Every genuine encounter destroys our existing world.
That’s a line from our next book clubb selection, Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (1993, English trans. 2009). It is set in Prague, where an unnamed protagonist chances upon a book written in a strange script and slowly discovers the existence of another equally-present city, at once metaphysical and, well, filled with very physical things like tiny elks and all manner of fish and bedspreads which turn into ponds or ski slopes. Compatible with the dark whimsy of fellow Czech artist, Jan Švankmajer.
I think you have to surrender a bit to Ajvaz’s style, these language flows from the other city (“grammar is applied demonology” goes one middle school lecture there, and elsewhere an official complains that the ban on certain verbal tenses is “utterly nonsensical anyway. It’s been obvious to everyone for a long time now that all verbal endings are totally harmless and have nothing to do with the evil music that destroys shiny machines.”), but once you’ve done that, it’s a perfect little book. Creates and defies its own gravity as it changes that way you see your own city, its corners.
“Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own, one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city and yet we know absolutely nothing about it? The more I pondered on it, the more I was inclined to think that it was indeed quite possible, that it corresponded to our lifestyle, to the way we lived in circumscribed spaces that we are afraid to leave. We are troubled by the dark music heard from other the border, which undermines our order… And yet the world we have confined ourselves in is so narrow. Even inside the space we regard as our property there are places that lie beyond our power, lairs inhabited by creatures whose home is over the border.”
This is without a doubt the most BLDGBLOGgy book I’ve read to date, being built from the sort of ‘architectural conjecture and urban speculation’ that Geoff Manaugh writes so compellingly about. When a closet you thought you knew suddenly opens up into a whole new architecture, or hidden lanes set previously unconnected places in close dialog, when by simply looking up you can gain access to an unseen world…
And on the literary front, The Other City forms a fascinating triangle with Gene Wolfe’s masterfully ambiguous 1992 short story “Useful Phrases” (about a bookseller discovering an alien phrasebook in his pocket) and China Miéville’s 2009 The City & The City, which features the same city-within-a-city/shared mutant topography conceit as Ajvaz albeit set within a noir/police procedural. Ajvaz wrote a book on Borges but is not chilly, is more Bioy Casares even.
SO. We’ll meet at 5pm on November 25nd, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in Manhattan, to talk about this other city…
Carmen Laforet, Nada
Patrik Ouředník, Europeana
Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber
Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum
Tatyana Tolystaya, The Slynx
Augusto Moterroso, Mister Taylor
Vladimir Sorokin, Ice Trilogy
Lauren Beukes, Zoo City
Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Juan Goytisolo, Exiled from Everywhere
Cesar Aira, How I Became a Nun
Maureen F. McHugh, Nekropolis