The Other City by Michal Ajvaz is by far the oddest book I have read this year and it has been quite a year for odd books. But where Smith's Only Forward and Harkaway's The Gone-Away World was odd because of the absurdity and, in the case of the latter, randomness found within, The Other City is odd because it presents a world of wonderment that exists all around us and that we willingly blind ourselves to. It is a world that is so alien to ours that a jungle can exist in a closet, that armies gradually turn into coats, and passenger ships voyage through the space between bookshelves. It is random and it is absurd, but unlike the aforementioned, it is not used for humor, nor is it strange for the sake of strangeness. Rather, the absurdity and the randomness is used to craft a fringe world so curious and surreal that it sucks the reader into its labyrinthine spaces, just as it does the narrator.
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.