Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Other City

by Michal Ajvaz

I had never heard of this book until I saw it on Jeff VanderMeer's Best of 2009 list and read his review for Omnivoracious.
In this strange and lovely hymn to Prague, Michal Ajaz repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statutes, all lurking on the peripheries of a town so familiar to tourists. The Other City is a guidebook to this invisible other Prague, overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet and waves lap at our bedspreads. Heir to the tradition and obsessions of Jorge Luis Borges, as well as the long and distinguished line of Czech fantasists, Ajvaz's The Other City - his first novel to be translated into English - brings to light all the worlds we are blind to, being caught in our own ways of seeing.
Blurb from the back of the book.

I admit that mention of Borges and Kafka, two of my favorite authors, had me intrigued. And then I read the opening paragraph:
I was walking up and down rows of books at the antiquarian bookseller's in Karlova Street. Now and then I would take a look out the shop window. It started to snow heavily; holding a book in my hand I watched the snowflakes swirl in front of the wall of St. Saviour's Church. I returned to my book, savoring its aroma and allowing my eyes to flit over its pages, reading here and there the fragment of a sentence that suddenly sparkled mysteriously because it was taken out of context. I was in no hurry; I was happy to be in a room that smelled pleasantly of old books, where it was warm and quiet, where the pages rustled as they turned, as if the books were sighing in their sleep. I was glad I didn't have to go out into the darkness and the snowstorm.
I was hooked. In that cozy bookshop with the books sighing in their sleep the protagonist finds a strange red velvet book in a writing that he does not know which leads him to discover a city that he never realized was there, a city that exists in the dark neglected corners and on the edges of the city he knows. The Other City is not strong on plot or character development Indeed, the Complete Review complained that it was almost all atmosphere with little purpose. I have to admit I did not love it as much as I had hoped to. On the other hand, some of the imagery was breath taking and has stayed with me long after I finished reading it. I loved the concept that we live our daily lives seeing what we expect to see and not noticing what exactly is in the shadows and neglected corners. I loved the overlap of this other world and our everyday world.

"There's a tension in The Other City between the fanciful and the baroque, the cleverly odd and the deeply odd, that makes the novel work. It's the kind of book you let wash over you in waves--episodic, funny but not too silly, and marked by a first-class imagination." Jeff VanderMeer. I agree that you need to let the book simply "wash over you" and let your imagination take you away. Indeed, it is more of an experience than a novel.
"What will we do?" the girl said. "We'll never reach the island now. We'll never walk along the white promenades or sit on a terrace above the sea ..."
"It doesn't matter," her friend replied. "It is better this way. We'll imagine it all, and it'll be much more beautiful. Every day we'll dream up excursions, games in gleaming pools, splendid parties with lanterns, flirting with interesting people, dancing at night on the decks of yachts. We're not so dull as to need reality ..."
p. 140-141.
I hope I am not so dull as to need reality, at least not all the time.

I had hoped to read China Meiville's The City and the City along with this as the two books have been compared quite often, but alas, my Kindle with my copy of it is still shanghaied by my husband. The Other City is definitely not for everyone, but I found it intriguing.

I read this for Once Upon A Time Challenge and Speculative Fiction Challenge.

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