’ve caught the sound of her voice in the roaring of a stove. At first we would occasionally come across slips of paper at the bottom of drawers or between the pages of books, bearing sad messages that we would understand less and less: she would write about halls through which there flowed rivers with rafts carrying bronze lions, and also about never-ending symposia in fossilized forests, or about cafés, where the waiter would emerge out of thick mist.
These accounts get stranger, and finally the narrator himself has a more substantial encounter with the other city when a tiny rusted hatch opened up to a massive cathedral where a priest was leading a congregation. This other city comes to be an obsession for the narrator because he’s sure knowledge of it will lead somewhere. He’s at the time of his life when he no longer wants to ignore the glimpses. In Prague, “the flame of meaning had gone out,” but in this other perhaps it could be kindled. Thus begins a quest for meaning among absurdities and contradictions.
For the first quarter of the book I must say that the only thing keeping me going was the fantastic though bizarre imagery. It was too disconnected and episodic and didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. In other words, bizarreness for the sake of being bizarre, and I’m not a fan of that. Thanks to the imagery, though, I kept going and the quest for meaning took me in. The episodes, while still strange in unexpected ways, began to cohere also, and I found the theme of clarity and sight to mesh well with the theme of questing and meaning.
One of my favorite passages comes in the latter part of the book. The narrator, still searching for the center, enters a library. Deeper in the library, the stacks of books transform slowly into a jungle. It’s a fantastic scene, but I also enjoyed its introduction where a library patron requests a book from the deep. The librarian about to search for the book accepts his quest.
He is warned by his colleagues not to go there but he just laughs and says he’s worked in the library for thirty years and knows every nook and cranny. When he takes no heed of the warnings, the other librarians rush off to find the reader and beg him to cancel his request, bringing him teetering stacks of magnificent books, books with flashing jewels embedded in the binding and pages scented with the rarest perfumes of the Orient, books with three-dimensional illustrations, full of soft velvets and find sand, books with edible pages tasting of lotus leaves, which the reader may immediately devour after reading, silken books that can be unfolded and used either as a hammock or on windy days as a hovercraft with which to float high above the landscape, books with intoxicatingly erotic stories played out on nocturnal marble terraces beneath cypress trees by the sea: the pages of these books have been soaked with hashish so that after a while anyone reading the book is gripped by a hallucinatory vision and becomes part of the story, bathing with beautiful girls in the warm nocturnal sea, but the stubborn reader casts not one glance at the books they have brought and insists on his book—a book about car maintenance or making pickles — he wants it because he requested it and believes it to be the duty of the library staff to obtain it for him willy nilly, and to the unfortunate librarian’s beautiful daughter whom someone has meanwhile summoned by telephone and who is offering the reader, like Sheherezade, to tell him stories all night long, he merely declares: ‘Look here, young lady, there is nothing for us to discuss, I want my book on car maintenance (making pickles)’ — and so the librarian embraces his daughter and sets off into the depths of the library, everyone gazing stupefied at his departing figure; at the bend in the corridor he turns and waves before disappearing behind the shelves and no one sets eyes on him again; the reader waits in vain for his book, pangs of conscience start to gnaw at him, every hour he goes to ask whether the librarian has returned with his book and he ends up spending the entire day by the book delivery hatch and by five in the morning is marking time outside the locked doors of the Clementium intoning dismal dirges. Several librarians disappear in the depths of the library every year and the librarianship schools are unable to turn out enough graduates.
Surely you get a sense for how wonderfully strange this book is. And thankfully, though we also quest with the narrator for meaning, the book itself is not without purpose, and the meaning comes along.