Other City Paperback – Jun 11 2009
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"Reading such a world means stepping inside it, letting it infect you, bruise, scrape, poison and obsess you."--Jonathan Bolton, CONTEXT
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)
In the end, The Other City is a celebration of the courage needed to encounter the unknown. "The dread you feel on the preiphery of your world is the beginning of the bliss of return." There may be danger, but even defeat in the quest can merge with the joy of the journey and become part of it. What matters is the ability to enter a landscape from which society tries to protect us while, at the same time, denying us the right to become our true selves in the experience.
The narrator accepts this challenge: "I abandoned myself to the power of the journey and didn't know whether in the future the journey would command me to remain outside the walls, or to return with my knapsack full of tongues cut from the maws of dragons."
This is a compact gem of a book. The wonderful and surreal events endured by the narrator become, in the end, the as yet unknown and unformed challenges we face when we have the courage to embrace change. In image and message, The Other City marries the surreal to the mundane. This artful juxtaposition enriches and informs the readers' experience. Finally, "we are troubled by the dark music heard from over the border, which undermines our order." The question posed is whether we follow where the music leads us.
The most fascinating thing about this book, in terms of writing and not story, are the paragraphs. In our internet culture it is not uncommon to stumble across some post on a forum or a blog or wherever you may be that does not have a character or word limit that consists of one massive paragraph, Most refer to it as a wall of text and they are right to do so. No one likes them, no one wants to read them, and it is frustrating for all. I feel the same about books, mostly because the longer I read without some break the more likely I am to become distracted by thought or something shiny lurking across the room and have my concentration shatter to a thousand pieces. This was one of the main reasons I stopped reading Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon.
The Other City erupts spontaneously into pages-long passages consisting of one paragraph, usually of dialogue. This is something that I would expect to grate on my nerves, to frustrate me until the only end possible: putting down the book. Further, the passages are rambling and random, only just bordering on the edge of coherence and trying to figure out if it would rather hop the low fence and dance off into the chaos of insane gibberish. But, oddly enough, I found that I was not put off by these passages or by the fact that they were walls of text, horrendously long walls of text. It was just the opposite, in fact. Instead I was drawn deeper into the story, into the spaces between apartments and the underground chapels filled with aquarium statues, and before I knew it I was rushing headlong through these surreal narratives filled with the weird, wondrous, and fascinating. There were no breaks, no pauses, just the sustained, relentless, narratives that led on and on down the rabbit hole.
Which is not to say that I did not have my issues with the paragraphs. I soon discovered that I needed to devote my full attention to the book and in such cases everything becomes a distraction. There were times when either my mind would wander off on some loose thread or someone would interrupt me and I would be forced from the book. I returned to the passage only to find that I could not remember where I left off and the entirety of it was little more than a hazy recollection, which lead me time and time again to reread the entirety of the passage. Although, this is not to say that others will have the same issue with the book or have had the issue for that matter, it just proved a problem for me. Though I definitely do not hold it against it, as I feel the benefits gained from these overlong paragraphs far outweigh any negatives.
I also had an issue with the main character, our narrator, who seemed rather detached from everything. His various encounters with the other city are strange to start with and become increasingly bizarre as the novel progresses, yet there are very few times in which our narrator actually appears to be at all affected by any of it. There are a few times when he expressed wonder or is panicked and at the dead end of the novel he delights in the thoughts of all the oddities he might find, but beyond that he seemed to take everything in stride, as if everything was as it should be. Ah, but then there is metaphysical discussion of windows in the book that lends to why he may be more inclined to accept the other city more readily than others, so is this complaint even valid? I like to think it is, that even one who is inclined toward accepting an alien reality would still express a greater level of wonderment at what he finds.
A final issue: there were times when the same word might be repeated half a dozen times in one (shorter) paragraph. It is not a major issue, but it was distracting and, as I said before, The Other City is not the kind of book that takes well to lax attention. It being a translated work, I am not exactly sure who is responsible for the the repetition, Ajvaz or the translator. In the end, it does not really matter as it took nothing at all away.
