This review was based on an Advanced Reader's Copy (ARC):
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.