Golden Age Paperback – Apr 20 2010
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This 2001 novel, Ajvaz s most brilliantly complicated, is a fictional travelogue, part philosophical ethnography and part potboiling fairy tale. --Jonathan Bolton
About the Author
Michal Ajvaz is a Czech novelist, essayist, poet, and translator. In 2005, he was awarded the Jaroslav Seifert Prize for his novel Pra?zdne? ulice (Empty Streets). He is a researcher at Prague's Center for Theoretical Studies. In addition to fiction, he has published an essay on Derrida, a book-length meditation on Borges, and a philosophical study on the act of seeing.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This dense little book took me much longer to read than I had anticipated by both the length and the description. I expected a light romp through the everyday experiences of the islanders and a longer foray into the "book" around which the island appears to be focused. Instead, I found an intellectual, philosophical, and incredibly thoughtful mock travelogue. The island of which the narrator speaks has an influential method of living, which pervades every aspect of the islanders lives, from their history, to the food that they eat and how they prepare it, to their so-called occupation, to their architecture, etc. This is initially described by the narrator, but as the travelogue proceeds, it becomes ever more apparent how pervasive the islanders' life view is.
The only exception to the islanders' seemingly lackadaisical and irreverent style of living seems to be their "book" -- the one "artform" that appears on the island. The book is what most of the reviews seem to focus on, logically so. Although "the book" itself is not really discussed and experienced until at least halfway through the travelogue, it is the most interesting and even unique aspect of the islanders life. Yet, even though "the book" is not really discussed until later in the travelogue, the first half of the travelogue is clearly necessary as background, so that "the book" is fully understood and appreciated. "The book" itself is interesting, but the tales within are absolutely fascinating. The reader almost feels as if he is losing sight of the beginning of any given tale, as it spins and diverges, but Ajvaz is skilled at bringing his reader full circle -- even if we need to wait a few more pages than is common. The wait, as Ajvaz himself notes, is often worth it, and the tale (within the tale within the tale...) is always rewarding.
Michal Ajvaz is a master at his art and has created a world that operates almost completely outside of most societal norms. He is adamant that he imparts no overall judgment either on the islanders or on the rest of the world, and I was convinced of his assertion. For me, the best parts were the divergent tales, both within "the book" and without. However, although the rest of the travelogue was not as "fun" as those tales, they were interesting and necessary to the whole.
I would not categorize this as "light reading," but I would highly recommend to anyone who is looking for something different, something a little chewy, and something to make you pause and think.
What it all adds up to is another question, of course. The islanders would be befuddled by our search for "meaning" in any of this, which would seem to be at least part of Ajvaz's point. The book is actually quite provocative in its philosophical approach, and calls into question many of the assumptions of Western civilization, directly in its discussion of island life and even more potently through its atypical approach to narrative. In terms of sophistication and importance, Swift and Kafka are the names that are brought to mind. There's a sharp picture of modern life lurking behind the apparently unstructured surrealism. I especially liked the glimpse of budding, then fading romance that's captured in the narrator's almost offhanded mentions of his erstwhile island paramour.
I've probably made The Golden Age sound like pretty heavy going, but it's not. Though the details are often baroque, the language is clear and uncomplicated, and though it can give rise to serious reflection, Ajvaz doesn't ever seem to be taking himself too seriously. Just on the level of sheer imagination, it's tremendously enjoyable, outdoing the wildest productions of the SF and fantasy world. Take note, genre authors--this is where the bar's been set. Anyone with an interest in writing that lies outside the mainstream should take a look at what Ajvaz is up to.
The only reason I didn't give this novel 5 stars was because it didn't quite engage me, as a story, as completely as Ajvaz's The Other City, or in the same way as other, similarly postmodern works. Also, in some of the more conceptual moments, when the philosophy behind the novel is being explained, I think the translation could have been, if not clearer, then more flowing, in a way that would maintain the narrative pace instead of pulling the reader, just slightly, from its current. A fantastic book that I'd recommend to anyone. I can only hope that more of Ajvaz's works will appear in translation.
One of the major themes is the emergence and submergence of structure from and into nothingness. True to form, The Golden Age demonstrates this principle nicely, as the best approximations of traditional narrative arrive only as temporary digressions from the main thrust of the book. Not coincidentally, these are also the most interesting and readable sections.
Most of the 300 pages is spent simply describing, in a rather abstract way, the primary setting of the island and its inhabitants. There are virtually no characters or plot to speak of. (There are people with names, and a few sporadic events, but it would be a dramatic overstatement to call any character a protagonist or to try to link the events together meaningfully.) This leaves the majority of the book as description of a fictitious setting. But alas, the setting itself is as close it is possible to be a non-setting: an island where the only details are transitory and everything is in permanent flux. There is no history and barely any reality! The reader who looks for a central narrative will be disappointed.
There is some relief towards the end of the book, but only some. From the aforementioned non-story emerges a dozen or so genuine stories (with characters, plot, setting and all.) However, most of these simply fade into other stories or end abruptly as the reader is lurched back into the narrator's descriptions and musings. So the author's premise becomes realized: structure emerges from nothing and is then submerged again.
This is not to say the book is bad or unreadable. It is thought-provoking and funny. There are occasional passages of beauty, and the prose is clear without sounding overly-formal (thanks much to the translator Andrew Oakland.) It is apparent that the author is exploring the implications of particular philosophical ideas, and that fiction just happens to be the means he has chosen for such exploration. (Certainly not rare in fiction.)
As long as the reader knows to expect "some fiction" with little more structure than that, and doesn't hope for some coherent story to emerge, this is an engaging read. But it is neither a fun piece of genre fiction nor an important, life-changing work. It's a weird chunk of experimental fiction, so be prepared to take it as such.