The Other City is one of those books that show up from out of nowhere with not a bit a talk circulating around it and very few reviews. A shame, really, because books like this should be talked about, made known, and brought to the attention of unassuming readers everywhere who have no idea what they are getting into. More than that though, it is just an excellent piece of translated fiction, though I will be the first to admit that I am woefully uneducated in such areas, and a highly enjoyable read. I have no idea if Dalkey Press will be translating and releasing more of Ajvaz's work, but I look forward to getting my hands on it if they do.
I had no idea that I also owned the uncredited sequel to "Paris Peasant." Now it is one thing to just think up new, radical ideas in literature. It is quite another thing to actually realize them. I don't think anyone truly succeeded in mythologizing the modern and wedding metaphysics to art and literature until Czech author Michal Ajvaz came along and wrote "The Other City" in 1993. "The Other City" is not simply a study of 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.
One snowy afternoon in a used bookstore, Ajvaz's unnamed narrator 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 that put me in mind of William S. Burroughs's "cut-up" method. The dialogue isn't simply randomness, however, or weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Ajvaz, through his haunting and beautifully jumbled prose, somehow articulates the inarticulate. As such, "The Other City" is deeply instinctive. That's the one word I can use to describe it. 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, 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.
After discovering a strange book in an alien language at an antiquarian book store, an unnamed narrator comes into contact with a strange other world, "a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads." (from the blurb) He finds The Other City, a city that is at once the same place as his home city of Prague and something entirely different. Surreal and strange, the people he meets and events he witnesses initially baffle both the narrator and the reader. The struggle of the reader to understand the book mirrors the experience that the narrator has trying to understand the strange new city in which he finds himself. Is there meaning to be found here? The answer is, of course, yes, but it is never quite the meaning that we expect.
What struck me first about this book was the vivid imagery. Though surrealism isn't usually my favorite aesthetic, the descriptions in The Other City were so beautiful and real that I didn't mind the initial confusion that necessarily comes with a surrealist text. Even the strangest and most incomprehensible of things are described in luminous prose, glowing with life and color. These descriptions help to create the atmosphere that defines the strange city.
Though the descriptions are beautiful, The Other City isn't just a text of images. There is a plot to this book, and the reader is just as invested in discovering the inner workings of the other city as the narrator is. I wanted to reach that inner courtyard and hear the music of strange fountains. Not only is the subject interesting, but Michal Ajvaz is a critical theorist, and his incredible intelligence shows in his writing. This is a book driven not only by conventional plot, but also by ideas and philosophies, which are always being found, challenged, and changed. As someone who loves to think and engage with ideas while I'm reading, I greatly enjoyed this intellectual side of the book. Whether it's notions of otherness and frontiers, the true nature of monsters, the relationship of language to reality, or the act of reading, this book handles ideas with a mix of beautiful prose and intellectual dexterity. Ajvaz manages to contemplate ideas without being pedantic or boring the reader. Instead, ideas become vitally significant, a way of making sense of a world that seems to defy logic and understanding.
A book about frontiers, monsters, and the act of reading, The Other City is stunning in both the depth of its ideas and the beauty and quality of its writing. For readers who need to understand every word of a book, The Other City is definitely not going to be enjoyable. But for those of you who like difficult novels, this might be the book for you. If you want a novel that will make you think as often as it takes your breath away, I absolutely recommend The Other City.
Rating: 5+ stars.
Recommendations: Don't give up if it confuses you at first. Keep on going. It's worth it.
Our narrator. He/she is never identified (though I think the narrator is a man.) It was effective, though of course I was longing to know the narrator's identity. But the narrator isn't the important part. It's what he witnesses as he traverses the mysterious "other city."
All of my reviews can be read at my blog novareviews.blogspot.com.