The idea of another city or world on the fringes of our own, accessible only at night to those who are particularly astute in feeling that they don’t belong, will be familiar to readers of magical realism and fantasy fiction. But Michal Ajvaz’s novel The Other City does not take this idea into the fantastical or make it the jumping off point for a mystery tale. His influence is obviously Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer known for his unconventional tales of unreal worlds where science fiction meets philosophy. The problem with The Other City is that it rarely moves beyond the creative aspect of the best Borges story: the prose is there, and the ideas are there, but the story makes no grand proclamation or discusses deep philosophical truths the way Borges did. This is not to fault Ajvaz for not being Borges, but to fault his book in never moving beyond that one aspect of comparison.
For the creative aspect is astounding. In his ode to Prague, Ajvaz writes of a city where locusts carry typewriters, one can fight with a shark on top of a building, weasels carry televisions on sleds, and written words can be infectious. Ajvaz borrows Borges’ affinity for labyrinths, but includes recurring motifs such as statues, fish, and the image of a man being bitten in the neck by a tiger. This is a tale to get lost in.
The narrator of this tale finds a book with strange script in an antiquarian bookstore, and begins to see more signs of the unreal ‘other city’ on the fringes of his own. He is warned, of course:
“whoever crosses the border becomes entangled in the bent wires that stick out of things that you consider broken and which, in fact, have returned to their original form, as it was etched into the surface of a glass star wandering among the constellations. Whoever seeks to penetrate our city will never return.”
That does not discourage the narrator, and storyteller and reader wind through a surrealist world with limited definition beyond a secret cult and no creation story (the city believes there is no beginning, that everything is a circuitous loop). The world Ajvaz creates is fascinating, and his prose is a viscous twist from odd to odder.
However, The Other City never feels like a full tale. The narrator is nothing but a pair of eyes in that he has no backstory and no pathos as a character. His observations are where the novel sparkles but when the novel became more focused on plot (which was rather infrequently) my interest faded. To use examples from other translated literatures (Ajvaz is Czech), The Other City is a Borges tale from Labyrinths combined with Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. It has neither the depth of Borges’ stories or the urgency of Calvino’s novel, although Ajvaz’s unreal city is remarkably unique. I found myself lost for pages in the liquid prose only to realize that I was not sure I knew where we were or what was going on. I doubt plot was Ajvaz’s point, and his narrator doesn’t need to be well-developed for it to be a good novel. But for a work with such original ideas and writing, I wished it had been more unique in its overall theme.
by Danielle Bukowski