The Other City – Michal Ajvaz

The Other City (novel) by Michal Ajvaz

English Publication History: The Other City (2009, Dalkey Press)

Original: Czech (Druhé Město), 1993

Translated by Gerald Turner, 2009

Synopsis: When a man comes across an enigmatic text in the second-hand bookshop, the mysteries within compel him to buy it, seek someone who can understand it, and follow its enigma to the fullest. With words of warning, the man still decides to peer into his city’s empty corners and unlit corridors, passages of which lead to a parallel city that coexists with his own. The city’s perplexing customs and history only compel him deeper into its mystery, which may ensnare him if he commits himself, or if the denizens of the other city vanquish him first.

Pre-analysis:If you live in a city–or even in a town, for that sake–look out the window. The observable man-made universe can stretch for kilometers: apartments, roads, houses, elevated expressways, warehouses, skyscrapers–all have an exterior sheaths, all have dark nuances, and all have forgotten crevices. So, the “observable universe” that you see is mostly hidden from your view. You may see all those facades, but you’ll never see any of those nuances or crevices; those corners of civilization will forever remain an obscure idea of what composes a city. Now, imagine the same nuances and crevices that everyone has forgotten–only time and space lurk there, both existing and non-existing like Schrodinger’s cat. If you were to awaken yourself to these dark facets of the city, would they invert you into a parallel city, a realm of randomness? Look at the subway station’s fire exit, the condo’s bottom-floor stairwell, the mall’s shuddered shop, the void under the bridge – is there only darkness?

Analysis: Honestly, between the pre-analysis–where I wax poetic about my perception of the world in context with the novel–and the review–how it applied to my perception of the world, there remains very little between the two. The novel is a sustained flight of imagination (a phrase I used to reserve for Mervin Peake’s Titus Groan [1946] and Gormenghast [1950]) simply ensnares the reader. The reason behind this flight of imagination? The meaning behind the amazing stretch of imagination? In my opinion, there isn’t a particular thread that ties the novel’s unreality with any current issue; nor do I think that the juxtaposition of city-realities penetrates what we consider as city life.

If I were to make a stretch, I would say this: There’s a fine line between what we perceive and what is, what we think we see and what we think about what we see; what’s there when we look, what’s there when we turn away–solipsism. We can try to convey our experiences, but our subjective existence of any matter really prohibits what we can actually convey. Rather than confront our limitation in communication, an all-out assault on experiencing may be the only respite to satisfying the subjective mind, the self, the only confirmed mode of existence.

Review: Magical realism is a draw because it superimposes another layer of reality atop of our own familiar one. With a simple stretch of imagination–the novel’s perfection will give it much bolstering–the fragments of another reality can trickle in to your imagination, the figments of which cast ethereal impossibilities in your everyday life: If I were to follow that narrow space between those two buildings… If I were to crouch and hide here until the lights are off… If I were to meander the halls and stacks without a destination. When a novel penetrates your skull to this degree, you can clearly give it respect for having played the strings of your mind. Call it escapism or fantasy; regardless, a novel of this sort can shift your perspective on reality.

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