June 2010

Adam Morgan


The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Gerald Turner

A warning: there is nothing remotely conventional about this book. 

The Other City is an unapologetically difficult novel, but a very important one. You can -- and will -- get lost in the hidden worlds it explores, the parallel realities tucked away in the dark corners and midnight gardens of our own cities. Michal Ajvaz's haunting prose takes you on a bizarre journey through Prague -- and its hidden "sister" city -- in a labyrinthine story that will leave you alternately breathless, laughing out loud, and utterly confused.

While the Prague we’re familiar with is a compelling character in its own right -- an elegant, seductive maze of snow-covered cobblestones and gothic spires that you will be dying to visit within the first few chapters -- our own world is just a starting point for Ajvaz and his nameless narrator: “The frontier of our world is not far away... it glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings. Out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it. We are walking all the time along a shore and along the edge of a virgin forest.” 

The story begins in an old Prague bookshop where the narrator discovers an unmarked volume bound in purple velvet. The pages are filled with an unfamiliar alphabet that, when placed on his shelves at home, begins to spread and infect all the books nearby. In his quest to understand the strange book and its engravings of lost temples, the narrator stumbles in and out of an "other" Prague, a near-incomprehensible civilization existing on the fringes of our own world. 

The culture, architecture, and mythology of this Other City are simply fascinating. You will wander through subterranean churches filled with glass sculptures (which are themselves filled with schools of fish); through libraries that are home to jungles and forgotten ruins where visitors often lose their way looking for a book, never to return; there are elk stables hidden in the hollows of Prague's monuments, and midnight lectures in its universities on the histories of unknown wars. 

Ajvaz's narrative challenges popular notions of what a novel should and can do. It blatantly defies genre classifications, though there are tangible elements of magical realism, surrealism, and Dadaism; Ajvaz virtually resets the bar on the limitations of postmodern literature, like his stylistic and thematic predecessors Kafka and Fowles. In many ways, Ajvaz’s chapters are more like extended prose poems than serialized episodes in a linear story. He displays a masterful grasp on evocative imagery and atmosphere that makes for the best kind of literary escapism. But narrative continuity? Authorial intent? Logic? You’re reading the wrong book. 

Thus in the end, the novel isn't narratively satisfying in any traditional sense. There's no "twist" or "closure" that explains the adventure, and the narrator never develops into a character in his own right. But if you’re looking for a book like that, you wouldn’t make it to the last page of The Other City, anyway. 

So if you’re up for the challenge, and you enjoy getting lost, The Other City is like having the most eccentrically beautiful dreams of your life. They might torment you at night, but in the morning, you’ll laugh at their absurd brilliance. 

The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Gerald Turner
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564784916
168 Pages